Only last week, a video shot on August 17 in Vellore District that showed a man's dead body being lowered from a bridge created massive debate on caste discrimination in Tamil Nadu and exposed how the discrimination extended even to the dead
As the video went viral and media attention grew, the district administration was forced to intervene and provide better facilties to Dalits. But in a tragic coincidence, even as this video was being shot in Vellore, over 500 kilometres away in Madurai, a similar case of discrimination was unravelling.
On the same day, members of the Adi Dravida community (Dalit Community) from Peraiyur village in Subbalapuram were carrying the corpse of 50-year-old Shanmugavel to their traditional burial ground, when it began to rain incessantly. Relatives of the deceased were left helpless as any fire they attempted to light, was doused in the downpour.
"All their efforts proved to be futile," says Chellakannu, the state President of the Tamil Nadu Eradication of Untouchability Front. "So they asked the caste Hindus if they could use their grounds to burn the body but they refused to let them in. This despite them explaining the problem at hand," he adds.
While there are only 50 Dalit families in the village, there are over 150 caste Hindu families belonging to the Reddiyar community. According to Chellakannu, the two communities have separate burial grounds - the Dalits a bare patch of land and the caste Hindus a protected ground with sheds to burn bodies in. While the two grounds are attached, a tall compound wall surrounds the property of the caste Hindus.
A video from the funeral shows relatives of Shanmugavel lamenting over how they had to burn the body amidst the rain. They further complain about the lack of infrastructure on their burial ground.
No dignity in death: Dalit community in Madurai struggles to conduct funeral in rain. The burial grounds for caste Hindus, they allege, are separate and with better facilities. @thenewsminute pic.twitter.com/HJjclG8jPLâ€” priyankathirumurthy (@priyankathiru) September 2, 2019
"It is raining heavily, we are not able to do anything. Please help our community," says one man, standing near the corpse and pleading with folded hands to the camera.
Another man who claims to be the brother of the deceased however angrily proclaims, "They are discriminating against us. They have all the facilities. Look at us, standing in the rain. He is my own brother. Look at their burial ground and look at ours. What is the government doing?"
The Dalits with no other option in hand, then stood by the corpse covering it with a straw mat to keep the fire burning.
"The fire was put off by the rain when the body was only half burnt and they had to pour petrol on it and burn it again," says Chellakannu.
Later, the two communities went to the police station over the issue.
"The dominant community complained to the police that we picked up a fight with them over the burial ground while we pointed that we were being discriminated against," says Chellakannu. "But the police refused to register the complaint," he adds.
When TNM contacted the Peraiyur inspector, he confirmed that no complaint had been registered in the case. He further propagated the existing caste divisions blaming the Dalits for trying to conduct the funeral in the caste Hindus' land.
"We spoke to the two communities and settled the matter," he told TNM. "The problem was because the Dalits tried to burn the body in another community's burial ground," he adds.
This despite the Madras High Court questioning the Vellore district administration's decision to allot a separate burial ground for members of the Adi Dravidar Community after the first video went viral. The bench had slammed the government saying it was promoting caste segregation and questioned the need for establishing separate burial grounds. "Why separate burial grounds when hospitals, government buildings and police stations are common for all castes?", the court asked.