From Kandadevi to Kallimedu

The stand-off over Dalits’ claim to participate in the Badrakaliamman temple’s annual festival is part of a pattern. It is high time the rule of law is established and justice prevails.

Updated - August 12, 2016 03:53 am IST

Published - August 12, 2016 03:36 am IST

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On August 9, the Madras High Court observed that it was both a moral obligation and the legal mandate for the state to > permit Dalits to worship at the Badrakaliamman temple in Kallimedu , a village near Vedaranyam in Nagapattinam district of Tamil Nadu, and to perform rituals during the Aadi festival. It further hoped that “some compromise” would be worked out “so that at least in the next year… the temple festival is performed without any problem or hitch”. With this, the curtain has come down on the temple festival even before it could be observed.

The Badrakaliamman temple stands on a site claimed to be some 800 years old. The medieval poet Kalamegam had composed a song about it. Now administered by the government of Tamil Nadu through the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Department, its last major reconsecration was conducted in 1957. The temple’s annual festival takes place over five days in the Tamil month of Aadi (mid-July to mid-August). As in many Tamil villages, the intermediate castes sponsor and conduct rituals and festivities — called mandagapadi — on specific days assigned according to custom. The local Dalits (Adi Dravidars) join the festivities but do not have the privilege of holding the mandagapadi .

The Kallimedu stand-off Kallimedu’s population primarily comprises Pillaimars apart from a sprinkling of some service castes. Dalits live in the adjoining hamlet of Pazhag Kallimedu. The two communities number some 150 families each. The temple is located in between, and the Dalits claim that in the past the temple was sited in their quarters.

The Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi, headed by Thol. Thirumavalavan, has considerable influence and presence among the Dalits. For the last few years Dalits have been claiming mandagapadi rights, a demand stonewalled by the Pillaimars. In August 2015, the headman of Pazhag Kallimedu, N. Pakkirisamy, filed a writ petition in the Madras High Court. Among the prayers was the demand for the deity to be taken in procession through the Dalit quarters. “Prima facie,” Justice M.M. Sundresh observed that “the petitioner cannot be treated differently” and posted the case for a later date to hear respondents’ objections.

Matters came to a head this year when the Dalits, unable to make any headway, threatened to embrace Islam. Evidently this was a tactical move. The state and the media promptly paid heed. The Wahhabist Tamil Nadu Thowheed Jamath’s associates made an appearance; while extending moral support, they stated that conversion should be based on a commitment to Islamic tenets rather than as a form of protest. Can the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) be far behind? The State president, Tamilisai Soundararajan, paid a visit two weeks ago. It is rumoured that a senior Hindutva ideologue too had intervened, promising to meet Dalit demands if the conversion threat was dropped. Later a fringe group, the Hindu Makkal Katchi, was involved in negotiating a compromise. As its anti-Dalit image continues to be reinforced by the Una protests in Gujarat and the insult by a senior party functionary to Bahujan Samaj Party leader Mayawati, the BJP is under enormous pressure to shore up its claim to speak for the entire Hindu community.

The district administration headed by the District Collector hurried to the spot. And soon a Minister followed. What followed is described in officialese as ‘talks’. In reality it was pressure to maintain status quo. The talks were set in the language of compromise and concessions rather than in the discourse of fairness, rights and justice — for instance, one of the concessions was the offer of mandagapadi on the sixth day after the festival is effectively over. When the Dalits did not budge, the State administration banned the temple festival. It was against this order that the Pillaimars filed a writ resulting in the observation cited at the beginning of this essay.

Tragedy repeats itself Unfortunately, those familiar with the history of such disputes may not entertain the same optimism as the learned judge. The Dalits’ struggle for an equal share of honours in temple festivals has repeatedly ended in failure. As far as Dalits are concerned, history, it seems, not only occurs as tragedy first but repeats itself as well.

