I AM delighted that my many-year-old desire has been fulfilled today. This is how Mahatma Gandhi wrote in the visitors book shortly after offering worship at the Meenakshi-Sundareswarar temple in Madurai, Tamil Nadu, along with Dalits and members of certain other excluded communities on February 4, 1946.
Speaking at a rally in Palani soon afterwards, he said worship of Gods image would serve no good unless people cleansed their hearts of hardness against fellow beings. God should be enshrined not in images but in human hearts. He said he worshipped the deities at the Madurai temple because that shrine was now open to Dalits. At the temple, he said he realised a new spiritual significance worship in the temples must mean change of heart towards Dalits.
Historians recall that Gandhi was reluctant to enter the shrine during all his four previous visits to Madurai in 1919, 1921, 1927 and 1934 because Dalits were denied entry. This was not the case when he visited Madurai for the fifth and final time. Thanks to the movement launched by progressive and democratic forces under the leadership of A. Vaidhyanatha Iyer, a Gandhian and freedom fighter, Dalits were allowed entry into the Meenakshi temple on July 8, 1939.
More than six decades have rolled by since Gandhis visit to the Madurai temple and 70 years have passed since the success of the temple entry struggle that preceded it. Ahead of these two significant events, the Vaikom satyagraha in Kerala, aimed at securing freedom of movement for all sections of society along the roads leading to the Mahadeva temple, was spearheaded by Periyar E.V. Ramasamy in 1924. In spite of these campaigns, discrimination against Dalits at places of worship continues in different forms to this day.
The issue has come to the fore and found its echo in the State Assembly and other public fora in the wake of the temple entry campaign launched by the Tamil Nadu Untouchability Eradication Front (TNUEF) headed by P. Sampath, State Secretariat member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist).
Sampath said denial of temple entry to Dalits should be seen as part of the social oppression that was intertwined with class oppression as 90 per cent of Dalits were working people. He accused the government of not taking firm steps to end caste oppression and defend the democratic rights of the oppressed. Whenever Dalits attempted to assert their rights, the government tried to treat their resurgence as a law and order issue. He also expressed dismay at the attitude of certain Dalit outfits that did not want to join hands with the Left and democratic forces in their fight to protect the rights of Dalits.
A recent report released by Evidence, a Madurai-based non-governmental organisation, based on a survey has highlighted the discrimination against Dalits at places of worship in five southern districts Madurai, Tirunelveli, Virudhunagar, Sivaganga and Dindigul.
The survey was conducted in April-May in 85 panchayats having a total population of 4,46,366, including 1,56,756 Dalits. It brought to light different types of discriminatory practices at 200 temples out of a total of 658 that are not under the purview of the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowment (HR & CE) Department.
Dalits have been denied entry into 121 temples. In 128 temples they do not have access to the sanctum sanctorum. They are not permitted to perform pujas at 106 shrines. Temple cars skip Dalit colonies at 174 places. Dalits are allowed to enter the places of worship only during specific hours fixed for them in 103 cases. In 86 temples, the honour of tying parivattam (a cloth tied around the head) has been denied to Dalits.
According to the survey, in 49 panchayats Dalits have not been allowed to touch the rope of the temple car; bias persists in the distribution of prasadam at 110 temples; they are debarred from using chairs in 96 places of worship; discrimination is shown to them by priests in 115 places of worship; they are not allowed to touch the wooden peetam (seat) of the idol in 40 shrines; and at 114 places they are not allowed to participate in the festivals connected to temples or churches. In 51 temples, Dalits cannot perform rituals in fulfilment of a vow. Their movement is temporarily restricted during festivals in 13 villages, the survey claims.
Bias prevails in some form or the other in temples situated in 17 panchayats although tax is collected from Dalits. Atrocities are committed against them in 49 panchayats during temple festivals or at the time of performing rituals. Reports from the majority of the panchayats speak of humiliation of Dalits by calling out their caste names, hurling abuses at women, and causing physical injuries.
A visit to some of the villages where discriminatory practices are adopted showed that the status quoists and conservatives are determined to thwart Dalit assertiveness and ensure that their socio-cultural aspirations are suppressed.
Interaction with the local people revealed that in villages where Dalits own land, they have withstood the onslaught of the forces that want to perpetuate feudal ideas and practices in the socio-cultural arena. In some other areas where landless Dalits have to depend on caste-Hindu landholders for their livelihood, their response is muted.
However, the overall impression one gathered is that Dalits, more particularly the youth, by and large want to continue the organised response witnessed in the 1990s in a different form. The intervention of the Left, democratic and progressive forces to help Dalits to achieve their aspirations with regard to temple entry, equal treatment at places of worship and an end to discrimination against them at tea stalls, haircutting saloons and public water sources has provided a clear political orientation to their struggle. In many places they do not want to be carried away by fancy ideas such as Dalit exclusivism.
Panthapuli village in Sankarankovil taluk in Tirunelveli district provides a striking instance of Dalits determination to fight for a legitimate share of power and public space with particular reference to places of worship. Caste Hindus had been keeping away from the Kannanallur Mariamman temple in the village ever since Dalits entered it on December 24, 2008. The district administration came forward to allow Dalits entry into the temple a week after 379 activists of the CPI(M) courted arrest demanding the implementation of a munsif court order in this regard.
G. Nagarajan, an activist of the Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI), said that for the past several years there was a dispute between Dalits and caste Hindus over the issue of entry into the temple. In 2000, a compromise formula was evolved by Dalits, according to which both sides would perform puja in alternate weeks. It was not acceptable to the caste Hindus. Several rounds of peace meetings did not yield any positive result. So Dalits continued to offer worship from outside the temple.
