Amid reports of communal tension and honour killings over inter-caste marriages in different parts of the country, T.Kunnathur village in the district has a different story to tell — an exemplary story, indeed.
Despite being located in the Peraiyur taluk, a hotbed of caste conflict, the village stands apart from others ever since the villagers abolished untouchability about four decades ago. The long journey the village embarked on reached a milestone last week when the Madurai district administration selected it as a model village in the district for the promotion of communal harmony, and awarded a cash prize of Rs.10 lakh.
“We have people belonging to 15 castes living in the village. The problems that arise between individuals or families from different castes are left to be sorted out by themselves. The other members of the castes do not intervene,” says P.V.Alagarsamy, a villager, explaining the basis of the harmony.
“In a few villages in the taluk, the Dalits cannot even ride bicycles in the streets where the caste Hindus live. The Dalits are given only disposable cups at tea shops and it is more of a double-tumbler system in the neighbouring villages,” he says.
However, in T.Kunnathur there are no separate streets for different castes, he adds. “We have common water pipelines and taps, common crematoria and common temples. Most of the tea shops here are owned by the Dalits”, Mr Alagarsamy says.
The village has a population of nearly 4,700 people. The caste Hindus constitute a majority of the population and there are around 75 Dalit families living in the village. Members from nine communities, including the Dalits, raised funds from the village and constructed the Sri Onbathu Kothu Kaliamman Temple last year, where they have decided to gather for an annual festival.
“Dalit candidates are often not allowed to contest from wards allotted for the SC. But in our village, we elected a Dalit as a member from the ward originally allotted for the candidates from the backward communities,” says A.Palaniandi, a villager.
V.Shanmugam, the ward member, is the son of M.Vettaiyan, a septuagenarian, who pioneered the campaign to abolish untouchability in the village. “We had the double-tumbler system here around 40 years ago. A handful of youth from the Dalit community, led by Vettaiyan, went to all tea shops and broke the tumblers,” recalls P.Ramaiah, an old-timer of the village.
“We then gave a complaint to the police and even filed a case at the High Court. The officials intervened and the whole issue was resolved nearly 35 years ago.”
Mr Vettaiyan is unable to recollect the incident because of memory loss due to old age. “It is heartening to see the kind of respect the villages have for my father.
They elected me as a member for the fourth ward to honour my father,” says Mr Shanmugam.
Inter-cast marriages are not a problem here. “My parents were reluctant to accept my marriage. But now they are okay with it,” says M.Muthuselvi, a caste Hindu, who has married a Dalit. The couple lead a peaceful life in the village along with their daughter. There are several others who chose to marry outside their caste.
“We are planning to enhance the infrastructure of the village with the help of the award money. We want to improve the drinking water facility, renovate schools, construct a community centre and improve road facilities,” says R.Shankar, village panchayat president.