‘It Hurts, It Pains:’ A Christian Dalit Activist On Combating Online Violence, Losing Faith In Dravidian Politics

21 Apr 2023 10 min read  Share

A Christian Dalit activist, Shalin Maria Lawrence, has spoken out against the caste shaming and body shaming she has experienced for drawing attention to crimes against Dalits in Tamil Nadu under the DMK and the “hate politics” of the BJP. Blaming the online violence on supporters of the two rival parties, the Chennai-based activist spoke with us about the trauma she had endured and her loss of faith in the Dravidian politics she once regarded as the most progressive in India.

Shalin Maria Lawrence, a Chennai-based Dalit activist, is speaking against caste crimes in Tamil Nadu/ SHALIN MARIA LAWRENCE

Delhi: “We are getting you into grave trouble. The damage you are going to face this will be enormous and irrevocable. And you should indeed pay this price.” 

“The pee on photo campaign is going extremely well. Soon I will send you the link for a live video of men and women urinating on the picture in the attachment.”

“It seems you have not killed yourself yet we have assigned people to closely watch you and your family members.”

“Whatever you have done is going to affect the baby girl in the future terribly. And she needs to live like scum. Everyone will start to treat her like a maggot.”

These were a few of the over two dozen emails sent to Shalin Maria Lawrence, a Christian Dalit activist from Tamil Nadu, author of three books, and a mother to a three-year-old girl, and Manoj Liyonzon, her husband and a lawyer, from March 2021 to February 2022. 

The death threats and obscene messages, Lawrence suspected, were because she was speaking against the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and their “hate politics” targeting minorities. The messages had traumatised her, but she was not surprised at having received them. 

The Dalit activist hadn’t been able to come to terms with the online attacks that she said were from supporters of the party in power in Tamil Nadu, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), because she was drawing attention to the crimes against Dalits in the state. 

“I’ve been getting hate from both the BJP-RSS and the DMK,” Lawrence told Article 14, referring to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological parent of the BJP. 

“If it is the BJP and RSS, I can understand. They are right-wing and conservative, and this has been part of their politics,” she said. “What shocks me is that a left party like the DMK, which I believed were the torch bearers of social justice, is very cruel towards Dalit women on matters of caste.”

Earlier this month, the Network of Women in Media (NWMI) stated that Lawrence was “facing a high volume of targeted harassment on Twitter and Facebook over the last year, specifically from handles associated with the DMK and the BJP.” 

The collective said that “rather than engaging in introspection or at least combating her with facts and figures, or ideas, they have taken to coordinated attacks, combating her with demeaning languages including casteist slurs, body shaming her, slurs based on religion, and making scurrilous charges against her character and integrity. They have also targeted her close family members.” 

A study by the Washington DC-based International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) in February 2023  underlined the escalating attacks against women journalists, with Indian Muslim columnist Rana Ayyub being one of the most brutally targeted in the world. 

Lawrence said that it was only after she quit her job as a marketing professional in 2016 and changed track to writing and activism, did she learn how endemic discrimination against Dalits was in Tamil Nadu, its underreporting by the vernacular media of the state, and the indifference of the state, whether it was DMK, of which she was a lifelong supporter, or its rival, the AIADMK (All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam), in power. 

“As soon as I ask something of the government. They will say go to UP,” said Lawrence, referring to India’s northern state of Uttar Pradesh, a bastion of the BJP, which is trying to make inroads into the southern states, including Tamil Nadu.

“The BJP wants me to go to Pakistan. The DMK wants me to go to UP. Where should I go? As a Dalit, am I not Indian or Tamilian,” she said. “You can’t say you are the antidote to BJP and then behave like the BJP.”

Two Tamil Nadus

Lawrence’s transition to activism coincided with a horrific honour killing in Tirupur district in March 2016, when a 22-year-old Dalit man V Shankar and his 19-year-old wife, Kausalya Shankar, were attacked in broad daylight by killers her family had hired. 

After her husband’s murder, Shankar became an anti-caste activist who, along with other activists, is demanding a law against honour killings and protection of inter-caste couples. 

Backward castes (BCs) and most backward castes (MBCs) constitute 45.5% and 23.6% of Tamil Nadu’s 72 million people, Dalits are 21%, and upper castes are 10.7%.

The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) report released last year said 50,900 cases were registered for crimes against scheduled castes in 2021 in India, an increase of 1.2% over 2020 (50,291). The most crimes were reported in Uttar Pradesh (13,146), Rajasthan (7,524), Madhya Pradesh (7,214), Bihar (5,842), Maharashtra (2,503), Odisha (2,327), Telangana (1,772), Karnataka (1,673), and Haryana (1,628). Tamil Nadu (1,377) was tenth of 28 states and eight union territories.

The highest crime rates were in Madhya Pradesh (63.6%), Rajasthan (61.6%), Bihar (35.3%), Telangana (32.6%), Uttar Pradesh (31.8%) and Haryana (31.8%). 

Tamil Nadu’s crime rate was 9.5%, and its charge sheeting rate was 84.6%. 

Of the southern states, the conviction rate for crimes against Dalits was 12.5% in Tamil Nadu, 8.1% in Telangana, 5.5% in Andhra Pradesh and 5.9% in Kerala, The News Minute reported in 2019. 

The data showed the crimes against the scheduled castes in Tamil Nadu had increased from 1,114 in 2019 to 1,274 in 2020 to 1,377 in 2021. 

Of the 352 deaths due to manual scavenging since 2017, as per data provided by the Ministry of Social Justice to Parliament in December 2022, UP (57) and Tamil Nadu (46) recorded the most. 

