When the Tamil Nadu assembly election results came out on May 2, R. K. Radhakrishnan, the associate editor of Frontline, said on a Tamil news channel that the pick of this election was the VCK. Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (Liberation Panthers Party), the Tamil version of the erstwhile Dalit Panthers movement in Maharashtra, won four out of six seats it contested with its own symbol, including two general seats.
The VCK has its roots in the Dalit Panthers of India (DPI) Movement (Iyakkam), which originated in 1982 as the Tamil branch of the DPI. It was initially led by P Malaichamy but after his demise, Thol Thirumavalavan took over the mantle of leadership. He renamed the outfit as Viduthalai Chiruthaigal (Liberation Panthers) inspired by the Viduthalai Puligal (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam), the militant Tamil nationalist outfit of Sri Lanka. As Hugo Gorringe mentions in his book Panthers in Parliament: Dalits, Caste, and Political Power in South India, for over a decade the VCK boycotted the electoral process questioning the legitimacy of the institutions that allowed casteism to persist and failed to implement constitutional provisions that prohibited untouchability and instituted affirmative action for the lower castes. During elections, the VCK cadre inserted in the ballot box slips prepared by them with slogans such as “None of you are honest, so none shall have our votes”.
During the 1999 parliamentary election, the VCK changed its stance and decided to contest the elections, as they realised that without achieving political power it would be difficult to solve people’s problems and thus the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal (Liberation Panthers) became the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (Liberation Panthers Party). In 2009, Thirumavalavan entered the parliament by winning the Chidambaram reserved constituency seat. In the 2019 parliament election, the VCK got two members of parliament elected, one with its own party symbol and the other with the symbol of its ally, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK).
On October 2, 2007, a decision was taken to restructure the VCK as a mass party, which would not be limited to the Dalits with Ambedkarism and Periyarism as their core principles. In the past decade, the VCK and Thirumavalavan have stood at the forefront of various issues like the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET), Citizenship Amendment Act–National Register of Citizens, Sterlite, methane extraction in the delta districts (granary of Tamil Nadu), implementation of Other Backward Class (OBC) reservations in PG-NEET and against the farm laws. Even though the VCK spoke on issues concerning all sections of society, some tried to label it as a Dalit party. The party cadre counters it by saying that it is not a Dalit party, but it is a party led by a Dalit comprising cadre belonging to all communities.
Anti-Hindutva stand and women empowerment
The VCK was at the forefront of opposing the Hindutva ideology and their leader, Thirumavalan, is a vociferous critic of Sanatan Dharma, which he says has inequality baked into it from its origins. The VCK organised protests against Manusmriti pointing out the derogatory remarks the book contains about women. In December 2019, the party’s general secretary and member of parliament Ravikumar D spoke in the Lok Sabha for the need of a national policy on menopause, which almost all the past governments have ignored and got acclamation from even the women MPs of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). In the run-up to the Tamil Nadu assembly election, the VCK’s manifesto promised such policy changes as 50% reservation for women in the law-making bodies, free education to women from primary school till research level and extension of maternity leave for women teachers for 12 months.
A force to reckon with
Even though some parties in the Secular Progessive Alliance (DMK coalition) contested on the DMK symbol, the VCK insisted that it would contest on its own symbol of pot, which was allocated just two weeks before the election. It took the symbol to the voters in a short span of time and emerged victorious in four out of six seats it contested. The victory included two general constituencies, thus disproving that it is a Dalit party. Between the two candidates who won in the general constituencies, one belongs to a minority community and the other to an OBC community. Thus, the results show that the VCK has been recognised by voters as a party for everyone. This is a watershed moment for the VCK in electoral politics and, in the future, the party will surely be a force to reckon with. Now the voices of the oppressed, tribals, women and non-dominant OBCs will be regularly heard in the assembly as the panthers are back.
Aakash Arutselvan. M has completed Bachelor of Engineering (Electronics and Communication) from Sri Sairam Engineering College, Anna University, Chennai and is currently studying for the Union Public Service Commission Civil Services Examination. He is also the host of Arasiyal Aviyal, a Tamil podcast on politics.