Dalits denied right to temple ceremony
Over five decades ago the Constitution of India abolished untouchability and provided for affirmative action (reservations) to end the centuries-old subjugation, humiliation and exploitation of Dalits. Yet, even today in many parts of India, the upper castes remain unable to reconcile to the equality principle. In fact, where possible, they often appear determined to turn the clock backwards. As is clear from a fact-finding report published by a group of human rights organisations this month, the conduct of the dominant caste inhabitants of Kanda Devi village in Sivagangai district, Tamil Nadu, provides a good example of this dogged resistance to change.
In the month of June every year, the inhabitants of Kanda Devi place an idol of Lord Swarna Murtheeswarar on a chariot and conduct a grand procession. Until 1940, this was an all-castes affair in which the Dalits, too, participated, pulling the chariot along with others. However, in 1940, the upper castes suddenly decided that Dalits would no longer be allowed to participate.
In 1997, a local Dalit leader filed a petition in the Madras high court, praying for judicial restoration of the Dalitsí traditional right to participate in the car festival. In June 1999, the Madras high court passed an order affirming that all Hindus had the right to pull the car.
The court order notwithstanding, the dominant castesí determination to keep the Dalits out at all costs repeatedly led to such explosive situations that between 1999 and 2001 the police and the administration had to impose Section 144 to ensure peace in the area and the car festival had to be cancelled each time.
As villagers of all castes were eager to bring this unhappy impasse to an end, in 2002 it was agreed that the Dalits would be allowed to participate in the festival and pull the rope. However, through a devious manoeuvre on the day of the festival, the upper castes kept the Dalits out at the last moment. The next day, the administration, which was party to the scheme, falsely announced that the car festival had concluded peacefully with all castes participating in it.
With a court order behind them and keen to ensure that there was no repeat of 2002 in the coming year, Dalit leaders pushed the administration to work out a mutually acceptable arrangement well in advance. One suggestion they made was that of the four ropes used to pull the chariot, one be reserved for Dalits.
But at an all-caste Peace Committee meeting called by the district administration, the upper caste Kallars were adamant that they would boycott the festival if Dalits were allowed to pull the Lordís chariot. The administration told the Kallars that since they were obliged to implement the court order, the procession would be taken out minus the Kallars unless they relented.
On the day of the festival, however, the Kallars blocked the chariot and threatened to commit mass suicide if the Dalits were allowed to pull the temple car. The then district collector, Santosh Babu and the DSP, Abin Dinesh Modak, who decided to call off the festival, were served with transfer orders the very next day!
This year, the district officials were apparently more concerned about keeping their political bosses happy than about implementing the five-year-old order of the Madras high court. In their meetings with district officials, Dalit leaders objected to the arbitrary fashion in which the panchayat president, Kesava Mani (a Dalit) had submitted a list of ten Dalits who were to be allowed to pull the chariot along with others this year. Firstly, why only ten Dalits when in all over 350 people were needed to pull the chariot? Secondly, who was the panchayat president to arbitrarily pick ten persons from among the many Dalits scattered over several hamlets of the village? But the police refused to budge.
According to the fact-finding teamís report, on July 1, 2004, the day of the procession, a large police contingent kept a huge crowd of Dalits who had assembled for the occasion several hundred metres away from the chariot, permitting only ten Dalits to go near it. The moment the procession started, the large crowd of Kallars gathered around the chariot abused and attacked the ten Dalits, refusing to let them pull the car.
As the Dalit crowd protested against the police discrimination and tempers flared on all sides, with caste abuses and stones being hurled at the Dalits and they in turn retaliating, the police resorted to a brutal and one-sided lathi-charge on the Dalits and hurled filthy and casteist abuses at the women. Eight of the 20 Dalits who received injuries, some of them women, had to be admitted to hospital. The report alleges that subsequently, the police entered Dalit homes in the village and beat up residents.
Despite all this, in their meeting with the fact-finding team, police and administration officials flatly denied there was any lathi-charge. The report also mentioned that the members of the fact-finding team were refused permission to enter the temple on July 1 even though they reminded officials of the provisions of the UNís Declaration for Human Rights Defenders, 1998.
Among other things, the fact-finding team, which comprised five office-bearers of Peopleís Watch, Tamil Nadu, has demanded action against the Sivagangai district collector and police superintendent for their partisan conduct. It has also appealed to the NHRC, Tamil Nadu SHRC, independent human rights groups and Dalit rights groups to immediately send their own fact-finding teams to Kanda Devi village to study the situation for themselves.
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