After a local court allowed them entry into the temple, Dalits started preparing for puja on September 23, 2008. But the priest who kept the temple key left the village. Although the officials promised to arrange for entry into the temple on September 29, Dalits could not do so as caste Hindus went in appeal to the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court.
Inaction on the issue led to untoward incidents such as stone throwing in the village. The situation reached a flashpoint with Dalits leaving the village and settling on the hillock at Karichattan hamlet close on the heels of the violence during Deepavali last year. Alleging that the issue was politicised, caste Hindus also moved over to a hillock at Yettiserry on December 12, 2008. The authorities had a tough time persuading both the sections to return to the village. Police pickets were posted in the village.
Caste Hindus boycotted the Lok Sabha elections and even said they would resume worship at the shrine only after the High Court gave its verdict. Most of us are peasants. At no point of time we have gone to them seeking their help for survival. It is unfair on their part to deny us entry into the temple as we have made contributions to the construction of the shrines compound wall. Now we have appointed a Dalit to perform puja, said I. Chelliah, (72), a Dalit farmer.
U. Muthupandian, taluk secretary of the CPI(M), said worst forms of discrimination against Dalits persisted in Kuruvikulam block. Until recently, tea was served to them in banana leaf cups at Marudankinaru, Sayamalaivalasai and other villages. Now, as a compromise, tea stall owners have started using disposable plastic cups, he pointed out.
The residents of Paavali in Virudhunagar district have their own tale of woe. The gates of the Kannimar alias Kamatchi Amman temple in the village have remained locked for some years now. For generations, people belonging to different castes offered prayers at the temple. The key of the temple used to be in the possession of a Dalit.
Following a dispute raised by persons belonging to the Uravugollavar Reddiar community residing at Vilathikulam in neighbouring Thoothukudi district, the revenue authorities denied all the communities entry to the temple in 2003. The orders were withdrawn in February 2004. The High Court, in its order on February 18, 2004, closed the writ petition on the grounds that the temple was open for public worship.
The Uravugollavar Reddiars went in appeal against the HR & CE Departments move to bring the temple under its purview. Taking advantage of the situation, the Reddiars locked the temple, denying the local people most of whom are Dalits an opportunity to offer worship. They were irked by the Dalits opposition to their move to sell the temple land, said M. Muthukumar, a local resident and taluk secretary of the CPI(M). According to him, the village was known for communal harmony. The unity dates back to the period of the East India Company. We have heard from our elders that the local people did not oblige the alien rulers who sought their help to capture the rebel Poligar of Panchalamkurichi, Kattabomman, and his associates. Even today, in our village, you can see the copper plate installed on a granite pillar after the hanging of Kattabomman in 1799. It carries the proclamation issued by Major Bannerman to all the poligars [administrative and military chiefs] notifying the commands of the East India Company government, he said.
The TNUEF launched a temple entry programme on October 5, 2007. The police and the revenue authorities prevented the activists from entering the temple, said K. Samuel Raj, district convener of the front, adding that Dalits did not want to take over the management of the temple but only wanted to assert their right to worship.
In several villages, caste Hindus construct temples on government poromboke (unassessed) land with the help of Dalits and on completion of the work, they raised the ownership issue, he said, adding that the TNUEFs temple entry campaign had been successful at three places: Chinnakamanpatti in Sattur taluk, Vellayapuram in Aruppukottai taluk and Pazhaya Sennalkulam in Srivilliputtur taluk. In Vellayapuram, caste Hindus had been boycotting the Narasimha Perumal temple after Dalits entered the shrine, he said.
Although Dalits had been engaged in cleaning up the temple tanks and adjacent areas, they were not allowed to use the water for bathing in many villages, including Kalloorani and Malaipatti, he alleged.
The situation was no better for Dalits who converted to Christianity at Anumanthanpatti village in Theni district. A young private schoolteacher said the converts were discriminated against. Dalit Christians were not admitted to societies run by other Christians who belonged to the Church of the Holy Spirit; the church car would not go anywhere near the Dalit colony; and Dalit Christians had a separate cemetery and an exclusive hearse, he said.
Justifying the treatment meted out to Dalits, a retired headmaster of a local school in Anumanthanpatti said, As Dalits belong to the labour class, they are not pious enough to deserve equal treatment.
Enquiries revealed that Dalits were not allowed to enter temples under the control of caste Hindus at Vannikonendal and Pillayarkulam in Tirunelveli district; Nakkalamuthanpatti in Thoothukudi district; and Melakuyilkudi, Soolapuram and Ullapatti in Madurai district.
T. Dharmaraj, director of the Dr B.R. Ambedkar Studies Centre at St. Xaviers College in Tirunelveli, said Dalit assertion had entered a new phase with issues being fought on political and ideological planes, eschewing murders and other forms of violence. The recent protests over the denial of entry into places of worship were a manifestation of the growing awareness among the younger generation of Dalits who have started discovering their cultural roots and reconstructing Dalit history.
The role played by the Folklore Department of the college in creating awareness through the Dalit Kalai Vizha (Dalit art festival) was significant just as the Kalai Iravu programmes of the CPI(M) had made an impact, he said.
Official records indicated that of the 1,545 cases registered in the State in 2008 under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, only 58 cases resulted in conviction.
Executive Director of Evidence A. Vincent Raj alias Kathir said the government should come forward to take stern action against those who adopted discriminatory practices against Dalits. He demanded a White Paper from the State government on the discrimination shown to Dalits at places of worship.