On August 26th, a video from Vedaranyam, Nagapattinam went viral. The video showed a young man climbing up to the Ambedkar statue installed at the Vedaranyam Bus stand right opposite to the Police station and start to attempt to behead the cement sculpture of Dr. Ambedkar. A big crowd is seen in the video cheering him on to do this.
The video brought on strong condemnation from all sides. Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi, Tamil Nadu Untouchability Eradication Front (TNUEF) and many other organizations held protests across the state. They also sought the immediate arrest of the perpetrators under Goondas Act. For two days, Vedaranyam was kept under strict police surveillance, and the police arrested 37 people.
The immediate provocation for the desecration was reported to be a minor accident-turned-altercation between the leader of a small caste-Hindu outfit and a Dalit youth of Ramakrishnapuram. However, social activists of the area point out that the Caste Hindu outfit has been demanding the removal of the Ambedkar statue for a while now, and that they had even resorted to legal intervention in this matter. The reason the outfit gave for its demand for the removal of the statue of the Father of Indian constitution is that it becomes a hindrance to the annual temple procession. People in the area say that the statue has been there for a very long time, and that it has never stopped the procession in any way. The court also dismissed the petition and the caste outfit resorted to an alternate path to achieve its end.
Against this backdrop, an ordinary altercation was made into a larger incident when a Dalit youth was also attacked. The enraged Dalits from the village set the vehicle of Pandian, the leader of the caste Hindu outfit, on fire. On that ruse, people from the caste outfit broke the Ambedkar statue and reduced it to rubble.
Fearing tensions, and in an attempt to cool down the opposition which rose in a single voice of condemnation, the Tamil Nadu government brought another statue and installed it overnight at Vedaranyam and promised that it would take action on the culprits.
But the case took a startling turn on September 19th, when the Tamil Nadu Police slapped the Goonda Act on 11 of the arrested persons, of whom 6 are Dalits. “Instead of sending a strong signal to the casteist Hindu forces who are trying to remove the statue of Dr. Ambedkar, and threaten the Dalits and the ideals of social justice and equality, the Tamil Nadu government has clearly shown its casteist mindset by charging Dalits under the Goondas Act for this incident” says Samuel Raj of the TNUEF.
Birla Thangadurai, a social activist and also a member of the District SC-ST Bonded Labor Monitoring Committee from Vedaranyam, said: “While a huge crowd of almost 500 persons orchestrated the statue demolition like a public orgy, the police has not arrested many from that side – many of whom can be identified from the viral video itself. On the other hand, innocent Dalits, who are construction workers, were picked up late in the night in a huge police clampdown on Ramakrishnapuram and are now in jails. Breaking Babasaheb Ambedkar’s statue is destroying public property and inciting communal tensions. Why are Dalits being charged under these sections while all they did was break a private vehicle in an altercation? The police seem to be appeasing the statue breakers more than the affected people,” he argues.
Replacing the statue overnight, and adding more Dalits to the arrest list and slapping the Goonda Act on more Dalits than the caste Hindu perpetrators – all this seems to follow the larger pattern of the Tamil Nadu government’s patronage of casteist outfits while uttering empty paeans to Dr. Ambedkar and his works when required.