A temple car and caste tensions

Print edition : August 15, 2003

Machinations by caste-Hindu groups and lack of firmness on the part of the administration deprive Dalits in a Tamil Nadu village of their right to participate fully in a temple car festival.

in Sivaganga

A police barricade during the temple car festival at the Kandadevi village.-STALIN

MORE than five decades after untouchability was declared punishable under Article 17 of the Constitution, which ensures equality to all before law, Dalits, who form one-fifth of the population, continue to suffer caste-based discrimination and disablement in many parts of the country. They are left with no choice but to fight for their Constitutional rights, in courts or on the streets. Dalit assertion in most places is met with stiff resistance from casteist forces. The resistance is often severe; it even takes violent forms when the matter of dispute of rights relates to temples, festivals and rituals. Enforcing court orders in favour of Dalits is a daunting task for the administration.

Tamil Nadu has been witness to incidents of temple-related confrontation between Dalits and sections of caste Hindus in recent years. At Koothirampakkam village in the northeastern district of Kancheepuram, Dalits are locked in a prolonged legal battle to assert their rights relating to the local temple (Frontline, June 6). Dalits of Kandadevi village in Devakottai taluk in the southern district of Sivaganga have been asserting for over five years their right to pull the temple car of Sri Swarnamoorthi Eswarar temple, during the annual festival along with the Nattars, who belong to the caste-Hindu Kallar community. The leaders of Nattars, Ambalams, are the self-styled heads of the people in four "nadus" lying in Sivaganga and adjacent districts. The district administration failed in its attempt to help conduct the temple car festival on July 11 with the participation of "all Hindus irrespective of caste, creed or community". The temple car was to be ceremoniously pulled after other rituals involving the heads of "nadus", in accordance with a 1999 order of the Special Commissioner of the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Administration Department, as directed by the High Court. A piquant situation arose when the heads of the four "nadus" walked out after being honoured at the temple. The Ambalams refused to participate in the ceremonial pulling of the temple car. Their supporters alleged that the officials were not impartial and the situation was not conducive to their participation in the pulling of the car. Later, it was announced on behalf of the district administration that there would be no pulling of the temple car. Dalits, who had gathered in large numbers to pull the car, were disappointed, and there was tension in the area for a few days. In less than a week, the Collector and some other top officials were transferred to other districts, leaving the people wondering whether it was a mere coincidence.

THE Kandadevi temple car festival, which takes place in the Tamil month of Aani (June-July), attracts devotees including a large number of Dalits from about 200 villages around Devakottai. Although, traditionally, the heads of the four "nadus" were specially honoured in the temple, and they led the pulling of the temple car, Dalits and people from other communities also had specific roles to play in the ritual. This, Dalits say, had been the practice "from time immemorial". However, in 1979, after an incident at Chinna Unjanai, which comes under Unjanai Nadu, one of the four "nadus", in which five Dalits were killed following a dispute over a temple festival, Dalits stopped participating in the Kandadevi temple car festival.

In fact, in 1997, the sole Dalit participant in the car festival was allegedly beaten by a section of caste Hindus. Following this incident, Puthiya Thamizhagam president and a member of the State Assembly, Dr. S. Krishnaswamy, who toured the area, demanded at a press conference that Dalits be given equal rights along with other communities in the temple car festival. In 1998, Dalits staked their claim to participate in the festival, which was scheduled for July 7. Local leaders of the Puthiya Thamizhagam, a party that generally champions the cause of Dalits, announced that Krishnaswamy would lead the Dalit participants in pulling the car. Fearing that `a law and order problem' might arise, the police and revenue officials held a series of meetings with leaders of both Dalits and Nattars. Dalits demanded that they be given police protection to enable them to pull the temple car.

Meanwhile, Krishnaswamy filed a writ petition in the Madras High Court, wherein he had pleaded for a direction to the State administration to enforce the provisions of Article 17 to facilitate participation by Dalits in the temple car festival on an equal footing. The petition sought an interim order to protect the Dalit participants in the festival. The High Court directed the State administration on July 6, 1998, a day before the car festival, "to ensure and take appropriate steps, which are according to the situation, and in the interest of the administration to avoid an explosive situation on the spot and at the same time ensure that peace-loving citizens are able to participate in the rituals in a peaceful manner". The direction was given after the court heard from both the contending sides that they had no objection "if the petitioner or the public, irrespective of the caste and creed is permitted to pull the car after the rituals have been performed according to their traditions, say within an hour of performing the rituals and the car being pulled by Nattars."

On the day of the festival tension was palpable as thousands of people thronged the temple. The district administration felt that an "explosive" situation was developing "because of the large-scale mobilisation of people by both the parties within and from outside the district". Prohibitory orders under Section 144 (2) of the Code of Criminal Procedure Code were issued. As a consequence the pulling of the car was cancelled, although other rituals were gone through.

People from both sides were disappointed, and angry demonstrations were held defying the ban order. Dalits were arrested in large numbers while only some Nattars were arrested. Several cases of assault were filed against people from both sides. Scores of people were injured and hospitalised. There were also reports of assaults on police personnel. Prohibitory orders were extended periodically.

