A battle won
Dalits of Chettipulam, who faced unprecedented violence by caste
Hindus in October, offer worship at the Siva temple in the village.
Statue of Mahatma Gandhi on the compound wall of the Ekambareswarar
temple in Chettipulam.
"Untouchability is a crime against God and man…. Untouchability is a
hydra-headed monster…. Untouchability, I hold, is a sin, if Bhagavad
Gita is one of our divine books."
– Mahatma Gandhi
THE Ekambareswarar temple at Chettipulam in Nagapattinam district,
Tamil Nadu, presents an irony. Casteist forces in the village have all
along denied Dalits their constitutional right to enter the shrine and
offer worship there. And, a statue of Mahatma Gandhi reading the Gita
sits on the southern compound wall of the temple as a witness to all
However, the Dalits' determination to assert their right and the
uncompromising stand of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the
Tamil Nadu Untouchability Eradication Front (TNUEF) on the issue
resulted in the Collector and other top officials of the district
administration leading the oppressed sections into the shrine under
tight police security on October 27, close on the heels of the "peace
talks" held with representatives of different communities.
Interestingly, the temple entry programme coincided with a massive
rally held in Chennai on the same day by the TNUEF and several Dalit
organisations with the backing of the CPI(M). The issues highlighted
at the rally related to the denial of access to the oppressed people
at the places of worship and other public places such as burial
grounds, and discriminatory practices they face at tea stalls and
haircutting saloons. Leaders who addressed the meeting reiterated
their commitment to the cause.
The rally, among other things, demanded the appointment of a
commission headed by a High Court judge to recommend a time-bound
programme for the socio-economic uplift of the Scheduled Castes and
the Scheduled Tribes in the State. It called for steps to raise the
percentage of reservation for Dalits from 18 to 19 per cent, clear the
backlog of vacancies in the S.C./S.T. category, redistribute surplus
lands to Dalits, retrieve the panchami lands belonging to Dalits, curb
manual scavenging, ensure entry of Dalits into temples and extend
internal reservation benefits for all sub-sects of the Arunthathiar
But the path that led the Dalits into the Siva temple was not strewn
with roses. Unprecedented violence was witnessed on October 14. It was
aimed not only at Dalits who tried to fulfil their long-felt desire to
enter the temple but also at the revenue and police officials who
tried to implement the decision of a peace committee meeting on
October 8 held at the initiative of the district administration.
The TNUEF and the CPI(M), which have led the temple entry struggle at
Chettipulam and other places in the State, had made it clear that they
would not compromise on the issue. They set October 30 as the deadline
for the district administration to find an amicable solution to the
issue. Dalits would be helped to enter the temple on November 2 if the
administration failed to fulfil its constitutional responsibility,
they stated. When Frontline visited Chettipulam, the village wore a
deserted look. The majority of the caste-Hindu men, particularly those
who were directly involved in the violence, had gone into hiding, and
Dalit farm workers were away in neighbouring villages to eke out a
living. Most of the shops had downed their shutters. Daily pujas
seldom took place at the 80-year-old Siva temple. Police pickets were
set up at different places.
PICTURES: M. MOORTHY
Nagapattinam Collector C. Munianathan offering prayers along with
Dalits at the Ekambareswarar temple.
Recalling the circumstances under which the temple entry agitation was
launched in the village, "Nagai" Maali, district convener of the
TNUEF, and A.V. Murugaiyan, district secretary of the CPI(M), said a
survey conducted in 36 panchayats in Vedaranyam block in November 2008
had revealed that discriminatory practices against Dalits existed in
several villages. Chettipulam was only the tip of the iceberg. At
Marudur (South), Vanduvancheri, Ayakkaranpulam, Kadinavayal,
Panchanathikulam Naduchethi, Kodiyakarai and Pushpavanam, and many
other villages, Dalits were denied access to temples, the survey found
According to the survey, in 15 villages, washermen and hairdressers
turned away Dalit customers. In 10 villages, Dalits were forced to do
menial jobs such as removing carcasses. Dalits were not allowed to use
public ponds or bury their dead at the common burial grounds, they
were denied a path to Dalit burial grounds, they were discriminated
against with the two-glass system at tea stalls, Dalit children were
humiliated in schools, Dalit staff members were insulted at noon-meal
centres and Dalit women were sexually assaulted in several villages.
In many villages, the survey found that the police were either
reluctant to book cases relating to atrocities against Dalits or took
no action even after registering cases.
After the findings of the survey were released, a special conference
was held at Vedaranyam on January 31. It passed resolutions seeking
the intervention of the district administration to end the social and
economic oppression, increase employment opportunities for Dalits and
provide financial assistance to them.
In the absence of any worthwhile response from the administration, the
CPI(M) and the TNUEF decided to focus on the Chettipulam temple issue
and highlighted it in their State-wide agitation, held on September
30, against acts of caste-based discrimination, the TNUEF convener P.
