Thenampulam-Sembagarayanallur panchayat is untouchability-free

Sembaan, bare-chested and dhoti-clad deity, with moustache twirled, stands with his cleaver, a cane, and a marakkal (a grain measure). The dark-skinned deity of Dalits is a standard accompaniment in the Ayyanar (guardian of the village) temples of rural Tamil Nadu.

Normally, Sembaan stands on the fringes of the temple. But here at Thenampulam-Sembagarayanallur panchayat of Vedaranyam, Sembaan occupies a space within the sanctorum, in the midst of Ayyanar, and his subaltern ilk.

The pride of place given to Sembaan represents a larger story of caste and communal harmony and justice practised by a little-known panchayat in otherwise caste-sensitive Vedaranyam. Nestled in the midst of villages that see caste skirmishes against Dalits, the people of Thenampulam-Senbagarayannallur live out lives that negate caste bigotry.

The principle of caste-based occupation, Kulathozhil Murai, has long been purged from Senbagarayanallur panchayat. The credit goes to Rajasimhan, the panchayat president.

“A few Dalit elders were still stuck with tradition, but we did not want that to continue. When someone dies, we come together to carry the dead, and when a Dalit dies, we give the same last respects.”

While elsewhere, as an unwritten norm, Dalits continue as carriers of bodies and drum beaters for mourning rituals.

In rural Tamil Nadu, Dalits and women are excluded from car festivals of village temples. Here, the car festival of Mariamman temple witnesses both burqa-clad Muslim women and their Hindu counterparts tugging the rope of the temple car; while men including Dalits tugging the other end.

There are over 25 Muslim families, and communities have lived as an extended family for decades now. As a rule, the panchayat does not allow Vinayagar processions inside its villages. “This is one thing we don’t permit,” says Mr. Rajasimhan.

Caste harmony is nowhere more evident than in the barber shop and the graveyard. Dalits from neighbouring villages come to the two barber shops in this panchayat for a haircut.

In neighbouring villages, it is unthinkable for a Dalit to get a haircut in a saloon, and the barber would not give them one, says Birla Thangadurai, member of the district monitoring committee on bonded labour.

Where caste segregation begins with separate temples and graveyards for Dalits, here at Senbagarayanallur, temples and graveyards are shared between Vanniyars and Dalits, and Brahmins and Dalits. Last April, Selvaraj, a Christian convert, fought a vain battle to have a burial for his mother, in the Scheduled Caste graveyard of neighbouring Katripulam panchayat.

After objections from the caste Hindu panchayat president, 104-year-old Jeyamma’s body was taken some 40 km away for a Christian burial. Now, Selvaraj has sold his land and moved to Senbagarayanallur. “Caste just does not come into our life here,” he says. Here, a Dalit draws water from the temple well and supplies it to tankers. This is in contrast to the neighbouring Chettipulam panchayat, where a temple well was shut after Dalit boys were found drawing water.

For the villagers, the foundations were laid by Balasubramaniam, the 91-year-old former three-term Panchayat president. Fondly called Balayya Konar, Mr. Balasubramaniam had introduced common feasts for different communities way back in the 1960s in his home. Taking a step forward, he had arranged intercommunity marriages within his family. “Under him, not a single liquor outlet was allowed inside the panchayat until TASMAC shops were opened,” says Mr. Rajasimhan.

While an inter-caste marriage spawned violence in parts of the State recently, Senbagarayanallur has been above such tendencies for decades.

An anecdote points to Mr. Balasubramaniam’s legacy. “Balayya Konar had stopped a procession that was headed to cremate a Dalit man in a monsoon-flooded graveyard. Instead, he carried the body to his community graveyard to give the dead man a decent cremation,” says Mr. Thangadurai.

When The Hindu met the nonagenarian, he could not relate to the idea of caste clashes over inter-caste marriages. For him, it is society moving backwards. This panchayat also holds out lessons for Dalit outfits that remain silent about sub-caste hierarchies within the SCs, says Mr. Thangadurai.

Yet, Senbagarayanallur panchayat that speaks of possibilities of hope has never received any government award for being an untouchability-free panchayat.

Keywords: Dalitscaste harmony