On Saturday, as 105-year-old Nagammal journeyed to her grave, her right to a decent burial in a yard meant for Dalits was scuttled, after caste Hindus opposed her burial as she was a convert to Christianity. Finally, her body was made to travel over 45 km to Velankanni for burial.
Two years ago, in February 2010, the body of another Dalit convert was subject to two sets of rites, one as per Christianity and was finally cremated under Hindu mores following opposition to burial from caste Hindus.
The three-cent plot of a graveyard, marked out solely for the use of Dalits of Kovilkuthagai in Katripulam village here in Vedaranyam, is the bone of contention — not among Dalits, but by caste Hindus.
The space marked out for Dalits was meant to cater to 12 families, and seven of these families had converted to Christianity over a decade ago. However, with the first of the deaths in 2010, the issue of burial came to fore, with the caste Hindus opposing the practice of burying bodies with a crucifix. They, however, do not have any objection to cremation under Hindu rites.
According to Veeramani, ex-president, and spouse of the President of Katripulam Panchayat (who spoke on her behalf), the concern was just about maintaining ‘social calm'. “We have nothing against Dalits, but if they start burying their dead, then it might pose problems for other Dalits. We prefer not to encourage new practices in the village.”
Also, the family's request to have the burial in their own patta land was also rejected on the premise that the owners of neighbouring sites would oppose the burial. The issue was more of trying to retain ‘samudaya kattupaadu' (social control) over these people, and religion was their sole umbilical connection to retain this control, says Birla Thangadurai, member, district monitoring committee for bonded labour. “There is evidence of burial even among us Hindu Dalits, and in the vicinity of houses,” says Thangadurai. According to him, “this is to sustain the bondedness by birth sanctified by religion.”
The bereaved family said they would not want to seek out trouble. In February of 2010, the Dalits concerned had petitioned the former Collector, and it was promised that alternative arrangements would be made. However, two years on, the issue remains unresolved.