In the early part of the 20th century, there were movements that spearheaded Dalits’ temple entry in Tamil Nadu. Yet, most of them were confined to well-known shrines in urban centres, such as the famed Meenakshi Amman Temple in Madurai, the gates of which were opened to the ‘untouchables’ in as early as 1936. Sadly enough, the state has quite a large number of temples in the interior villages, which are still out of bounds for Dalits. Coming to circa 2016, Dalits are no more interested in just gaining entry and worshipping. Their struggle has taken a new trajectory with a clamour for full participation and a due share in the power to administer the assets and festivities.
Each year, the issue continues to crop up at a few places, and in some, this results in violence. Unless there is a major flare-up, the media too tends to ignore them. Even if there is no violence, the state goes for the easy option of banning temple festivals under the pretext of maintaining law and order rather than upholding the rights of the marginalised. This, despite High Court orders calling upon the state to ensure equality in places of worship.
Contrary to the progressive image that Tamil Nadu has for an outsider, the stark reality is that caste discrimination goes on unabated. This is more pronounced in the conduct of festivals at temples, which remain the fiefdoms of the dominant OBC communities.
Unlike their precursor, the Justice Party or the Congress of the past, the Dravidian parties have never undertaken any temple entry stir. Mainstream parties—except the CPI(M)—no more talk about this for fear of antagonising the dominant OBC castes. Worse, functionaries of major Dravidian parties are in the forefront of resistance to Dalits. As such, these struggles are in essence against the hegemony of the OBCs, who have vastly entrenched themselves in the power structures under the Dravidian rule. Indeed, it is ironic that those who have fought against Brahmin domination over temporal as well as sacred spheres are now turning the other way. Even those who welcome the Dalit assertion in Gujarat in the wake of the Una incident prefer to keep a studied silence back home.
Though the dominant castes have been administering the local temples, legends and folk narratives talk about Dalits having had legitimate rights and participation. “Yaanai yerum perum paraiyan... (the great paraiah mounted on elephant),” associated with the Thiagaraja Swamy Temple in Tiruvarur, would show that Dalits too were accorded a dignified space.
As it is indicative of the emotional connect they had with temples, their struggle remains one of reclaiming their cultural rights in domains where they are debarred in the name of local tradition. For, this fulfils the longing of a Dalit as a citizen with equal rights where he was born and not in the anonymous urban milieu. Further, this comes from the earning to retrieve and sport the identities so far denied to them and quench their psychological thirst for dignity.