Tuesday marks the 75th anniversary of Harijans entering the Meenakshi-Sundareshwarar Temple in Madurai

“I could not believe it. It seemed too good to be true… a miracle had happened.”

This is how C. Rajagopalachari, the then Prime Minister of Madras Presidency, reacted to the news of a group of Harijans entering the Meenakshi-Sundareswarar Temple in Madurai on July 8, 1939.

Tuesday marks the 75th anniversary of this feat, often hailed as a revolutionary event in the annals of modern Hinduism and Indian politics.

The party of four Dalits and a Nadar, which included Congress leader P. Kakkan, who would later become the State Home Minister, was led into the temple by A Vaidyanatha Aiyar, president of the Harijan Sevak Sangh.

There was much opposition to the event by the conservatives who argued that temples would become “impure” if those considered “untouchables” entered them. But significantly, the Madurai event was peaceful, Mr. Rajagopalachari notes in his speech in Madras on July 9, 1939.

Highlighting the significance of this event, Mahatma Gandhi, in the July 22, 1939 edition of Harijan, wrote that the entry of Dalits into the Madurai temple was a greater accomplishment than the opening of State temples in Travancore. “...the opening of the State temples of Travancore was no doubt a great step but it was the prerogative of the Maharaja. But the opening of the celebrated temple of Madurai is a greater event in that it is the popular will that has brought out this consummation,” the Mahatma explained.

The Dalits entering the Meenakshi Temple had an immediate effect. The Hindu reported on July 9 that the same evening, Mr. Aiyar also led Harijans into the Koodal Alagar Temple “on the invitation of the temple authorities.”

The temple entry, however, led to a lot of litigation against Mr. Aiyar. This prompted the government headed by Mr. Rajagopalachari to pass legislation to protect the rights of the oppressed classes to worship in temples. On the same day of the event, “Sanatanists,” led by T.S. Ramaswamy Iyengar, condemned it as lacking in sanction by the religious canons.

While 75 years have gone, the reality is that Dalits continue to be denied temple rights in many parts of the State, especially in villages, feels CPI(M) State Secretary G. Ramakrishnan.

He says the Dravidian parties have a huge part in the continuing denial of rights. “After Periyar E.V. Ramasamy’s death, the Dravidian parties that have continuously ruled the State have failed to take up the cause of Dalits, and their ranks have been dominated by those of the intermediate castes. Unless the non-Dalits begin to agitate for equality, this situation will continue,” he points out.