Summer is nearing its end, and schools across Tamil Nadu have opened their gates to usher in students for another academic year. But for over 40 Dalit children in the S Valayapatti village of Madurai district, the local government school is anything but welcoming. Owing to caste tensions in the village over the last two months, parents from the oppressed community have withdrawn their wards from the local institution, fearing danger to their lives.
This, after the dominant caste Mutharaiyars – a BC community in Tamil Nadu – allegedly threatened violence if they were brought to the same school as their wards. And when some parents sent their children to school anyway, they were allegedly assaulted by classmates from the Mutharaiyar community.
"My 13-year-old son whom I sent to school last week came back injured," says 37-year-old Annalakshmi, a Dalit resident of the village, "He was beaten up by children of the Muthiraiyar community in class. How can I send him after this? I have to find another institution further away. It is difficult for us but we can't compromise on his education."
Trouble over temple entry
The village population consists of about 25 families who belong to the Arunthathiyar caste, 30 families that belong to the Pallar caste and 200 families from the Mutharaiyar caste. Tensions between the communities broke out in April after Mutharaiyars denied access to a local temple to the Dalits.
The Muthalamman temple is managed by the dominant caste but the two marginalised caste families have been worshipping there for years. According to a fact finding report from anti-caste NGO, Social Awareness Society for Youths (SASY), the priest tied holy threads on the hands of all villagers in April. This was as part of the temple festival, but the dominant caste objected to the involvement of Dalits in this ritual. And while local members from the Dalit communities stayed away from the festival fearing backlash, other communities attended the event.
The traditional jallikattu that was to take place after the temple festival however was cancelled as the temple management failed to get permission. And while members of the dominant caste were coming to terms with this, Dalit youths were allegedly holding a celebration for an actor’s birthday in their hamlet. The report states that the Mutharaiyar community saw this as exuberance over their failure to hold the jallikattu event.
Following this, discrimination and practice of untouchability in the village grew unchecked and finally exploded into violence. When Dalits refused to bow down to upper caste pressure to do menial tasks such as burying dead bodies and announcing deaths, the Mutharaiyars retaliated by denying them access to common resources such as ponds, shops set up as part of the Public Distribution System, and the community hall.
Discrimination and violence
Finally, on June 8, members of the dominant caste allegedly attacked Dalit hamlets, damaging their homes and property. They all assembled at the school grounds, where Dalit students are unwelcome, before vandalising vehicles, residences and other property. According to SASY, four men from the hamlets were severely injured, five vehicles were wrecked and 22 houses damaged.
"They threatened us against coming anywhere near their residences again after this. But to get to school, our children have to walk past the dominant caste homes," says 23-year-old Ramesh, a Dalit man whose 10-year-old brother has been forced to cut his education short. "Their men threatened to beat up our children if they even came close to the school. We have been sending them to the local government institution despite the discrimination they face. But we can't risk their lives," he adds.
Residents of the village say that Dalit children are made to come to school half an hour in advance to clean the premises, including bathrooms, before the students from the dominant community arrive. In addition to this, they are made to sit separately at the back of the classroom where they are not in the direct view of Mutharaiyar students, they allege.
Anganwadi workers targeted
In addition to this, the Mutharaiyars have also protested against two Dalit women being employed as Anganwadi workers in the village. Under pressure, district officials allegedly transferred them to neighbouring villages. Now, Annalakshmi in addition to pulling her son out of school, has to travel an additional five kilometres to work at a centre in Kilavaneri, because of casteism. The other Anganwadi worker, Jyothilakshmi, meanwhile has to walk one and a half kilometres to take a bus to Madhipanur.
"I received my appointment on June 3 and even took fitness tests," says Annalakshmi, who was appointed as a cook and helper. "But in the meantime, the dominant caste villagers went and told officials that if I cook food, their children can't eat it. They said the food becomes polluted because I am a Dalit. So I got transferred. At this point, when they are taking away even our basic needs like water and food, I am just glad that I still have a job," she adds.
Ironically, a reply from June 2018 to an RTI query enquiring about the practice of untouchability in Madurai, denied any caste based discrimination in the district.
"Is all this not discrimination in the eyes of the district administration?" asks Latha, a member of SASY who visited the village on Tuesday. "The education of children is at risk because the officials are not doing their duty. What were they doing for the last two months? There are only 50 Dalit families here and 200 dominant caste families. Even the education and jobs that these families are getting are being affected by discrimination," she adds.
When TNM contacted Collector (in-charge) S Shantha Kumar on Thursday however, he stated that there was no transfer of Anganwadi workers. "They are still appointed in their village. They have been given additional duties in the neighbouring villages because there are not enough children in Valayapatti Anganwadi," he says.
According to sources, the two Anganwadi workers are under pressure to deny the transfer and claim that it was their choice to work in another centre due to the caste clashes in their village. The State Human Right Commission (SHRC) has however taken suo motu cognisance of the matter and a notice has been issued to the Collector.
The SHRC has demanded an explanation regarding the transfer and also questioned why action shouldn’t be initiated against ‘erring’ officials who were violating the fundamental human rights of the victims. The Collector is expected to reply to the commission by July 17.
As of Friday, the administration was on high gear, trying to sort out the situation and bring the two women back to their original Anganwadi.
What about the underlying casteism?
The attack on the village and threats against sending children to school however went unmentioned but the district collector told TNM that the situation was under control.
“A case has been filed under the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act and most of the accused are absconding. They don't have to fear sending their children to school," he says.
The Collector however admits that the district administration has not been as vigilant as the law demands. According to the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act, a District Monitoring and Vigilance Committee (DVMC) is supposed to hold quarterly review meetings to discuss caste based crimes being carried out in their jurisdiction, and report them to the state in a periodic manner.
"But in the last four months no review was conducted because of the election preparation," says the Collector.