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Print edition : May 18, 2012 T+T-
Construction of a bus shelter in progress at Uthapuram on April 21. This has been a long-standing demand of the Dalit residents of the village.-G. MOORTHY

Construction of a bus shelter in progress at Uthapuram on April 21. This has been a long-standing demand of the Dalit residents of the village.-G. MOORTHY

The Madras High Court hails the agreement reached between caste Hindus and Dalits in a strife-torn village in Madurai district.

WALLS of hatred are bound to collapse if people's will prevails over attempts to divide them on caste or communal lines. This fact was underscored by the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court, which hailed an agreement reached between caste Hindus and Dalits in Uthapuram village in Tamil Nadu's Madurai district.

Disposing of a batch of writ petitions filed by Dalits from the village seeking, among other things, a probe by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) into the violent incidents of October 2008 in the wake of the demolition of a 180-metre-long wall segregating caste Hindus and Dalit residents, Justice K. Chandru said in the order given on March 20: Uthapuram message is very clear. It was a case of a wall (caste) which divided us but their will (power) united them.

Bus shelter

The court directed the government to take steps to implement all the points agreed to by both the communities. With bonhomie prevailing in the village, the district administration appears to have started complying with the direction. It has taken up the construction of a bus shelter, a longstanding demand of the Dalits.

Significantly, the bus shelter is coming up on a piece of land donated by the caste Hindus. Rajya Sabha member T.K. Rengarajan has already given his consent to earmark Rs.5 lakh from the Member of Parliament Local Area Development Fund for this purpose.

Leaders of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) met the State Chief Secretary on April 18 and called for early steps to comply with the court order.

The writ petitions were filed in 2010, a year before leaders of the Pallar (Dalit) and Pillai (caste Hindu) communities reached an agreement to bury the hatchet and live in harmony. The accord followed negotiations held in the village at the initiative of the Superintendent of Police, Madurai, Asra Garg, and his team on October 20, 2011.

The High Court order concludes thus: The Uthapuram experience shows that if the will of the people is strong, they can find solutions among themselves even in the absence of state intervention. Such was the fundamental duty imposed under Article 51A (e) of the Constitution [to promote harmony and the spirit of common brotherhood amongst all the people of India transcending religious, linguistic and regional or sectional diversities].

While pointing out that the reliefs claimed in the writ petitions had become almost infructuous in the light of the historical agreement, the court gave certain directions to the authorities on the implementation of the accord, the issuance of appropriate orders for the withdrawal of criminal cases pending against persons belonging to both communities, and the payment of revised compensation to the affected Dalits. The judge commended the district administration, particularly the police team led by Garg, and directed the authorities concerned to take all steps to ensure peace in the village and implement the terms of the settlement in letter and spirit so that the two-decade-old strife between the two sections became a thing of the past and the spirit of Article 17 of the Constitution was firmly established.

Struggles of the oppressed

Giving a brief history of the disharmony that prevailed in Uthapuram, the order speaks of the protracted legal battle the Dalits fought to assert their rights. It refers to the struggles of the oppressed in countries such as the United States, and recalls the efforts of the framers of the Constitution of India to ensure adequate legal safeguards for the oppressed masses, and to help concerned sections have the right perspective on the issue.

In this connection, the order refers to the American civil rights activist Martin Luther King's famous speech at the Montgomery March in 1965, highlighting the plight of the coloured people who were denied dignity and equal treatment in transport.

Citing an example in the Indian context, where varna vyavastha, the man-made social institution of untouchability, still prevails, the order refers to Dr B.R. Ambedkar's speech at a conference held in December 1927 to decide the action to protest against the denial to Dalits of the right to draw water from the Chowdar tank in Mahad, Maharashtra.

