Days before the final celebrations of Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav on Independence Day, a 17-year-old Dalit student with exceptional academic record at Tamil Nadu’s Nanguneri was compelled to stand at forked roads to choose between quitting his school and village to run away to safety or confronting schoolmates baying for his blood.
Chinnadurai had decided to escape the threats by boarding a train to Chennai on August 9. But as he stood in front of the waiting train at Nanguneri railway station, the teenager gave in to his cousin’s pleadings to not leave. The same night, Chinnadurai, his 13-year-old sister and mother were reportedly attacked by seven of his savarna classmates at their house in Perundheru neighbourhood in Nanguneri.
It was around 10 pm when Chinnadurai’s neighbour Duraipandian, 42, heard screams from their house and rushed out to find the teenager writhing in a pool of blood on the road.
The teenager was then hauled onto a two-wheeler and taken to Nanguneri Government Hospital for treatment by Duraipandian and another neighbour. Meanwhile, Chinnadurai’s relative Krishnan, 53, who had also rushed out of his house nearby on hearing the screams, fell unconscious at the gory sight and died of a heart attack a little later. He too was taken to the hospital on a two-wheeler, but was declared dead by the doctors.
“Chinnadurai was whipped like a cow, but with a sickle,” is how Duraipandian recalled the brutal attack on the Dalit student by his schoolmates from Concordia Higher Secondary School in Nanguneri. The attackers belonged to the electorally and socially powerful Maravar caste, a sub-group within the Thevar community that is classified as Backward Class in Tamil Nadu. The seven accused were arrested by the Nanguneri police.
Duraipandian said Chinnadurai could have died on the spot had he not managed to source a motorbike. Auto rickshaw drivers refuse to enter the Perundheru neighbourhood, where the teenager’s family lives. The neighbourhood is a strip of houses along a narrow, crooked street at the periphery of Nanguneri town. It is dominantly inhabited by Dalits from the so-called untouchable Paraiyar caste. It’s segregated from the affluent and bustling central business district of the town. Notably, neighbourhoods such as Perundheru are called ‘cheri’ in Tamil and are usually avoided by the caste Hindus.
It was here that the vicious attack took place. Many suspect that the minors who attacked Chinnadurai were instigated by their elders, allegedly on the assumption that their juvenile status would save them from severe punishment.
Chinnadurai's house where he and his family was attacked.
Palpable fear among Dalits
Nearly a week after the attack, when The News Minute visited Nanguneri, Chinnadurai was still recuperating at the Tirunelveli Medical College Super Speciality Hospital after a plastic surgery on his arm.
Meanwhile, fear among the residents of Perundheru neighbourhood was palpable. Most of the people refused to talk about the incident and shut their doors fearing backlash from Thevars, as soon as TNM mentioned it.
Anbazhagan, a Dalit community leader, said Chinnadurai was good at studies and was often harassed by the caste students for it. “He was studying in class 12 and stayed in the hostel of Concordia school. His sister studies in the same school as a day scholar in class 7. Irked by the fact that Chinnadurai was good at studies, the Maravar caste boys kept harassing him. They have been torturing him in multiple ways and he decided he did not want to go to school. He came home and stayed back for 10 days, following which his teachers started questioning his absence.”
Chinnadurai has been raised by his single mother Ambikapathi, who works as a cook and takes up other part-time jobs to earn money. She said that her son was “very secretive” about the harassment he had been facing, and she only discovered it when he began insisting that he be admitted to another school.
“Initially, he asked me to get his transfer certificate so he can enrol in some other school. After his long absence, when the school principal and teacher called us for an explanation for it, he kept insisting on getting the TC. It’s only when we pushed him to give a reason that he started to talk about the harassment,” said Ambikapathi. She added that Chinnadurai was harassed for over three “because he studied well”.
“To put him in his place, the other boys made him run errands for them. They wanted my son to be enslaved to them. They would make him perform for their entertainment and often asked him to buy alcohol.”
Ambikapathi would have none of it and complaint about the incidents to the school authorities before returning home. Chinnadurai stayed back at the hostel that day, but soon went back to insisting on changing his school.