Questioning whether Tamil Nadu was providing the Centre with the correct data on caste atrocities and noting the underreporting of such crimes by the Tamil media, Lawrence called the NCRB data “superficial”.

“We don’t fight with the data. We fight on each incident. In recent months, there have been so many atrocities that we are overwhelmed.  We don't know what to cover and what not to,” she said. 

This year, Lawrence has tweeted about Dalits being attacked for visiting a local temple in Cuddalore city, the harassment of a Dalit panchayat president by dominant caste groups, who threw faeces in her office and in the water tank she built in a village in Madurai, contaminated food being served to Dalit students in hostels made for them, the misuse of funds meant for Dalit development schemes, the murder of a Dalit boy for loving a girl from the Vanniyar caste in Villupuram, two Dalit girl students trying to commit suicide after facing untouchability in a government school in Dindigul, the death of a Dalit manual scavenger, Dalits having to pray outside a temple in Karur, and drinking water of Dalits in Vengaivayle being contaminated with faeces. 

“Dalits go through so much discrimination and violence. It is like having two Tamil Nadus.  One Tamil Nadu is very progressive, and the other one is very regressive when it comes to caste,” said Lawrence. “But only very few activists speak of it. Most only do positive PR. And while the welfare schemes of DMK and AIADMK have helped people, they have not tried to solve the problem of caste.” 

Anti-caste activists in Tamil Nadu in June 2021 urged the state government to conduct the biannual state-level vigilance and monitoring committee to ensure the protection of the scheduled castes and scheduled tribe communities, as per Rule 16 of the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Rules, 1995, by the implementation of the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. In June 2021, Pandiyan Kamal, Witness for Justice, a Madurai-based Dalit rights body, said that while 52 meetings should have been convened over the last 26 years, only four had been conducted. 

The Press Information Bureau of the central government in July 2022 reported that Tamil Nadu had set up the committee. 

Data released by the ministry of home affairs in July 2022 said that 345 villages in 37 out of Tamil Nadu’s 38 districts were identified as “atrocity prone” for crimes against scheduled castes and scheduled tribes, the highest in the country. 

Lawrence, who joined Twitter in 2020, said she did so because the Tamil media did not report caste atrocities against Dalits. 

“The Tamil media is biased (sic), similar to how the Hindi and English media are pro-government. The Tamil media are pro-whoever is in power. They do not talk about Dalits at all,” she said. “I thought, let me go on Twitter to get a lot of attention on Dalit issues. I expected some trolling, but what has happened is very traumatic.”

Behind A ‘Progressive Mask’

Lawrence said the trolling was “targeted witch hunting” by DMK and BJP supporters. 

Lawrence said the messages refer to Dalit politics as “elephant politics” as a way to body shame her and make fun of Mayawati, the Dalit leader of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which has the elephant as its election symbol. The term “blue Sanghi” is used to imply that she is loyal to the BJP.

Lawrence said that trolling is mostly in Tamil to avoid being picked up by the English language media, which would then invite national attention. They use code names like “blue Sanghi”, “blue elephant” “Nayanthara” (Tamil actress), and “hakka” (a term for body shaming) to refer to her. 

“It is body shaming and caste shaming at the same time. Even women do that. That is what irritates me to the core,” she said. “The same people are behind it, targeting and insulting you, your husband and your child. It is emotionally very tortuous. It is difficult to work as a woman because of the everyday assault.”

A Lifelong DMK Supporter 

Born and raised in Chennai, Lawrence said she grew up devoted to the DMK, critical of AIADMK, but with tremendous faith in the Dravidian model of governance transcending class and caste. But as an anti-caste activist and political commentator, Lawrence felt that she had seen a very different side of the DMK than as a supporter. 

Having studied Dalit killings in Tamil Nadu over several decades, Lawrence realised that the party was irrelevant because whoever was in power, the state oppressed the Dalits. 

“By birth, family, and culture, you become a DMK supporter. You grow up thinking that DMK is the most progressive party, a Dravidian party. The progressive mask is that they are anti-Brahmin, but for Dalits, there is inequality. They are not inclusive. They don’t talk of Dalits,” she said. 

“They say they uphold the teachings of Periyar, a staunch feminist. These people should be opposed to right-wing ideology and patriarchal ways. But they are mimicking the same thing,” she said. 

‘This Hurts, This Pains’

Citing a global survey by the International Centre for Journalists and UNESCO in 2020 which found that nearly three out of four women journalists had experienced online violence, which “frequently operates at the intersection of multiple forms of discrimination and disinformation,” the NWMI media collective said, “the toll of such violence on the mental health of women journalists cannot be calculated. Many women journalists engage in self-censorship to avoid being subjected to such assaults online.” 

Lawrence said there are certain things she stops herself from saying or tweeting because of the backlash, and the “holding back” was becoming more frequent. 

“I hate people who say, 'you are a strong woman. You must pick up your confidence.’ This has nothing to do with my confidence. My silence will give them enormous power.  What they are doing affects people. It messes up their mental health,” said Lawrence. 

“At the end of the day, many young women want to write about discrimination but are too scared. Already, there are very few women talking about Dalit women's issues. If they scare away the few of us, this is very wrong,” she said. 

When it came to the online attacks, Lawerence said it was important to push back against confusing strength and confidence with suffering in silence. 

“Instead of telling the world that I’m ‘strong’, I want to say that I'm continuing my work, but I'm affected and vulnerable,” she said. “This hurts. This pains. This is assault, and it has to stop.”

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(Betwa Sharma is managing editor of Article 14.)