Months after simmering tensions over a ‘caste wall’ at the Santhaiyur village in Madurai district of Tamil Nadu came to the fore, the District Collector has, in a submission to the Supreme Court, stated that the wall is not discriminatory.
Two Dalit communities in the Santhaiyur village, the Arunthathiyars and the Paraiyars, have been at loggerheads over a compound wall around the Raja Kali Amman temple in the area since 2012. The Arunthathiyars allege that the wall, built by the Paraiyars, is discriminatory and was constructed to prevent their access to the temple.
Tensions between the two groups reached a boiling point in January this year when 70 families belonging to the Arunthathiyar community left their homes, demanding a demolition of the ‘caste wall’ built by the Paraiyars. They later returned to their homes in April, when a part of the wall was demolished.
It is in this hostile backdrop that the Collector’s submission to the apex court is significant to the issue. The Collector’s report essentially states that there is no basis for the Arunthathiyar claim that the wall is discriminatory and also denies Paraiyar ownership of the land on which the temple has been built.
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.
Though the different Dalit castes in the state 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 (like the Santhaiyur wall issue), the Arunthathiyars have said they have been discriminated by the Pallars and the Paraiyars.
The report was submitted by then Madurai District Collector K Veera Raghava Rao to the SC, following two peace meetings- held on March 28 and April 5- aimed at restoring ‘peace, tranquility and amity’ between the two groups. In addition to the general public, representatives of contesting parties were also present at the meeting to present their views.
Firstly, the report declares, “Enquiry confirmed that the said wall is not a discriminatory wall.”
According to the Collector’s record of the meeting, the Arunthathiyar representatives at the meeting said that the compound wall was discriminatory and that it needs to be removed. Correspondingly, the Collector records the Paraiyar representatives stating that the compound wall was not a caste discriminatory wall and that it had been constructed with the consent of village elders.
In addition to these two parties, the submission also quotes representatives of the general public in the village who dismiss the issue between the communities as ‘very trivial’ and a ‘small misunderstanding.’
The dispute over the wall also brings with it an inherent dispute over land ownership in the area i.e who owns the land on which the temple was built.
The Paraiyar families – about 30 in all – live on one side of the land, and the Arunthathiyars on the other side.
In an effort to demarcate land ownership, the Collector states that one part of the land(1.40 acres) makes up the Paraiyar habitation while another part- 1.72 acres- is Adi Dravidar habitation.
Thus, the report states that the remaining vacant lands is meant for common use.
“In the above lands wherein pattas were granted and under occupation by persons, remaining vacant lands belong to the Government and that the said lands can be utilized only for the village common purpose. The vacant places in Natham Poramboke do not belong to any individual,” the report notes.
In particular, the report says that the Raja Kali Amman(and the Paravai Kali Amman) temple falls under the village use land and thus, ‘the temples belong to common usage of all people and that no one has any right to prevent others from entering into the temple.’
The Collector’s report rules out the need to demolish the temples since there are ‘no circumstances available warranting their removal.’
The Arunthathiyars had alleged that the wall had also blocked their access to a proposed anganwadi in the area. In this regard, the report orders the construction of an anganwadi centre in the area for the use of the public. In order to access the anganwadi centre, a 2-metre pathway would be made on the northern side of the wall.
However, both communities have taken issue with different aspects of the report.
‘Not informed of an inquiry’
Speaking to TNM, Gurusamy, an Arunthathiyar community leader says, “The has not been resolved. The Collector says that the wall is not one of discrimination but for protection. We cannot accept this. We have explained this to him many times. We didn't even know that he conducted an investigation. Neither were we notified nor were we given any record of the meeting. If it is a public place then is it not wrong to raise a wall in the first place?”
While Gurusamy is glad that the district administration has been directed to build an anganwadi centre, he says that the community stands by its demand to have the wall demolished.
‘Not common land’
Speaking to TNM, Subramani, a member of the Paraiyar community denies that the land is part of the village commons. He says, “If it is common land, why would we be fighting this? They had decided to construct an anganwadi there and we protested against it and we were arrested. We had filed a case against the Collector, asking for the anganwadi not to be built. So this is his revenge.”
As per the Collector’s submission, “both the contesting groups are directed to refrain from assembling illegally in public places and in case of any infringement, the police is ordered to pursue appropriate legal action.”
On August 23, Madurai Collector Veera Raghava Rao was transferred and posted in Ramanathapuram district while S Natarajan from Ramanathapuram has now been posted as Madurai District Collector. The new Collector was not available to comment.