“On August 9, he had decided to leave by an evening train and we were waiting at the railway station when my sister’s son came there. He insisted that Chinnadurai complete his studies here, and brought us back,” Ambikapathi said.
“Around 6 pm that day, a woman and a man came to our house. They asked if I was Ambika and if my son’s name was Chinnadurai. Then they asked me why we had complained at the school, and said that we should have spoken to them directly. Then around 7 pm, some young boys came and asked the same questions. I told them that I send my child to school for studying and not for them to harass him,” Ambikapathi said, adding that the boys had threatened them before leaving.
Around 10 pm, the teenagers returned and knocked at Ambikapathi’s door. “As soon as we opened the door, they rushed inside and started attacking Chinnadurai with a sickle. There were injuries all over his body. You know how they whiplash a cow at times? They attacked him like that…with a sickle.”
“They were hurling casteist slurs even as they attacked us. They called me a prostitute, and said that we were the dogs who worked at their houses, cleaning the waste they left. They kicked me and I fainted. My daughter, who tried to protect her brother, was also assaulted, and she too fell unconscious,” Ambikapathi said. She said that the medical practitioners from the nearest government hospital and even autos refused to come to their street as it housed Dalit families.
Constant harassment faced by Dalits in Perundheru
While this brutal attack involving teenagers shook the conscience of the state and the public, it left the residents of Perundheru scarred.
“My daughter is in school. We have to send her to tuition classes outside our area. After this incident, she is so scared, she says she doesn’t want to go to tuition classes. Now her father has to go pick her up. See what impact it has on young minds,” said a resident of Perundheru, who wanted to remain anonymous.
“Children are not going to school. They are scared of going to the bus stand also. They are even scared to be in their own house fearing that someone will attack us. They cannot study with this fear,” she added.
Another resident, who is a teacher at a local school, said that the attack has made them realise “how caste fanaticism is ingrained in children”. “It is not enough to write that ‘untouchability is a crime and a sin’ in school textbooks, it should be taught to students. Each day, they should be taught what the meaning of untouchability is. This attack is an outcome of children not being aware of what untouchability is,” she said.
She said that many question the validity of welfare schemes for those from the Scheduled Castes, but it was needed for the “community’s upliftment”. “They have been treated as slaves for years, they were not allowed to study. Now, when the government thinks of giving them education by providing scholarships, a good majority doesn’t like it.”
Several Dalit residents of Perundheru who spoke to TNM also alleged that they were constantly harassed by the dominant caste residents even after the neighbourhood being a Dalit-dominant area.
A Dalit resident alleged that they were not allowed to stand at the front in queues outside ration shops. “They also provide us loans and in return, take away our documents such as ration card, ATM card, and coolly start using them,” the resident said.
Anbazhagan, another resident of the area, said that they fear for their lives. “The government is extending support. They are taking care of Chinnadurai’s treatment in the hospital. The chief minister MK Stalin and MP Thirumavalavan are talking with us directly. Many officers and leaders came to meet us. Despite these measures, if casteist attitudes prevail, we cannot live here,” he said.
On August 12, Tamil Nadu Finance and Human Resources Management Minister Thangam Thennarasu along with Assembly Speaker M Appavu and Nanguneri MLA Ruby Manoharan visited Chinnadurai at the Tirunelveli hospital.
During their visit, Chief Minister MK Stalin spoke with the family through Minister Thennarasu. The CM promised that the government would stand by the victims, offer better treatment, and ensure that their education is uninterrupted. Meanwhile, Tamil Nadu School Education Minister Anbil Mahesh Poyyamozhi also announced that the government would bear Chinnadurai and his sister’s higher education’s expenses. “I will enrol them in a better institution. As the Minister of School Education, it is my responsibility,” Poyyamozhi had said.
Following Tamil Nadu Health Minister Ma Subramanian’s visit to Chinnadurai, he a team of specialised doctors from Chennai’s Stanley Medical College to travel to Tirunelveli to perform a surgery on the teenager’s injured arm. The surgery was completed on August 15.