For the last 38 days, a group of around 300 people of the Bhajanamadam Dalit colony which houses around 160 families have been on a protest. The colony is located in Choonda of Kolenchery, Ernakulam district.
The families have been protesting against alleged discrimination at the hands of upper class Nairs.
On Friday, protestors led by the Dalit Bhoo Avakasa Samara Munnani broke down a 400 metre compound wall constructed by the Nair Service Society (NSS). The was was built around a ground near the Bhajanamadam Bhagavathi Temple, run by the NSS.
The agitators say that the wall was built to block their entry into the temple and the ground.
The main Bhagavathi temple stands adjacent to a 95 cent plot owned by the Revenue department and is classified as ‘poromboke land’ or wasteland.
On one corner of this ground is another small temple, one that was earlier a worshipping area for the Dalit community.
“I performed puja in the small temple for almost 25 years. When I fell ill, there was no one to take over, so the temple remained shut for a few years,” says 85 year old Makkotha of Paraya community.
Makkotha is now bedridden.
“Few years later, NSS told us they will help us to renovate our temple and will also resume pujas and temple festivals. We agreed, we also gave them donations we could manage with our small earnings. It went on for three years from 2005, but after that they slowly started to shoo us away. They insulted our people who visited the temple,” Makkotha alleges.
Ramani, a domestic help who belongs to the Paraya community said, “When we visited the temples, some of the committee members told us to go and light candles in Church. They were hinting at the practice of Dalits converting to Christianity.”
Ramani adds that slowly many people from the community stopped going to the temples. But the 95 cent ground continued to be used by all communities. Weddings and religious festivals were held there and children from the village used it as a playground.
“All the 160 families here own three or five cents each. Nobody owns more. We used the ground for common purposes, but frequently they created issues and objected to us using the land. It was then that we came to know that the government had given the entire land to NSS sometime in the 1990s. We were not aware of that, and they hadn't informed us either. That was a poromboke land, how could the government do that? Moreover, NSS has got an acre and 10 cents land for their main temple,” said Saseendran, one of the Dalit leaders.
The divisions then deepened further claim Dalit protestors.
“They told our children that they did not want Parayas and Pulayas entering the temple or the ground,” Ramani says.
During the first week of March, NSS began to construct a compound wall around the 95 cents of land. “That is when we realized that we were victims of casteism and they were just utilising us for our donations. They wanted to throw us out from our own land,” Radha another protestor says.
Saseendran says the Dalit community settled in the area in 1967 and the ground was given to them for their common needs. “The land was given to us, by word, for our common needs. But it was not registered in our name. Since we are uneducated and mostly laborers, the NSS has grabbed our land,” Saseendran says.
When the NSS started building the wall, the Dalits began their protest. Their efforts to stop construction were thwarted many times, their leaders were arrested.
The wall was constructed in a way that one could enter the ground only through the big temple, which was already out of bounds for the Dalits.
“It is then that we began our strike. Friday was the 37th day of our strike and we destructed the compound wall. Now we will fight for caste equality as well. The government should cancel the title deed and let the land remain poromboke,” says Saseendran.
The community has also approached the District Court and Kerala High Court over the issue and has vowed to continue their protest till their demands are met.
NSS area Secretary Anil Kumar refused to comment on the issue, and only pointed out that they had permission from the Kerala High Court to construct the wall.