They could vote freely in Lok Sabha and Assembly elections but had to plead and fight for their right to exercise their franchise in local body polls.

The Dalits (Pallars) of Gramapatti village in Kovilankulam panchayat under Chellampatti panchayat union near here finally got to vote in the panchayat elections for the first time in four decades.

According to a section of the Dalits, the local elite's dominance, in the form of caste control by the dominant Piramalai Kallars, was the reason why they never got a chance to vote. The Dalits could not be assertive as they were dependent on the caste Hindus for work.

However, for the first time, the whole village, with a population of 200 belonging to 60 families with 71 votes, cast its vote at the polling station in Government Kallar Middle School, Kovilankulam, thanks to the efforts of District Collector U. Sagayam.

P. Deiva Lakshmi (28) of Gramapatti represented the injustice meted to Dalits at the grievance day on October 10 at the Collectorate. The Collector asked the Block Development Officer of Chellampatti union to immediately look into the issue and make arrangements for the villagers to vote.

“I really cannot remember the last time our villagers cast their votes in the panchayat elections,” said Ms. Lakshmi. “We also made an appeal to the Collector to shift the polling station, which is five km away from our colony, to the nearby village, which is two km away. Since the arrangements were already made, it was difficult to change the station but the officials promised to consider the request next time.”

The village does not have a proper pathway. There is no ration shop and residents have to travel six km to Nathampatti for buying essentials. They do not have a cremation ground, street lamps, cement roads or community hall.

P. Veeran (32), a construction worker, said that every time the Dalits went to vote in the panchayat elections they were informed by the caste Hindus that their votes had been cast in the “proper manner,” and hence they could go back to the village.

The villagers, while feeling elated about the fact that they had cast their vote, harboured the fear that they could be attacked any time by the dominant castes for taking up the issue with the Collector and the police, said Kasi Mayan, a social worker.