The holy Tamil month of Aadi, the period between mid-July and mid-August, is characterised by vibrant temple rituals and ceremonies performed across the villages of Tamil Nadu.

But this year, the annual Aadi festival has been banned by the district authorities at the Sri Bhadrakaliamman Temple at Kallimedu, a village in Nagapattinam district of Tamil Nadu.

The Dalits of this village demanded that during the five-day festival, an entire day be allotted to them to hold a ritual called mandagapadi. But the so-called caste Hindus of this village vehemently opposed this demand. Unable to resolve the issue, the district administration banned the festival. However, news about several Dalit families deciding to convert to Islam after this incident brought the Bharatiya Janata Party's State President Tamilisai Soundarrajan to Kallimedu to facilitate negotiation between the Dalits and the other caste groups.

At Silambur Therkku village in Ariyalur district, a similar issue cropped up, reportedly four years ago, between the Vanniyars, the largest single community in Tamil Nadu, designated as the Most Backward Caste, and the Dalits, where the latter wanted to conduct a separate ritual for one of the deities. The Vanniyar community deemed this unacceptable, and yet again, the district administration sealed off the temple this season.

Political commentator, historian and author AR Venkatachalapathy speaks to Scroll on various ways in which the Dalits in Tamil Nadu have asserted their rights in religious matters, and how the state has responded to these assertions.

At the Bhadrakaliamman Temple at Pazhag Kallimedu, we are seeing the Dalits asserting their rights in religious matters. Is this a recent phenomenon?
Since 1990, after the Mandal Commission and Ambedkar’s birth centenary, there has been assertion on the part of the Dalits. One form in which the Dalits have been asserting themselves is staking claims to their rights in their locality, especially on two fronts – one is access to burial or cremation grounds and the second is access to temples. Both are very closely linked. It is actually staking claim to a space.

In the case of burial grounds, usually, the Dalits are not permitted to carry the corpse or dead body through upper caste quarters. The upper castes claim that carrying the corpse of a lower caste defiles their quarters. The Dalits are forced to have their own burial ground which is usually in a very inaccessible part.

Earlier they never claimed space in the common burial ground. But in the last 25 to 30 years, they have been assertive for a number of reasons. There are been some amount of economic development. Since the 1990s, there has been an increase in political awareness.

In the early 1990s, both the Devendra Kula Vellalars and the Adi Dravidars (Scheduled Caste groups) organised themselves. By mid-1990s, they had (political) parties.

The other assertion has been staking claim to temples. Although this is in the form of a religious right, what they actually claim is a social right. It is not merely in terms of access to a place of worship. Each community, each locality has its own temples. What the Dalits always wanted was equal space in the temple that was a common space.

But the upper castes always say, “Why do you want to come to our temple? The temple is located in our locality.” But the Dalits say “We also contribute funds for the temple festival. It’s a common space. Just because the temple is located in your quarters doesn’t mean that it is owned by you.” This becomes the case especially where temples are administered by the state through the Tamil Nadu Hindu Religious & Charitable Endowments Department.

The claim that the Dalits are making, even though it takes on the form of a religious assertion, is actually a social assertion.

The first time this happened was in early 1996 at the Shenbagavalli Amman temple at Kovilpatti. There is an 11-day festival celebrated here, where each community has the right to conduct a festival on one day. But the Dalits don’t have any day assigned. So they asked to be given one day for mandagapadi. But they were not given the rights.

Again in 1997-98, in Kandadevi Temple in Sivaganga district, their demand was for pulling the temple car at the annual festival. They were not allowed to do so. When they demanded to be allowed to pull the car, there was violence that followed.

In 1998, Dr K Krishnasami went to court on this. He was the leader of Puthiya Tamilagam party (which advocated the rights of Scheduled castes, especially the Devendrakula Vellalar community), and an MLA at that time – the first Dalit candidate to win independently. So he went to court, and he got a court order saying that the Dalits have the full right to participate in the car festival. But it could not be enforced. The court cannot go and enforce anything. It is the state, district administration and police that have to do this.

In 2005, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) State Secretary went to court, saying that the earlier direction had not been implemented. The court passed the order saying no more tokenism can be practiced – the Dalits have to be permitted to pull the car. They also noted that in the earlier year, there was a token participation, where just 10 people were permitted.

But this time, when this order was passed, the police was fully deployed. The impression that everyone got was that the state was going to enforce the verdict. But what actually happened was, the police bundled up all the Dalits and locked them up in wedding halls and various other places. They advanced the temple car festival by a whole two hours and then they curtailed its length. Within 45 minutes, the whole thing was over.

So in a sense, it was actually a fraud perpetrated on the Dalits. In 2014, another person went to court. Once again, the court heard it and said that everybody, irrespective of caste, should be permitted in the car festival. Now the state realised that it could not continue to fool the court. They said that the car is in need of repair. And it has been under repair for the last few years.

