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Red Rice: caste and class war


Keezhavenmani was just another village until the slaughter of 44 dalits, reports N Sundharabuddhan
N SUNDHARABUDDHAN | Issue Dated: March 11, 2012, New Delhi
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Till December 25, 1968, Keezhavenmani was just another village in Tamil Nadu. That evening it became a blot on the national conscience as 44 Dalits, most of them women and children, were locked in a hut and set on fire for raising their voices against exploitation by upper caste landlords.

Keezhavenmani falls in Thanjavur district—a rice yielding region known for its grand temples and notorious landlords who have built their wealth on the free service of pannai adimaigal (farm slaves) from the Dalit community. Poor, exploited and subjected to the worst human atrocities, they were mobilised by the Communist party of India (Marxist) to strike back.

The landlords were furious. On December 25, 1968, one of them, Irinjur Gopalakrishna Naidu allegedly ordered his henchmen to chase the women and children to teach the men a lesson. Terrified, they took shelter in a hut belonging to one Ramaiah. It was locked and set ablaze.

Today, there stands in Keezhavenmani a memorial to those ‘martyrs’, erected by the CPI(M). It figures 44 names, engraved on black granite. Of these, 14 belonged to the same family. And the first name is that of Papa (25), Ramaiah's wife, who had offered her home as refuge.

The foundation for the memorial was laid by Jyoti Basu who was then Deputy Chief Minister of West Bengal. A glass urn containing the remains of the victims, collected a few days after the incident by freedom fighter I. Maayandi Bharathi, is placed at the memorial.

Ramalingam was 25 then. Today, he remembers it as though it was just yesterday. “I was working at the farm of Govindaraj Nadar. Our demand was just half a measure of rice more to harvest a sack of rice. But the landlords refused. We said we would not work for them”.

The backdrop to the confrontation had been set in 1967 when the ruling Congress government was defeated by the DMK and the Communists. Since the Dalits of Keezhavenami had boycotted work, Naidu brought in workers from another village called meensuruti to harvest the crop.

But these immigrants stopped working when the Keezhavenami workers explained their struggle for just wages. Ramadoss, the farm secretary of Irinjur Dhamodhara Naidu asked the locals to complete the work. But Gopalakrishna Naidu threatened the landlord. The work was then completed by others but the locals were paid. Naidu fined them Rs. 250 which they refused to pay.

Gopalakrishna Naidu, the president of the Congress Party Area Committee formed a Paddy Producers Association with Narayanasamy Naidu, a former MLA. Together they toured villages and asked farm workers to join them. The association had its own flag which was hoisted in many villages. The residents of Keezhavenami were members of the CPI (M) and refused to do so.

Ramalingam remembers the sequence of events vividly. “Word spread that Naidu would have us attacked by hired goons. The entire village was tense. Early evening we heard that some of our men were attacked at a tea stall. We rushed and saw Naidu's men set our huts on fire and attack Ramaiah. They had guns and shot people. Only 44 were killed because many were hiding in the paddy fields. When the police came it arrested the victims, not the perpetrators,” he says.

Sedhupathi, the younger brother of Ramaiah, says, “I lost 11 family members. Ours was not a caste conflict, it was a class conflict.”

Solai Sundara Perumal, author of the novel "Sennel" (Red Rice) that describes the massacre, says that today the struggle seems ironical as it is difficult to get people to work on agricultural land.

The lower court sentenced 10 of the accused to a decade in jail but the Madras High Court acquitted everyone including Gopalakrishna Naidu. The decision was upheld by the Supreme Court.

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017