Dalits in a Tamil Nadu village want to be part of a ritual at an 800-year-old temple, but aren’t allowed to do so. The combative dalits are not willing to take no for an answer
Shivani Chaturvedi | October 10, 2016 | Nagapattinam
All that the dalits in Nagapattinam wanted was to participate in a ritual in which an idol of a diety is carried on a chariot. But, that was not to be.
Worst affected in the December 26, 2004 tsunami, which left over 6,000 dead, this Tamil Nadu district is witnessing convulsions that highlight the deep schism in the Indian society.
“Caste Hindus in the adjoining Kallimedu village say we have no right to perform rituals at the Badrakaliamman temple during the Aadi festival. But this temple was originally located in our village until a few decades ago,” bemoans 63-year-old A Nagappan of Pazhag Kallimedu village, which is home to dalits.
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Nagappan is upset with ‘caste Hindus’, a reference to intermediate castes that are neither considered the highest nor the lowest of the low. The Badrakaliamman temple, said to be some 800 years old, is situated in Kallimedu village. A river separates the two villages – Pazhag Kallimedu and Kallimedu.
As per custom, the caste Hindus perform the mandagapadi ritual. The local dalits, Adi Dravidars, can come for the festival but are not allowed to hold the mandagapadi ritual in which the chariot carrying the idol is taken through local areas. For the past few years, dalits have been demanding mandagapadi rights. This year the issue grabbed headlines as the dalits threatened to embrace Islam if they were not allowed to host the mandagapadi ritual.
Determined to perform rituals on one of the five days of the annual festival at the Badrakaliamman temple during the Tamil period of Aadi, which is from mid-July to mid-August, Nagappan’s son Dinakaran, 35, says, “We are waiting for the Madras high court’s further directives on allowing us to perform the rituals. If the ruling is not in our favour, we will convert to Islam.
“This year the temple festival was banned. It has never been disrupted for decades. It is unfair that we are denied the rights to participate in the temple festival. If the [ruling] comes in our favour, at least during the next annual festival we would be able to participate,” he says.
The festival was cancelled in August after talks failed over the demand from the dalits. There were reconciliation efforts and peace meetings by district administration, but without any success.
Nagappan says, “We are ready to convert to Islam if there is no respect in our own religion.”
Indrani, a 50-year-old resident of Kallimedu village, has been selling puja items for the past 35 years from her shop near the temple. “Only caste Hindus can run a shop at the temple site. No dalits are allowed to run a shop here. However, they do come to our village for work and to earn livelihood,” she says.
Munish, 21, Hari, 27, and Madan, 23, from the same village argue that the temple belongs to the caste Hindus of the village, and that only a few years ago it was taken over by the state government. “We cannot allow outsiders [dalits]. We are not opposing the right to worship. But we cannot allow their participation during the temple festival,” they say.
Jayabalan, 58, who works as an accountant with Hindu religious and charitable endowments (HR&CE) department at the Badrakaliamman temple, says that had the dalits approached the caste Hindus, they would have considered the demand.
Instead the dalits chose to approach the administration and moved court. Now it is a prestige issue for caste Hindus of the village, he adds.
As the dalits threatened to convert to Islam, outfits like Tamil Nadu Towheed Jamaat distributed copies of the Quran in the village. A Christian missionary contacted the community. Bharatiya Janata Party state president Tamilisai Soundararajan too visited the village.
Dinakaran shows religious books that were distributed by various outfits. “The 180 dalit families in our village are all united on the issue. If the demands are not met, we will have no option other than to convert,” he says, adding, “Now the youth of our village have got more political awareness, so we are raising our voice, which is not wrong.”
“What is more disturbing is that the government officials were begging the caste Hindus for allowing [dalits] the right to perform rituals. The district administration should have exercised their powers. Some legal action should have been initiated, instead the temple festival was cancelled. Such approach of the government encourages casteism. So there is no reason for us to believe the government officials,” says Nagappan.
“Last year the temple car [chariot] was not taken out because there was a court order to bring the procession to the dalit area as well. Caste Hindus did not follow the court order and preferred not to take out the car procession,” says Nagappan.
The court’s intervention
The Madras high court on August 9 observed that the authorities are under statutory and moral obligation to permit dalits to worship and perform rituals in connection with the Aadi festival at the Badrakaliamman temple.
It hoped that some compromise would be worked out so that at least next year the temple festival is performed without any hitch. Pillaimars community, the caste Hindus of Kallimedu village, had filed a petition as the district administration had banned the festival and the court gave the observation on their plea.
