Dalit students taken to the Sri Meenakshi Sundareswarar Temple to mark the great event

When Dalit students from Harijan Sevalayam were taken to the Sri Meenakshi Sundareswarar Temple here on Monday to mark the 74 anniversary of the historic event of temple entry movement pioneered by Gandhians, it becomes pertinent to recall the history associated with it.

The entry of the depressed classes (Dalits) and people belonging to other oppressed castes into the temple on July 8, 1939, holds greater significance in the socio-political and cultural history of Tamil Nadu as it paved the way for similar entries into famous temples in Tiruchendur, Thanjavur, Tiruchi, Kumbakonam, Mayiladuthurai, Kanchipuram and Tirunelveli.

The entry into the Meenakshi Sundareswarar Temple assumes significance as the previous agitations demanding the right to enter Hindu temples and temple roads in Vaikkom, Guruvayur, Suchindrum of the erstwhile Travancore state and repeated attempts by Nadars in south Tamil Nadu were not so successful.

M.Chidambara Bharathi, president, Amman Sannithi Gandhi Statue Committee, who organised Monday’s event, said the efforts of Gandhian stalwarts like A.Vaidyanatha Iyer and N.M.R.Subburaman in the face of stiff opposition from conservatives against the temple entry were part of the great history that the youth should know.

Robert L.Hardgrave, in his book The Nadars of Tamil Nadu - The Political Culture of a Community in Change (Bombay: Oxford University Press, 1969), cites that in 1872, when Nadars tried to enter the Tiruchendur Murugan Temple, people of the upper castes filed a suit in Srivaikuntam Court and in 1874 their claim over the right to enter the Meenakshi Temple was not successful.

In 1895 when Nadars fought for their right to enter temples in Kamuthi, it resulted in the Kazhugumalai riots, and in May 14, 1897, when a group of Nadars entered the Kamuthi Meenakshi Sundareswarar Temple, cases were also filed against their move.

On June 6, 1889 when they claimed a right to enter to Viswanathasamy Temple in Sivakasi, it resulted in what was referred to as the Sivakasi Riots.

Historian Robin Jeffrey, in his article Temple Entry Movement in Travancore, 1860-1940 , Social Scientist Vol. 4, No. 8 (Mar., 1976), writes that the movement for temple entry had introduced ‘agitation politics’ and radical programmes to thousands of poor men in Travancore but they did not bring solutions to the fundamental problems of the lower castes.

The previous temple entry struggle did indicate the real problems in the process of gaining entry into temples which were seen as sites of power struggle.

Taking the previous history into account, the Congress stalwarts like A.Vaidyanatha Iyer and N.M.R.Subbaraman organised a Temple Entry Conference in Madurai on June 13, 1939, which was presided over by prominent social worker Rameshwari Nehru, who was the then vice-president of All India Harijan Sevak Sangh. This led to the formation of a Temple Entry Propaganda Committee in Madurai, headed by Vaidyanatha Iyer.

The committee decided to work for the entry of the people from the oppressed classes into the Meenakshi Temple. The movement gained momentum after Iyer took great efforts and garnered support of fellow Gandhians amidst stiff opposition from conservatives led by N.Natesa Iyer and members of other dominant castes.

Their contention was that the entry of Dalits into the temple would pollute the temple precincts. Unmindful of the threats to his personal safety, Vaidyanatha Iyer undertook the daunting task of taking Dalits and a Nadar into the temple and finally succeeded in his effort on July 8, 1939.

The temple entry team was led by Vaidyanatha Iyer and L.N.Gopalasamy, president and secretary of Tamil Nadu Harijan Sevak Sangh, respectively. At 8.45 a.m. on July, 8, 1939, a batch of five Dalits, and a Nadar — P.Kakkan (who later became Home Minister in the Kamaraj Ministry), Swami Muruganandam, Muthu, V.S.Chinnah, V.R.Poovalingam and Virudhunagar S.S.Shunmuga Nadar — entered the Meenakshi Temple. This temple entry was a precursor of a State legislation which conferred on the suppressed sections of the Hindu society the right to enter temples.

Following the temple entry, Chief Minister of Madras Presidency C.Rajagoplachari introduced a legislation for the removal of the civil and social disabilities against the depressed classes. This legislation included the Temple Entry Authorisation and Indemnity Act, 1939. The Madras Temple Entry Ordinance 1 of 1939 was promulgated on July 17, 1939.

Mahatma Gandhi, in the ‘Harijan’ (issue dated July 22, 1939), praised Vaidyanatha Iyer and his team for the temple entry. During his fifth and the final visit to Madurai, Mahatma Gandhi offered worship at the temple along with the Dalits and members of a few “excluded communities” on February 4, 1946.

The temple entry was a significant event which needs to be celebrated, but what happened after that was essential. Punitha Adhigaram (Authority over things related to Divinity) was not what was needed for the Dalits now; they needed a share in temple properties, membership in temple trusts and positions as patrons of major temples, said Dalit writer Stalin Rajangam.

This apart, it was the village temples which remained as spaces of discrimination. Dalits should be made to enter those temples, participate in rituals and receive honours.

Only the Left and Dalit movements were fighting for these rights, and no Gandhian movement was organising protests.

It would be great, if they spearheaded these struggles, he added.

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