Dalits continue to be kept out of the car festival in Kandadevi, a village in southern Tamil Nadu, despite judicial directives.S. VISWANATHAN in Kandadevi
A SIGNIFICANT judicial intervention on June 17 generated hopes among Dalits in and around Kandadevi in Tamil Nadu's Sivaganga district that their seven-year-long struggle to regain the right to pull a temple car along with caste Hindus would finally succeed. However, their hopes were short-lived, mainly owing to the reluctance of the executive to implement the court direction in letter and spirit.
Dalits living in about 200 villages around Kandadevi participated, along with caste Hindus, in the Kandadevi car festival until 1979, when some Dalits were murdered during a temple festival at the nearby Chinna Unjanai. Since then Dalits stayed away from the Kandadevi festival. In 1997, when a Dalit youth participated in the festival at the invitation of a friend belonging to the Kallar community he was assaulted by caste Hindu devotees. Dr. K. Krishnasamy, founder-president of the Puthiya Tamizhagam, a Dalit party, went to court to assert the Dalits' right to participate in the festival and seek protection for them. Although the Madras High Court and the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Administration Department of the Tamil Nadu government, came out in favour of the Dalits, they could not participate in the festival. They were kept out the following years. The government saw the tension arising out of the anti-Dalit discrimination mainly as a law and order problem despite the Dalits' repeated demands for participation - a demand backed by Dalit organisations and Left parties. Last year, after peace meetings involving select Dalit leaders, there was token participation by about 10 Dalits chosen by the peace committee.
This year, Krishnasamy filed a petition requesting protection and justice to Dalits and Communist Party of India (Marxist) State secretary N. Varadarajan impleaded himself in the hearing through a writ petition. On June 17, a High Court Bench issued important and unequivocal directions to the Sivaganga district administration. Chief Justice Markandeya Katju and Justice F.M. Ibrahim Kalifulla said the denial of the right to participate in the pulling of temple car was a "clear violation of Article 21 of the Constitution". They observed that clear instructions on the full participation of Dalits were given by a Division Bench of the court in July 1998 and the Commissioner of the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Administration Department in June 1999 and asked the District Collector to enforce the orders "in letter and spirit". The Judges made it clear that the Collector would be personally held responsible "if the order we are passing today is not complied with".
They directed the Collector "to act fairly to all castes and communities, and ensure that everyone is given equal respect in the car festival and even otherwise". When informed about what happened in 2004, the Judges said that this time round it would not be "token participation".
A day before the temple festival scheduled for June 21, Varadarajan met Collector Anand Patil and requested him to ensure the implementation of the order. He later told mediapersons that the Collector had agreed to implement the directions.
DURING the run-up to the June 21 festival there was "unprecedented" police mobilisation in the district. Devakottai and its surrounding villages, including Kandadevi, were under a security cover. Reports said that over 2,500 police personnel led by J.K. Tripathi, Inspector-General of Police, were deployed close to the temple. One Deputy Inspector-General of Police, five Superintendents of Police, 14 Additional Deputy Superintendents of Police and 32 Deputy Superintendents of Police were deployed for the "protection" duty. When the day dawned, it became clear that the police mobilisation had a different purpose. Activists and leaders of Dalit political organisations, including Krishnasamy and Dalit Panthers of India leader Thol. Thirumavalavan, and others, including Congress leader Kumari Anandan, Communist Party of India legislator Rajendran, and advocate P.V. Bhaktavatchalam, were arrested as a "preventive" measure. Some human rights activists, who were on their way to Kandadevi as members of a team of observers, too were arrested.
Newspaper reports said that the car-pulling event, the climax of the nine-day festival, began around 2-15 p.m. and concluded in about 45 minutes. Usually the event lasts about three hours. According to the original schedule, the festival was to begin at 3-30 p.m. However, wall posters issued in the name of the Collector on the morning of the car festival proclaimed 2 p.m. as the starting time. Although the official explanation was that the programme had to be advanced because of raagu kaalam (inauspicious time), observers said the real reason was different. On the day of the festival, as soon as reports of the large-scale arrests of Dalits and their leaders became public, two affidavits were filed, one by Varadarajan and the other by advocate B.S. Ajeetha, in the High Court drawing the court's attention to the arrests, raids on Dalit homes in several villages and the prevention of Dalits from participating in the pulling of the car. Counsels for the two petitioners, R. Vaigai and K. Chandru, informed the court of the developments. The Judges posted the hearing of the petitions in the afternoon. The advancing of the time and the hurried conclusion of the function, observers say, have to be seen in this context. Even before the court could complete hearing, everything was over.
Soon after the car festival came to an end, the Collector was quoted by newspapers as saying: "As per the High Court directive, the car-pulling festival was conducted. Hindus, irrespective of castes and including Dalits, took part in the event." Apparently, there has been no official indication of the size of the Dalit participation in the event. Only 26 Dalits, all handpicked by Kandadevi panchayat president Kesava Mani, an activist of the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), participated.
Five days after the festival, Dalits in several villages, including Chinna Unjanai, Unjanai Chilaian Kudiyiruppu, Murukkuvayal, Maalaiyittanvayal and a Dalit colony close to the Kandadevi temple, were angry that they had been prevented from participating. They hoisted black flags atop their houses as a mark of protest. People in the villages said that this year they were confident that they could participate in the event, thanks to "the firm stand taken by the court and its severe warning to the district administration against disobeying its directions".
K. Karuppiah (49) of Chinna Unjanai said that on the eve of the festival, plainclothesmen visited the village and tried to dissuade Dalits from participating in it. The next morning, on hearing that their leaders were being arrested, men in the village went underground. Women, however, started walking towards Kandadevi. They were stopped and taken to Karaikudi, where they were confined to a wedding hall. They were released only in the evening after the festival was over. V. Kaliammal said that Dalits alone were taken away along with their children, but caste Hindu Nattars were allowed to go to Kandadevi in large numbers. "We and our children were kept at the wedding hall were not even provided any food until evening. We were prevented from participating in the temple car festival. After the festival was over, we were taken in a police vehicle to the places from where we were picked up in the forenoon, and not to our villages. At the Karaikudi wedding hall we saw about 800 persons, including about 150 from our village."
When the Dalit men of the village moved towards Kandadevi, police personnel warned them of the declaration of prohibitory orders under Section 144 of the CrPC. But, unlike in previous years, there was no public announcement of its promulgation. "Nobody knows whether there was really a prohibitory order," said a youth. Dalits in a couple of other neighbouring villages raised similar complaints.
Dalits in a colony close to the temple complained that barricades were erected near their houses and they were prevented from participating in the pulling of the car.
Reacting to the developments, Krishnasamy said: "It is now clear that the State which had hitherto been only indifferent to, or sometimes abetting, the practice of untouchability, has itself committed this constitutionally banned crime." CPI(M) district secretary M. Arjunan said the court should take serious note of the violation of its directives.