Tamil - Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Within a village, society is ordered principally by caste. Particular castes or blocks of castes occupy sectors of a village, with the ritually lowest castes sometimes in satellite hamlets. Large villages or towns may have a Brahman street with a temple at the end, formerly off-limits to low castes, and in the past Brahmans would generally avoid eating food not prepared at home. Ritual pollution and purity differentiate a wide range of human interaction, though not as strongly as in the nineteenth century and hardly at all now in public life in towns. Village coffee shops until the 1980s had benches for middle castes, low seats for the low laboring castes, and places on the floor for the lowest sweeper caste; there were separate cups for these three groups. Now rank by caste ascription is slightly declining even in villages, while the more numerous agricultural castes are increasing their landholdings and using elections to enhance their political power. Brahmans have for decades used their education to enter urban life, while many landless laboring caste people also have migrated to cities for urban labor and service jobs. The urban educated class and government officers utilize English to preserve their power and privileges, so now even in small towns many Tamils are demanding that schools offer English-medium education for their children.

Political Organization. Traditionally many castes, or the larger ones, had caste panchayats (councils) that enforced caste behavioral norms, and sometimes there were informal village panchayats. In recent decades the state government has set up elected village panchayats, which were supposed to take over village government and development. But these have been neglected because state politicians tended to view them as threatening. Statewide political parties competing for people's votes have infiltrated most rural institutions, and in the main members of state-level parties espousing Dravidian identity are elected. Dominant and landholding families manage to enhance their economic and political power through these new mechanisms, while the relative position of the laboring and low castes remains about the same as before.

Social Control. Sources of tension in a village are family and caste norms of behavior, caste differences, and disputes over land. Caste or village elders can pronounce embarrassing punishment for violators of behavioral norms, particularly in sexual matters. Caste conflicts sometimes erupt over scarce resources, such as the rights of certain castes to use wells in time of water scarcity. Families basing prestige on land may engage in long litigation. An individual who feels wronged may wield a sickle against another, which may be occasion to call the police. The lowest administrative level is the taluk, usually centered in a particular town, with offices for police, land registration, and electricity supply, a local court, and usually high schools for boys and girls. The second level of administration is the district, of which there are twenty in Tamil Nadu; as throughout India, the district is headed by a collector, who has wide powers. The third level is the state, with Madras as its capital.

Conflict. Tamils have no destructive conflict with adjacent linguistic or ethnic groups, nor do Hindus have much conflict with the 6 percent Christian and 5 percent Muslim Tamil minorities. They tend to sympathize with the Sri Lanka Tamils in their struggle for political autonomy or Independence. Tamils are suspicious of the overwhelming numbers and political power of north Indians and resent any attempts to "impose" Hindi on them, so Tamil Nadu does not require teaching of Hindi in schools. English is in fact favored over Hindi. The modern political system with its elections has provided a new arena for verbal conflict.

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