Dalits say that the upper castes have been uncooperative, with tensions brewing between them over timing of the ritual.

Divine discrimination Caste divisions over a temple ritual could drive these Dalits to Islam
news Caste Thursday, August 11, 2016 - 09:33

The police are permanent fixtures during temple festivals in Tamil Nadu, especially during the month of Aadi. But in the villages of Pazhangkallimedu and Kallimedu in Nagapattinam district, they are in full deployment this year. Police personnel stand together in groups of two or three every few hundred meters, trying to maintain peace. The communities here remain separated by caste, like always. But in the past two years, the silence over the separation has been broken with a loud bang.

About 180 paraiyar families, Scheduled Castes considered ‘untouchable’, live in houses made of bricks and thatched-roof, all on one side of the Vettar backwaters in Pazhangkallimedu.

Members belonging to this community grabbed headlines few weeks back when they announced that they would convert to Islam if denied their right to perform the mandagapadi ritual at the Bhadrakaliyamman temple in Kallimedu. The Pillai community, about 300 families living in large, colourful concrete houses about a kilometer away from the Dalit colony, are refusing to allow them to perform the ritual.

Image: Kallimedu village

With just two days left for the conclusion of the month-long Aadi festival, the Dalits are uncertain whether they will be allowed to perform the ritual, which is held on the last five days of Aadi.

And this, in spite of a Madras High Court order on Tuesday directing that the Dalits should be allowed to perform the ritual. The district administration has not made any headway in convincing the Pillai community to back down.

For as long as anyone can remember, the Paraiyars of Pazhangkallimedu were not even allowed entry into the temple, which has been administered by the Tamil Nadu Department of Hindu Religious Charitable Endowments since 1980. But both communities worship the deity – the Paraiyars from outside the temple and the Pillais from the inside.

“This year, we asked them to allow us to perform the ritual for at least one of the five days. But they’ve refused that too,” says 63-year-old Nagappan, who used to be an office assistant in the public works department of the Nagapattinam Zilla Panchayat. Standing outside his thatched-roof house, Nagappan says they made this demand after the upper castes refused to follow the Madras High Court’s 2015 order directing that the procession of the Bhadrakaliamman deity be taken through Pazhangkallimedu. Until 2014, that used to happen.

Nagappan says that their current controversy has its roots in events of 2014. The Pillais of Kallimedu had asked the young men of Pazhangkallimedu to distribute pamphlets for a celebration concerning their temple. The Dalit youth refused, and returned the pamphlets. “It is their temple. Why should our children distribute the pamphlets?” Nagappan asks.

Image: Pazhangkallimedu

The refusal led to the procession not being taken through the Dalit colony at the whims of the Pillais, and a legal battle ensued.

On Tuesday, several Pillai leaders gathered at a house in Kallimedu. They looked tense, the High Court was to pronounce its verdict in a few hours. They had filed a petition with the HC on July 31 asking the court to overturn the district administration’s order cancelling the festival this year.

“There has not been any such problem before and everyone is treated equally in the village,” says 45-year-old Sivasubramaniam. He is one of the few businessmen from the Pillai community. Most of the Pillai families in the village are farmers who own large tracts of land on which the Paraiyars work.

Sivasubramanian blames Dalit political parties such as the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) for the flare-up. “It is not a caste issue. The panchayat elections will be starting soon. That’s why some political parties, NGOs and Muslim fundamentalists are making it a big deal,” he says, referring to the Dalits’ recent threat to embrace Islam.

The VCK however says that this is a fight for people’s rights. “The current panchayat president Kamaraj is a Dalit. He has been the president for the past 10 years, but has not been able to get us even one day to celebrate aadi festival. The caste Hindus don’t listen to even the panchayat president. When this is the case, would we do all this for the panchayat elections?” asks Mariappan, the VCK’s district union secretary and a resident of Pazhangkallimedu.

Dalits say that the upper castes have been uncooperative, with tensions brewing between them over timing of the ritual.

“The festival is conducted for one whole month. Why do they want the temple when we are celebrating it? There are 23 more days in the month,” says Sivasubramaniam. 

For the Dalits however, it is those 5 days of mandagapadi which are the most important during the Aadi festival. 

This year, the madagapadi was scheduled between August 8 and 12. “The Collector had asked them to extend the five days by one and give us the extra day. They did not accept that either. They do not want to give the temple to a lower caste,” said Nagappan. He maintained that they would not accept any day either before or after those five days.

When multiple rounds of peace-meetings in the past few months failed, the Dalits threatened to embrace Islam. However, they decided not to carry out the conversion after assurances from political leaders and officials.

On July 30, the District Collector held a peace meeting during which he asked the communities to approach the courts as no solution was arrived at.

But the High Court has asked the Collector to speak to both communities again and file an affidavit before August 30. “The Court has said that the Constitution assures equal rights for all and that the Dalits should be given one day to conduct the mandagapadi ritual,” said Marx, an advocate who is appearing for the Dalits in the case.

With just two days left, the Dalits do not know how the district administration will implement the High Court’s directive. “If this doesn’t get solved, maybe we will convert,” Nagappan says.

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