Casteism and the Making of Modern Tamil Nadu

The Story of Social Stratification & A Call to Action

Design by Amulya Garimella

1. Shankar and Kausalya (Source: Huff Post) 2. Special arrangement for Kiccha (Source: Sandhya Ravishankar) 3. Jayaraj and Bennix, (Source: Twitter) 4. Melavalavu Tribute (File photo| Express) 5. TN outline 6. Getty Images Raised Fist

Portrayal of Caste

A quick Google search for “caste” brings up a four-tiered pyramid with Brahmins (priests and teachers), Kshatriyas (warriors and rulers), Vaishyas (farmers, traders, and merchants), and Shudras (laborers). These four upper-caste varnas together are referred to as savarnas. Below these four tiers (avarna), are the Dalits, subject to the harshest forms of oppression. The Manusmriti, a text within the Hindu Vedas, details how each group was related to parts of Brahma’s body: the head, the arms, the thighs and the feet. These Sanskirt verses codified discriminatory social stratification, making it indefensible to blame colonial rule for casteism within the South Asian subcontinent. However, these four-tiered images fail to note the diversity in the origins of caste outside of a singular text and fail to help us understand modern manifestations of thousands of castes.

Since the construction of caste has varied temporally and geographically across South Asia and even within India, an oversimplified narrative of caste is actually a disservice to the very cause — a righteous fight against casteism — that it purports to support.

While generalized schematics of caste can be counterproductive, it is powerful to adopt the generalized term “Dalit,” which literally translates to divided or broken. Dalit is a powerful community-adopted, self-deterministic name that has come to replace a variety of more degrading terms like “untouchables” or backwards people. In understanding and combatting casteism, it is crucial to center Dalit stories and voices. 

History and Evolution

In the interest of acknowledging the origins of caste in different localities, the focus here is a brief history of caste in Tamil Nadu (TN), a southern state in India. This is especially important because South Indian history is often overlooked or underrepresented in mainstream or Westernized representations of India. Analyzing history addresses how traditions were codified, how population makeup changed over time, and, importantly, whose stories are told and whose voices remain unheard.

From 200 to 100 BC, social stratifications were evident in the Tolkappiyam, a treatise on Tamil grammar and classical poetry, with the following groups: Anthanars or Parpanars (priests or Brahmins), Arasars (kings or Kshatriyan), Vanikars (merchants or Vaishyas) and Vellalars (agriculturists). Although these groups have parallels to the previously described four-tier varna system, the two cannot be superimposed. In the Tolkappiyam, these groups are associated with profession as opposed to birth and there are nuances: Brahmins described in secular jobs, acknowledgements that the warrior profession could be undertaken by multiple castes, and divisions within the Vellalars. These exceptions do not absolve traditional texts from blame for casteism; however, they can be wielded to challenge those who misuse or misrepresent tradition and religion to justify casteism. Between 400 BCE and 300 CE, Sangam literature describes at least 20 other caste divisions endemic to Tamil Nadu on the basis of shared customs or village communities.

During the Pallava period from 200 to 900 CE, North Indian influence began to affect South India as Brahmin majorities migrated and enforced institutions of Vedic learning, which provided a rationale for the birth-based varna system; Brahmanism is an early version of Hinduism that relied on caste-based divisions and is equated with social stratification today. From 700 to 1500 CE, the Bhakti movement brought limited religious reform as the Brahmanical form of social order from Vedic tradition was denounced and inter-caste mingling or sharing of food was celebrated. At this time, one of few recorded Dalit saints in history, Saint Nandanar, was born to a Pulaiyar (untouchable) family. His name lives on in the Tamil tradition, although there are variations in his story, ranging from tales written by upper caste authors declaring that he was a Brahmin trapped in an untouchable’s body to more progressive, reformist Brahmin characters in literature supporting Nandanar. Throughout this time, Brahmin ruling elite and scholars documented and determined how history was told, allowing their legacy to live on in South Asian cultural and intellectual traditions. Today, Dalit activists highlight Nandanar’s religiosity, stressing that devotion has never been and can never be limited by caste. 

