Tense past

Published : Jul 15, 2005 00:00 IST

THE dispute over Dalits' participation in the annual car festival (held in the Tamil month of Aani corresponding to June-July) of Sri Swarnamoorthi Eswarar temple at Kandadevi has been repeatedly brought before the Madras High Court over the past seven years (Frontline, August 15, 2003). The festival draws huge crowds of Dalits and caste Hindus from about 200 villages around Devakottai. The "heads" (ambalams) of four "nadus" (comprising Nattars, belonging to the predominant Kallar caste) in the district - Unjanai, Thennaai, Eravuseri and Semponmari, all small villages - have been strongly opposing Dalits' participation in the pulling of the temple car. In 1979 four Dalits were killed at Chinna Unjanai in `Unjanai Nadu' following a dispute during a village festival. After the incident, Dalits in the entire region stopped participating in the Kandadevi car festival. In 1997, the alleged assault on a Dalit youth for having participated in the programme provoked Dalits into reasserting their rights. Krishnasamy, who was then a member of the State Assembly, filed a writ petition in the High Court seeking enforcement of Article 17 of the Constitution to facilitate Dalit participation in the festival. The High Court directed the government on July 6, 1998, a day before the festival, "to ensure and take appropriate steps, which are according to the situation, and in the interest of the administration to avoid an explosive situation on the spot and at the same time ensure that peace-loving citizens are able to participate in the rituals in a peaceful manner".

Armed with this direction, Dalits gathered in large numbers near the temple. To their dismay, the district administration issued prohibitory orders under Section 144 (2) of the CrPC on the grounds that an "explosive" situation was developing "because of the large-scale mobilisation of people by both the parties within and from outside the district". As a result, the programme was abandoned, but not before the rituals involving the Nattars were held. Dalits organised protest demonstrations.

In 1999, the Commissioner, Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Administration Department, heard an appeal from the heads of the four nadus, as directed by the High Court. The Commissioner ruled that "before the main festival of car procession starts, during the preliminary rituals, conferment of honours like pattu, parivattam, malai (garlanding) and so on, shall be done" to the four nadu heads. "After the preliminary rituals are over and when the car procession per se starts, all Hindus, irrespective of caste, community or creed, shall be entitled to partake in pulling the car," the Commissioner added.

On the festival day, amid tension caused by large police presence, the Nattars refused to accept "customary" honours and the temple management announced that the pulling of the car was abandoned "with a view to protect(ing) lives and to maintain(ing) peace". Under similar circumstances, the pulling of the car was abandoned in 2000 and 2001. In 2002, the AIADMK government, in its eagerness to score a point over the previous Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam government which could not ensure the pulling of the car, succeeded in getting the car pulled by large crowds of caste Hindus. They, it was alleged, prevented Dalits from participating in the programme.

In 2003, Nattars outwitted Dalits who had gathered in large numbers well before the scheduled time. They adopted a different strategy this time: after receiving temple honours, they trooped out to protest the "partiality" of the district administration. The caste Hindus allegedly shouted slogans against the District Collector and the Superintendent of Police, who were seen as more "friendly" to Dalits. The Collector, in fact, lodged a complaint with the police that a group of Nattar youth used intimidating language against him and some Nattar women threatened to commit suicide. The intimidation, he stated, led to the cancellation of the car-pulling. The Collector and some other district-level officials were transferred within a week.

In 2004, even when the district administration was engaged in talks with the disputant parties, the programme was completed, with the token participation of a few Dalits led by the president of the Kandadevi panchayat, which is reserved for Dalits.

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