Over a week after a viral video from Tamil Naduâ€™s Vellore district showed Dalits lowering the body of a dead person from atop a bridge, the Tamil Nadu government argued on Wednesday that access to the burial ground had not been denied. It further claimed that there were no caste-based differences in the village which forced the Dalit men to lower the body and take it to a separate burial ground. The Madras High Court had taken suo motu cognisance of the issue and had asked why there should be a separate burial ground for Dalits.
The incident from Vaniyambadi taluk took place on August 17 after the death of 55-year-old Kuppan, a Dalit man in the village. Kuppan's relatives allege that the caste Hindus encroached upon the path meant for the Dalits to transport the bodies. They had bought lands surrounding the path and did not want corpses to be carried through the area, alleged relatives. Reports stated that caste Hindus, mainly Vellala Gounders and Vanniyars, would not allow bodies to be taken through a stretch of farmland.
According to one report in the Times of India, the state government argued that the pathway to the burial ground had not been encroached upon but were patta (legally documented) land. The counsel for the government contended that the Dalit villagers would have been permitted to pass through the pathway had they asked the land owners. But no one was approached, the government said.
However, Dalit villagers had told TNM that they had been raising the issue with the district administration for over 20 years but to no avail. "For over 20 years now, we have had trouble accessing the grounds we traditionally used as a crematorium. Members of the dominant caste own the land now and don't let us enter the area with corpses. Caste Hindus have a separate ground that we can't use for cremations. Before the bridge came into existence 15 years ago, we used to just leave the body in the water. But now we lower it down the bridge to cremate it," 21-year-old Vijay, a nephew of Kuppan had told TNM.