Next, during the Vijayanagar dynasty from 1333 to 1646, migration from Telangana introduced new groups like Kammas, Reddys and Nayaks to TN. The Chola army of this also time mentions 98 castes within two groups, Valangai (right-handed) and Idangai (left-handed) that are potentially linked to profession. As the complexity of TN social fabric diversified, Portuguese and British colonizers arrived, solidifying caste in administrative language as better jobs opportunities were afforded to upper castes or Christians. The word caste itself is derived from casta (Portuguese) after Jesuit missionary Henriques used the term in his observations of society in the 1500s. The history of caste would be incomplete without mention of Christian missionaries attempting to proselytize lower-caste communities, often by conflating casteism and Hinduism. Note that Hinduism is partially a colonially imposed label on a variety of Indus Valley religions by Persians in the 6th century BC.

Post-colonial rule, the Indian constitution outlawed caste-based discrimination, but it continues to be omnipresent in society. B.R. Ambedkar, a Dalit who helped author the constitution, and other caste liberation figures rose to prominence in the late 1900s. Although Ambedkar’s revolutionary communication with Du Bois and work with the Dalit Panthers, christened after the Black Panthers, are widely recognized (with good reason), Dalit leadership and voices from TN have received less attention. Key figures include Ayothidas Panthidar, an outspoken Buddhist anti-caste activist. He practiced Siddha medicine and launched magazines like Dravida Pandian and newspapers like Oru Paisa Tamizhan to uplift marginalized voices; this Dalit literature began to destabilize prevailing opinions on caste. Later, E.V. Ramasamy (Periyar) founded the Dravidian (South Indian) Movement, which focused on aggressively uprooting ritualistic traditions and Brahmanical social order, empowering women, and establishing a South Indian cultural identity distinct from the North Indian one. (He has since received criticism for actions and portions of his ideology, including the Self-Respect movement, which shifted the onus for respect onto oppressed groups.)

Manifestations of Caste in Present Day

Moving into the 2000s, I wrestle with how the historical roots of casteism have translated to modern Tamil Nadu, where classical literature no longer dominates political culture and diasporas continue to carry on deep-rooted social stratification. Caste informs every aspect of life in Tamil Nadu, which has become especially evident through increased violence on Dalit communities during the pandemic. 

I wrestle with how the historical roots of casteism have translated to modern Tamil Nadu, where classical literature no longer dominates political culture and diasporas continue to carry on deep-rooted social stratification.

Within the political arena, caste groups are vying for greater protections from the Government of India. Currently, the reservation system, akin to affirmative action in America, attempts to equalize opportunities, in public education and the government workforce, by creating seats for Dalits, other backwards classes (OBCs), scheduled classes (SC), and scheduled tribes (ST or Adivasis).

“That we have so many caste outfits with political strength is the reason for the violence that we don’t see in other southern states,” according to Dalit scholar and VCK (party representing Dalit people) leader D. Ravikumar. His comment speaks to how groups experiencing varying levels of oppression often lack solidarity. For example Vanniyars, classified with OBCs, fight ardently against upper-castes Brahmins to demand quotas for themselves, but simultaneously restrict Vanniyar-Dalit marriages. Every political group AIDMK (current ruling party), DMK (opposition party), and VCK (formerly Dalit Panthers) tends to prioritize fighting for a particular caste of people, but clashing political agendas and widespread corruption have only detracted from fighting larger systems of oppression. 

In a Human Rights Watch project, 300 Dalit testimonials shed light on human rights violations faced by Dalit communities. For example, during the 1997 Melavalavu murders in TN a Dalit man, Murugesan, was murdered alongside six other Dalit members by upper-caste villagers after being elected panchayat (local government office). History repeated itself in May 2020 when Amsavalli, a Dalit woman, received slurs and threats following her election as panchayat in Konagapadi village.

Outside of political parties, caste also informs public office, ranging from the IPS (Indian Police Service) to the IAS (Indian Administrative Service). The Jayaraj and Bennix case that’s been trending this month involves two men targeted by the police for leaving their store open 15-minutes past curfew (in place for the pandemic). The father-son duo were brutally abused in police custody, spurring public outrage and leading to this article covering the comprehensive history of policing in TN. The article uncovered that “a government-appointed Commission found out that members of a particular dominant intermediate caste were prevalent in the police.” 

