Print edition : April 08, 2011

At Koozhaiyanur village in Theni district, a Dalit man points to the place where his brother, S. Raju, was buried in his own field after caste Hindus refused access to the common burial ground. - K. GANESAN

In Tamil Nadu, untouchability is so deep-rooted that there are separate burial spaces for Dalits and upper castes even in some urban pockets.

Samarasam ulavum idame

Nam vaazhvil kaanaa Samarasam ulavum idame Jaathiyil melor enrum Thaaznthavar keezhor enrum bethamillathu Ellorum mudivil serndhidum kaadu Thollai inriye thoongidum veedu Ulaginile ithuthaan Nam vaazhvil kaanaa

Samarasam ulavum idame (Here, in this place pervades equality

Which one could not have seen ever in one's lifetime!

Steering clear of caste discriminations Such as the high, the low and the lowliest, Everyone is destined To reach this ground finally And everyone rests in this abode Free of all trouble)

THIS popular Tamil film song of yesteryear has been quoted by judges of the Madras High Court in the orders they passed in two cases, one in 2008 and the other in 2009, in which they stressed the need to provide common burial and cremation grounds and put an end to caste discrimination, which continues to haunt people, particularly the depressed classes, even after death. The judges pointed out that the song describes beautifully the philosophy of the graveyard as the only place where equality prevails in every sense.

Over one crore Dalits in Tamil Nadu would vehemently disagree with this sentiment. For them, finding space for their dead in the common burial/cremation ground continues to be a dream. Though Article 17 of the Constitution abolishes all forms of untouchability, the reality is otherwise even when it comes to burying the dead. In hundreds of villages and hamlets across the State, Dalits are not only denied access to the common burial/cremation ground but not even provided separate areas. In several places that do have separate graveyards for Dalits, the dominant castes do not allow them to carry the bodies through the main streets on the pretext of maintaining the purity of their habitations.

Incredibly enough, this has been the situation for the last several decades in a State that is considered progressive and has been hailed as the citadel of the Dravidian reformist movement! Successive governments have made the boastful claim that they offer cradle to grave or womb to tomb services to all citizens.

Issues relating to discrimination against Dalits at graveyards once again came into focus when A. Chinnayi, a 55-year-old Dalit woman of Koozhaiyanur village in Theni district, died of burns she suffered in a petrol bomb attack on her thatched-roof dwelling allegedly by a group of caste Hindus. She died in a Madurai hospital and was buried in the city itself because of the tension prevailing in her village.

The attack, which took place on January 27, was the culmination of a month-long dispute over access to the burial ground on the banks of the Mullai Periyar canal in the village. On January 2, Dalits and caste Hindus in the village clashed over the burial of an elderly person, S. Raju. The police registered a case and arrested 13 Dalits and four caste Hindus. Fearing attacks from the dominant communities, the relatives of the dead man decided to bury the body in their farmland in the village. The role of revenue and police officials on the issue of common burial/cremation grounds added a twist to the issue of Dalits' right to bury their dead in the common graveyard. When officials convened peace meetings on December 22, 2010, and January 31, 2011, Dalits were hopeful of something positive emerging from them. But the meetings ended up strengthening the hands of the dominant community. The resolutions adopted at the meetings asked Dalits not to bury or cremate their dead in the common graveyard. The authorities also heaped humiliation on them by offering to set up a separate cremation shed and burial ground for them at a desolate tamarind grove in the village.

The major political parties have kept away from the sensitive issue fearing a dent in their vote banks at a time when Assembly elections are round the corner.

Dalits have been left with no option but to stomach the insults. Chinnayi's son, A. Raja, and his children have sought asylum in the residence of their relatives. On the basis of his complaint, the police have registered a case under different sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and Sections 3(1)(10) and 3(2)(5) of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. They also arrested four caste Hindus in the case.

Surveys

Various surveys conducted by the Tamil Nadu Untouchability Eradication Front (TNUEF) and non-governmental organisations (NGOs), including the Madurai-based Evidence, show the prevalence of such discrimination across the State, even in several urban pockets.

P. Sampath, convener of the TNUEF, claimed that problems relating to burial and burning grounds existed in more than 75 per cent of the 30,000-odd villages and hamlets in the State and asked the government to take steps to set up electric crematoriums or gasifiers in urban areas and common burial grounds in rural areas.