Sampath said. The agitation coincided with the death anniversary of B.
Srinivasa Rao, the doyen of the kisan movement in the State. Srinivasa
Rao had led many a heroic battle against feudalism and atrocities
against Dalits since the 1940s.
The agitation at Chettipulam assumed significance as the kisan and
Left movements were not as strong in the tail end of the Cauvery delta
region as they were in the rest of east Thanjavur, CPI(M) Central
Committee member G. Ramakrishnan said.
V. Duraimanickam, the general secretary of the Tamil Nadu Vivasayigal
Sangam, recalled the powerful struggles launched by the kisan and Left
movements in east Thanjavur against the onslaught of feudalism and the
brutal punishment "erring farmhands" were subjected to, which included
savukkadi (flogging) and saanipal (forced drinking of cow dung mixed
in water). These brutalities came to an end through a tripartite
agreement in 1942. Another landmark achievement of these movements was
the enactment of the Fair Wages Act for east Thanjavur in 1970,
enabling farm workers to get wages beyond what was prescribed under
the Minimum Wages Act. However, the inhuman treatment of Dalits
continued for several years in Vedaranyam taluk, he pointed out.
Chettipulam has a population of around 7,000, including 600 Dalits.
The village is only 40 km away from Keezhavenmani, where 44 Dalit farm
workers were torched on December 25, 1968, by landlords for demanding
a paltry wage hike. Even today, almost all Dalits of Chettipulam are
either agricultural workers or manual labourers. These landless people
have to rely on the caste-Hindu farmers for their livelihood. Some of
them migrate to far-off places in search of jobs.
The entire village once belonged to the family of Vadapathimangalam
Thiagaraja Mudaliar. Settlements between 1965 and 1975 enabled the
caste-Hindu tenants to bring most of the lands under their control.
Ironically, the erstwhile tenants wanted the Dalit workers to be
subservient to them.
Enquiries with the local people revealed that though casteism had
blurred the political lines to some extent, politics of one-upmanship
adopted by the non-Left parties, particularly the Dravida Munnetra
Kazhagam (DMK), the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK)
and the Congress, in the area had complicated the issue.
Maheshwar Dayal, Superintendent of Police, Nagapattinam, with police
personnel outside the temple at Chettipulam.
When Dalits were about to reach the Siva temple on September 30, caste
Hindus, mostly belonging to the most backward Vanniyar, Mutharayar,
Thevar, Konar and Nadar communities, gathered in strength under the
leadership of the local panchayat president, A. Manimaran of the DMK,
and vice-chairman of the panchayat union S. Sivaprakasam of the
Congress, to block them from entering it. They locked the shrine. Even
as the CPI(M) activists threatened to break the lock, the authorities
clamped Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure and sealed the
lock. Around 300 activists belonging to the CPI(M) and the TNUEF were
The Revenue Divisional Officer (RDO) ordered that the seal be opened
only after persons belonging to all castes were allowed to enter the
temple. However, the caste Hindus violated the ban and removed the
lock on October 1 on the pretext of enabling devotees to offer worship
on pradosham (the 13th day of the waning or waxing of the moon) when
special pujas are offered to Siva. Both Manimaran and Sivaprakasam
claimed that they only removed the seal, said Kovai Subramanian,
Vedaranyam block committee secretary of the CPI(M). The police and
revenue authorities were shocked at the high-handedness of the
casteist forces. Condemning the unlawful act, the CPI(M) and the TNUEF
announced that they would revive the temple entry agitation on October
As events took a new turn, the district administration convened a
peace committee meeting on October 8 of officials and representatives
of Dalits and caste Hindus. It was decided that the RDO, along with
the legislators of Vedaranyam and Nagapattinam, S.K. Vedarathinam
(DMK) and V. Marimuthu (CPI(M)) respectively, would lead Dalits to the
temple on October 14. The authorities also warned that action would be
taken under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of
Atrocities) Act, 1989, if entry into the temple was obstructed.
But the local AIADMK leaders, including former panchayat president M.
Santosham, were not prepared to allow the DMK and the Congress to gain
political mileage out of the situation. At a meeting on October 13,
they decided to ensure that the temple entry programme became a
non-event. As part of their plan, the Village Administrative Officer
was asked to go on leave on health grounds.
Roadblocks using wooden logs and cement pipes were put up by casteist
elements along the 1.5-kilometre path leading to the temple. They also
laid down several conditions; some of these were that Marimuthu and
Dalits from other villages must keep away from the village and only a
token entry by a small group of Dalits should be sought. Although the
authorities fulfilled all these, caste Hindus unleashed violence. They
did not spare even the RDO and the Deputy Superintendent of Police.
They stoned the police van carrying 15 Dalits, including 10 women,
into the temple, and attacked the victims with sticks and soda-water
bottles. The police opened fire in the air to scare away the mob.
