A death in Attappady lays bare Kerala’s open secret of caste discrimination

A cremation ground in Attappady’s Pudur village was taken over by an upper caste group, claiming this was private land, denying dignity in death to Chakkiliyans in the village.
Disputed cremation ground in Attappady
Disputed cremation ground in Attappady
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The night before she died, Shakuntala fretted about her daughter’s future, like she did occasionally. Widowed early in life, the single mother from a Chakkiliyan family — categorised as a Scheduled Caste in Kerala — had brought up her two children with the money she made as a domestic worker in Pudur village in Kerala’s Attappady. “Her biggest wish was to see her daughter get married and become a teacher,” says Raman, Shakuntala’s brother, as his niece sits across the hallway with her books.

On March 24, 2020, a few hours before Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced India’s first national lockdown to tackle the coronavirus pandemic, Shakuntala suddenly complained of chest pain. The 44-year-old was rushed to a hospital in Perinthalmanna, more than 50 km away from Pudur. The mother of two died that day. And what followed has laid bare the caste discrimination that is an open secret across the state — in life and in death.

Shakuntala’s cremation was blocked by caste Hindu communities in the village, because they claimed the land that has traditionally been used as a cremation ground was a private property that was bought by a trust. The village panchayat president’s conduct in the entire case has, at best, been ineffective; at worst, she can be accused of colluding with the upper caste forces that denied Shakuntala dignity in death. TNM has accessed a report submitted by the SC/ST commission in the case, declaring that the land in fact belongs to the panchayat and can be used by the public. But even as we reveal the details of the report that hasn’t been made public so far, on the ground, the land is still occupied by the upper caste group, who openly gloat that “name sake” photographs have been submitted to the commission to make the issue blow over.

One acre cremation land gradually taken over

In Pudur village, the Chakkiliyan community — an extremely marginalised caste — usually cremates their dead in the dense forest on the outskirts of the village, commonly referred to as the Vethkund forest. But during the coronavirus epidemic, the forest department imposed restrictions and halted the practice.

Shakunthala’s family therefore took her body to a plot of land — called Alamaram land — that has been used as a cremation ground in the village. One of their relatives had been cremated there before, and the family believed that he land was part of the village commons, and belonged to the Pudur panchayat.

What happened next is detailed in a handful of complaints sent to the Kerala State Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, and Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan. “Fifty men arrived on Bullet motorbikes and jeeps and prevented the family from cremating Shakuntala’s body,” alleges one complaint, signed by around 30 residents of Pudur panchayat. “Panchayat president Jyoti Anilkumar and two police officers were silent spectators as the men abused Shakuntala’s brother Raman and threatened them,” the complaint says.

Shakuntala’s family was asked to take her body to another plot of land, around 2-3 km away. The reason cited was that the Alamaram land didn’t belong to the panchayat, but to a private committee called Shiva Mukthi Mayanam. According to Raman, Jyoti Anilkumar’s husband Anilkumar, who acts as her proxy, told him to take Shakuntala’s body to the other plot as the panchayat didn’t own the Alamaram land.

The incident set off a political storm over the ownership of the roughly one acre-land of what many had considered to be a public resource. Those who erected banners demanding that the land be available to everyone, allege that they were uprooted overnight. They say that the men who obstructed the funeral also yelled casteist slurs at Raman and his family.

As the arguments went on, Shakuntala’s body lay waiting in a freezer in a hospital around 70 km away. Her corpse would finally be cremated only three days after her death, in the alternative piece of land the mob had directed her family to opt for.

Whose land is it anyway?   

Attappady, a tribal block of six villages in Palakkad district, is an outlier in Kerala's much-praised development success story. It has made headlines several times over the past decade over infant deaths, which many activists attributed to malnutrition.