According to A. Kathir, executive director of Evidence, the NGO carried out a study in January and February on different forms of atrocities against Dalits in 213 villages spread over 12 districts Madurai, Dindigul, Virudhunagar, Sivagangai, Thanjavur, Nagapattinam, Salem, Namakkal, Cuddalore, Villupuram, Coimbatore and Tirupur.

He said the survey revealed that in 208 villages, Dalits had been discriminated against on the issue of burial/cremation. Separate graveyards existed for Dalits and caste Hindus in these villages. In 153 villages, the oppressed communities were not allowed to carry their dead through streets where members of the dominant castes lived. In 132 villages, burial/cremation grounds of caste Hindus were well equipped, whereas the graveyards of Dalits did not have even basic facilities such as water, electricity and a cremation shed.

At Cherumittampalayam Village in Namakkal district, memorial stones in the burial ground of Arunthathiyars.-E. LAKSHMI NARAYANAN

Sirivella Prasad, convener of the National Coalition for Strengthening S.Cs and S.Ts (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, said such discrimination would attract Section 3 of the Act. He called upon the government to ensure the implementation of the relevant laws and to take up an effective awareness campaign.

Feedback obtained from a cross section of Dalits in various villages brought to light different dimensions of the issue, among them the lack of political will in the government, indifference of revenue and police officials, half-hearted measures to empower the oppressed people, indifference of major political parties to the problem, and threats from the real estate business. The dominant communities that deny Dalits access to common burial/cremation grounds do not hesitate to utilise their services for digging graves and cremating the bodies of their dead.

Interaction with people of many villages also brought to light the fact that the authorities had failed to ensure the implementation of Section 116 (1) of the Tamil Nadu Panchayats Act, 1994. It lays down that panchayats have to maintain common burial grounds and burning grounds irrespective of caste, creed and religion. Dalit panchayat presidents in many villages are voiceless and will not dare the dominant communities, and the authorities too do not step in to enforce the provision.

At Nattarpatti in Korakudi panchayat in Madurai district, the Dalit panchayat president, T. Ramuthai, a farm worker, has been sidelined by caste Hindus out to scuttle any move to have a common graveyard. The details painted on the compound wall of the burial/cremation ground, authorised by Ramuthai, show that Rs.2.5 lakh was spent in 2009-10 on improving facilities at the ground under the Anaithu Grama Anna Marumalarchi Thittam (AGAMT), a development scheme named after the late Chief Minister C.N. Annadurai. Ironically, even Ramuthai or other Dalits in the village cannot bury or cremate their dead in that ground; they have been allotted space for the purpose exclusively on the roadside. It was in a pit there that Ramuthai buried her mother-in-law a few years ago.

All her efforts to get a site for a proper graveyard for Dalits have gone in vain so far. Said Ramuthai: Actually, I wanted to raise the issue with the District Collector, but I was persuaded not to.

Activists say the discrimination against Dalits even in death is of a piece with the marginalisation of the oppressed since feudal times. They cite Pudukottai, the former princely state and now a district, as a typical example of such marginalisation. The district with a population of 14.59 lakh has around three lakh farm workers, including more than two lakh Dalits.

According to M. Chinnadurai, vice-president of the TNUEF, the age-old kudi parayan system, a form of bonded labour, still exists in some parts of Pudukottai district, including villages in Karambakkudi block. Under it, Dalit farm workers have to perform menial jobs for land owners, who are from the dominant communities. In several other villages, including Sooranviduthi, Vaanjanviduthi and Dakshinapuram, Dalits are assigned the task of beating the drum and digging graves. It is not uncommon for Dalits who refuse to comply to be denied work and be subjected to a social boycott by the dominant castes.

In Pudukottai itself, Dalits are denied access to the common graveyard at Nandanvayal in Tirukkattalai panchayat on the outskirts of the town and in Gandhi Nagar in the town.

