We have decided not to bury the mortal remains of upper caste people from now on. They want us to bury their dead bodies. But we remain untouchables for them. We do not want to continue this.  

These are the words of Senthil Kumar, who lives in Ambedkar Colony of Govindapuram village in Muthalamada gram panchayat of Kerala’s Palakkad district.

Ambedkar Colony was settled in 1982 after the Congress government of K Karunakaran allotted 0.03 acres of land to 50 Chakkliya families. The colony expanded over the years as more Scheduled Caste families received title deeds. Now 450 families and nearly 1,500 people live here. There are 133 Chakkliya families while the rest belong to the Ervallan community.

The colony, situated on the Kerala-Tamil Nadu border, earned infamy recently when the Chakkliyas alleged that upper caste Hindus, mainly the wealthy Gounder community, were treating them as untouchables.

The allegation was made publicly on June 5, barely a week after the state government celebrated the 100th anniversary of Pandi Bhojanam, a communal feast organised by the social reformer Sahodaran Ayyappan that had unleashed a movement against caste discrimination in Kerala.

But Kumar insisted that the practice has been going on for years in Govindapuram and that his Chakkliya community, considered the “lowest” among the Scheduled Castes, was bearing the brunt. “The Chakkliyas can draw water from only one tap at the public tank near the colony,” he said. “The second tap is unofficially earmarked for the use of upper caste Gounder community. If we touch their utensils, they will pour all of the water out and refill the tank again. We are not supposed to go near it even if it is not used.”

Kumar is secretary of the Ambedkar Dalit Samrakshana Sangham, an organisation formed by residents of the colony to empower the Dalits.

Ambedkar Colony is home to 133 Chakkliya families. Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen

Old wounds

“Tea shops here used to keep two sets of glasses to serve tea, one for the Gounders and Ezhavas and the other for lower castes,” said S Sivarajan, a leader of the Sangham. They abandoned the practice just 10 days ago after the issue caught attention of the national media.

The Chakkliyas would not even get their hair cut before 2004. “Barber shop owners would not say anything explicitly,” Sivarajan said. “Instead, they would cite flimsy reasons like their scissors were not sharp, or that somebody else was waiting in the queue.”

For a long time, Sivarajan said, the “people did not show the courage to raise their voice against these practices”. “They took it in their stride,” he added. “But the scenario changed after the Chakkliya forcefully entered the barber shops and insisted on getting their hair cut.”

Sivarajan said his community was not allowed to enter the village temple either. “We found a solution by building our own Madurai Veeran Temple inside the colony in 2012,” he said.

Lunch being cooked outside Madurai Veeran Temple. Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen

New conflict

What forced Ambedkar Colony’s residents to publicly decry caste discrimination early this month was an altercation over an inter-caste marriage between an Ezhava boy and a Chakkliya girl on May 27. The Ezhavas belong to the Other Backward Classes.

Sivarajan alleged that the Ezhavas and the Gounders began to threaten the Chakkliya community. “They came to the colony at midnight, knocked on the doors,” he said. “We were frightened.”

To escape the bullying, men began to sleep at the temple while women slept together in a couple of houses nearby. They cooked food in a make-shift kitchen outside the temple and ate togegther.

On May 5, they invited district leaders of all political parties to celebrate Pandi Bhojanam. But none leader except the Congress’ VT Balram turned up for fear of backlash from the caste Hindus. Balram was defiant and accompanied the Chakkliyas to draw water from the public tap that was used by the Gounder community. “The situation at the colony was serious and it was a shame for progressive Kerala,” he was quoted as saying.

M Radhakrishan, the vice president of the Muthalamada gram panchayat who represents Ambedkar Colony ward rubbished the allegations of caste discrimination. “There was an altercation between some Chakkliya youngsters and the Ezahava boy who married the Chakkliya girl,” he said. “Congressmen are spreading lies to tarnish the image of the gram panchayat ruled by Left Democratic Front. Everything is normal here.”

On Wednesday, however, the Kerala High Court ordered that police protection be given to members of the colony so they could return to their homes. “We are happy with the court ruling,” said Kumar. “We hope the police will protect us from attacks.”

The dilapidated house of Veerammal in Ambedkar Colony. Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen

State of neglect

The Chakkliyas accuse the state government of being blind to their desperate condition, not just socially but economically as well.

Veerammal, 60, fears the roof of her old house may collapse during the monsoon. “The roof tiles are broken and rain water seeps through, turning my home into a cesspool,” she said. “The panchayat has been ignoring our requests to repair our houses. It may collapse any time. I am scared to live inside.”

Many houses in the colony do not have toilets, forcing the people to defecate in the open.

Another resident Chithrakala complained that the Below Poverty Line ration cards of many of them have been changed to Above Poverty Line cards. “All of us are BPL families,” she said. “We don’t know why the government changed our status. Our income hasn’t gone up so far.”

Chithrakala shows her new APL ration card. Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen

Men from the colony work as daily wage labourers, mostly in the farms of the Gounders. “We are jobless for the last 10 days after the untouchability issue came up,” said Prabhakaran, a labourer. “We are living at the mercy of the Gounder landlords. We hope they will give us jobs soon.”

The difficult living conditions of her community angers Thirumal, a 72-year-old woman, no end. “Don’t we belong to this land?’ she asked, while eating lunch outside Madurai Veeran Temple. “Are we untouchable to both the government and the Gounders?”