Print edition : November 20, 2009
in Chettipulam

Statue of Mahatma Gandhi on the compound wall of the Ekambareswarar temple in Chettipulam.-

Untouchability is a crime against God and man. Untouchability is a hydra-headed monster. Untouchability, I hold, is a sin, if Bhagavad Gita is one of our divine books.

Mahatma Gandhi

THE Ekambareswarar temple at Chettipulam in Nagapattinam district, Tamil Nadu, presents an irony. Casteist forces in the village have all along denied Dalits their constitutional right to enter the shrine and offer worship there. And, a statue of Mahatma Gandhi reading the Gita sits on the southern compound wall of the temple as a witness to all this.

However, the Dalits determination to assert their right and the uncompromising stand of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Tamil Nadu Untouchability Eradication Front (TNUEF) on the issue resulted in the Collector and other top officials of the district administration leading the oppressed sections into the shrine under tight police security on October 27, close on the heels of the peace talks held with representatives of different communities.

Interestingly, the temple entry programme coincided with a massive rally held in Chennai on the same day by the TNUEF and several Dalit organisations with the backing of the CPI(M). The issues highlighted at the rally related to the denial of access to the oppressed people at the places of worship and other public places such as burial grounds, and discriminatory practices they face at tea stalls and haircutting saloons. Leaders who addressed the meeting reiterated their commitment to the cause.

The rally, among other things, demanded the appointment of a commission headed by a High Court judge to recommend a time-bound programme for the socio-economic uplift of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes in the State. It called for steps to raise the percentage of reservation for Dalits from 18 to 19 per cent, clear the backlog of vacancies in the S.C./S.T. category, redistribute surplus lands to Dalits, retrieve the panchami lands belonging to Dalits, curb manual scavenging, ensure entry of Dalits into temples and extend internal reservation benefits for all sub-sects of the Arunthathiar community.

But the path that led the Dalits into the Siva temple was not strewn with roses. Unprecedented violence was witnessed on October 14. It was aimed not only at Dalits who tried to fulfil their long-felt desire to enter the temple but also at the revenue and police officials who tried to implement the decision of a peace committee meeting on October 8 held at the initiative of the district administration.

The TNUEF and the CPI(M), which have led the temple entry struggle at Chettipulam and other places in the State, had made it clear that they would not compromise on the issue. They set October 30 as the deadline for the district administration to find an amicable solution to the issue. Dalits would be helped to enter the temple on November 2 if the administration failed to fulfil its constitutional responsibility, they stated. When Frontline visited Chettipulam, the village wore a deserted look. The majority of the caste-Hindu men, particularly those who were directly involved in the violence, had gone into hiding, and Dalit farm workers were away in neighbouring villages to eke out a living. Most of the shops had downed their shutters. Daily pujas seldom took place at the 80-year-old Siva temple. Police pickets were set up at different places.

Nagapattinam Collector C. Munianathan offering prayers along with Dalits at the Ekambareswarar temple.-PICTURES: M. MOORTHY

Recalling the circumstances under which the temple entry agitation was launched in the village, Nagai Maali, district convener of the TNUEF, and A.V. Murugaiyan, district secretary of the CPI(M), said a survey conducted in 36 panchayats in Vedaranyam block in November 2008 had revealed that discriminatory practices against Dalits existed in several villages. Chettipulam was only the tip of the iceberg. At Marudur (South), Vanduvancheri, Ayakkaranpulam, Kadinavayal, Panchanathikulam Naduchethi, Kodiyakarai and Pushpavanam, and many other villages, Dalits were denied access to temples, the survey found out.

According to the survey, in 15 villages, washermen and hairdressers turned away Dalit customers. In 10 villages, Dalits were forced to do menial jobs such as removing carcasses. Dalits were not allowed to use public ponds or bury their dead at the common burial grounds, they were denied a path to Dalit burial grounds, they were discriminated against with the two-glass system at tea stalls, Dalit children were humiliated in schools, Dalit staff members were insulted at noon-meal centres and Dalit women were sexually assaulted in several villages. In many villages, the survey found that the police were either reluctant to book cases relating to atrocities against Dalits or took no action even after registering cases.

After the findings of the survey were released, a special conference was held at Vedaranyam on January 31. It passed resolutions seeking the intervention of the district administration to end the social and economic oppression, increase employment opportunities for Dalits and provide financial assistance to them.

In the absence of any worthwhile response from the administration, the CPI(M) and the TNUEF decided to focus on the Chettipulam temple issue and highlighted it in their State-wide agitation, held on September 30, against acts of caste-based discrimination, the TNUEF convener P. Sampath said. The agitation coincided with the death anniversary of B. Srinivasa Rao, the doyen of the kisan movement in the State. Srinivasa Rao had led many a heroic battle against feudalism and atrocities against Dalits since the 1940s.