According to police sources, cases have been booked against 315
persons under various sections of the Indian Penal Code, including
Sections 147 (punishment for rioting), 148 (rioting, armed with deadly
weapons), 324 (violently causing hurt by dangerous weapons or means),
332 (voluntarily causing hurt to deter public servants from performing
duty) and 341 (punishment for wrongful restraint). Cases have also
been registered under Section 3 (1) (xiv) of the S.Cs and S.Ts (PoA)
Act, 1989 (denial of customary rights of passage) and Section 3 (1) of
the Prevention of Damage to Public Property Act, 1984 (mischief
causing damage to public property). A total of 34 persons were
arrested until October 23. The kingpins of the violence were yet to be
Birla Thangadurai, an activist of the Republican Party of India (RPI)
and a resident of Chettipulam, said although he and his supporters had
been keeping themselves away from the temple entry struggle, they had
now decided to support the CPI(M) initiative. Apart from denying entry
into temples, Dalits were forced to do mean jobs, he said. "It is
unfortunate that many of our parties talk about the welfare of Sri
Lankan Tamils, totally ignoring the plight of the Adi Tamils of our
land," he said.
S. Vanitha, who was among the persons taken to the temple in the
police van, said caste Hindus blocked the van and attacked them from
all sides. The van driver was also injured. The caste-Hindu men were
armed with stones, crowbars, sticks and soda-water bottles while their
women carried broomsticks, she added. Dalit women were prevented from
offering worship at the temple and their archana plates were thrown
away, she alleged.
The TNUEF and the CPI(M) staged a protest demonstration in
Nagapattinam on October 20 condemning the violence in Chettipulam and
demanding that the government take necessary steps to ensure Dalits'
entry into the Ekambareswarar temple.
District Collector C. Munianathan has a different perspective on the
issue. According to him, the severity of untouchability has come down
owing to various schemes and projects implemented by the government
and also because of the growing awareness among Dalits, particularly
the youth. Dalits' dependence on landowners has become minimal mainly
because of the implementation of the National Rural Employment
Guarantee Act, although problems persist, he opines.
Caste discrimination is not peculiar to Chettipulam and other villages
in Vedaranyam block. It was officially admitted a few years ago that
discriminatory practices against Dalits prevailed in 7,000 villages in
the State. It was against this backdrop that the CPI(M) intensified
its struggle against different forms of untouchability, on the grounds
that caste oppression was inseparably intertwined with class
oppression. Through these struggles, it sought the government's
effective intervention to redress their long-standing grievances.
Members of the CPI(M) protesting at the Nagapattinam bus stand on
October 20, demanding action to enable Dalits to worship at the
As part of this struggle, protest programmes were held at eight places
in seven districts – Nagapattinam, Dindigul, Tiruvannamalai,
Villupuram, Perambalur, Virudhunagar and Coimbatore – on September 30
to assert Dalits' rights.
At Kangiyanur in Villupuram district, activists of the CPI(M) and the
TNUEF, including legislator G. Latha and general secretary of the
Tamil Nadu Vivasayigal Sangam K. Balakrishnan, were injured when
police lathi-charged them to foil an attempt to ensure that Dalits of
that village entered the Draupathiamman temple. Over 100 persons were
arrested and remanded to custody. The police repression evoked
Another issue that has caused concern is the State's not-so-impressive
performance relating to the implementation of the Protection of Civil
Rights Act and the S.Cs and S.Ts (PoA) Act. According to A. Kathir,
executive director of Evidence, a Madurai-based non-governmental
organisation, from 2004 to 2008 a total of 5,741 cases were registered
under the S.Cs and S.Ts (PoA) Act but only 5 to 7 per cent of them
ended in conviction. On several occasions, the police had shown
reluctance to book cases relating to crimes against Dalits under this
Act, he alleged.
Although the government and the ruling DMK viewed the protest
programmes as an "attempt to disrupt law and order", the CPI(M) and
the TNUEF have stepped up their campaign against social and class
oppression. CPI(M) legislators observed a dawn-to-dusk fast in Chennai
on October 22 protesting against the police action in Kangiyanur and
the high-handedness of the casteist forces at Chettipulam.
Condemning the attitude of the DMK and the AIADMK on this vital issue,
Sampath said successive governments headed by the two parties had
failed to find a lasting solution to the problems of Dalits. "There
are over one crore Dalits in Tamil Nadu, who outnumber the entire
population of Tamils in Sri Lanka. While fighting for the island's
Tamils, we should pay due attention to the problems of the oppressed
people in the State," he said.
The hostility shown by caste Hindus to the temple entry agitation by
keeping away from the shrine on October 27 has led to a lot of
scepticism about the efficacy of the compromise evolved by the
officials. The district administration hopes that normality can be
restored after arresting the kingpins of the violence. But one thing
is clear: the Dalits of Chettipulam are not prepared to give up their
"It is strange and unjust that we have hitherto been denied access to
this temple, though the fact remains that the manual transportation of
granite stones for its construction was the result of the sweat and
labour of our forefathers," a Dalit lamented.
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