Cracks in the wall

Print edition : April 24, 2009

AT PERIAKAAPPAN KULAM village in Cuddalore district, Dalit families bury their dead in the compounds of their houses, as in this picture. Dalits have been denied access to the burial ground by caste Hindus who have encroached on the land. Over 100 bodies have been buried and about 50 cremated within the Dalit colony in the past 20 years.-POORVACHANDRAN

WE have now learnt virtually to live with the dead. This statement by an elderly woman of Periakaappan Kulam village in Vriddachalam taluk of Cuddalore district in Tamil Nadu is no exaggeration. Over 100 bodies have been buried and about 50 cremated within the Dalit colony in the village in the past 20 years, say village elders.

The bodies of at least 10 members of a family lie buried in front of their house and in the backyard. We could not resist when caste-Hindu landlords encroached on the entire two acres (one acre is 0.4 hectare) of land of Dalits in the village and denied us access to our burial ground, said a native of the colony, which houses 350 families. How a section of land-hungry caste-Hindu oppressors had, over the years, deprived Dalits of the burial ground they had been using for several decades was brought to light recently by a study team. The hapless Dalits were forced to bury their dead around their houses.

After many years of pressure, the village panchayat provided a narrow pathway last year, but Dalits were dismayed to find that the area allotted for the burial ground had become smaller. Even the pathway appears to be meant for the caste-Hindu landholders and their farm workers to visit the land and spray pesticides, said a young Dalit graduate of the village. Dalits complained that the panchayat had brought improvements only to the caste-Hindu areas of the village and that even the fair-price shop under the public distribution system (PDS) was located in the non-Dalit area.

S. Durairaj, convener of the Cuddalore district unit of the Tamil Nadu Untouchability Eradication Front, said that when the caste Hindu panchayat president of Periakaappan Kulam arranged for the construction of a community hall near a temple, the trustee of the temple got a stay order from a court because the hall was meant for use by all sections. Dalits are not allowed to enter the temple. Durairaj added that many of the houses of Dalits built 10 years ago in the village were yet to get electricity connections.

The Tamil Nadu Untouchability Eradication Front was launched by the State unit of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) a couple of years ago. The purpose was to identify the areas where untouchability was being practised and lead Dalit protests against it with the support of other progressive sections of society. The Front undertook detailed studies on the prevalence of untouchability in villages and towns and identified the numerous forms in which it was being practised in more than 20 districts.

One of its reports in 2008 highlighted the existence of the wall of bias at Uthapuram; it had been raised 20 years ago to segregate Dalits physically. A part of the wall was dismantled following an agitation launched by the Front (Frontline, June 25, 2008).

Denial of the right to enter temples or participate in temple festivals has been identified as one of the widely prevailing forms of untouchability in the State. Agitations for temple-entry by Dalits often led to violence from caste-Hindu groups. In one such incident, at Senthatti near Sankarankovil in Tirunelveli district, two Dalits were killed. A few months ago, caste-Hindu groups strongly resisted an attempt by Dalits led by the Front to enter a temple at Panthapuli village in the same district on the strength of a court order. Only the State governments bold and timely intervention helped avert violence.

Even a casual observer cannot fail to notice the qualitative shift in the struggle for the emancipation of Dalits in Tamil Nadu in recent years. A perceptible fall in reported crimes against Dalits, at least in some traditional hot spots, in the second half of the current decade has enabled political parties and other organisations that have taken up the Dalit cause to press for more positive policy initiatives on Dalit empowerment.

If the 1990s saw a phenomenal spurt in atrocities against Dalits in the State, it also witnessed unprecedented Dalit resistance and in many places even retaliation. Dalits refused to be silent sufferers of mindless violence against them by not only caste Hindus but also the police (as at Kodiyankulam, Tirunelveli and Perambalur, for instance). This aggressive intent led to the emergence of new Dalit leaders and political parties and the revival of some of the dormant parties. However, the continued caste-Hindu violence slowed down Dalits advance towards affirmative action to protect their constitutional rights and privileges.

For instance, the 1990s saw no serious initiatives to put an end to the practice of untouchability or remove their socio-economic disabilities. Even the many inquiry commissions sought to see caste-related violence basically as a rural issue and so were tempted either to ignore it or to see it as a mere clash between two sections of people, treating the oppressed and the oppressors alike. They had nothing to say about the deep-rooted prejudice of one section of people against another, nurtured for centuries by the caste system. There was not even a mild indictment of the government for its failure to punish the guilty under either the Protection of Civil Rights (PCA) Act or the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.

The long-term solution, some of these commissions suggested, was to start labour-intensive industries in the affected regions. But even this has not been pursued seriously by governments. The only major step in the direction of doing justice to the underprivileged was perhaps the holding of elections to panchayati raj institutions in 1996 under the Constitution (Seventy-third Amendment) Act, 1992, which sought to empower Dalits and women through statutory reservation of elected seats for them in these institutions. However, caste-Hindu hostility proved an insurmountable impediment in some places to making this kind of political empowerment of Dalits a reality.

