Revisiting Keezhvenmani after 50 years; The Smoldering coal-Then and now

Photo Credit: John J Akash

This article is about visiting Keezhvenmani after 50 years, where the Keezhvenmani Massacre was held and I discussed about the present condition of the village.

It was during my post-graduation journalism studies at the Central University of Tamil Nadu in Thiruvarur, one of my professors enquired about my view on the recently watched movie; Asuran, a 2019 film directed by ace filmmaker Vetrimaaran. Further, he asked me about the recent buzz that the particular film has created among the cinephiles regarding Keezhvenmani Massacre. He kindled an urge in me to explore the nearby village named Keezhvenmani, an agrarian hamlet in Nagapattinam district, about 20 km from the university campus. This was my first journey to witness the essence of caste, which resulted in betrayal and violence, as a mode of punishment over subalterns.

As I had a prior understanding of the Keezhvenmani Massacre through literature and other scholarly works, I discerned that the flashback scenes of Sivasami (Dhanush’s character) shown in the film Asuran, where the huts were burnt by the henchmen of the landlord resembled very much the real episode of the massacre. As similar to the real-life incident, a group of comrades as well as villagers in the film plans, prepares, demonstrates, and executes a strike demanding the rights of the landless-downtrodden community. The flashback scenes in the film were dedicated to represent the true event of Keezhvenmani Massacre, happened on December 25, 1968, where 44 Dalits including women, children and aged were burnt alive by the landlords.

After researching about the incident for days, I embarked on my a-day-long journey to the blood-shed region which witnessed the cold-blood demise of 44 landless Dalits with my friend John J Akash. With immense excitement, I entered the Venmani village by crossing the arch dedicated to the martyrs of the massacre on their 25th memorial anniversary. Even today, the vile sides of caste prejudices by the landlords, which resulted in the death of 44 people belonging to submissive communities, prevails backing the casteism and underdevelopment in the area. It is ostensible that the people of the village are still under the clutches of land-owned higher caste groups and their exploitation. They still face troubles for the development of their village, their living conditions as well as overall growth in the socio-economic layers of their life.

It is very apparent from the overall sight of the Keezhvenmani village that the people are still experiencing under development and it is indispensable too. The villagers affirm that the government has not done anything beneficial to this particular region as a form of collective development. They further postulate that apart from several thatched-roof huts, tiled-roof houses, very few concrete houses are only there which were built during the tenure of J. Jayalalitha under the Green House scheme. The successors of the martyrs of the massacre are surviving in such adverse living conditions and with the evocation of the carnage. The Venmani village is still rustic and a majority of the downtrodden community is still following agriculture as their occupation to earn their daily bread. A villager further postulates that the successors of the henchmen and the Gopalakrishna Naidu, the people behind the conspiracy to set fire to Ramaiah’s hut, and allegedly burnt 44 Dalit agricultural laborers alive are living in the nearby Irinjur village.

An old Communist party office is there in the interior of the hamlet after entering (crossing) the memorial arch of Venmani village. Besides, a government primary school and a paddy procurement society is there. Apart from these, a new martyrs memorial at 3 crore budget is under construction and is now progressing slowly amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Even after the rage of vengeance and violence over the downtrodden community about exactly 52 years back, now the poignant fact is that the caste system is still prevailing among the people in this village. The Dalits were settled in that seperate street where the actual incident took place. As well as they are considered as separate inhabitants where people belonging to other communities are settled outside the particular street.

Though the true incident of the Keezhvenmani massacre influenced many filmmakers and it is being mentioned in Tamil cinema of the 1980s, and 1990s, it is still used as a posit to discuss the domain of caste and subalternity. In contemporary Tamil films, apart from Vetrimaaran’s directorial Asuran, the incident is also mentioned in the Tamil film Pariyerum Perumal (god mounts on s steed) as well. It is mentioned in the film Pariyerum Perumal through the lyrics of the song ‘Naan Yaar’ (Who am I). In between the song, there come these particular lines ‘Vidikindra pozhuthilum posungidum uyir’ (life charred down as the sun rises ) and ‘Kudisaikkul kathari erindha naan yaar’ (who am I, to die burned and screamed inside my hut) which directly connects with the real-life plot of Keezhvenmani massacre. Thus, it proves that the incident is still relevant and it needs more people and scholarly attention in this caste-ridden society.

Though the dispute was between the landlords and the working class people regarding wage hike existed, the caste and animosity are the precipitating factors to trigger this episode into a cold blood carnage. Even after the five decades of the massacre that charred down the 44 agricultural labourers, still the caste identity and caste prejudices are undeniably existing in the caste-ridden Venmani village. The embers of this carnage are not yet extinguished; it exists as a smoldering coal.

Deivendra Kumar A is a post-graduate Mass Communication student from Central University of Tamil Nadu and an aspiring researcher in film, subaltern and cultural studies.



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