The fall of a wall

Published : Jun 06, 2008 00:00 IST

The caste wall after the demolition of a part of it, at Uthapuram village in Madurai district.-S. JAMES

The caste wall after the demolition of a part of it, at Uthapuram village in Madurai district.-S. JAMES

The demolition of a portion of the caste wall at Uthapuram marks a milestone in the history of the Dalit liberation struggle.

THANKS to an effective and timely intervention by the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam-led Tamil Nadu government in response to appeals and protests by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), a section of the wall that segregated Dalits from the rest of the residents at Uthapuram in Madurai district was demolished on May 6. While the Dalits were delighted that the government had, at least partly, conceded their demand, the predominant caste-Hindu residents (Pillais) left the village en masse, apparently not able to bear the sight of the demolition even before it started. For three weeks, they stayed at the foot of a small hill three kilometres from the village before the district administration could persuade them to return.

The 30-metre wall, variously described as caste wall, wall of bias, wall of shame and wall of untouchability, which was raised by caste Hindus in 1989 following caste riots in the village, was brought to public notice in March this year by a study group of the Tamil Nadu Untouchability Eradication Front (TNUEF), which has undertaken a survey of the forms of untouchability practised in different parts of the State (Frontline, March 28 and May 9). P. Sampath, the State convenor of the front, who is also a member of the State Secretariat of the CPI(M), followed it up with petitions to the State government and the Madurai district administration in the last week of March demanding the demolition of the wall. The CPI(M) held demonstrations and meetings all over the State in support of the demand. Parties such as the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) and the Viduthalai Ciruthaigal Katchi (VCK) supported the demand.

The wall received wider public attention when The Hindu reported on April 17 that the wall was found to have been electrified with the help of a device to prevent Dalits from climbing over it into caste-Hindu areas. When the issue was raised in the State Assembly, the government announced that it had defused the device. The Dalits of Uthapuram and the surrounding villages thanked the government and staged a demonstration in front of the taluk office at Peraiyur demanding that the wall be pulled down.

The CPI(M) stepped up its campaign to get the wall removed. Its State Committee decided on April 29 to intensity the agitation against untouchability. Its State secretary, N. Varadarajan, told mediapersons that if the divisive wall was not removed by the government, his party would pull it down. He also announced that party general secretary Prakash Karat would visit Uthapuram on May 7 to express solidarity with the protesting Dalits.

Meanwhile, the government was discussing the issue at different levels. The district administration was asked to interact with the caste Hindus and the Dalits of the village. Representatives of the caste Hindus reportedly insisted that the wall was only meant to protect their own people and that it was built in 1989 on the basis of an agreement that was signed by both the caste groups.

When talks between the government and the caste Hindus failed to make headway, the situation became even more tense. On May 5, the caste Hindus from the village went to the taluk office at Peraiyur and surrendered their family cards in protest. In Chennai, Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi was engaged in consultations until late in the night. He took pains to ascertain whether the 1989 agreement between the Dalits and caste Hindus over the construction of the wall was valid, whether the caste Hindus concerned (Pillais or Vellalas) belong to a sect that believes in living inside a fort as they do in the southern district of Thoothukudi, whether there were any sentiments attached to the wall, and so on. The decision to demolish a portion of the wall so as to provide access to the Dalits at one end of the village is believed to have been taken late in the night.

On May 6, in the presence of a 100-strong police force, top officials of the district administration supervised the demolition. For the Dalits, it was a moment of great excitement.

The wall, apart from causing inconvenience, was an insult to their honour and dignity. Even before the operation began, however, the Pillais, numbering about 600, left for Thalaiyoothu, about 3 km from Uthapuram.

Welcoming the demolition, Varadarajan appreciated the governments decision to convene a meeting of the communities in order to create a congenial atmosphere for the removal of the wall. He wanted the government to allot a special fund for the economic development of the village.

Greeting the Dalits the next day at Uthapuram, Prakash Karat said, May 6 is a historic day for Uthapuram, Tamil Nadu and India as the wall of shame, which divided people for more than 18 years, and which symbolised caste oppression and discrimination, was razed down. This is the first step towards demolishing the wall completely. He also wanted the State government to make sure that Dalits had access to all public spaces and common property resources.

The situation again became tense when the caste Hindus who left the village did not respond to the District Collectors appeal to return soon so that all in the village can live in amity. When district officials met them, they made some demands: a patta for a temple where they have been worshipping for over 400 years; a permanent police outpost in the village; new houses for people whose homes were destroyed by Dalit anti-socials during the 1989 riots. On May 12, Puthiya Neethi Katchi president A.C. Shanmugam met them and reportedly promised to take up their demands with the Chief Minister. With a similar assurance from the District Collector, they returned to the village on May 13.

S.P. Murugesan, who heads the caste-Hindu group of the village, told Frontline at Thalaiyoothu on May 12 that his people left the village more out of fear than as a mark of protest. He said they felt insecure after the wall was pulled down.

Murugesan claimed that the Dalits in the village were now better off than they were in 1989 for most of them held government jobs or owned land. Indeed, the Dalits were on a buying spree, he said, and the Pillais feared that they might be forced to sell their properties to Dalits. It is this fear that is haunting my people, he said. An elderly person said the strong police presence in the village aggravated the Pillais fears.

Murugesan said that the wall was built not to reinforce untouchability but to protect caste Hindus. This was done on the basis of an agreement signed by representatives of both sides. The wall became necessary after violence against his people, he said. He said that there had been no major confrontation between the two social groups in the last 20 years and that there had been no need to file even a single FIR (first information report).

The Dalits of the village, however, do not accept this version. They insist that they have been at the receiving end of intolerance, rather than the other way around, and that this was true even in 1989. Most of the victims were from our side, said A.K. Ponniah (65), an ex-serviceman. Some caste Hindus, he said, behaved violently with Dalits even now and recalled how Dalits had to put up with verbal abuse while celebrating a temple festival. He added that Dalits, who are denied access to public places and facilities and are not allowed to sit down at bus shelters, face untouchability in many forms. He questioned the validity of the 1989 agreement, pointing out that there were only five signatories on behalf of the Dalits and 200 representing the other side.

Murugesan, denied that the caste-Hindu group practised untouchability. Indeed, we want them [Dalits] to visit our houses and chat and dine with us.

Sampath told Frontline that the government should try to create a situation that facilitates friendly relations between the Dalits and all other social groups and that the social, economic and democratic rights of the Dalits should be protected.

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