Saturday, January 08, 2005

Even Govt divides survivors on caste, says it's practical

Nagapattinam: Powerful Meenavars have own camps, not the time for social amity experiment, says official.

by RAJEEV P I

NAGAPATTINAM: Doors are being slammed in the face of Dalit survivors here—and the Government is quietly doing some of the slamming.

Yesterday, The Indian Express reported how Dalits from 63 affected villages are facing the brunt of the powerful Meenavar fishermen (a Most Backward Class): being thrown out of relief camps, pushed to the rear of food and water lines, not being allowed to take water from UNICEF facilities and in some cases not even being allowed to use the toilet.

Now it's been learnt that the Government, instead of ensuring justice, was reinforcing this divide—both caste and communal.

In fact, a day after the killer waves struck and thousands began pouring into these camps, revenue officials were asked to quietly go about dividing the victims and report to their superiors.

They were asked to see that the numerically powerful and politically significant Meenavars had their "exclusive" relief camps. The equally battered Muslims, Dalits, Nadars, Pillais, Devars and other lower castes— mostly non-fishermen— were shunted into camps of their own. This has since been accomplished in most parts of this district. When asked how the Government could endorse this discrimination, Nagapattinam Sub Collector Dr Umanath said that this was a conscious decision and a practical one. "There are the real divisions and distrust among the communities," he told The Indian Express today, ‘‘a crisis like this is no time to experiment with casteist and religious amity." The Government, Umanath said, just could not risk putting them up all together. When asked what the risk was, Umanath declined to comment. His defence that this is a "practical" decision has few takers. "This is sad. The Government is actually re-inforcing the ancient divides and hatred. Until the tsunami, they could at least tolerate each other. See what happens when this whole thing gets over, now," says Father Gunalan, pastor of Asia's first Protestant Church, the 298-year-old New Jerusalem Church in Tarangambadi, one of the worst-hit coastal villagers.

Gunalan said it was appalling to see those belonging to different communities stopping relief trucks on the road and diverting them to the relief camps of their own community. The camps of the powerless denominations bore the brunt of this.

Another fallout is that villages in neighbouring coastal stretches that the waves spared now have bargain deals. "Relief is now being virtually dumped in some of the camps here. So even the kids carry a few stoves, mats, vessels and other relief material to sell in other villages." The pastor says some Muslim homes were looted in the area soon after the waves struck. "That was ironic. The first people who went around helping survivors of all communities and rushing people to hospitals were men of the Tamil Muslim Munnetra Kazhakam," he said.

Many Muslim families had fled their homes, but are now coming back. "We have now our own security system in place. Our men take turns to guard our area day and night," says Abdul Haleem, president of the Tarangambadi Muslim Jamaat. He said seven looters were caught and handed to the police, on Tsunami day. "We foiled an attempt even last night."

One of the relief camps that the Government gave to the non-Meenavar communities here was the local Jnanapoo Illam School. Most of its occupants had lost their homes to the waves. This morning, officials came knocking with the District Collector's order asking them to vacate, and they meekly did.

With nowhere to go, to plead, they trudged to the Tehsildar's office, a few kilometres away in Porayar. A few hours later, officials there said all of them have been asked to go to the village's only movie hall, converted into a camp. At this Ganapathi movie hall, a few Meenavars at its entrance said they had asked these people to go away to a neighbouring marriage hall. But they were not allowed in there, either. And no one claimed to know where these 180-odd men women and children eventually went.

Source: The Indian Express, January 08, 2005

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