Book Summary: Caste and Electoral Politics in Tamil Nadu by K.A. Manikumar

Caste of Tamil Nadu, India

Rick Rejeleene


December 20, 2022


In 1957, intense caste violence broke out in south-eastern Tamil Nadu between the regionally dominant caste of Thevars, and Devendrakula Vellalars (Pallars), a Dalit community. The violence was triggered by the legislative assembly by-election, following U. Muthuramalinga Thevar’s resignation. In the peace conference organized by the local administration, Muthuramalinga Thevar objected to the presence of Immanuel Sekaran as a Dalit representative.

This is a long review. You may gain new perspective. Read it completely. Book is clear, well-researched, easy to follow.

1. Why should you read this Book?

If you are interested in Tamil Nadu, Caste, Social Justice, Politics.

2. Why did I read this book?

I took this book to expand my understanding of caste-conflict, history of caste in Tamil Nadu.

3. What is my own view on this?

I want to bring better insight in this. My own insight is the following.

Entire narrative of Tamil Society is to gain:

  1. Honor (Munju)
  2. and not to lose, Face (kaevalam)**

To lose face (kaevalam), is to lose your identity.

When someone loses face, they lose their life or standing in society. Japanese soldiers in WW2, would kill themselves instead of being defeated –Why? Because, they lose face and they bring shame to their community. Therefore, killing themselves is more honorable.

I would cite anthropologist, Ruth Benedict in The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, for bringing this perspective. She wrote about Japanese culture. This view is not present in any of the discussions in understanding culture.

Basic unit of Tamil Culture is family, mother-father’s face (munju) or family name. Next, you are part of a community (caste) or (religion). There is fierce competition to gain face among relatives, caste or religious community through socio-economic ways in Tamil Nadu.

One might object that caste ought to be removed. Yes — What would replace that vacuum of social hierarchy of relationship?

How would communities represent themselves politically?

Advantages of honor/shame:

  1. Behaviors can be controlled by shame
  2. Competition among people
  3. Families are close-knit
  4. Loyalty to clan
  5. Not wanting shame motivates people
  6. Strict hierarchy: Person knows their role in society

Drawbacks of honor/shame:

  1. People are not honest
  2. People would cover up their short-comings during conversation
  3. It is actually not a lie when they cover up, it’s just they don’t want to lose face
  4. But real relationship starts with vulnerability
  5. Trust comes through by accepting vulnerability.

Truth is less important when it comes with face. To hold face is more important. How did you change your view on criminal tribes and caste?

This is related to the book. Most people in Tamil Nadu, hold the view, “some people in a community are born criminals, some have innate nature to do so.” Many years ago — I was on a road trip with an American friend.

I remember constantly telling him, i.e some castes are violent or bad, their character is bad, their character is to do evil. He stopped the car, and told me, wait, “You are calling someone bad or violent or murderer before they even commit such act.” How can you say it? I could not understand what I was thinking. Apparently, I had labeled people. Before, even they are born, to malign their character. This is clearly wrong. People can change, characters can be changed innately by emulating desirable traits.

In Tamil Nadu, even older people, would say, “It’s like it, this community is as such.” Within the narrative of religious tradition it says:

  1. People are created in the image of their Creator
  2. His Creator has reason, dignity, love along with other attributes
  3. People are bestowed with these attributes
  4. Therefore, people are to be respected, loved with dignity

You might contest the above narrative. Good luck forming a secular origin of human dignity. It took me so much time to realize, I was wrong. We can’t label an entire community. Later, I spent more time to figure out, what was happening. Most of the time, people grow up in a family, and then stay within their community. Now, people hear about other community through the lens of that community. Would we look into our own family, community through the lens of others, and improve ourselves?

This might be because, the value of the community picks up specific aspects of other community, and labels them. It could be confirmation bias.

4. What’s the meat of the book?

In this book, author Mani Kumar talks about the riots of Mudukulathur, located close to Ramanathapuram in Southern Tamil Nadu. It’s about two communities — Pallars and Thevars. Mani Kumar gives an account on political history, social justice, caste-conflict among the two communities. In Tamil Nadu political history, caste plays a crucial role. Each community aligns with a political party. There’s gruesome killings on each side of caste. When I was reading through account of it. Few questions came to my mind. A question - one person gets killed for an issue from a caste. And then, the other community kills or retaliates back. But it goes back and forth, where does it stop?

What is the point of doing it?

In the book or even applying to Tamil society, insight from anthropologists. Apply honor-shame, we can answer, “to gain face.” (Munju) to get, “honor.” or “respect” among others within their community.

How can they change?

Author says Education can change people.

What other work would you recommend?

There has been no contemporary account of caste that matches up Edgar Thurston. Thurston’s work is outdated, because it is filled with racial denigration.

Sociologists have written about Caste. If you want to know about Caste in Tamil Nadu. I suggest reading, Edgar Thurston. His work is outdated, but some parts of it, might be relevant. Apparently, in 2019, I discovered Edgar was the first to hold Librarian title— Connemara Public Library.

Feel free to write a rebuttal to my perspective.

1 References2 Caste, plays core role in Politcs in Tamil Nadu, India


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