Dalits have been protesting against the ‘caste’ wall around the temple managed by the Nair Service Society in Ernakulam district for almost a year, but a recent incident has prompted them to protest outside the Secretariat in Thiruvananthapuram.
On Sunday, Ernakulam’s Puthencruz police arrested 128 participants of a Dalit Pride March in Choondi after Dalit activists and RSS workers raised slogans against each other at the March.
For over two years now, Dalit residents of Kochi’s Vadayambadi have been protesting the ‘caste’ wall erected by upper-caste Nairs around the Bhajana Madam temple in the area. However, they now plan to protest with renewed vigour. The Dalit Bhoo Avakasha Samara Munanni, a local body comprising of residents in the locality, plans to launch an indefinite strike at the Secretariat in Thiruvananthapuram.
Members of the Dalit Pride March were allegedly banned from protesting near the Bhajana Madam temple.
“We shifted the location to Choondi, 1km away, as we were banned from protesting near the Bhajana Madam Temple premises where the wall was erected. As people started pouring in, a big group of RSS workers stood there and raised filthy, provocative and casteist slogans against us. They called us Maoists and Muslim terrorists. They even insulted women and transgender persons who attended the March,” said Thushar Nirmal, Secretary of the Janakeeya Manushyavakasha Prasthanam, a human rights organisation in Kerala.
Members of the Dalit Pride March retaliated, and soon the cops arrived. However, they only rounded up Dalit activists who were raising slogans.
“We saw RSS workers pointing to specific people and directing the police to arrest them. One of the cops even insulted prominent Dalit activist V C Jenny,” Thushar added.
When news of the arrest spread, more activists marched to the police station in Choondi to demand the release of the participants.
“When we reached the station, we too were put behind bars. By 3 pm, the police released everyone. Now, we have decided to take the protest to the capital to seek state intervention in the issue,” he added.
Origin of the ‘caste’ wall at the Bhajana Madam Temple
The foundation of the existing Bhajana Madam Temple was laid by Iravi Raman Kartha, a Nair who built a room to chant bhajans in the area. Years later, the Nair Service Society (NSS) claimed the area and expanded the room, converting it into a temple.
“There is a 95 cent vacant ground next to the temple premises. Vadayampadi has three Dalit colonies in between which the ground lies. This was ‘poromboke bhoomi’ (land that does not belong to anyone) and was used as a recreational and cultural space by the 180 Dalit families of Vadayampadi,” Thushar said.
NSS workers reportedly built a wall around the area in March 2017, prohibiting Dalits from using the space.
According to Thushar, the Paraya and Pulaya residents used to organise their annual religious festival ‘Deshavilakku’ on the grounds. However, the NSS workers claimed that the festivities — which were markedly different from upper-caste Nair rituals — were polluting the idol in the temple.
“First they banned the Dalit festival citing the reason that the power of the goddess was eroding due to the avarna festivities. Then they built a wall around the ground, claiming that it was part of the temple premises,” he said.
The issue exposes caste fissures in the state. The residents and activists registered police complaints against the temple authorities for allegedly usurping the ground, but not much has happened.
“There were many talks of comprise which were held with the Collector and members of different parties. During the last talk we had, one of the CPM MLAs categorically stated that this was a civil dispute. They don’t want to talk about caste as it is not part of their politics. So they will happily deny that there is any caste discrimination in the state,” Thushar said.
Support pours in
Several Dalit writers and activists have condemned the lack of action by the state and the reported nexus between the police and the pro-Hindu outfits.
As the struggle continues, prominent writers and political commentators such BRP Bhaskar, A Pouran, Paul Zacharia, K Satchidanandan, B Rajeevan and CS Venkiteswaran have protested against the arrest of the participants of the Pride March and demand that CM Pinarayi Vijayan get involved in the issue.
Critical of the government’s blind eye towards the issue, BRP Bhaskar wrote: “When Kerala police was helping RSS protect the Caste Wall at Vadayambadi, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan was at Aruvippuram where 129 years ago Sree Narayana Guru wrote: This is a model place where all live in brotherhood and without caste differences or religious hatred. How ironical!,” in a recent Facebook post.
On Saturday, a day before the arrests, the Ernakulam Collector had announced that the dispute had been temporarily settled. He banned construction work, building of walls and other development activities in the area until the Civil Court settled the matter. He also allowed access to Dalits to the grounds.
However, residents are unsure about this settlement, as they feel that members of the NSS who have political and police support can take over the grounds at any time.