Dalit fury over upper caste opposition to their participating in temple festivals and hold rath yatras is threatening to become a conflagration that will engulf caste prejudice in South India
The word juggernaut is inspired by Lord Jagannath. The rath of the Jagannath Yatra is the most celebrated of India’s chariots of the gods. The Dalit juggernaut has begun to roll across rural South India. In its path, violent clashes over Dalits’ right to worship and participate in temple festivals are escalating. In Tamil Nadu, these have led to gutted villages, cancelled rath yatras and threats of conversion to Islam inflaming the situation. A survey by a Madurai-based NGO revealed that in the 213 villages it polled, Dalits were discriminated against on temple worship in 12. During the recently concluded Krishna Pushkaram, the Kumbh mela of the South—a 12-day Krishna festival, which occurs once every 12 years in Andhra Pradesh and is attended by millions—Dalit pilgrims were denied access to bathrooms. Upper caste pilgrims refused to share toilets with them. Even sanitation workers reportedly abused them. “How can you expect us to clean toilets used by Dalits? Go to some open place and relieve yourselves,” they were quoted telling Dalits.
Cow vigilantism has vitiated the atmosphere. Like in Una, Gujarat, where Dalits were accused of cow slaughter, stripped and beaten up by self-styled gau rakshaks, in Andhra Pradesh’s Amalapuram, two Dalit brothers were thrashed for skinning a dead cow. Beef-phobic Bajrang Dal activists in Chikmagaluru, Karnataka, attacked a Dalit family.
Dalits of South India are simmering over such incidents. In the tiny hamlet of Sannapuram in Tiruvarur district of Tamil Nadu, the annual rath yatra is a source of tension between Dalits and upper caste Hindus. Peace parleys were held last year after a series of nasty confrontations. However, last week the temple car of Vada Badrakaliamman Temple was stopped from entering Dalit areas. Violence erupted, and the car was seized as the festival was suspended.
Such bloody caste confrontations would have been unthinkable a few decades ago. Growing assertiveness is leading to Dalits standing their ground. The ground zero is Tamil Nadu. Neighbouring Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh do not lag behind in this dismal balance sheet, laying bare the remnants of old fault lines. Last year, upper castes stayed away from Basaveshwara Temple in Sigaranahalli, Karnataka, after Dalits were allowed to enter and pray. Four Dalit women had been fined earlier for entering the temple. East Godavari district of Andhra Pradesh became the Una of the South last month after four Dalits were accused by ‘gauboys’ of killing a cow and assaulted.
In the last decade, upper castes in Kalkeri village in Tamil Nadu’s Krishnagiri had taken denial of temple entry to a new level. After Dalits acquired the legal right to worship in the two temple villages, the dominant community built a new temple. One fine night, the idols from the old temple were stolen and taken to the new one where the Dalits are kept out.
POSTCARDS OF PREJUDICE
Temples are today’s openly-contested social spaces since Dalits vocally claim their right to sacred space, demanding a participating role in festivals. Barely two weeks ago, a 200-strong upper caste mob swept down on the Dalit neighbourhood in Seshasamudram in Tamil Nadu, armed with crowbars, stones and petrol bombs. Ironically, it was Independence Day. Caste Hindus had wanted to stop the temple car of Dalits from passing through the village. From terrace tops, the attackers rained down beer bottles filled with petrol, burning down the rath. These attacks are part of a chain of violence against the dispossessed. In July 2011 in Tiruchy, Dalits had demanded permission for a holy procession that led through the streets where upper caste Hindus lived. It was denied. In 2012, Dalits attending the kumbabishekam of the Muthalamman Temple in a village in Madurai were allowed only brief prayers, that too amidst tight police security. The idol was taken outside its alcove and kept near the temple entrance to allow Dalits to make offerings without entering the precincts. The priest was even reluctant to allow their offerings. Upper castes protested their participation. “Don’t adorn the deity with their garlands. My wife has pledged her jewellery to donate money for our community festival, so please don’t accept their offerings,” a caste Hindu man vociferated his disapproval.
The Muthalamman Temple festival is a vignette of hate. “When such is the case, it is simply impossible for us to visit the temple during normal days,” said Alageswari, a Dalit woman.
“We have equal rights over the temple. Till 1989, we used to visit the peepal tree near the temple to worship,” the Dalits of the village pointed out. In the 90s, the upper castes erected a wall near the tree to prevent Dalits from visiting
it the temple because the upper castes conducted a special pooja, claiming Dalits had spoiled the temple’s sanctity by entering the premises.
The escalating caste tension is attributed to the insecurity of upper castes over the growing economic and social empowerment of Dalits, who are entering the workplace and prestigious medical and engineering colleges. Here, too, they face discrimination. Says
P Ramajayam, Centre for Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy, Bharathidasan University: “These struggles should be seen as democratic interventions towards making the cultural domain as an inclusive one, beginning from the religious sphere. They are indicative of the deeply felt angst to wriggle out of the stigma of being a Dalit. After Panchayati Raj, which decentralised power, MGNREGS has greatly reduced the Dalits’ dependence on dominant castes by playing a role in wage hikes. These have contributed to the newfound Dalit assertion.”
