Social issues

In the name of tradition

Print edition : May 27, 2016

Thayamma and other Dalit women who were fined for entering the Basaveshwara temple in Sigaranahalli narrating the events to Manjula Manasa, president of the Karnataka State Women Commission, in September 2015. Photo: Prakash Hassan

Dalits at the Basaveshwara temple in Sigaranahalli village on April 24. Photo: Sathish G.T.

Dalits at the Basaveshwara temple in Sigaranahalli village on April 24. Photo: Sathish G.T.

Discrimination against Dalits thrives in Karnataka as mainstream political parties continue to frame the issue of Dalits’ entry into temples or other public spaces in terms of “tradition” and “custom” instead of basic rights.

ON April 24, as the result of an eight-month-long struggle of the Holeya community (a Scheduled Caste) of Sigaranahalli village in Hassan district, Karnataka, Thayamma and her neighbours of the Dalit “colony” in the village walked into the Basaveshwara temple.

For the past eight months, the Dalits of the village had been demanding entry into the temple and the local community hall, which was built with public funds but named Vokkaliga Samudaya Bhavan in order to appease members of the upper caste. “Like Vokkaligas, we were also born in this village. Basaveshwara is a local deity for us as he is for them,” said Thayamma, a former gram panchayat member. She was among the four Dalit women who bore the brunt of the upper-caste anger for daring to visit the temple on August 31, 2015. They were part of a women’s self-help group (SHG) that visited the temple after a meeting of the group. The leaders of the village, who are from the dominant caste, imposed a fine on the SHG and asked it to pay for the “purification” of the temple.

This was not the first time Dalits of this village were forced to pay a penalty. Their struggle to seek entry into the community hall, a public space, dates back to December 2001. Vijay Kumar, 36, a journalist and a native of the village, narrated the events that followed the death of Dasappa, an aged Dalit, on December 11, 2001. The 11th day ceremonies, which mark a closure to the period of grieving in many communities in India, was conducted in the community hall that had been constructed a few months earlier. Following tradition, non-vegetarian food was served at the event, which was also attended by two young Vokkaliga men, to the surprise of the Dalits.

Vijay Kumar told Frontline: “Outraged by the participation of upper-caste youths in the ceremony, their leaders imposed a fine of Rs.250 each on the four Dalits who served food to the two boys. Besides, the leaders prohibited Dalits from organising any event in the local community hall. A few days later the name of the building was changed.”

Sigaranahalli, a village of 330 households, is just two kilometres away from the native village (Haradanahalli) of H.D. Deve Gowda, national president of the Janata Dal (Secular) and former Prime Minister. There are just 30 Holeya families in this predominantly Vokkaliga village. All the Dalits are farmers with small holdings of less than five acres (one acre is 0.4 hectare). “All these years, we remained silent in the face of the atrocities heaped on us, but how long should we continue to suffer?” asked Raju, 35, of Sigaranahalli. He said: “Since we raised our voices against the penalty imposed on our women, we have been subjected to social boycott. Our children are not given chocolates in the shops run by upper-caste people. To upper-caste folk this may appear silly, but for us the indignities imposed on our children are a serious matter. Dalits have to go to the neighbouring villages for their basic needs because of the boycott.”

The Hassan district administration has attempted to enforce the Dalits’ constitutionally guaranteed rights. It held several meetings on the issue, and its officials even escorted a few Dalits to the Basaveshwara temple on September 8, 2015. But this was met with protests from the Vokkaligas, who initially stopped visiting the temple and then conducted rituals to “clean” it in the run-up to the Durga Parameshwari Jatra beginning on April 1.

Vijay Kumar and others submitted a memorandum to the district administration seeking entry into the temple during the annual fair. As senior officers reached the village on April 1 to escort Dalits to the temple, violence broke out. Several policemen, the Superintendent of Police and senior officials of the Revenue Department suffered injuries.

Arakere village in Arasikere taluk was also in the news recently for a similar reason. Dalit families in the village had, for many years, been kept out of the Kariyamma temple, which comes under the State government’s Muzrai Department. Kiran Kumar, 30, who has a postgraduate degree, and a few of his friends demanded that Dalits be taken into the temple and allowed to participate in the Kariyamma Jatra, the temple’s annual fair that was to begin on April 1 this year, like upper-caste people. Following the request, officials escorted Dalits to the temple. However, the upper-caste people of the village cancelled the event to prevent Dalit participation in it.

“The government’s role is to ensure protection of the constitutionally guaranteed rights of the people. The authorities and people’s representatives hardly make an attempt to ensure this. Instead, in the name of restoring peace, they only pay attention to the dominant sections. That is what happened in Sigaranahalli too,” said Dharmesh, Hassan district secretary of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions and a pro-Dalit activist.

