The wall remains

Published : Nov 07, 2008 00:00 IST

DALIT WOMEN IN Uthapuram lead a funeral procession in the absence of their male relatives, who are evading arrest following caste violence.-COURTESY: THEEKATHIR

DALIT WOMEN IN Uthapuram lead a funeral procession in the absence of their male relatives, who are evading arrest following caste violence.-COURTESY: THEEKATHIR

ABOUT six months ago, the wall of bias, which separated Dalits from caste Hindus in Uthapuram, in Tamil Nadus Madurai district, was pulled down partly by the State government following public protests (Frontline, June 6). But the Dalit community in the village has reportedly been subjected to cruel reprisal, more by the state machinery than by caste Hindus.

About 15 Dalit women were injured, some of them seriously, and over 70 houses were ransacked, according to reports, when the police raided the village on the night of October 1 a day before the 139th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, who was at the forefront of the fight against untouchability. The raid was conducted in the name of searching for absconding men, following a clash between Dalits and caste Hindus, in which some policemen were hurt in stone-throwing. Most of the male members of Dalit families, against whom charges have been filed by the police, have apparently left the village.

The police brutality has shattered Dalits, said P. Sampath, State convener of the Tamil Nadu Untouchability Eradication Front, after a visit to Uthapuram on October 13. He said that the district administration had been indifferent to the demand for demolishing the wall from the beginning. Sampath added that the administration had connived with the police in suppressing information about the police action for two weeks by barring visitors to the village under the pretext of implementing a ban order issued in connection with a temple festival.

Sampath, also a member of the State Secretariat of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), was accompanied by P. Mohan, CPI(M) Member of Parliament representing Madurai, among others. Sampath said that both the police and revenue officials tried to dissuade him from visiting the village.

The district administrations refusal to permit entry into the village was confirmed by C.J. Rajan, State coordinator of Citizens for Human Rights Movement. He said women volunteers of his organisation used to visit the village regularly for social work, but their visits had been restricted. So, he said, there was no way of getting any authentic information about what had happened since October 1.

Rajan said that right from the day the wall was pulled down partly, allowing limited access to the villages common areas, caste Hindus were keen to prevent Dalits from enjoying the benefits of the demolition. The caste Hindus had moved away to a nearby hill in protest against the demolition but returned to the village after the district administration conceded a few of their demands. They apparently prevented Dalits from riding bicycles on the newly opened path. This kind of reaction provoked the Dalits, resulting in skirmishes between the two sections.

On October 1, when the caste Hindus began painting a wall close to the Muthalamman temple under their control in preparation for a temple festival, a section of Dalits objected to it on the grounds that the wall was common property of the village. This led to verbal exchanges, and the two sections threw stones at each other. In the process some policemen were reportedly injured.

Additional forces were sent in, and the police entered the Dalit areas and searched for the alleged offenders but could not find anyone involved in the clashes. Then they picked up 60 women and took them to the police station at Usilampatti, 25 km away. When members of the All India Democratic Womens Association challenged the legality of the detention of the women, the police took them back to Uthapuram.

The seriousness of the situation became public on October 10, when newspapers carried a report on the death of Chitra, a Dalit woman, in the village on October 8. It said that Chitras body was taken to the burial ground by women in the absence of her father and brothers. The last rites were also performed by women. The report said that Chitras father and brothers were evading arrest and male relatives from a neighbouring village were denied entry into Uthapuram by the police.

Sampath said that those injured in the police atrocities included children and aged women. He added that none of the injured was taken to the hospital. Nor was any medical facility made available at the village. Mohan asked the district health authorities over phone to arrange for medical assistance to the victims. The response was quick and a van with medical facilities soon arrived. Sampath said he could see many houses badly damaged.

He demanded a judicial inquiry into the police excesses, action against the guilty, and compensation for the victims. Sampath also suggested that Dalits be given the right of access to all common areas in the village.

S. Viswanathan
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