Protesting against caste-based segregationist practises, Dalits from Rajavur village in Tamil Nadu’s Tirupur district walked on a street wearing slippers and entered a temple administered by the Hindu Religious & Charitable Endowments (HR&CE) department. According to TNIE, such an act of defiance was the first of its kind in this area as the street was supposedly reserved for dominant castes. The dominant castes–namely Naickers and Gounders (both categorised as Other Backward Classes)–had enforced the discriminatory practise of banning Dalits from wearing slippers while walking on public streets. They have also been enforcing the equally segregationist dual-tumbler system in tea shops by which tea is served in one set of cups or tumblers to Dalits and in a separate set for dominant castes.
Earlier this month, after the Tamil Nadu Untouchability Eradication Front (TNUEF) conducted a field study in the village, both discriminatory practices came to light. TNUEF discovered that the practices were enforced against the Arunthathiyar community (Scheduled Caste) by the local Goundars and Naickers. They also found that the Gounders and Naickers had unlawfully banned Arunthathiyar people from entering the Rajakali Amman temple that is administered by the state government’s HR&CE department.
Based on their discovery, TNUEF had submitted complaints to the Udumalaipettai Superintendent of Police (SP), Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP) and district collector on December 13 and December 18. As no action was taken despite the complaints, a protest was set to take place at the Udumalaipettai bus stand on December 24. However, local authorities reportedly gave assurances that action would be taken and denied permission for the protest.
On the same day, people from the Arunthathiyar community in Rajavur, TNUEF members and the organisation’s district secretary CK Kanagaraj walked on the ‘Kambala Naicken Street’ wearing slippers and then entered the Rajakali Amman temple, where they made offerings to the resident deity. The protestors were also joined by leaders from the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK), Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI-M), Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), Dravida Kazhagam (DK), Thanthai Periyar Dravida Kazhagam (TPDK) and several other organisations.
An Arunthathiyar person who had participated in the protest told TNIE, “When untouchability was banned after Independence, members of the dominant caste conjured up a story to perpetuate the practice, saying that a black magic doll has been buried under the street and if Dalits walked on the street with slippers, they will die within three months. Some Dalits believed those stories and started walking without slippers, and the practice continues to this day.”