The court pointed out that Ambedkar, who became the Chairman of the Drafting Committee of the Constitution, did not forget his past experience and was thoughtful enough to insert Article 17 prescribing the abolition of untouchability in all forms. As citizenry of India never realised their fundamental duty to promote harmony and common brotherhood even after this, Article 51-A became part of the Constitution in 1976, says the order. The ever-increasing atrocities against Dalits and the tribal people made Parliament enact the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, it recalls.

As far as the simmering animosity in Uthapuram is concerned, the nondescript village gained notoriety close on the heels of the release of the findings of a survey conducted by the Tamil Nadu Untouchability Eradication Front (TNUEF) in 2007 on the discriminatory practices adopted against Dalits in Madurai district.

The report had exposed the existence of a caste wall in the village, which witnessed violent caste clashes in 1948, 1964 and 1989. The wall was raised after the untoward incidents of 1989, which forced Dalits to take a detour of more than 2.5 km to reach the other side.

The court said the TNUEF had referred to extensive practices of untouchability such as denial of access to Dalits to the Mariamman-Muthalamman temple and the peepal tree in front of it. The oppressed community was not allowed to put up arches or decorate streets during functions in their houses.

Public opinion mounted against the existence of the caste wall between the two groups in bringing ignominy and blatant caste discrimination. The State government, unable to bear the public protest, helped to demolish a portion of the brick wall and provided a thoroughfare into the streets of the main village on May 6, 2008. Caste Hindus, irked by such move left the village en masse and protested against the action, the court recalled.

As a sequel to the demolition of the wall, more than 70 houses of Dalits were attacked on October 1, 2008. Ironically, the reprisal was on a day before the 139th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, who tirelessly fought for the eradication of untouchability, and the day was declared as Anti-Untouchability Day, it said.

As a result of the tension that prevailed in Uthapuram, K. Suresh, a Dalit youth, was killed in police firing at E. Kottaipatti village on November 4, 2008. The government appointed a one-man commission, S. Thirupathy, a retired district judge, to go into the incident.

Focussing on the legal battle over the Uthapuram conflict, the court said that it was at this stage that the All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA) intervened, with its Madurai district secretary, S.K. Ponnuthai, filing a writ petition before the court seeking a direction to the State government to take precautionary measures under the provisions of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, not only in Uthapuram but also in other vulnerable areas, besides providing adequate compensation to the affected Dalits.

The division bench, which heard the petition then, directed the one-man commission to visit Uthapuram along with the secretary of the Madurai District Legal Services Authority, K. Venkatasami, and hold a full-fledged inquiry into the allegations relating to the damage to life and property caused on October 1 and submit a joint report on the grievances of the Dalit residents within four weeks. The two-member team appointed on January 22, 2009, confirmed gross violation of human rights in the violence and police excesses against the Dalits on October 1-2, 2008.

The issue came up again before another division bench on August 4, 2009, with the respondents raising objections to the commission's recommendations with regard to the payment of ad hoc compensation. They claimed that the police officers concerned were not examined and no medical record was referred to. However, the court directed the respondents to pay the interim compensation only to persons who had suffered actual physical injuries on the grounds that a medical camp was held in the village to treat the injured, the order says.

Temple entry

The order refers to another contentious issue: denial of permission to Dalits to worship at the temple. Even as a suit filed in 2008 in this regard was pending before the District Munsif Court, a dispute over participation in the temple festival arose between the Dalits and the caste Hindus in August 2009. As the peace committee formed by the revenue officials could not bring about a settlement, the local police issued orders withholding permission to conduct the festival. Another order was issued by the tahsildar with a view to preventing breach of peace. Both the orders were challenged by the caste Hindus through two different writ petitions.

Writ petitions

At this juncture, the Dalits knocked at the High Court's door, in 2010, by filing six writ petitions on which the court has given orders now. The petitions focussed on various issues concerning their safety and rights. One of the petitions WP (MD) No.10500 of 2010 filed by a group of six persons sought a direction to the authorities to remove all the disabilities imposed on them as they were Dalits and restore their civil rights to lead dignified lives. The petitioners also pleaded that paramilitary forces be provided to facilitate their worship of the peepal tree.