Old-time residents of Pudur tell this reporter that the disputed Alamaram land has been used as a cremation ground by people from dominant castes as well as the tribal community for almost seven decades. The land is situated on the banks of the Bhavani river, a tributary of Cauvery, which flows through Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Bodies cremated here are sometimes carried away by the strong undercurrents of the river.

Madavan, a local Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) member, tells this reporter that he was part of a group of upper-caste Hindus, mainly from dominant castes in the region, who formed a committee and bought 10 cents of the land — which is about a tenth of the total Alamaram land area — from the family of Chinnachamy, who themselves are from the Mudaliar community, a dominant caste.

“The SC community was allotted another plot by the panchayat for cremation. We did not have a cremation ground for the general community. So we took the responsibility to level the Alamaram land using JCBs so that we could use it for Hindus and the general community,” says Madavan, who is also the secretary of the Shiva Mukthi Mayanam. He says they use the term “general” to refer to everyone except those belonging to scheduled castes and scheduled tribes.

“When the committee was formed, everyone who could use the land was part of the meeting. People from SC/ST were not included in the committee as they do not have any stake in it. We identified people who would make donations and collected money from them,” he says.

The SC/ST commission’s report

After the controversy around Shakuntala’s cremation was reported by media outlets a year after the incident took place, the SC/ST commission took suo motu cognizance of the issue and visited Pudur. In the report they submitted to the government dated January 2021, the commission criticised panchayat president Jyoti Anilkumar for misleading Shakuntala’s family, by showing them an unregistered plot of land for the cremation. This reporter has accessed a copy of the report, which has not been made public yet.

“The Chakkiliyans have not been allowed to perform cremation for a long time now despite the land in dispute belonging to the government. The issue surfaced in 2017 after the cremation of Bhandawadan in 2017, which was done with the support of many progressive organisations,” the report says. “Communist Party of India local secretary and Panchayat President’s husband Anilkumar along with nearly 50 people stopped the family and hurled casteist slurs. The main perpetrators of the crime are the then Circle inspector of Police, Panchayat president, her husband and relatives.”

The commission has concluded that the Alamaram land should belong to the panchayat, dismissing Shiva Mukthi Mayanam’s claims. It also notes that Shakuntala should not have been cremated in the alternative plot, where five families reside. According to the Kerala Panchayat Raj (Burial and Burning Grounds) Rules, 1988, open cremations cannot be conducted if people live within 50 metres of the area.

A member of the SC/ST Commission tells this reporter that the inspecting team found other anomalies with the land shown to Raman as well. “The land was near a roadside, it was not levelled and was unregistered for funeral purposes. It was surprising for us to see how a body could be cremated in such a steep land,” this person says on condition of anonymity. They also allege that the police refused to register the First Investigation Report (FIR) in the case.

This reporter also accessed panchayat records that showed the council had spent Rs 12 lakh in 2019-20 fiscal year to build a fence around the Alamaram land. President Jyoti Anilkumar says the money had been allocated because of complaints that cremated bodies were being swept away by the river. She adds that based on the SC/ST Commission’s inputs, the panchayat has put up a board on the plot of land, announcing that it was public. “We sent photos to the commission as proof,'' says Jyoti, who belongs to the Communist Party of India.

BJP head of Attappady Taluk Sreenivasan however says that the photos were merely taken for the sake of it. “If you ask anyone near the Alamaram land, they will say that the land is the property of the committee.

A “drama script”

Though the death and the subsequent controversy took place in 2020, the issue was raised by different political parties in the run-up to the Kerala Assembly elections earlier this year. Jayaprakash, a member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), tells this reporter that while his party was in alliance with Anilkumar’s CPI, it did not agree with the panchayat’s alleged support of the Shiva Mukti Mayanam.

On the other hand, BJP head of Attappady Taluk Sreenivasan tells this reporter that while the Alamaram land did not belong to the government, caste had nothing to do with it. “The issue is between two different regions. Every community here has their own land. The Alamaram land belonged to a private resident, and it has been decided that nobody from outside can be cremated here.”