Meanwhile the "heads" of the four "nadus", R.M. Ramasamy Ambalam, S.P. Ramasamy Ambalam, M.V. Periaiah Servai and S.P. Karuppan Ambalam filed a petition before the Joint Commissioner, Hindu Religious & Charitable Endowments, Sivaganga, pleading that their traditional right to pull the temple car be established. The Joint Commissioner, in his orders issued on April 8, 1999, stated that the Nattars had the right to hold the "vadam" (rope) and pull the car, besides receiving temple honours before the pulling of the car. Krishnaswamy challenged this order in the High Court. The High Court held, on June 25, that the matter be decided by the Commissioner "according to the law" after hearing the parties. (In the meantime, the Sivaganga Devasthanam, which has been managing the temple, announced that the car festival would be conducted on June 27, 1999. Periaiah Ambalam approached the High Court for a direction to the District Collector, the Superintendent of Police, Sivaganga, and the Joint Commissioner, H.R. & C.E., against any intervention by them in his "right" to conduct the festival on June 27 in keeping with "the customs and traditional rights" as held by the Joint Commissioner.) The court ruled that "we find that since a disputed question of fact is involved and that needs consideration, we deem it proper to direct the petitioners to agitate the issue before the authority concerned at the time of disposal of the matter and the authority concerned will be free to pass appropriate orders, keeping in view the law and order situation." Krishnaswamy accordingly preferred an appeal before the Commissioner, H.R. & C.E. The Commissioner passed orders on June 26, 1999, stating that during the preliminary rituals, honours such as patta, parivattam and malai be conferred on the four heads of "nadus" and after that, when the car procession per se started, "all Hindus irrespective of caste, community and creed shall be entitled to partake in pulling the car". On the day of the festival, amidst the "tension" caused by the large police presence as well as the presence of Dalits and caste Hindus, the Nattars refused to accept the "customary" honours. Following this, the hereditary trustee of the Sivaganga Devasthanam, which manages the temple, decided that "with a view to protect(ing) lives and property and to maintain(ing) peace," the pulling of the temple car be abandoned. An announcement to this effect was made by the Joint Commissioner, H.R. & C.E.

In the following year, district officials held a series of meetings with both parties in an effort to conduct the festival on the Commissioner's guidelines, but again, under compulsions of "maintaining law and order" and on the grounds that continuing with the car-pulling after the heads of "nadus" refused to receive honour would be in violation of the guidelines, the pulling of the car was once again abandoned. The temple car could not be pulled in 2001 either.

But in 2002, for the Jayalalithaa-led All India Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam government, holding the Kandadevi car festival became a prestige issue, because the previous Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam government could not conduct it for four years in a row. And it did succeed in holding the festival, without the full participation of Dalits. Nattars, particularly women, gathered around the temple in full strength well in advance to pull the car, leaving practically no room for Dalits to join. The Dalits complained that it was a planned move by the Nattars "with the tacit approval of the police" in order to frustrate their efforts to assert their right.

This year it was a different story. Dalits had assembled in full strength hours before the scheduled commencement of the pulling of the car, but the Nattars outwitted them for a second year in succession by adopting a different strategy. After receiving the temple honours, the four heads of `nadus' trooped out with their families amidst noisy protests from their supporters against, what they called, the `partiality' of the officials, particularly the Collector. Threats were also reportedly issued by a section of caste Hindu women that they would commit suicide if Dalits pulled the car. Dalits alleged that the protesters raised slogans calling Dalits by their caste name, which is an offence under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. The Collector's efforts to continue the festival by persuading both sides proved futile. After a few hours of waiting, the Collector announced that there would be no pulling of the car, "in view of the tension and with a view to maintaining law and order."

COMMENTING on the cancellation of the pulling of the temple car, civil rights leader and advocate P.V. Bhaktavatsalam, who argued Krishnaswamy's case in the High Court, told Frontline that the state apparatus had always seen the Dalits' demand that their statutory rights be enforced only as a law and order problem. "Particularly when questions relating to religion and `tradition' are involved, the administration becomes nervous," he said. "But nothing can be above the Constitution." The Dalits' right to equality had been enshrined in the Constitution and they cannot be deprived of it in the name of protecting "traditions". The Nattars' objection to Dalits' participation in pulling the temple car rested on the claim of the heads of "nadus" that their right regarding the pulling of the temple car was part of the "customary rights and traditions" they had been enjoying. They were handed these "rights" under the zamindari system and these rights went out with the abolition of the system under the Estates Abolition Act, 1929, Bhaktavatsalam argued. "When Dalits are denied their rights in the name of tradition," he said, "that becomes an offence by itself."

Communist Party of India (Marxist) State secretary N. Varadarajan criticised the government's failure to hold the car festival in accordance with the court orders and ensured Dalits' right to equality. M. Arjunan, secretary of the Sivaganga district unit of the party, said this year the district administration had obviously made an honest attempt to hold the festival on the guidelines of the H.R. & C.E. Department but it was not firm enough to take the effort to its logical end. "The transfer of all the principal district officials will only send out wrong signals," he said.

Krishnaswamy expressed Dalits' disappointment over the cancellation of the concluding part of the car festival, which was very significant for them, and saw in the district officials' actions a lack of firmness. However, he was critical of the transfer of the officials because it would only embolden those who oppressed the poor with the power they derived from anachronistic institutions such as "nadu".

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