The dominant communities move heaven and earth to ensure that Dalits do not use common burial/cremation grounds, but if they fail and a Dalit's body is buried or cremated there, they shun the place. A case in point is the cremation ground at Sukkiranviduthi hamlet in Theethaanviduthi panchayat (Pudukottai district), where a Dalit's body was cremated a couple of years ago. Following this, caste Hindus decided not to use the ground, which was constructed in 2006-07 at an estimated cost of Rs.1.60 lakh. Now the place is grown over with bushes, says M. Udayappan, former chairman of the Karambakkudi panchayat union.

In several districts, including Madurai, Thanjavur and Pudukottai, there are separate graveyards for different communities not only in rural but also in urban and semi-urban areas. Kappalur village in Madurai district presents an extreme example with 14 cremation/burial grounds for its 14 different castes and sub-sects, including Piramalai Kallar, Naidu, Nadar, Pillaimar, Asari, Pandaram, Arunthathiyar, Adi Dravidar and Devendrakula Vellalar. There is a samathuva mayanam (common graveyard) at Kappalur. Dalits are scared to use it, says M. Thangaraj, district convener of the TNUEF.

In major towns and district headquarters where common burial grounds exist, each community is earmarked space to bury its dead. In Madurai district, the municipalities of Usilampatti, Melur and Tirumangalam have separate graveyards as do the town panchayats of Othakadai, Sholavandan, Ezhumalai and Tirupparankundram. At Ponmeni in Madurai city, separate burial grounds have been provided by the civic body for seven castes.

In Avarampalayam within the Coimbatore municipal corporation limit, Arunthathiyars bury their dead in a separate place close to the Sanganur drainage canal, said K. Ayyasamy, a foundry worker residing in the area.

In many villages, graveyards used by caste Hindus are located close to Dalit habitations. When caste Hindus cremate bodies, the smoke and odour emanating from the graveyard engulfs our colony, says Kavitha Siva, a resident of Marudur in Tiruchi district. Dalits here also find it difficult to cross a canal, particularly during the monsoons, to reach the burial ground earmarked for their dead. Our repeated pleas to the authorities to construct a culvert at this point have not evoked any response, said A. Senthilkumar, another resident.

Absence of easy access to burial grounds is another problem that Dalits face, one that often leads to friction with caste Hindus. Dalits of Keezhapacheri village have to cross a jungle stream, balancing the body in neck-deep water, to reach the cremation ground located on the other side, said C. Jagadeesan, a resident.

At Arasankudi village in Tiruverumbur taluk in Tiruchi district, every time Dalits cross paddy fields carrying the funeral bier, damage is caused to the standing crop. They feel sorry for it, but the dominant castes do not allow their funeral procession on the main thoroughfare, says M. Jayaseelan, a functionary of the TNUEF.

A handpump provided under the Anaithu Grama Anna Marumalarchi Thittam at M. Duraisamypuram village in Virudhunagar district announces the place to be a burial ground for Dalits. The line mentioning the caste name was erased when the illegality of such separation was pointed out in the media.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

The plight of Arunthathiyars, particularly in the three western districts, Coimbatore, Tirupur and Erode, is still worse. They form around 90 per cent of the Dalit population in these districts, says M. Thangavel, founder of Vizhuthugal, an Avinashi-based NGO. Almost all of them are landless farmhands or workers in the unorganised sector. As their long-standing demand for space in the common graveyard is still to be accepted, they bury or cremate their dead on the banks of dry ponds or canals and on wasteland and roadside pits, as is the case in Athiyappagoundanpudur village in Coimbatore district. At these sites, too, the dominant communities have stopped them from digging more than two or three pits in the burial sites along the roadside or on the tank bunds, says Thangavel. In as many as 3,000 villages and hamlets in all the three districts, Arunthathiyars face a problem with graveyards, and the authorities have not intervened so far to ensure a decent burial to their dead, he adds.

In Vadugapalayam village in Coimbatore district, persons belonging to the dominant caste have put up a barbed-wire fence around the 40-odd houses of Arunthathiyars. As they have been denied access to the government wasteland in the vicinity, they have to take a circuitous route to reach the pit where they bury their dead. We have been pleading with the authorities to permit us to bury the bodies of our kin in the common burial ground, but nothing has moved so far, says R. Chinnarayalu, an elderly farm worker and resident of the place.

