Jagannathan, 76, a retired government officer passed away on May 17 in Chithanakkal village in Thiruvannamalai district.

In this TN village, Dalits forced to take their dead through slushy fields to avoid conflict
news Caste Thursday, May 21, 2020 - 20:07

Not so long ago, a video showing a group of men forced to lower the mortal remains of their loved one from a bridge sent shockwaves across Tamil Nadu. And now, yet another instance of a person denied dignity in death because of caste has emerged from the state. The body of 76-year-old retired government officer Jagannathan was taken through slushy agricultural fields to the burial ground, because the village doesn’t allow Dalits to use the road for funeral processions.

Jagannathan from Thiruvannamalai district, who belonged to the Parayar community (categorised as a Scheduled Caste in Tamil Nadu) retired as an agricultural officer years ago. He lived with his wife in a ‘colony’ – a segregated area in a village where people belonging to the Scheduled Castes live – in Chithanakkal village. Jagannathan died on May 17, and videos of his final journey show the difficulties his family faced in carrying his body through irrigated farmlands. The people carrying his body are seen stopping multiple times on their way due to what appears to be an uneven and slushy path.

“The village has these norms – if those who live in the colony die, they should be taken to the burial ground only in a roundabout route and not on the path the rest of the village uses,” says Jagannathan’s grandson, 25-year-old Praveen Kumar.

When Jagannathan died, his body was taken to the burial ground on the longer route to avoid conflict within the villagers, Praveen adds. The other residents – a mix of many dominant caste communities – have encroached around the longer route as well now, he says. “A paved road is supposed to come up on this longer route. I heard that the project was approved but the work is yet to begin,” he says.

The burial ground is also separate in Chithanakkal village for dominant castes and those from the Scheduled castes. Praveen maintains that this has been the norm in the village for decades and that now it has been normalised and hence nobody wants to fight against the casteism prevalent there.

TNM contacted Murali, the Tahsildar of Vembakkam block who said that he is unaware of the issue. “I will definitely look into the matter and apprise the relevant authorities about it soon,” he says.

Forcing people of the oppressed communities to take a longer route to access the burial ground and not allowing them to walk on streets where the members of the dominant castes live is rampant across Tamil Nadu.

In August 2019, a video of a group of people lowering the body of their kin down a bridge sparked outrage. The incident happened in Vaniyambadi taluk in Vellore district when a Dalit man, Kuppan, died and had to be cremated. Since dominant caste residents had encroached the path used by the Dalits to access the cremation ground and usually created issues when Dalits took the mortal remains of their loved ones through the path, Kuppan’s relatives had no choice but to lower the body from the bridge, fearing repercussions.