The Dalits of Uthapuram village near here, where the ‘untouchability' wall was demolished in 2008, on Thursday entered a temple under the control of the upper caste Hindus, with police protection.
Though scores of upper caste Hindus received the 11 Dalit persons outside the temple with folded hands, the scene was marred by the loud wails of women from the nearby streets, who were opposed to the entry of Dalits to their temple.
The Dalits, led by their leaders K. Ponnaiah and Sankaralingam, offered prayers at the Sri Muthalamman, Sri Mariamman temple around 4 p.m.
They offered a garland, coconuts and fruits to the presiding deity.
The priest performed ‘puja' and ‘deeparathana,' even as Madurai (Rural) Superintendent of Police Asra Garg, along with a huge posse of policemen, waited outside the temple.
The Communist Party of India (Marxist), instrumental in demolishing the wall that divided the Dalits from the upper caste Hindus, hailed the temple entry as a “historic” event.
“We are entering the temple premises for the first time after 1989,” said Mr. Ponnaiah.
The Dalits used to offer prayers at the peepul tree on the temple premises during the festival of the Karuppasamy temple (belonging to the Dalits).
The devotees, who perform the role of Lord Karuppasamy, Vairavan and Agni, used to go around the peepul tree as a ritual.
“Our belief is that the ritual will keep the evils out of our village. But it was stopped after people threw stones at us during the festival in 1989,” he said. Since then, there were clashes between the two groups, followed by the construction of the wall.
After the CPI(M) and the Tamil Nadu Untouchability Eradication Front (TNUEF) took up the issue, the district administration demolished the wall. However, tension prevailed in the village and a permanent police picket was posted.
Meanwhile, Vishwa Hindu Parishad district president Chinmaya Somasundaram and his long-time friend and former Aavin general manager K. Athimoolam, who had relatives on both sides, began fresh negotiations between the Dalits and the upper caste Hindus.
“After nearly two months of talks, we were able to bring peace. This [the temple entry] has been the demand of the Dalits for nearly seven decades,” Mr. Somasundaram said. The SP offered all possible help to further the talks.
An agreement was reached on October 20. “This is only a symbolic entry. Things are not going to change overnight. But it is good that people from both sides have come to a meeting point,” Mr. Garg said. He said more than 50 criminal cases booked against members of both parties would be withdrawn. However, the police picket would continue.
Mr. Athimoolam said the Dalits would be allowed to offer worship at the peepul tree after a ritual to reverse a “promise” made by the caste Hindus in 1989 is performed.
The temple ‘Kumbabhishekam' would be performed soon, and the upper caste people would invite the Dalits for it. They also planned to hold a common feast on the occasion, Mr. Somasundaram said.
Appreciating the caste Hindus for allowing the Dalits into the temple, TNUEF State president P. Sampath said Uthapuram was no longer a symbol of untouchability. “It has become the symbol of eradication of untouchability.” This would give an impetus to the Dalits of the State who are being denied the right to worship.