Rewind back to 1997. In the Swarnamurtheeswarar temple of Kandadevi in Sivaganga district, Dalits (the Devendrakula Vellalars) staked a claim to play a full role in the temple festival. The Puthiya Tamilagam party, headed by K. Krishnaswamy, filed a suit in the Madras High Court praying for this right. On July 6, 1998, the high court instructed the District Collector to ensure the full and complete participation of the Dalits. Apparently to no avail.

In June 2005, the State secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), N. Varadarajan, filed a writ petition seeking the enforcement of the high court direction. A Division Bench held that the denial of the right to pull the Kandadevi temple car and participate fully in the festival violated Article 21 of the Constitution. Adverting to the token participation of Dalits in the preceding year, the Bench directed the administration to ensure full participation.

Consequently, the 2005 festival saw the massive deployment of police. Citizens were lulled into believing that the executive was preparing to uphold constitutional rights. As it turned out, the reverse was the case. Hundreds of Dalits were rounded up, the pulling of the temple car was advanced by an hour, and the event was truncated to 45 minutes. Only 26 Dalits were permitted to lay their hands on the ropes of the car. The car festivals in subsequent years were suspended.

In 2014 another petition was filed in the Madurai Bench of the high court. The judge reiterated that first honours were not due to the locally dominant caste of Nattars, and that full participation of the people irrespective of caste be ensured. Following this, the district administration conducted the temple festival without the pulling of the temple car on the ground that the car needed repairs. The car continues to be under repair ever since!

Part of a pattern In the Shenbagavalli-Poovananathar temple of Kovilpatti, an 11-day annual festival is observed. In 1996, Dalits (the Devendrakula Vellalars) demanded mandagapadi rights. Coming in the wake of many months of intense and bloody violence involving Devendrakula Vellalars and Thevars starting from the tragedy of Kodiyankulam in August 1995, this demand too ended in bloodshed. The car festival remains suspended since then.

More violence followed, triggered by the naming of one of the state-owned transport corporations after Veeran Sundaralingam, a Devendrakula Vellalar who fought in the anti-colonial army of Veerapandiya Kattabomman. Buses emblazoned with the Dalit icon’s name were stoned, torched and not permitted entry into Thevar villages. In the event, the government decided to drop all names from the transport corporations starting from the venerable Thiruvalluvar.

Barely a few weeks ago, in M. Karisalkulam in Sivaganga district, a similar conflict broke out when Dalits demanded the right to take mulaipari (a grain ritual) in the Muthumariamman temple. After negotiations Dalits agreed to a compromise of performing the ritual in a place earmarked for them.

It is not difficult to discern a pattern.

In the first instance, Dalits assert themselves to a right over social space, a demand often framed in the language of religion. The locally dominant caste refuses to acknowledge it, and depending on the local balance of power and the prevailing political situation (read the party in power and its predominant support base), the demand is either contained or it flares up. If the Dalit leadership is sagacious it builds supra-local support and seeks help from a Dalit party. In a bid to attract attention, a threat to convert to Islam is issued. The local dominant caste cares little for this demand — and may in fact see it as a resolution to their immediate fears — but this scares the wits out of those with a vested interest in the maintenance of a religious status quo. When legal intervention is sought, courts, thankfully, often uphold the rule of law. But then it is up to the executive to enforce it. But as history bears out, the executive and its political masters (irrespective of the party in power) fail to uphold it not only in letter but also in spirit. The fear of the collapse of law and order is enough to quieten the courts. A good round of police beating and shooting is enough to serve the twin purpose of teaching the ‘upstarts’ a lesson as well as educating the court of the cost of upholding constitutional rights. As this process unfolds, various political parties maintain a deafening silence fearing the ‘stigma’ of being branded pro-Dalit.

Sadly, such blatant violation of the rule of law scarcely disturbs the conscience of the citizenry, or the larger Hindu community which claims to constitute over 80 per cent of India’s population.

Kandadevi is neither the first case. Nor will Kallimedu be the last. Scores of temples across Tamil Nadu practise similar discrimination. It is high time the rule of law was established and justice prevailed.

J. Balasubramaniam has researched on the history of Dalit media. A.R. Venkatachalapathy is a historian of the Dravidian movement.

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