The new century dawned with lot of hope for Dalits. Dalit activists and intellectuals, with the support of human rights advocates, made concerted efforts to bring up the issue of the oppression of Dalits at the United Nations World Conference against Racism in 2001 in Durban (South Africa). However, the initiative, which was taken on the grounds that the caste system is worse than racism, failed.

At the political level, coalition politics got entrenched in the system of governance and gave Dalit political parties scope to enter mainstream politics and take up issues cutting across caste barriers. Dalit parties soon found themselves in the company of parties that were until a few years ago seen by them as caste-based aggressors.

The community hall in the village, whose construction has been stayed by a court order on the basis of a petition by the trustee of the local temple. The hall, meant for use by all sections, is situated near the temple, which Dalits are not allowed to enter.-POORVACHANDRAN

Dalit activists no longer spoke of Dalit exclusivism (concepts such as a Dalit alone can feel Dalit pain and so understand Dalit issues) and the government, national parties, academic institutions and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) began taking greater interest in Dalit issues. For instance, they have conducted workshops for Dalit panchayat presidents on governance of local bodies.

The State government moved in the direction of taking proactive steps for Dalit empowerment, thanks to pressure from its allies. For 10 years (1996 to 2006) the hardcore elements among caste Hindus, who were against reservation for Dalits, blocked the conduct of elections to four village panchayats in Madurai and Virudhunagar districts. They did not allow Dalits to contest or forced those who contested and won to resign.

In the 2006 round of local body elections, the Dalit and Left parties demanded that they be held in the four panchayats as well and did a lot of ground work to create a favourable atmosphere in the two districts. The effective intervention of Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi ensured that the elections went off smoothly. The elected Dalit panchayat presidents continue in their posts. In the changing political environment, the mainstream parties started taking more interest in Dalit issues. The CPI(M), for instance, focussed on the problems of Arunthathiyars, the most oppressed of the Dalit population. It highlighted the State governments failure to implement a 10-year-old order of the Supreme Court that manual scavenging be ended and those engaged in it be provided alternative jobs within a time frame.

The government accepted the demand of the CPI(M) and some Dalit parties for separate reservation for Arunthathiyars in educational institutions and government jobs. The State Assembly recently passed a Bill that provides for a 3 per cent subquota within the Dalit quota for Arunthathiyars. The CPI(M) also exposed the failure of governments, both at the Centre and in the States, to allot funds in their annual budgets for the benefit of Dalits under the 20-year-old Special Component Plan (now known as the Scheduled Castes Sub-plan) and the huge loss to Dalits as a consequence.

Studies undertaken by different organisations have shown that the practice is still prevalent in the southern districts although they have apparently been free from acts of violence against Dalits in recent years, unlike in the 1990s. The situation is no different in districts such as Cuddalore and Villupuram.

The acts of discrimination include refusal by public health personnel to vaccinate Dalit children, denial of access to water sources, and refusal to serve Dalits tea at teashops and to cut their hair at barber shops. They are not allowed to join the queue with caste-Hindus at fair-price shops. Access to burial grounds and temples are also barred to them in many places. Even educational institutions are not free from the practice. Parents ask their children to skip the noon meal provided in schools if the food is cooked by Dalits.

In Thanjavur district, the authorities of a state-owned temple recently barred Dalit girls in a team of college students from entering the temple to help clean the place of worship. Only caste-Hindu students were allowed to do the voluntary service.

A similar situation prevails at Nallathoor village, 20 km from Cuddalore and close to Puducherry. Untouchability is practised in many forms, and Dalits in the village complained of discrimination. They said they were denied entry into the village temple and were not allowed to cultivate temple land. They complained that the pathway to their burial ground was rendered useless by a section of caste Hindus. They did not have access to the community hall and a private wedding hall. They said that when they protested, false cases were filed against them. The two Dalit ward members, the local people said, did not have any say in the panchayats affairs.

The CPI(M) staged a demonstration in Cuddalore in March demanding that the administration intervene to end the discrimination against Dalits and take action against the practice of untouchability.

The incidents that came to light recently in Cuddalore and other places are perhaps enough to indicate the seriousness of the situation. Any change in the governments attitude from that of firm action against the practice of untouchability, which lies at the root of caste-based violence, can lead to disastrous consequences. Punishing the guilty under stringent laws such as the PCR Act and the S.C. and S.T. Act can have a deterrent effect, as envisaged by the Union government in the early years of the Indian republic. That was why the government thought it fit to add more teeth to the Acts within a period of three decades.

The shift in emphasis from merely challenging violence against Dalits to fighting relentlessly against the practice of untouchability, which cripples their daily life and deprives them of their self-respect, will hopefully push the movement for Dalit liberation to the next stage.

The enforcement of the constitutional ban on untouchability (Article 17) is not the responsibility of the political class alone. The executive cannot ignore its role. Some of the observations of the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court on March 24 may be relevant here.

While hearing a petition relating to the prevention of the use of a cemetery at a village in Tiruchi district on caste grounds, a Division Bench, comprising Justices P.K. Mishra and M. Jeyachandran, pointed out that even after 60 years of independence the authorities were not able to eradicate caste discrimination. It observed that the authorities themselves should initiate action to prevent untouchability. If any law and order problem surfaced, it said, the District Collector and the Superintendent of Police should take necessary action.

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