Peace is not the silence of the cemeteries.” Where oppression and discrimination exist, resistance too is bound to be there. Dalit assertion in Tamil Nadu takes place in various spheres, and temples are no exception. But, rather than seeing it as an irreconcilable conflict between competing communities, it should be seen as localised movements towards democratising the Tamil society.
These struggles assume significance as they bring to the fore the need for social democracy. Temples that deny entry to Dalits outnumber those under the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Department where demands for equality are put forth. The former are controlled not by Brahmins but by the intermediary castes. In the case of the latter, the problems arise when rights enjoyed are stopped abruptly under one pretext or the other. Take the case of Pazhang Kallimedu, where the temple was said to be in a Dalit locality before being shifted to the present site due to floods in the late 50s. Only after that Mandagapadi (sponsoring a day’s festivities) was denied to Dalits.
“Will men wear bangles? Why do you want to change tradition?” was a poser to Dalits by Nagapattinam District Collector S Palanisamy at the recent peace meet convened by the administration to resolve the issue. Though he regretted it later, it only reinforces the view that the state machinery is not willing to uphold the Constitutional rights of the underprivileged.
On the night of August 14, 2015, in Seshasamudram village in Villupuram district, Dalits were not allowed to take the temple car procession on the highway. The car was torched, houses in the Dalit colony were ransacked and over 40 people were injured. Women of the dominant Vanniyar community played a role in the attack. This comes after the 2012 violence and arson in Dharmapuri after a Dalit boy and a Vanniyar girl eloped and got married. It was a fallout of the vicious campaign of ‘love jihad’ orchestrated by the Vanniyar-dominant PMK against Dalits. PMK founder S Ramadoss even attempted to form an anti-Dalit alliance of dominant castes.
As far as Dalits threatening to convert to Islam is concerned, people believe that it could help them overcome discrimination. Conversion is no easy option. But then, mass conversions in the past have given a jolt to the establishment. We have witnessed it in Meenakshipuram in 1981. When 44 Dalits were burnt alive in Keezh Venmani in the Cauvery delta for demanding wage hike, no saffron leader visited the place. But Atal Bihari Vajpayee walked the extra mile to meet those in Meenakshipuram; so did many mutt heads and saffron leaders.
In Tamil Nadu, it is not cow slaughter but temple rights and inter-caste marriages that rattle the dominant castes. These prove to be a challenge to the identity and social power of the dominant OBCs. We recognise the struggles for temple rights and inter-caste marriages as progressive ones which are required to break the shackles of caste.
The writer is a former MP and president of Viduthalai Chirithaigal Katchi