It has been seven years since a peace meeting was first held between Dalits and caste Hindus to solve a dispute over the laying of a road to a Dalit burial ground in Tamil Nadu’s Cuddalore district. Yet, to this date, Dalit residents of Melvadakuthu village in Kurinjipadi block are forced to carry the dead bodies of their loved ones on their shoulders through the muddy fields owned by dominant caste persons to reach their burial ground. Since long, the Dalits have been demanding that the government act immediately to enable the conduct of dignified and peaceful funeral processions. Even after the dominant Vanniyar (Most Backward Class, MBC) residents have expressed willingness to give away their land for constructing the road, the local administration has made the process cumbersome by citing technical roadblocks, causing inordinate delay.
Palanivel, a Paraiyar (Scheduled Caste, SC) man from Melvadakuthu village, succumbed to health issues on November 3. His relatives carried his mortal remains to the designated burial ground located 3 km away from their residential area. The first half of the funeral procession, which passed through a pucca road, went well. But the second half, which required Palanivel’s relatives to carry the body on their shoulders through paddy fields for 1.5 km, did not go smoothly as they were muddy and slippery on account of the onset of the northeast monsoon.
The paddy fields through which the procession passed are owned by 12 Vanniyar persons. “Cuddalore is a coastal district that receives abundant rainfall in the northeast monsoon, leaving the fields slippery for at least three months. The last rites of those who pass away during this time involve the risk of the body falling into the muddy field,” said a resident, who added, “The dead do not even get a dignified final journey to the burial ground”.
This has been the case of all funerals and funeral processions of Dalit residents of Melvadakuthu over the past four decades. Since 2011, the Dalit residents have been meeting different officials, local politicians, and MLAs and participated in peace committee meetings. In 2016, they were promised road access soon. With the local administration showing no inclination to implement an immediate solution, they fear that the state of their funeral processions will remain the same in the future also.
Melvadakuthu is a Dalit residential area in Vadakuthu panchayat in Kurinjipadi union in Cuddalore district. Keezhvadakuthu, another Dalit residential area, does not even have a burial ground. The 2000-odd Dalit residents from both villages who depend on the same burial ground have been demanding that the government empower Dalits to conduct dignified last rites for their loved ones.
J Velu, a Dalit resident of Melvadakuthu and a Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) functionary, said that the issue stemmed from the Vanniyar residents’ refusal to allow the laying of a road across their agricultural land to the burial ground decades ago. “They denied the right to use the pathway 30 years ago. In the past, they have created issues and stopped processions on a few occasions,” he said.
Velu added that such incidents were a thing of the early 90s and that Vanniyars do not prevent Dalits from passing through their paddy fields to reach the burial ground now. Yet, the calm is not guaranteed at all times, as he pointed out, “We cannot predict what they would do if we accidentally walked over the cereal crops ready to be harvested,” he said.
“The current Vanniyar owners have no problem with the Dalit funeral processions through their agricultural land. But we cannot expect the same understanding from the next generation. It would be a distasteful experience if any of the youngsters opposed the funeral procession in the future,” VCK camp secretary Velmurugan said while explaining potential future issues.
Velu also pointed out that Vanniyars too stand to benefit from the construction of the road. “While the Dalits will use the road mostly only for funeral processions, Vanniyars can use it to transport the crops with ease,” he said.
Vadakuthu panchayat president Anjalai Kuppusamy, who is a Dalit, said that while the Vanniyars are willing to give their land for the road, many of them do not possess the required documents. “Twelve Vanniyar families own the land, of which only two have proper documents. As the land was passed down as generational wealth, the remaining nine families do not have any documents to submit to get permission from land registration authorities to lay the road,” she said.
Mathu, one of the 12 landowners, told TNM that there is no problem in giving land. “Our only request to the government is to approve the road project to the burial ground so that farmers do not unnecessarily waste labour for the next season. Once the land is acquired, the government may proceed at their convenient time,” he said.
VCK camp secretary Velmurugan said that the residents had approached several officials in the last two decades with the demand for a road to the burial ground. “We met every collector who assumed office in Cuddalore district. There are no government officials that we did not approach for the road. But, still, the issue has not been resolved,” he said, stressing that the delay is caused by the government officials.
A source in the Kurinjipadi Tahsildar office confirmed that Vanniyyars have made their willingness to give the required land along the 1.5 km stretch for road construction. “The land that the Vanniyars own is generational wealth and documents are in their grandfather's names even now. Even if we agreed to lay a road on the land, we need to confirm that the current owners are the descendants of those ancestors whose names are registered in the land records,” the source said.
Officials said that they have urged the Vanniyar landowners to change the ownership of the land to avoid possible legal issues in the future after laying the road.
Vadakuthu panchayat is a developing zone in Cuddalore as it is located near the Neyveli Lignite
Corporation (NLC), a Navaratna company under the Ministry of Coal. Further development of NLC will pave the way for more people across the country to relocate to neighbouring villages and towns.
Unlike the issues over other Dalit burial grounds in Tamil Nadu, the Vadakuthu issue has even been discussed in the state Assembly by DMK MLA Saba Rajendran. The Adi Dravidar Welfare Department officials visited the Panchayat and assured the residents of a road to the burial ground. Yet, the road remains an elusive dream for the Dalit residents.