It was 5 am on Monday morning when 21-year-old Divya was informed of the devastation that had taken place merely 100 metres from her home in Mettupalayam. The resident of Nadur village in Coimbatore district rushed out of her home, after a night of heavy rains, to witness a terrifying sight.
Only rubble and stone was left of what had been three houses on Sunday night. And under this debris were five of her relatives, their bodies buried alive with 12 other residents, after a 20 foot wall collapsed on top of their homes.
Divya is part of the 300 Dalit families that live in Kannappan Nagar, several of whom lived in tiled houses. And while every monsoon brought with it the problem of leaking roofs and flooding, their real fear, she says, was the compound wall erected by a neighbour right behind the houses, eight years ago.
"I have been living here for 4 years since my marriage and my relatives have always complained about the instability of the wall and fear of it falling," she says, her voice choked with emotion. "The elders have all gone to the authorities multiple times to complain about this, but there has been no change. I thought they were just being unnecessarily worried and that nothing will happen but I was wrong," she laments.
Was it a caste wall?
As the initial shock over the loss of lives because of the wall's collapse wears off, members of Kannappan Nagar point out that the wall was a physical manifestation of the caste discrimination that actually killed the 17 Dalits residents.
The compound wall was built by the owner of the plot Sivasubramaniam, a textile shop owner, who raised its height from 8 feet to a looming 20 feet despite protests from the Dalit community. Moreover, it was made of basalt rock or Karungal and sources in the Municipality tell TNM that the structure did not have the requisite approvals.
50-year-old Murugesh who lost 4 members of his family due to the collapse says, "All the people who died are Dalits. We are the ones who have suffered because of this wall. What was the need to build such a tall wall? Even a central prison won't have such a big structure."
Residents allege that the wall’s height was increased because the owner did not want any Dalits to gain access into his grounds.
"We are from a Scheduled community and barely have money to make ends meet. So they believe that we will jump across their compound and steal their belongings," says Nandakumar, another Dalit resident. "That is why they have built such a large compound wall," he adds.
Political parties that represent oppressed communities and anti-caste activists from the state have termed the structure responsible for the tragedy a 'caste wall'. In Tamil Nadu, caste walls were traditionally built to keep Dalits out of caste Hindu temples and to deprive them of access to roads, pathways and essential services.
"The front portion of Sivasubramaniam's house does not have such a tall wall. It is only in the back where the Dalits live, that he chose to construct such a tall wall, despite their protests. This is an example of Untouchability," says I Pandiyan, from Witness, an anti-discrimination NGO.
"Section 8 of the Prevention of Atrocities against SC/ST Act says that when an accused carries out any action knowing the victim's social background, it falls under the purview of this act," he adds.
Bringing the matter to the Centre's attention, Lok Sabha MP and VCK leader D Ravikumar meanwhile wrote to the Minister of Social Justice and Empowerment alleging that it was an 'Untouchability' wall that led to the death of 17 Dalit residents in the village. He further pointed out that victims and activists who protested the caste discrimination were arrested by the police on Monday.
He further requested the Minister to depute the Chairman of the Scheduled Communities Commission to visit Nadur for a study and to order a full-fledged inquiry.
நீதி என்பது நிவாரணம் அல்ல.. சாதிப்பிரிவினையின் சான்றாக 17 பேரை கொன்ற சுவர் போல இனி எங்கும் சுவர்கள் இருக்கக்கூடாது என்கிற உத்திரவாதம் தேவை. ஒடுக்கப்பட்ட மக்களின் விரல் மையினால் ஆட்சியில் அமர்ந்து கொண்டிருப்பவர்களே.. உங்களின் கள்ள மௌனம் அவர்களை இன்னொரு முறை கொன்று கொண்டிருக்கிறது.— pa.ranjith (@beemji) December 2, 2019
When questioned about the presence of the 'caste' wall, sources in the Municipal Corporation say that it cannot be defined as such as it existed on private property.
Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Edappadi Palaniswami who visited the families of the victims, meanwhile declined to comment on allegations of discrimination and assured the public that action will be taken as per the law.
DMK President MK Stalin also visited Mettupalayam on Tuesday and met the grieving families. Expressing his condolences, he demanded increased compensation, a government job and new houses for those who lost their family members to the tragedy. He also demanded that action be taken against the police officers who brutally attacked the protestors on Monday.