X Irudayaraj, District Secretary of the Tamil Nadu Untouchability Eradication Front, who led the movement in Kalkeri, says educated Dalit youths are stressing equality at the village level. “They get educated in the cities owing to the benefits of reservation. When they return, they are unable to bear the status quo that prevails at the ground level,” he says. Youth wing leaders of Dalit parties, which have managed to mobilise their caste members in huge numbers, lead many protests.
Former MLA and member of the Dalit outfit Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) D Ravi Kumar says the issue of temple entry is only a manifestation of a deep-rooted bias institutionalised at the village level. “Most temples are privately managed and are not under government control. Their management is usually vested with the dominant caste,” he says.
It’s not only just places of worship, but all common properties at the village level remain almost unaccessible to Dalits, who are often landless farm hands wholly dependent on upper caste land owners for livelihood.
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The journey to equality is long, and not over. It was freedom fighter Vaidyanatha Iyer, a Brahmin, who unfurled the flag of caste revolution in the South by leading four Dalits into the famed Meenakshi Amman Temple in Madurai on July 8, 1939. This led to the ending of the ancient practice that banned lower castes from temple precincts through a new law. Mahatma Gandhi prayed at the temple only after Dalits were allowed in. The subsequent emergence of Dravidian politics in the late 20s, which flowered in the 60s, changed the caste narrative in Tamil politics, making the right to temple worship a highly inflammatory in politically aware South India. The Left parties, which see the Dalitscape as a fertile political ground, are the traditional champions of the community. The Right parties are uneasy about the blowback from caste violence. Dalits of Pazhang Kallimedu and Karur, both in Tamil Nadu, threatened to convert to Islam en masse after being denied the right to participate in temple festivals last month.
The radical Wahabist Touheed Jamaat leaped in and distributed copies of the Koran. State BJP president Tamilisai Soundararajan visited Pazhang Kallimedu to defuse the situation. Dalits claim they built the temple using government funds and public donations. They also administer temple affairs. Upper caste Hindus claim they helped construct the temple, but do not participate in the annual festival. The stalemate continues as they oppose Dalit’s entry.
“The threat to convert to Islam has not been withdrawn. Our steps are measured,” says N Senthil, a local functionary of VCK. Not surprisingly, talks often fail to resolve the issue, leaving them in cold storage. “More often, what officialese refers to as ‘talks’ are in reality pressure to maintain the status quo,” says historian Professor A R Venkatachalapathy.
In 1997, Pallars of the Sivaganga district in Tamil Nadu had staked their claim to participate in the Swarna Mutheeswarar Temple festival. The court’s direction to the state to ensure their full participation was of no avail. From 2005 to 2014, more petitions were filed to enforce the rights of Dalits to pull the temple car and participate fully in the festival. Ultimately, under the pretext of repairs, the car procession has been grounded.
At the Shenbhagavalli-Poovananthar Temple in Kovilpatti, the 11-day annual festival was suspended in 1996 after violent caste clashes ended in bloodshed. In Seshasamudram, the entry issue erupted after Dalits were not allowed to pull the temple car despite assurances during the campaign for local body polls.
TILTING SOCIAL EQUATIONS
Why are temple stirs resurfacing at frequent intervals despite stalemates continuing in most places? “Religion is very important for the masses and is an integral part of their identity. While dominant castes gain legitimacy for their hegemony from dominance over temples, Dalits are driven by the urge to become social equals. Social power and status in a village milieu is intertwined with temples,” explains psychologist TMN Deepak. The dominant castes desire to retain the old order that gave them supremacy and security. Ramajayam emphasises the role money power plays in temple politics. “Temples, with their vast resources, are not merely places of worship. For example, the Vedanayagi Amman Temple in Vedaranyam near Pazhang Kallimedu in Tamil Nadu has nearly 8,000 acres of land. Government takeover of temples has not altered the control of dominant castes over their assets,” adds Deepak.
Temple stirs erupt in Karnataka with renewed vigour. Since last year, the state had been witnessing strong protests demanding equal access to temples in Arakere and Sigaranahalli in Hassan district and Biligere near Mysuru. At Sigaranahalli, 2 km from former Prime Minister H D Deve Gowda’s native Hardanahalli, the dominant Vokkaligas have preferred to cancel the temple festival over yielding to Dalit demand for participation.
IN GOD’S NAME
The modern Dalit parable is evocative of the agony of the Shaiivite Tamil saint Nandanar, worshipped by all castes in Tamil Nadu. A Dalit, he was banned from visiting any temple. Nandanar’s devotion to Lord Shiva was such that he constantly wept, pleading to be given a glimpse of the Shiva deity at Chidambaram Temple. His prayers unheeded, the disconsolate saint left Chidambaram for Nagapattinam, where he found that the deity was not visible from outside the temple as Nandi’s statue blocked the view. Legend says Nandanar then prayed to Shiva, and Nandi moved from its place, affording him a view of Shivalokanathar. The Dalits of today are also claiming their right to escape the darkness of age-old prejudice in worship. They are not stepping back in their effort to be illuminated by the lamplight of change.