So they would rather not hold the festival than allow the Dalits to participate.
Absolutely, this is the way the state functions. Instead of enforcing the law and court verdicts when people approach the court for transgression of law, the state refuses to act. It always wants to maintain a status quo that is prejudicial to the Dalits, re-enforces the power of the upper castes, and also always wants to maintain law and order. Law and order basically means lack of violence. It doesn’t mean the prevalence of justice. So this is the pattern continuously, irrespective of who is in the government, DMK (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) or AIADMK (All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam). Irrespective of who is the district collector or top police official, it is always this.

It usually happens like this. A demand is raised by the Dalits. First, they will try to settle it locally – the upper castes will try to threaten violence. They may not be able to enforce their will through violence, because the Dalits are also hitting back. Conflict escalates – there will be some bloodshed. To catch the eye of journalists, the Dalits will say, "We are going to convert to Islam". The moment you say "Islam", then immediately the district administration and journalists will flock. That’s when their demand gets heard.

So immediately they’ll start peace talks and negotiations. They tell the Dalits, don’t try to change the status quo. They don’t discuss the Constitution provisions. They don’t discuss rule of law. When the Dalits refuse to accept this and the political configuration is such that they cannot be silenced so easily, then some token concessions are made. If they accept it, it will go under the carpet. If they don’t accept it, then it gets escalated. Then somebody goes to court. Or immediately, the state will say, “Fearing law and order situation, we are suspending the festival.” If the upper castes feel that this is too extreme a step because the Dalits can be cowed down, then they will not accept. But if they feel that the situation is not very conducive for them, the upper castes are willing to let the temple festival to be suspended. They would rather not have the festival, than permit the Dalits to participate.

So what do the political parties do? They keep silent about the local situation, because they don’t want to handle this.

In the case of Kallimedu, the Tamil Nadu BJP President Tamilisai Soundararajan has tried to intervene.
Now this time, there is a new player in the field. The BJP is in power (at the Centre).

Usually, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh takes a formal position that Hindu society should not be divided by caste, because it weakens the Hindu fold in the face of Islam and Christianity. So they take the position that all Hindus should put up a united front. But they are unable to effect this in practice because divisions along caste lines are very stark.

Basically, the RSS would like this contradiction to disappear – vanish into thin air without creating any problems. They want the division to remain, but the antagonism between castes to disappear. The situation they want to obtain is: “Let things go as they were earlier, why do you want to upset the apple cart? Let us try to face our enemies outside – we’ll talk about these things later.” When this later will come is a different matter. But when they are not in power, there is no pressure on them to respond.

But things have changed now. The BJP is in power in the Centre. And it is not a government which is dependent on other parties to have a majority, it has a complete majority. It won the 2014 election on a very strident campaign with a very assertive leader. Now they can’t keep quiet, especially when a section of their religion wants to convert. So they always try to negotiate. What negotiation means is not the same thing what the state does. The state’s goal is maintenance of law and order. With the BJP, it is maintenance of the Hindu order. This seriously undercuts their claim to represent all Hindus. That is the challenge for BJP. But within that framework they cannot resolve this issue.

The other reason why somebody like Tamilisai Soundararajan can intervene is because she has nothing to lose. The DMK or AIADMK, by taking a position on this, they have much at stake. They can lose the support of either the locally dominant caste or all the intermediate castes across the state. The danger is clear at present. For a time, DMK was seen to be pro-Dalit. Then immediately it began losing the upper caste votes. That is why this election, Karunanidhi constantly distanced Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi or VCK, a Dalit party. No party can be seen to claim or remotely be seen as a pro-lit party. The BJP has nothing to lose – whatever it gets is a gain.

How has the rise of the Dalit parties like the VCK helped in Dalit assertion of power?
One reinforces the other. It is not a cause and effect. Dalit assertion has led to the creation of Dalit parties. Creation of Dalit parties in turn feeds Dalit assertion. So this is a mutually reinforcing pattern.

How do we see these incidents of Dalit assertion in Tamil Nadu in the context of what is happening in other parts of the country, especially Gujarat?
We can never actually accurately establish the impact of one on the other. Obviously, this is all taking place at the same time. In this age of social media, lots of Dalit youth have access to these portals, so there is awareness of what is happening across the country. But how much of that feeds into specific events is a moot question. Dalits are not a homogenous community. People do not actually see themselves as Dalit. They see themselves as Adi Dravidars or some other group. Only perhaps at the level of leadership, this kind of pan-Indian identification takes place. But actually, at the local level, you will find that in many places when there are two Dalit castes in the same region, they will be actually working against each other.

With Tamil Nadu having a history of social justice movements, is the situation here different from what is happening in the northern states?
One difference is that in north India, the OBCs [Other Backward Classes] are still a rising force. But in Tamil Nadu the intermediate castes or the Backward Castes have enjoyed the fruits of reservation for a long time. So they are more powerful. But at the same time, because of the long history of the social justice movements, the Dalits have also been politicised by these movements. They have also been educated by the ideologies of social emancipation. Many also read the works of Periyar. This history of social emancipation movements has strengthened both.