When asked about president Jyoti Anilkumar’s denial of Shiva Mukti Mayanam’s claims and the findings of the SC/ST Commission, he says that these developments are part of a ‘‘drama script.”

“Chakkiliyans are not from Pudur, but Ummathampady (which lies in Pudur Panchayat). They have a designated land nearby but they insist on cremating the bodies in Alamaram,” he says. While he is technically correct about the “regions” being different, most villages in India are physically divided along caste lines, and a “region” divide is essentially a caste divide.

Raees Muhammad, the founder of Dalit Camera, who belongs to the Chakkiliyan community says, “I live in Nilgiri hills in Tamil Nadu. The burial ground is a common Hindu Burial ground. It does not mean that the burial ground does not have segregation. This burial ground has a segregation of where a Chakkilyan should be cremated, where a Brahmin has to be cremated, where a Gounder has to be cremated, where suicides and murders have to buried, and where north Indian bodies should be cremated. There are different spaces allotted to them. When Chakkilyans are not allowed in a burial ground, it means there is no space allocated for them.”

Many from the Chakkiliyan community also agree with Sreenivasan that they want a separate burial ground — but not for the same reasons. “We are Chakkiliyans. We have to have our own cremation grounds as no community will allow us to cremate our dead in their land,” says a senior community member who works as a daily wage labourer. Though untouchability is illegal in India, this person also alleges that he and his peers are subjected to it daily by their dominant caste employers.

“When we go to work, we are given a separate glass for tea, and separate vessels for kanji. We have to clean the glass and keep it back, without touching the hand of the employers,” he says.

Panchayat president Jyoti Anilkumar, however, denies these allegations. “Shakuntala used to work in my home. If there was such an issue of caste, why would we allow them to enter our home and cook?” she asks.

While the Alamaram land has now been established as a public resource, members of Shakuntala’s community say they are still suffering the consequences of fighting back. Shanthi, Shakuntala’s sister-in-law, who is employed under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, alleges that she faced repercussions in the workplace. “Everyone looks at me with disdain in their eyes. It is really hard to work. It is also difficult for me to find jobs after the pandemic,” she says.

A case filed by a social organisation DISHA, based on a complaint from the Chakkiliyan community, is pending before the Kerala High Court at the time of writing the report.   

A larger malaise

In Kerala, the basic right of dignity in death has been denied several times in the past. In 2012, Kochomal, a member of a Scheduled Caste community, was denied a funeral in the Panchayat ground in Ernakulam. She was later cremated in the Panchayat office premises after protests from local activists and political groups. In 2018, an elderly woman belonging to a Scheduled Caste was cremated on a public road, owing to poor cremation facilities. The incident was attributed to disapproval of local residents. In 2019, A Dalit Christian had to wait for over a month to have a proper funeral after the church refused to give her a burial in the parish citing a court order. Later, Kerala High Court gave an approval for the funeral to take place.

As per the latest data from National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), nine Indian states account for nearly 84% of all crimes against SC/ST community, with Kerala along with Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Gujarat, Telangana, Uttar Pradesh, Odisha and Andhra pradesh reporting the highest number of crimes against Dalits.

In September 2020, The News Minute reported nearly 270 Chakkiliyan families were barred from availing barber shops in Idukki, along with allegations of long-time discrimination against the community.

While Shakuntala’s family still lives in the shadow of the incident, her brother Raman is determined not to back down.

”We need some land to cremate the dead, that’s why we decided to speak up. Doesn't the Indian Constitution have the same rules and rights for everyone? For how long should we remain silent? That time is over. We are going to speak up,” he says.

Ajay UK is a journalist from Palakkad, Kerala who likes to write about civic issues, politics, movies and gender. He recently graduated from Asian College of Journalism in Chennai.

This story was reported under the National Foundation for India (NFI) Fellowship for independent journalists.

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