A few other petitions sought a court direction to the State government to hand over the case to the CBI for a fair and proper probe and take action against the police personnel concerned under the provisions of the SC and ST (PoA) Act for negligence of duty. They also pleaded for the implementation of Rule 13 of the SC and ST (PoA) Rules, 1995, regarding social composition of police recruitment.

The court has recorded an important episode in the struggle by the Dalits of the village to assert their fundamental rights: An attempt was made by them, led by activists of the TNUEF, to enter the temple premises along with some legislators on January 31, 2011. In Uthapuram village alone, as per the report of the police, 495 persons were arrested and prohibitory orders were imposed under Section 144 CrPC [Code of Criminal Procedure]. In the entire district of Madurai... 586 persons were arrested. Around 2,000 policemen were posted to ensure that no untoward incidents took place, the order says.

Significantly, the court, on December 10, 2011, directed the Superintendent of Police to file a status report on or before December 16. Accordingly, the report was filed along with a copy of the agreement reached between the two warring groups. Highlighting some of the agreed terms as set out in the report, the court has extracted the exact terms from the original agreement, written in Tamil.

As per the agreement presented by the police, the caste Hindus would not object to Dalits worshipping in the temple, and the Dalits had agreed that the management and administration of the shrine would continue to be with the Pillais. The Dalits also agreed that there was no need to demolish the compound wall around the temple if they were permitted to worship in the shrine. With the caste Hindus agreeing to allot land near the police outpost to construct a bus shelter, the Dalits dropped the demand for building it in the temple premises. The caste Hindus accepted the Dalits' demands to broaden the new pathway by removing the obstructions and withdraw a case filed by the Pillais in the civil court objecting to the demolition of the old wall. With a view to ensuring lasting peace in the village, both sides also agreed to withdraw the criminal complaints lodged against each other (Accord in Uthapuram, Frontline, November 18, 2011).

The order also refers to another important development that took place close on the heels of the agreement: Dalits were allowed to enter the temple and make their offerings after 22 years, on November 10, 2011. The court described the event as another Vaikom at Uthapuram. (The reference is to the successful satyagraha at Vaikom, in the then Travancore state, in 1924-25 demanding freedom for all sections of society, including the untouchables, to use the public roads leading to the Siva temple there.)

The court gave two weeks' time to issue orders to implement all the demands agreed to in the accord signed by the two communities, besides monitoring its enforcement.

On the withdrawal of criminal cases pending against both the groups, the court said that early steps would be taken to recommend to the government for issuing appropriate orders for withdrawal of various crime numbers after complying with all legal requirements under the provisions of the CrPC. A decision shall be taken within eight weeks from the date of receipt of copy of this order....

The court has placed on record the untiring efforts of the Superintendent of Police, Madurai, Mr Asra Garg, IPS, in not only helping this court from arriving at a proper solution of the dispute, but also for brokering peace between the two warring groups. It has also made it clear that the Superintendent of Police shall be responsible for implementing the agreement.

Referring to the demands on payment of compensation to the victims, the court ruled that the offences committed on Dalits attract Section 3 of the SC and ST (PoA) Act and Rule 12 (4), which provides for grant of relief. As the amount of compensation had been revised by the Centre through a gazette notification on December 23, 2011, and as both the sides had reached an accord on the major social issues, besides agreeing to withdraw the criminal cases, the court advised the district administration to disburse the enhanced compensation within 12 weeks.

Welcoming the judgment, AIDWA leader Ponnuthai said it would go a long way in finding a lasting solution to the vexed issue. S.P. Murugesan, one of the signatories to the agreement and a leader of the Pillai community, stressed that the services of the police and the district administration were necessary to guard against people who would try to scuttle the implementation of the accord.

The work on the bus shelter would pave the way for strengthening the harmony between the two communities, the CPI(M) and the TNUEF have opined.