Encroachment

Another major issue that Dalits have had to encounter is encroachment of their cremation/burial grounds in several villages. Encroachment is increasing because of a booming real estate business, says S. Thirunavukkarasu, national vice-president of the All India Agricultural Workers' Union.

As many as 128 families of Arunthathiyars residing at Cherumittampalayam in Tiruchengode taluk, Namakkal district, have used a piece of land measuring 1.36 acres (1 acre is 0.4 hectares) as their burial/cremation ground for the past several years. They have even put up a temple for their community deity at the site. The village revenue records also describe the land as Arunthathiyar mayanam. As the ground lies near the main road, some persons of the dominant caste encroached upon a part of the land recently by altering the land records, claims Thirunavukkarasu. The union has demanded immediate action to clear the encroachment and restore the land to the Arunthathiyars, he says.

The story of the Arunthathiyars of Chinnarpalayam is no different. They have demanded the restoration to them of 2.36 acres of land on the Salem-Erode highway, which they used as a burial ground.

In Tuticorin, Dalits residing at Sorispuram near the Collectorate complex have launched a series of struggles for the redemption of the burial ground they have used for the past seven decades. In places like Periagoundapuram village panchayat in Salem district and Periakappankulam village in Cuddalore district, land-grabbing has forced Dalits to bury the dead either in the backyard of their houses or close to their houses.

Denial

Official sources denied the charge that the government was insensitive to the problem. Section 116 of the Tamil Nadu Panchayats Act provides for a common burial and burning ground. The government has held that the maintenance of burial and burning grounds is a basic duty of the local bodies. It also grants incentives at the rate of Rs.1 lakh for panchayats that have common burial grounds, official sources point out.

Under the AGAMT scheme, a total of 18,720 works relating to burial/burning grounds have been completed in the five years from 2006-07 to 2010-11 covering all the 12,618 village panchayats. Under the scheme, graveyards have been improved with approach roads, compound walls, cremation sheds, water facilities and lighting, they say. However, the policy note of the Home, Prohibition and Excise Department for 2010-11 presented by Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi admits that in 2010, as many as 174 villages were identified as atrocity-prone and simmering disputes prevail in connection with land use and use of certain pathways among other things.

Activists question the government's wisdom in providing facilities at the segregated graveyards while implementing schemes such as the AGAMT. One of the three handpumps put up at M. Duraisamypuram village in Virudhunagar district in 2009-10 as part of the scheme bore the caste name of Dalits, and the rest were earmarked for other castes. When the issue was exposed in the media, the government took corrective steps, say activists.

The Madras High Court has also flayed the discriminatory practices adopted by different communities in respect of graveyards. Delivering a judgment in a burial ground-related case on September 2, 2008, Justice K. Chandru directed the Corporation of Madurai to end the practice of allotting separate cremation yards on the basis of communities or castes. He also asked the civic body to maintain a common cremation shed depending upon the requirements in a particular area. At least in the departure from this world there can be unity so that apartheid may not be practised by the official acts of the Corporation. The Corporation must make note of such a direction in future and desist from allotting such separate [cremation] sheds on caste basis, he said.

The order also said that even though the Corporation Act made it obligatory for the civic administration to provide public cremation grounds, it does not mean that it should be vivisected on the basis of community-wise or caste-wise.

On March 6, 2009, the High Court gave another significant verdict on a writ petition filed by P. Rathinam, an advocate. The petition sought action against the district officials concerned in Tiruchi for their abuse of power and their deliberate violations of Article 17 of the Constitution and Section 3(1)(XIV) and Section 4 of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, and such other penal provisions of appropriate enactment. The officials had turned a blind eye when Dalits were not permitted to use the cremation-cum-graveyard constructed under the government's AGAMT because of the caste feeling prevailing in the [Tirumalayanpatti] village.

The High Court Bench comprising Justices P.K. Misra and M. Jaichandran said in its order:

It is no doubt true that unfortunately, even though about 60 years have elapsed after the passing of the Constitution, the practice of untouchability has not been completely abolished. The need of the hour is to educate the people so that the pernicious practice would be abolished sooner [rather] than later and all efforts should be made to eradicate any such forbidden practice wherever it raises its ugly head directly or even indirectly.

In this context, it is unfortunate to notice that even after death, there is some perception regarding segregation, it added.

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