Subsequently, Tamil Nadu’s HR&CE authorities filed an affidavit at the Madras high court as no headway was made in the peace talks and representatives of both the groups – the caste Hindus and the dalits – turned down the suggestions given during talks, says S Palanisamy, district collector of Nagapattinam. Both the groups are now waiting for the court order.
So what were the suggestions? One was to give the dalits mandagapadi rights on the sixth day.
Palanisamy says that as per the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Act, the temple authorities should not deviate from the customs that they have been practising. If it is questioned by either of the groups, the joint commissioner of HR&CE department should work out an amicable settlement or they should approach the court. Palanisamy was quick to add that caste Hindus have worshipping rights.
Human rights activist Vincent Manoharan, who started the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR), says that now they are gathering dalit NGOs in Villupuram district of Tamil Nadu to raise their voice.
Incidents of honour killing, and denial of temple entry and right to be buried with equality are on the rise. Dalit movements are not very strong in taking up issues and much more needs to be done, he adds.
Dalits form 20 percent of the state’s population of 7.21 crore. But there are many sub-castes and groups within the dalit community, Manoharan says.
He notes that there was a time when Tamil Nadu was at the forefront in supporting the dalits, but now it is not happening that way. He adds, in districts like Pudukkottai, manual scavenging is still practised. He alleged that in Madurai district, the dominant Thevar community is grabbing land and setting up small enterprises. They are becoming an economically empowered community, whereas dalits are still a wage-earning community and engaged as agricultural labourers. Also, Thevar community is unleashing violence against dalits, but dalits are now also raising their voice against such incidents, he says.
“This is the state which is considered Periyar land, so it is sad that we are even talking about caste discrimination,” says Madurai-based Henri Tiphagne, executive director of People’s Watch Tamil Nadu, a human rights organisation. He was referring to social activist and freedom fighter Erode Venkata Ramasamy who started the Self-Respect Movement and Dravidar Kazhagam.
Tiphagne says that in Tamil Nadu, the SC/ST law is very poorly implemented, the level of intolerance has increased and it is reflected in honour killings. “But what is comforting is that now a larger section of Tamil Nadu dalits are raising their voice such as in the Kallimedu temple festival incident. Even from campuses, we can hear dalit youths [raising their voice]. This I feel is an achievement and a positive sign,” adds Tiphagne.
AR Venkatachalapathy, a historian of the Dravidian movement who teaches at Madras Institute for Development Studies, told Governance Now that running parallel to dalit politics is the cultural assertion like claiming rights at temple festivals, which is different and distinct from right to enter temples.
Now the dalits want equal rights to participate in temple festivals. They want equal temple honours, which is a symbol of prestige within the village community, and its rights are usually with the dominant caste, he says.
Throwing light on the history of dalit politics, Venkatachalapathy says that for the first 40-50 years of independence, dalit politics was subsumed within nationalist politics of the Congress and identity politics of the Dravidian parties. In Tamil Nadu, dalits had been accommodated both within the nationalists and the Dravidian identity politics.
After 1991, the scene started changing and dalits became more assertive, with independent dalit mobilisation being seen for the first time.
Incidentally, the term ‘dalit’ was earlier not used in the state. Because of the Dravidian movement, the term ‘Adi Dravidar’ was used. In common discourse, the word ‘talttappatta’ (Tamil for ‘depressed classes’) was used. The semantic implication of the term ‘talttappatta’ is that somebody else has pushed them down, otherwise depressed or downtrodden means that they are lower caste. This term was used throughout the post-independence period. Dravidian movement used the term for 40-50 years.
The number of castes that come under the category of scheduled castes in Tamil Nadu is more than 50. And there are only three major castes which include Paraiyar or Adi Dravidar (concentrated in north and central parts of Tamil Nadu), Pallar or Devendrakula Vellalar (concentrated in south with some pockets in west) and Chakkiliyan or Arunthathiyar (in west).
As they were located in the northern part of the state, Paraiyars had access to western modernity through interaction with British – both the East India Company and later the government. They also had some access to education. They had a head start. Paraiyars used all the positive concessions that were given. To this day the complaint is that the reservation for SCs is cornered by Paraiyars. Devendrakula Vellalars have some access to land, but the most downtrodden are Arunthathiyar who are traditionally engaged in works like manual scavenging.
The first of the political organisations for dalits came in the mid-90s. Clashes between various dalit groups and sub-castes led to the formation of political organisation for dalits in Tamil Nadu.
Political organisations in the state have not been able to mobilise all these groups so far. Depending on local dynamics the groups have aligned with one party or the other, and do not have autonomous political party. Among some small attempts, one can count Puthiya Tamilagam party headed by K Krishnaswamy, and Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) headed by Thirumavalavan.
(The article appears in the October 1-15, 2016 issue)
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