AT last, the residents of Uthapuram, a small village in Madurai district, Tamil Nadu, which came into the news when a portion of the huge wall of untouchability dividing the habitations of Dalits and caste Hindus was demolished three years ago, have begun to see light at the end of the tunnel.
On the initiative of the police and the district administration, an agreement was reached between the Pallar (Dalit) and Pillai (caste Hindu) residents on October 20, which emphasises a new, positive direction in their coexistence besides enabling them to shed their six-decade-old acrimony.
Asra Garg, Superintendent of Police, Madurai district, the architect of the agreement, told Frontline that it was the outcome of teamwork and was hammered out after several rounds of talks with representatives of the two communities. It has been clearly laid down in the accord that caste Hindus should allow Dalits to worship at the Muthalamman-Mariamman temple in the village although its administration and maintenance will remain under their control.
The issue of the construction of a common bus shelter, which was also contentious, has been settled. The caste Hindus have agreed to clear the encroachments along the new pathway created after the removal of a portion of the wall. They will also withdraw the case filed in this connection. Both communities will make efforts with the help of the Superintendent of Police to withdraw cases registered against each other. They will extend their cooperation in maintaining law and order by approaching the police and the district administration to resolve amicably any problem arising in the village. Both sides have agreed to promote cooperation and unity.
Uthapuram had been a hotbed of caste tension and witnessed violent clashes in 1948, 1964 and 1989. However, the village earned notoriety in 2008 when the Tamil Nadu Untouchability Eradication Front (TNUEF) focussed on the wall of untouchability raised by caste Hindus close on the heels of the caste riots in 1989 ( Frontline, June 6, 2008).
The TNUEF and the Communist Party of India (Marxist), along with some Dalit organisations, staged protests all over the State demanding the demolition of the caste wall. The issue was raised in the State Assembly too. Intensifying the struggle for the removal of the wall, the State CPI(M) leadership made it clear on April 29, 2008, that the party would pull it down if the then Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam government failed to do so.
Denying that the wall had been constructed to perpetuate untouchability, caste Hindus had been claiming that it was needed to protect their kin. It had been built according to an agreement signed by the two communities, they said. They took a tough stand on the issue and resorted to different forms of protests to stall the demolition. However, much to the relief of Dalits, a portion of the wall was removed by the district administration on May 6, 2008.
But subsequent developments proved that the animosity of the caste-Hindu residents towards Dalits had not died down. They left the village on May 6 in protest against the government's action and returned only after a week. Stalemate continued with regard to the construction of a common bus shelter, and Dalits were denied access to the temple and the common pathway. This sorry state of affairs resulted in further efforts last year by the CPI(M) and the TNUEF to bring the two communities to an agreement.
However, much water has flowed under the bridge since then. Sustained struggles launched by the Dalits, sincere efforts made by the police and the district administration, and the realisation of the need for peace on the part of caste Hindus have resulted in the agreement, according to P. Sampath, the leader of the TNUEF. The agreement has thrown up an opportunity for greater class unity between the two communities as the vast majority of them are small and marginal farmers, he said.S. Dorairaj