>From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 5, Issue 27, Dated July 12, 2008


Khakhi-Clad Activists

Tamil Nadu deploys an unlikely weapon to counter caste discrimination
— 'social justice tea parties' hosted by none other than the state
police, reports PC VINOJ KUMAR

OF LATE, rural Tamil Nadu has been witnessing a strange sight;
policemen sipping tea and munching biscuits with villagers in local
teashops, trying to convince them that they should not discriminate
against Dalits. Through these 'social justice tea parties', the cops
are attempting to drive home the message that untouchability is an
offence and those practising it would be booked under law. Introduced
since last year, it is an innovative attempt to eradicate
untouchability by the Social Justice and Human Rights (SJHR) wing of
the State police, which deals with atrocities against Dalits. Till
date, the wing has organised over 500 tea parties, where both Dalits,
non-Dalits and representatives of NGOs are invited as guests.

Most of these parties are held in the vicinity of village teashops,
where in many places Dalits are served tea in separate tumblers.
Prateep Philip, IG of Police who is head of SJHR, identified teashops
as an ideal location to gather people and spread the message against
discrimination. "Tea shops are village hubs, where people congregate
and socialise. They are also known to be epicentres of alleged
discrimination against Dalits through the twotumbler system. We chose
to convert the negative into positive by using the very tea shops to
fight against discrimination," he says. Through these tea parties, the
police want to promote confidence among Dalits and create awareness
about provisions in the law that protect them against discrimination.
They are educated about offences under the Protection of Civil Rights
Act, 1955, and the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention
of Atrocities) Act, 1989.

According to Philip, the initiative has increased awareness levels
among Dalits about their rights and the obligations of others vis-avis
laws relating to discrimination and atrocities against them. He says
the number of cases registered under the SC/ST Act has increased from
851 cases in the previous year to about 1,359 cases last year. "It is
the highest number of cases registered in a year in the history of the
Tamil Nadu police," says the officer, whose efforts in developing
community policing in the state got him the UK's prestigious Queen's
Award in 2002 from Queen Elizabeth II for Innovation in Police
Training and Development.

SJHR has now got the go-ahead to organise tea parties in about 37,854
of the 81,787 villages in the State in the next 12 months. The
government has allocated Rs 70 lakh for the programme. SJHR hopes to
take the campaign against untouchability to about 2 crore people
within a year. "We can achieve the target if each person who attends
our tea parties takes the message to at least five others," says

The activism in the SJHR wing coincides with a period of intensive
campaigning against untouchability in the state in the last one year.
Social outfits have been holding protests against the two-tumbler
system. In August 2007, Periyar Dravidar Kazhagam (PDK) published in
its party organ Periyar Muzhakkam the list of shops in some of the
districts where the two-tumbler system was being practised. PDK cadres
held demonstrations in front of the shops and broke the glass tumblers
as a mark of protest and courted arrest in large numbers.

The state unit of the CPM has floated the Tamil Nadu Untouchability
Eradication Front (TNUEF). In Virudhunagar district, the members of
the front identified teashops having separate tumblers for Dalits and
took up the matter with district authorities. "Many shops stopped the
practice. Some closed down and others switched to serving tea in
disposable cups," says P. Sampath, state convenor of the Front.
Sampath welcomes the police tea parties but says unless such efforts
are combined with a broader, government sponsored mass campaign, the
results may not be sustainable.

HOWEVER, A. Kathir, director of Evidence, a Madurai based NGO that has
been exposing various forms of discrimination against Dalits dismisses
the police department's 'social justice tea parties' as humbug. "These
parties won't serve any purpose, except give some publicity to the
police. If the government really is serious about eradicating
untouchability, it has to launch a mass movement on the lines of the
literacy campaign or the awareness campaign for AIDS that it conducted
in the past. In those campaigns, the messages were taken to nooks and
corners of the state on a war footing."

But Philip, who believes in the credo that the police must take an
active role as social reformers, thinks that he could bring a change
through the tea parties. He says police chiefs from about 15 out of
the 30 districts in the state have already written to him stating they
have eliminated the two-tumbler system within areas under their

"It is a challenge to the NGOs to come and prove us wrong. Let them
identify the shops that are still continuing the practice and we will
take action," he promises. •

>From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 5, Issue 27, Dated July 12, 2008


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