Uthapuram ‘wall’ demolished years ago, still no peace between Dalits and caste Hindus here
The infamous wall at the Uthapuram village, which was seen as a symbol of casteism and oppression, was brought down in 2008. Three years later, it was in November 2011 that Dalits in the Uthapuram village of Madurai district entered the Muthalamman temple that had been in the control of caste Hindus for more than two decades.
In spite of these two events that had brought a glimmer of hope to those fighting against oppression in a village that had been ravaged by caste clashes in the late 1990s, the harsh reality remains that Dalits still face discrimination in visiting a temple of their choice.
The 11-day festival at the Muthalamman temple that began on October 13 this year was stopped after three days by the district administration as caste Hindus objected to the entry of Dalits.
A petition was moved in the Madurai bench of the Madras High Court by the Uthapuram Vellala Community President N Muthiah asking permission for the 11-day temple festival to go ahead.
The Revenue Divisional Officer and Sub-Inspector of Uthapuram Village met both Dalits and caste Hindus separately on Tuesday evening in a bid to sort out issues. The caste Hindus agreed to allow Dalits to worship in the temple, making the district administration lift the prohibitory orders.
But trouble began brewing on Wednesday again.
"On Wednesday morning forty Dalits visited the temple, where they were offering prayers and putting garlands on the pipal tree. A group of caste Hindus in the temple premises objected to this and removed one of the garlands. They said that you are allowed to enter the temple but not allowed to worship the deities or bow and pray in front of them," Ponnuchai, State Secretary, All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) told The News Minute.
There was a quarrel between both the groups. The police managed to stop the fight. There were about 300 police personnel around the temple for maintaining a peaceful situation, she added.
AIDWA State Secretary said that the High Court has allowed Dalits to worship in the temple and they should be allowed to do that. She added, “We have spoken to the police and asked for protection of the Dalits and also told them to do the needful to stop such prohibitions for the Dalits.”
Dalits in the village believe their deity resides in the pipal tree, but upper caste Pillay community have stopped Dalits from worshipping there for many years, claiming the tree stood on their property.
Though the festival went on without any major clashes, the tension remains palpable in the village say activists.
The “untouchability” wall was built after a clash between between the Hindus and Dalits in 1989 and for two decades, the Dalits were not allowed to visit the temples or worship the peepal tree.
After high-drama and resistance in 2007 following findings of a survey conducted by the Tamil Nadu Untouchability Eradication Front (TNUEF), the State Government allowed the demolition of the wall. In a move to protest against the Government's decision, a large number of Hindus started leaving the village.
Seventy houses belonging to Dalits had to bear the consequences of the Government’s decision on October 1, 2008. They were attacked and in one such protest, K.Suresh, a Dalit youth lost his life in police firing at E. Kottaipatti village on November 4, 2008. Later, the government appointed a one-man commission, S. Thirupathy, a retired district judge, to look into the matter.
“A gross violation of human rights against the Dalits” was what the government appointed commission said after they investigated the attacks on Dalits on October 1-2, 2008, as stated in a Frontline article.
After facing caste discrimination for years, writ petitions were filed in 2010 by the Dalits in the Madras High Court. Later, the Superintendent of Police, Madurai and his team on October 20, 2011 helped Hindus and Dalits reach an agreement.
According to the agreement as stated in the Frontline magazine, the Dalits were allowed to worship in the temple, the caste Hindus were allowed to handle the management and administration of the temple. The Dalits also agreed not to demolish the temple walls if they were allowed to worship in the temple. Both the sides had also agreed to take back all the criminal cases against each other.
Dalits first visit to the Muthalamman temple in 22 years on November 10, 2011 was however not a pleasant experience. Even though Dalits were welcomed with folded hands by some caste Hindu people, there were women wailing in the streets who were opposed to their entry, according to The Hindu report.
In 2012, the Dalits were allowed to participate in the consecration ceremony at the Muthalamman temple. They were also allowed to pray and make offerings to their idols in the temple. In 2013, with the Dalit Mariamman temple festival coinciding with the festival at Muthalamman temple, they did not go to the Muthalamman temple.
And in April 2014, the caste Hindus locked the temple during the festival and left the village, simply because they did not want to honour the court ruling allowing entry to Dalits.
This year too, the news has not been encouraging so far, reminding us once again of the deep chasms in society.