Ground report: The caste wall of Kerala is down, but lines have been deeply drawn

“If they reconstruct the wall, we will strike it down again. They fooled us for generations, now we cannot be silenced,” Ayyappan Kutty says.
Ground report: The caste wall of Kerala is down, but lines have been deeply drawn
Ground report: The caste wall of Kerala is down, but lines have been deeply drawn
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There is no one in the vicinity of Bhajana Madam temple, in Vadayambadi village. There are some four men scattered in an open plot of land, around which the then CPI-M government of Kerala, under EMS Namboodiripad, had set up three Dalit colonies.

It hasn’t always been this quiet. In fact, as recently as January 21, Bhajana Madam was the scene of hectic action, as the state police arrived in force to disrupt a protest, and arrest 10 persons including two journalists.

But today, it is quiet.

It was almost noon when I reached Irakunadu, in Kerala’s Ernakulam district. Ayyappan Kutty and his friends were sitting under a banyan tree. Ayyappan Kutty – one of those arrested during the January 21 crackdown by police, said to me, “I hope you have your identity card with you. The NSS will otherwise cause trouble,” referring to the Nair Service Society.

Ayyappan, a building painter by profession, has been leading the protest against the “caste wall” in this village for nearly a year now. About 180 Dalit families living in the three colonies around Bhajana Madam, are protesting upper-caste discrimination, and state apathy.

Ayyappan Kutty pointing at the broken wall 

The wall

The Nair Service Society (NSS), which claims that it owns the disputed land, had built a 10-foot high wall around the temple and the ground in March 2017, shutting off access to what the Dalit families claim is public land.

Protests immediately broke out, and in April of 2017, Ayyappan Kutty and other protestors brought the wall down.

Now, only broken segments of the wall remain; but lines have been deeply drawn in Vadayambadi.

And it seems this will continue to be so, for no government or state agency wants to intervene in a problem that was created, and made more complicated, by successive state governments.

The land

The land in contention, measuring a little over one acre, was declared ‘porambokku’ – public, or common land held by government, but free to access for all citizens – by the EMS government in 1967. This was done after three Dalit colonies were established in the village – Bhajana Madam Colony, Laksham Veedu Colony and Settlement Colony.

A temple, called the Bhajana Madam temple, which locals say was built over a hundred years ago and has been under NSS management, ties these colonies and the land together.

The Bhajana Madam Temple

However, during the 1981 EK Nayanar led CPI-M government, the land was reportedly transferred to the ownership of the Nair Service Society. This change of ownership was, however, kept a secret, and came to light only during 2017, when the upper-caste Nair group suddenly built the caste wall around the temple and land, and the Dalit families decided to protest it.  

Ayyappan says, “It was after we started protesting that we came to know of the land being written off to the temple in 1981, according to a GOMS RD order.”

The protest

The Dalit community demanded the land back as it was a government revenue land meant for public use. The protestors had also petitioned the authorities to look into the matter and when they received no response from the government, on April 17, 2017 – Ambedkar Jayanthi – the protesters broke the wall.

“We got no support from the government and it is a communist government that is in power. The same government that gave our ancestors this land,” says Ayyappan Kutty

Since then, there were sustained protests, and an equally strong opposition from the Nairs. That is, until the police crackdown of January 21 this year.

“We were detained for 48 hours,” Ayyappan recalls. “They had come with an army of officials and at least 17 police jeeps were present. They dismantled the tent we had erected, and we were left numb and shocked. We felt powerless and we couldn’t react then,” he says.

“We were beaten up and the atrocious behaviour came from an institution that is supposed to protect the powerless and the oppressed. Police further claimed that we were being supported by ‘outsiders’. See how they called the two young journalists Maoists and arrested them?” asks Ayyappan, referring to the controversial arrests of journalists Ananthu Rajagopal and Abhilash, who were later released on bail.

Where the Dalits had erected the protest tent

Whose god is it anyway?

“The original owner of this land was Iravi Raman Nair. He had been conducting temple bhajanais on this ground for years. It was only after his death that NSS workers took over the land and built Bhajana Madam temple on the land,” Ayyappan says, explaining the origins of the temple.

While the temple has traditionally been run by the Nairs, Ayyappan Kutty says that it was the Dalit families who worked hard to rebuild and revive the temple after it had fallen to disuse for over three decades.

“The temple that the upper caste Hindus claim is theirs, was practically shut for 35 years. No privileged high born was to be found then. The temple held no poojas for so long, so we decided to revive the temple in 2002,” Ayyappan explains.

Kumari, another Dalit activist, recalls how the Nairs did not have a problem when the Dalit families worked to revive the temple but are now claiming that the temple has become impure.

“After the temple festival in 1964, the temple remained abandoned and idle for more than 30 years. It was after the Dalit families put in a lot of effort to revive the temple that, in 2002, we could restart the yearly fest. And now they say that we are impure and untouchables,” an angry Kumari exclaims.

The land around the temple, meanwhile, is used by the Dalit families – mostly Pulayas and Naikas – as a meeting place, to hold wedding ceremonies, and as a children’s playground.

“My sister Ammu’s wedding was conducted in the temple in 2013. We had organised a dinner the night before, and a lunch following the wedding. Around 1000 people had gathered then to bless my sister. We did not face any obstruction then,” says Arun Chellappan, a carpenter.

It’s not about land, it’s about discrimination

The Dalit families no longer go to the temple they revived. “We were told that offering prayers at temples is not our way of life, instead they asked us to go light a lamp in the church,” says Ayyappan.

“The priests in the temple do not give us the offerings directly. They tell us it is kept separately outside on a banana leaf, and ask us to pick it from there. We do not want our next generation to face this,” says Kumari.

It’s not just the temple though. Discrimination runs deeper in Vadayambadi. Many of those who took part in the protests have found that their livelihoods are now under threat. “My mother has been a midwife for a long time and has been tending to newborns for decades now. Recently, she was kicked out from a Nair family after they realised that she herself was part of the protest,” says Prakashan, one of those arrested in January.

“I was asked not to come for painting after I got involved in the protest and so is the case with many others. Discrimination is in their minds and it is deep rooted,” says Ayyappan Kutty.

However, Ayyappan, Prakashan, Kumari, Arun, and the others say they will continue to fight, not just for themselves, but for their children and the next generation. “We are aggregating signatures now in support of us and after we get about 1 lakh signatures, we are planning to go meet CM. We will continue to protest for it is our land, and if they reconstruct the wall, we will strike it down again. They fooled us for generations, now we cannot be silenced,” says Ayyappan Kutty.

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