The six foot high, 50 foot long wall in Santhaiyur village can easily pass you by if not for the five policemen standing guard round the clock at Indira Colony. The brick wall is uncemented, and its raw edges crumbling at places.
But this unassuming wall is the subject of tensions between two groups of people – the Paraiyar and the Arunthathiyar – both scheduled castes. The Arunthathiyar say the Paraiyar are trying to keep them out of the Raja Kali Amman temple in the village. And 70 families belonging to the community have now left their homes and are camping near a hillock outside the village, demanding that the ‘wall of untouchability’ be demolished.
Refusing to go back home until the wall is taken down, the Arunthathiyar ask, “What good is a house when we are denied basic justice?”
The Paraiyar, however, have denied the allegations. They say, the wall was built only to safeguard the temple, and that the Arunthathiyar are welcome inside.
Paraiyar and Arunthathiyar
In Tamil Nadu, there are three main castes among the Dalits – the Pallar, the Paraiyar and the Arunthathiyar. While all of them face oppression from caste Hindus, the Pallar and the Paraiyar have, relatively among the SCs, more education, resources and opportunities, than the Arunthathiyar.
While the Paraiyar have been traditionally associated with weaving and farming jobs, the Arunthathiyar were primarily assigned to scavenging jobs, dealing with dead bodies and animal carcasses.
Though the different Dalit castes co-habit in different parts of the state, the dynamics between these castes – who have different cultures and customs – depends on the situation. In some cases, the Arunthathiyar have said they are discriminated by the Pallar and the Paraiyar.
The fence, and the wall
In Santhaiyur, the Raja Kali Amman temple stands on disputed ground. While the Paraiyar say that the land – around 50 cents – and the temple, belong to them, the Arunthathiyar contend that this is poromboke land – government land intended for public use.
The Paraiyar families – about 30 in all – live on one side of the land, and the Arunthathiyar on the other side. The land was used by both communities for meetings, functions, and as a playground.
However, in 2012, the Paraiyar attempted to build a fence around the Raja Kali Amman temple. When the Arunthathiyar complained about the same, the district administration reportedly removed the fence, and said that no such construction was allowed on government land.
Less than two years later, in 2014, the Paraiyar built a brick wall around the temple. The wall not just blocked Arunthathiyar’s access to the temple and the land, it also separated the Arunthathiyar families – while 50 families were on one side of the wall, 20 were cut off on the other side.
This time, the Paraiyar had a document that had signatures of people from the Arunthathiyar community, that states both parties agree that the temple belongs to the Paraiyar and that the Arunthathiyar had no objection to any measures taken to safeguard the temple, including the building of a wall.
The document also says that no one is allowed to bring a dead body on the road bordering the temple owing to the presence of the deity – a reference to the caste occupation of the Arunthathiyar.
The Arunthathiyar, however, were allegedly made to sign the document under duress.
The Arunthathiyar leave their homes
At the protest site of the Arunthathiyar, plastic tents glisten in the hot sun, and the smoldering smell of the firewood wafts through the air. A wedding feast is underway, but the mood is far from festive.
“I thank the parents of the bride and groom for allowing their children to participate in this unique protest. We wish the bride and groom give birth to such brave citizens,” says Jakkaiyan to thunderous applause from the audience.
Jakkaiyan is the President of the Adi Tamizhar Katchi that is fighting on behalf of the Arunthathiyar to demolition the caste wall.
Kamalamma, an elderly woman is watching the festivities unfold from a distance. Doesn't she want to go home? “Not until the wall is demolished, no,” she asserts. She along with other members of her community left their homes over three weeks ago. “Let them demolish the wall and call us, we will go. The other day we got drenched in the rain so we pitched tents. Like that, we will manage,” she says.
The two police cars and a dozen policemen indicate that the district administration is keeping a close watch on the matter.
Selvan*, a father, is rocking his baby to sleep on a cradle hanging from the neem tree just behind where Jakkaiyan and party are shouting slogans. Selvan asks, “How will the baby sleep in this heat and noise? We are struggling a lot but what else can we do? What good is a house when we are denied basic justice?”
The Paraiyar account
The Paraiyar, however, deny that they are discriminating against the Arunthathiyar.
Sarala*, a Paraiyar resident of the village, says, “We are all the children of one mother. How can they leave and go sit in the mountains for this? The problem started when the Adi Tamizhar Katchi people started talking to them.”
Alleging that politics is behind the protest, she adds, “Jakkaiyan is causing all this so he can build his party. Why didn’t they protest when we built the wall? Why were they quiet all along?”
Karrupaiappa, an elderly community leader, says, “We found a lot of things missing in the temple like the temple bell and other articles near the deity. So we wanted to safeguard the temple. We all pitched in and built a wall with our money. We never said they cannot enter the temple or worship there. They are free to do all that,” he says.
Caste issue or land issue?
Dalit activists are divided on the wall in Santhaiyur and what it represents.
Jakkaiyan tells the protesting Arunthathiyar, “The government should recognise that this is Paraiyar discrimination against Arunthathiyar. It is true that we are both Dalits and we fight dominant castes together. But when it comes to issues amongst ourselves, we are the ones being kicked. When Paraiyar behave like the dominant caste, it is a caste based issue, it is an untouchability issue. This is not a family issue, this is a caste issue. Arunthathiyar are no less than anyone less. We have to stand up and prove that."
Kathir, a Dalit rights activist and founder of the TN-based NGO Evidence, however, believes this is a politically motivated land issue and is not about caste.
"I have spoken to both sides and understood their views. In 1984, the government assigned the land to the Paraiyar since they have been living there for a very long time. How can we call it a caste issue if it is happening between two cohabiting communities? They (the Arunthathiyars) have not raised this before. This issue between two communities is being exploited for politics,” Kathir tells TNM.
The court case
With both communities making multiple representations to the police, courts and the revenue officials in the area over the past one year, in August 2017, the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court ordered the demolition of the wall within four months, as per the Tamil Nadu Land Encroachment Act. The court also took cognizance of the Paraiyar opposition to the enforcement.
However, despite the court ruling, the wall weathered the four month period – long enough for the Paraiyar community to obtain an interim stay on its demolition.
With the interim stay on the demolition of the wall ending on Tuesday, the Arunthathiyar are hoping that it would be demolished. Jakkaiyan says, “They (the Paraiyar) can ask for an extension of the interim stay. If it is not granted right away, the wall can be demolished. If it is not demolished, we will take our protest everywhere across Tamil Nadu and present our grievances to the Collector as well.”
However, the Paraiyar say they will not give up on the wall so easily. “We have pitched in a lot of money for it, do you think we will let them demolish it? We went to court, now let them also go to court. They don’t have any records so they want to protest in this way.”