The agitation at Chettipulam assumed significance as the kisan and Left movements were not as strong in the tail end of the Cauvery delta region as they were in the rest of east Thanjavur, CPI(M) Central Committee member G. Ramakrishnan said.

V. Duraimanickam, the general secretary of the Tamil Nadu Vivasayigal Sangam, recalled the powerful struggles launched by the kisan and Left movements in east Thanjavur against the onslaught of feudalism and the brutal punishment erring farmhands were subjected to, which included savukkadi (flogging) and saanipal (forced drinking of cow dung mixed in water). These brutalities came to an end through a tripartite agreement in 1942. Another landmark achievement of these movements was the enactment of the Fair Wages Act for east Thanjavur in 1970, enabling farm workers to get wages beyond what was prescribed under the Minimum Wages Act. However, the inhuman treatment of Dalits continued for several years in Vedaranyam taluk, he pointed out.

Chettipulam has a population of around 7,000, including 600 Dalits. The village is only 40 km away from Keezhavenmani, where 44 Dalit farm workers were torched on December 25, 1968, by landlords for demanding a paltry wage hike. Even today, almost all Dalits of Chettipulam are either agricultural workers or manual labourers. These landless people have to rely on the caste-Hindu farmers for their livelihood. Some of them migrate to far-off places in search of jobs.

The entire village once belonged to the family of Vadapathimangalam Thiagaraja Mudaliar. Settlements between 1965 and 1975 enabled the caste-Hindu tenants to bring most of the lands under their control. Ironically, the erstwhile tenants wanted the Dalit workers to be subservient to them.

Enquiries with the local people revealed that though casteism had blurred the political lines to some extent, politics of one-upmanship adopted by the non-Left parties, particularly the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and the Congress, in the area had complicated the issue.

Maheshwar Dayal, Superintendent of Police, Nagapattinam, with police personnel outside the temple at Chettipulam.-

When Dalits were about to reach the Siva temple on September 30, caste Hindus, mostly belonging to the most backward Vanniyar, Mutharayar, Thevar, Konar and Nadar communities, gathered in strength under the leadership of the local panchayat president, A. Manimaran of the DMK, and vice-chairman of the panchayat union S. Sivaprakasam of the Congress, to block them from entering it. They locked the shrine. Even as the CPI(M) activists threatened to break the lock, the authorities clamped Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure and sealed the lock. Around 300 activists belonging to the CPI(M) and the TNUEF were arrested.

The Revenue Divisional Officer (RDO) ordered that the seal be opened only after persons belonging to all castes were allowed to enter the temple. However, the caste Hindus violated the ban and removed the lock on October 1 on the pretext of enabling devotees to offer worship on pradosham (the 13th day of the waning or waxing of the moon) when special pujas are offered to Siva. Both Manimaran and Sivaprakasam claimed that they only removed the seal, said Kovai Subramanian, Vedaranyam block committee secretary of the CPI(M). The police and revenue authorities were shocked at the high-handedness of the casteist forces. Condemning the unlawful act, the CPI(M) and the TNUEF announced that they would revive the temple entry agitation on October 22.

As events took a new turn, the district administration convened a peace committee meeting on October 8 of officials and representatives of Dalits and caste Hindus. It was decided that the RDO, along with the legislators of Vedaranyam and Nagapattinam, S.K. Vedarathinam (DMK) and V. Marimuthu (CPI(M)) respectively, would lead Dalits to the temple on October 14. The authorities also warned that action would be taken under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, if entry into the temple was obstructed.

But the local AIADMK leaders, including former panchayat president M. Santosham, were not prepared to allow the DMK and the Congress to gain political mileage out of the situation. At a meeting on October 13, they decided to ensure that the temple entry programme became a non-event. As part of their plan, the Village Administrative Officer was asked to go on leave on health grounds.

Roadblocks using wooden logs and cement pipes were put up by casteist elements along the 1.5-kilometre path leading to the temple. They also laid down several conditions; some of these were that Marimuthu and Dalits from other villages must keep away from the village and only a token entry by a small group of Dalits should be sought. Although the authorities fulfilled all these, caste Hindus unleashed violence. They did not spare even the RDO and the Deputy Superintendent of Police. They stoned the police van carrying 15 Dalits, including 10 women, into the temple, and attacked the victims with sticks and soda-water bottles. The police opened fire in the air to scare away the mob.

