The upper caste Hindus received the Dalits outside the temple with folded hands. The Dalits, led by their leaders K. Ponnaiah and Sankaralingam, took part in the ‘kumbabhishekam’ and offered prayers at the temple.

After a long gap of almost 50 years, the Dalits of Uthapuram village near here, where a portion of an untouchability wall was demolished in 2008, offered prayers at the ‘kumbabishekam’ (consecration) of the Sri Muthalamman temple belonging to upper caste Hindus (Vellalars) on Friday.

The upper caste Hindus received the Dalits outside the temple with folded hands. The Dalits, led by their leaders K. Ponnaiah and Sankaralingam, took part in the ‘kumbabhishekam’ and offered prayers at the temple around 10.35 a.m. They offered a garland, coconuts and fruits to the presiding deity.

The priest performed ‘puja’ and showered ‘theertham’ from the temple tower during ‘kumbabhishekam’ and later showed ‘deeparathana’ to the Dalits as the upper caste Hindus watched the proceedings.

The whole festival was conducted under the watchful eyes of Madurai (Rural) Superintendent of Police V. Balakrishnan, Asra Garg, Superintendent of Police, Tirupur (on special duty to assist Madurai SP) along with a huge posse of police personnel. S. Shanthi, Revenue Divisional Officer, Usilampatti, was also present.

“This is indeed a stepping stone towards equality; conflicts have gone away and dialogues have replaced them. This itself is a sign of success. For generations, there has been some sort of discrimination or the other but these events indicate the possibility of a communication channel and it is a giant stride towards communal harmony,” said U. Nirmala Rani, advocate, who visited the village on Friday.

Mr. Balakrishnan said that it was indeed a historic event as the Dalits were participating in the ‘kumbabishekam’ after a gap of about 50 years. “Initially, there was a bit of stiffness but we held talks thrice and the district administration, represented by the Revenue Divisional Officer, held talks which resulted in an agreement over conducting the festival jointly in a peaceful manner. On June 23, the caste Hindus formally invited Dalits to join the festival.”

To improve relations further and build solidarity among the communities, the police would initiate a series of dialogues and organise sports events and other cultural programmes in future, he added.

Uthapuram village witnessed three major caste clashes in 1948, 1964 and 1989. There were several casualties on all the three occasions. Many cases were filed. Several efforts to conduct peace talks failed. The animosity reached a high when caste Hindus constructed a lengthy wall separating the entire Dalit community from their residences in 1989. A portion of the wall was demolished on May 6, 2008, after the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and human rights organisations intervened.

Even after this huge effort, the rigid caste prejudices did not wither away. The pathway created after the demolition of a portion of the wall became inaccessible to Dalits and was a starting point for many clashes that followed.