Months after escalating tensions between two Scheduled Caste communities in Madurai, the wall at Santhaiyur village was partly demolished by district authorities on Thursday morning.
A 2-metre section of the wall directly facing the Raja Kali Amman templeâs sanctum sanctorum was demolished under the supervision of Usilampatti Revenue Divisional Officer M Suganya, amidst high police presence.
The authorities had reportedly told media persons that the move was aimed at building the anganwadi centre in Santhaiyur in order to encourage the Arunthathiyar and the Paraiyar communities to peacefully coexist.
The move to demolish a part of the wall comes nearly three months after 70 Arunthathiyar families had left their homes in January in protest against the alleged discrimination they faced. On Thursday, the families returned to their homes following the demolition.
While both the Paraiyars and Arunthathiyar fall under the Scheduled Castes category in Tamil Nadu and both face oppression from caste Hindus, the Paraiyars have, relatively more education, resources and opportunities, than the Arunthathiyar.
For the Arunthathiyar, the tension was a culmination of years of protesting attempts to fence the temple. In 2012, the Paraiyar installed a fence around the temple which was removed after protests. In 2014, a brick wall was constructed. The six-feet tall, 50-feet long wall in Indira Colony in Santhaiyur formed the periphery of a temple built by the Paraiyar community in the area. The wall not just blocked Arunthathiyarâs access to the temple and the land, it also cleaved the locality, with 50 Arunthathiyar families on one side of the wall and 20 on the other.
They had contended that the wall built by the Paraiyar was discriminatory since it prevented their access to the temple as well as an upcoming anganwadi in the locality. However, the Paraiyar community has denied claims of discrimination and stated the wall was built to safeguard the temple after a lot of articles went missing. They also said that the Arunthathiyar were welcome to worship at the temple. Some Dalit rights activists had told earlier told TNM that the issue between the two communities was politically motivated and was not about caste.
Jakkaiyan, the President of the Adi Tamizhar Katchi who is fighting on behalf of the Arunthathiyar community, says that this is a victory for them.
Speaking to TNM, he says, âWith this, they (the authorities) have established that this is common ground, and that it doesnât belong to one community. For the Arunthathiyar people, this is a great victory. Although we would have liked for the entire wall to be demolished, this is enough to establish that this is a common area and that nobody can say we canât enter anymore. We also welcome that an anganwadi is coming up in the area for common use by all.â
On March 30, Palani Murugan, an Arunthathiyar leader died of a heart attack during the agitations at the hillock. Demanding answers to their months-long protest, the Arunthathiyar refused to take Palani Muruganâs body back after a post-mortem. Following the demolition on Thursday, Palani Muruganâs family received his body on Friday.
When TNM had visited Santhaiyur in February, men, women and children belonging to the Arunthathiyar community were living in small makeshift tents under the arid hillock, far removed from access to basic amenities, fighting the discrimination they faced for over six years. Speaking to TNM at the time, they asked, âWhat good is a house when we are denied basic justice?â
However, the fight for justice for the Arunthathiyar is far from over with the Paraiyar families determined to wage a legal battle. On Saturday morning, a day after the Arunthathiyar returned to their homes, the Paraiyar reportedly filed a complaint with the police. Their contention? The Arunthathiyar families entered the temple premises with their footwear on.
The Paraiyar community, views the demolition a result of the Arunthathiyarâs âpressure tacticsâ. Speaking to TNM, Subramani, a Paraiyar leader says, âOur goal is that the wall shouldnât be demolished. We stood by it. They havenât demolished the whole wall, just a part of it. They (Arunthathiyar) made it clear that they would not return until at least one brick is broken off the wall. So the government did what it did. They refused to take back the body, so what will the government do? We will get a stay on the demolition of the whole wall.â