According to police sources, cases have been booked against 315 persons under various sections of the Indian Penal Code, including Sections 147 (punishment for rioting), 148 (rioting, armed with deadly weapons), 324 (violently causing hurt by dangerous weapons or means), 332 (voluntarily causing hurt to deter public servants from performing duty) and 341 (punishment for wrongful restraint). Cases have also been registered under Section 3 (1) (xiv) of the S.Cs and S.Ts (PoA) Act, 1989 (denial of customary rights of passage) and Section 3 (1) of the Prevention of Damage to Public Property Act, 1984 (mischief causing damage to public property). A total of 34 persons were arrested until October 23. The kingpins of the violence were yet to be arrested.

Birla Thangadurai, an activist of the Republican Party of India (RPI) and a resident of Chettipulam, said although he and his supporters had been keeping themselves away from the temple entry struggle, they had now decided to support the CPI(M) initiative. Apart from denying entry into temples, Dalits were forced to do meanial jobs, he said. It is unfortunate that many of our parties talk about the welfare of Sri Lankan Tamils, totally ignoring the plight of the Adi Tamils of our land, he said.

S. Vanitha, who was among the persons taken to the temple in the police van, said caste Hindus blocked the van and attacked them from all sides. The van driver was also injured. The caste-Hindu men were armed with stones, crowbars, sticks and soda-water bottles while their women carried broomsticks, she added. Dalit women were prevented from offering worship at the temple and their archana plates were thrown away, she alleged.

The TNUEF and the CPI(M) staged a protest demonstration in Nagapattinam on October 20 condemning the violence in Chettipulam and demanding that the government take necessary steps to ensure Dalits entry into the Ekambareswarar temple.

District Collector C. Munianathan has a different perspective on the issue. According to him, the severity of untouchability has come down owing to various schemes and projects implemented by the government and also because of the growing awareness among Dalits, particularly the youth. Dalits dependence on landowners has become minimal mainly because of the implementation of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, although problems persist, he opines.

Caste discrimination is not peculiar to Chettipulam and other villages in Vedaranyam block. It was officially admitted a few years ago that discriminatory practices against Dalits prevailed in 7,000 villages in the State. It was against this backdrop that the CPI(M) intensified its struggle against different forms of untouchability, on the grounds that caste oppression was inseparably intertwined with class oppression. Through these struggles, it sought the governments effective intervention to redress their long-standing grievances.

Members of the CPI(M) protesting at the Nagapattinam bus stand on October 20, demanding action to enable Dalits to worship at the temple.-

As part of this struggle, protest programmes were held at eight places in seven districts Nagapattinam, Dindigul, Tiruvannamalai, Villupuram, Perambalur, Virudhunagar and Coimbatore on September 30 to assert Dalits rights.

At Kangiyanur in Villupuram district, activists of the CPI(M) and the TNUEF, including legislator G. Latha and general secretary of the Tamil Nadu Vivasayigal Sangam K. Balakrishnan, were injured when police lathi-charged them to foil an attempt to ensure that Dalits of that village entered the Draupathiamman temple. Over 100 persons were arrested and remanded to custody. The police repression evoked widespread condemnation.

Another issue that has caused concern is the States not-so-impressive performance relating to the implementation of the Protection of Civil Rights Act and the S.Cs and S.Ts (PoA) Act. According to A. Kathir, executive director of Evidence, a Madurai-based non-governmental organisation, from 2004 to 2008 a total of 5,741 cases were registered under the S.Cs and S.Ts (PoA) Act but only 5 to 7 per cent of them ended in conviction. On several occasions, the police had shown reluctance to book cases relating to crimes against Dalits under this Act, he alleged.

Although the government and the ruling DMK viewed the protest programmes as an attempt to disrupt law and order, the CPI(M) and the TNUEF have stepped up their campaign against social and class oppression. CPI(M) legislators observed a dawn-to-dusk fast in Chennai on October 22 protesting against the police action in Kangiyanur and the high-handedness of the casteist forces at Chettipulam.

Condemning the attitude of the DMK and the AIADMK on this vital issue, Sampath said successive governments headed by the two parties had failed to find a lasting solution to the problems of Dalits. There are over one crore Dalits in Tamil Nadu, who outnumber the entire population of Tamils in Sri Lanka. While fighting for the islands Tamils, we should pay due attention to the problems of the oppressed people in the State, he said.

The hostility shown by caste Hindus to the temple entry agitation by keeping away from the shrine on October 27 has led to a lot of scepticism about the efficacy of the compromise evolved by the officials. The district administration hopes that normality can be restored after arresting the kingpins of the violence. But one thing is clear: the Dalits of Chettipulam are not prepared to give up their hard-won right.

It is strange and unjust that we have hitherto been denied access to this temple, though the fact remains that the manual transportation of granite stones for its construction was the result of the sweat and labour of our forefathers, a Dalit lamented.

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