The Dalits of Sigaranahalli who participated in a meeting in Hassan on April 13 wanted District In-charge Minister A. Manju and others to escort them to the Basaveshwara temple and the community hall, before taking part in the Ambedkar anniversary celebrations, scheduled for the next day. Neither the Minister nor the Deputy Commissioner paid any heed to this plea. “Peace should prevail in the village first. Taking you into a temple is not a Herculean task if there is harmony. We will take you to the temple once the upper-caste people are convinced,” the Minister told the Dalits.

First step

He assured them that the issue would be resolved by April 20. Member of the Legislative Council M.A. Gopalaswamy visited the village and held talks with people of both communities. As the first step, the name Vokkaliga Samudaya Bhavan on the community hall was painted over in the presence of the police on April 20, and three days later the hall was given a new name board with the words “Samudaya Bhavan”, indicating that it did not belong to any particular community. Dalits gained some confidence in the district administration because of this. Superintendent of Police of Hassan R.K. Shahapurwad, Assistant Commissioner E. Vijaya and others worked out a plan to resolve the issue by taking the temple into the custody of the district administration.

Officials of the Revenue Department walked into the temple on the evening of April 23 and announced that they were taking the temple into their custody. They invited five village residents, including two Dalits, for the mahajar, the official process wherein evidentiary material is collected in the presence of witnesses. The officials seized the valuables belonging to the temple and announced that the temple would be open to all from the next day.

Raju, one of the Dalits who was a witness to the mahajar, said: “We were told that an official from the Hariharapur gram panchayat would keep the doors open between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. and from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. every day. Anybody can visit the temple.” The next day around 35 people from the Dalit colony visited the temple. The upper castes have since kept themselves away from the temple. No one from the Vokkaliga families has visited it.

Disturbingly, the people’s representatives from the area have openly sided with the dominant community, which has alienated the Dalits. “We are being represented by a former Prime Minister in the Lok Sabha. His son [H.D.] Revanna represents us in the State Assembly. Both are senior politicians with considerable influence among the Vokkaligas,” Vijay Kumar said.

Even as the Dalits entered the temple on April 24, Deve Gowda said at a press conference in Hassan that he was deeply hurt by the developments in Sigaranahalli. He found fault with those demanding entry into the temple, the District In-charge Minister and officials of the district administration. He did not spare newspapers that carried reports on the issue either.

Deve Gowda’s stand on the issue of Dalits seeking entry into the temple was known as early as November 3, 2015. Addressing newly elected gram panchayat members, Deve Gowda dubbed the Dalits’ demand “a non-issue”. “There are some customs in some temples whereby only people of a particular community are allowed inside. If we go to Tirupati, do they allow us inside the sanctum sanctorum? Forget us, even certain sections of Brahmins are not allowed to enter the Sringeri temple. Now, Dalits of Sigaranahalli want to enter the sanctum sanctorum of the temple. Should we discuss all these things?” he asked.

The Dalits, however, say, the issue has never been one of their being allowed entry into the sanctum sanctorum; they want access to the temple just like everybody else in the village. “Revanna is an MLA for all the people in the constituency, but he has openly sided with the upper castes on this issue,” alleged Thayamma.

Twenty-nine people of the upper caste were sent to judicial custody after the recent clashes. On April 4, Revanna and other Janata Dal (Secular) activists staged a protest in front of the Deputy Commissioner’s office in Hassan opposing the arrests. Revanna maintained that a few people, including Vijay Kumar, were behind the incidents in the village. “People of the upper caste and Dalits have been living in harmony in my constituency. There were no differences all these years,” said Revanna. He alleged that clashes broke out only after Vijay Kumar submitted a memorandum to the district administration seeking unfettered access to the temple. “I cannot intervene on matters of traditions and customs followed by a certain section of people. The tradition should not be altered,” he remarked.

The Bharatiya Janata Party, whose Hindutva ideology supposedly espouses a pan-Hindu identity, has been noticeably silent on the issue. The party, which has only a feeble presence in the district, has not organised any protests against the denial of basic rights to Dalits.

Across the State, upper castes have restricted the entry of Dalits into temples. Wherever Dalits have protested, they have faced opposition and physical assaults. Three young men were murdered at Badanavalu in Nanjangud taluk of Mysuru on March 25, 1993, for demanding entry into the renovated Siddeshwara temple. Similarly, Kemparaju, a Dalit in Mandya district, was assaulted after he entered the Chowdeshwari temple in March 2012. Similar incidents were reported from Gani village in Bagalkot district in April 2014, where two Dalits were severely beaten up for entering the Hanumantha temple.

Some Dalits are of the view that instead of fighting for the right to enter temples the community should reject temples because they are unequal spaces. However, Dharmesh does not agree. “A temple is a public place. The issue is of the right to access a public place, not just about Dalits attaining moksha [salvation] by visiting a temple. When any person or even a dog can enter the temple, why must Dalits be prevented from doing so?” he asked.

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