Accurate estimates of caste-populations are difficult to acquire, but 2011 data estimate suggests the following makeup: Vanniyars (22%), Dalit/SC/ST (21%), Mukkulathor (20%), non-Tamils (10%), Nadars (8.5%), Vellala Gounders (7%), Christians (7%), Muslims (6%), Mudaliars (5%), Muthurayars (3%), Chettiars (2%) and Brahmins (2%).

The complexity of power structures within upper/forward-castes, should not distract us from the obvious human rights violations that Dalit communities face. 

It is possible to develop caste rankings by a number of factors other than population: political power, land ownership, wealth, religious and spiritual elitism, or even violence inflicted upon other groups. There is no clear hierarchy that can encompass hundreds of castes and subcastes. However, the complexity of power structures within upper/forward-castes, should not distract us from the obvious human rights violations that Dalit communities face. 

Beyond politics and policing, Dalits have faced brutal subjugation and violence merely for their existence. For example, in 1994, scheduled caste villages were beaten in Kodiyankulam, resulting in days of rioting. In 1997, nearly 1000 police officers raided Desikapuram, arresting Dalit (Pallar) leaders and inflicting violence among those staging protest. There are also ever-present threats Dalits face like fear of displacement, reminiciest of a 1997 case in Mangapuram when almost 150 families were forcefully evicted as their homes were torched by the prevailing upper-caste presence (Thevars); no action was taken against Thevar government officials or police afterwards. Similar displacements occurred in Rengappanaikkanpatti and again in Kalapatti in 2004.

Twenty-five atrocious cases of violence, motivated by reasons ranging from land disputes to intercaste marriages, happened in just April 2020. To top it all off, in June, a man responsible for murdering his daughter’s Dalit (Pallar) fiance was freed. She writes about her story in this column, “They Killed My Husband, saying How Dare You Love?”


Yet, to solely victimize Dalit people is a misguided sense of saviorism. It is important to uplift the power, joy, and progress these communities have made since their vibrant liberation movements post-partition. For example, SC, Adivasi, and Dalit communities focus on economic ascension through grassroots initiatives and advocacy groups. Examples include Stand Up Mitra, which facilitates loans for businesses or the All India Council for Technical Education promoting educational equity. It is equally important to recognize that not all celebrated Dalits work in advocacy fields; there are teachers, lawyers, scientists and doctors who continue their life saving work during a pandemic. In fact, there is an incredible retention rate among medical professionals who acquired their education through reservation.

Lastly, although this article delved into TN, casteism is not limited to one state or even to the Indian subcontinent. The civil rights lawsuit against Cisco for Dalit discrimination illustrates the enduring legacy of caste in America.

Even the ability to come to America reflects caste privilege since most immigrant families are upper-caste according to a 2018 University of Pennsylvania study. I contend with what it means to be a Chettiar, a Tamil mercantile upper-caste, myself and believe it is Indian-American students’ responsibility to acknowledge our privilege, to educate our families, and to hold our cultural communities accountable.

It is Indian-American students’ responsibility to acknowledge our privilege, to educate our families, and to hold our cultural communities accountable.

Our mobilization must be intersectional: gender inequalities and colorism are tied to casteism. Our mobilization must also be international: protests for racial justice in America highlight how both white privilege and savarna privilege are socially and institutionally upheld while both Black and Dalit liberation movements stand in solidarity with one another. 

Upon reading this, I encourage you to dwell on how the anglicized words you use — beginning with “caste” itself — are shaped by Western thought and to understand the history, evolution, and manifestation of caste with a state-specific approach. With this perspective and awareness, I urge you stand against all forms of caste-based violence, extending your education and sustained advocacy to this human rights issue. 

Edited by Sumayyah Farooq 

If any portion of the history or research presented in this article is inaccurate, misrepresented, or incomplete please contact for immediate correction.

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