“Who said untouchability is not practised in Kerala?” asked the Dalit activist MP Ayyappan Kutty. “We pulled down a caste wall erected by upper-caste Hindus to keep Dalits from going near a temple. But they still consider us untouchable.”

For the past 10 months, Kutty has been leading a protest by 180 Dalit families in Vadayampady village of Kerala’s Ernakulam district to reclaim their right of way though land adjacent to a temple run by upper-caste Nair Hindus. The Dalits insist that the plot claimed by the Nair Service Society, a community organisation that runs the Bhajana Madam Devi Temple, is actually public land. The society has rejected the allegation.

On January 21, the protest drew wide media attention when the police dismantled a tent protestors had erected on the ground. They also arrested seven protestors and two journalists covering the demonstration. Abhilash Padacherry, a reporter with a Malayalam news website, and Ananthu Rajagopal, an intern with an English newspaper, were detained on charges of obstructing public servants from performing their duty. They were given bail on Wednesday.

The police action has invited severe criticism. On Wednesday, a group of writers and civil society figures, including K Satchidandan, Sashikumar, Paul Zacharia and NS Madhavan, issued a statement condemning the treatment meted out to the protestors. They particularly took exception to the police’s accusation that the protestors were being incited by Maoists.

But Sajan Xavier, circle inspector of Puthen Cruz, justified the police action. “We have evidence that Maoists and workers of the Social Democratic Party of India and the Jama’at-e-Islami have infiltrated the agitation,” he said. “They are inciting the Dalits against the government. We will not allow this agitation to continue.”

Bhajana Madam Devi Temple in Vadayampady. Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen

Long struggle

The agitation by the Dalit villagers had been launched in March, when the Nair Service Society erected a 10-foot-high wall around the land “to keep away Dalits”. The tension had been brewing since the previous year, when the temple committee allegedly prevented Dalits from organising the traditional Deshavilakku festival on the ground.

“Later, we came to know that they had grabbed the public land,” claimed Kutty, the convener of Bhoo Avakasha Samara Munnani, or the Dalit Land Rights Agitation Front, which is coordinating the protest. “They started building the wall in March 2017 and we pulled it down on April 14, 2017, on Ambedkar Jayanti.”

The presence of the wall forced the Dalit villagers to take a longer route to fetch water from a well on the other side of the ground and deprived their children of a playing area, Kutty said. It also left the Dalit families, who live on small pieces of land given to them by the government, without a place to conduct marriages and other functions.

In Vadayampady, Dalits, who mostly belong to Pulaya and Naika tribes, live in three settlements near the ground – Bhajana Madam Colony, one of Kerala’s first Dalit colonies established in 1967, Laksham Veedu Colony and Settlement Colony. Few Nair families live near the temple.

Said Kutty, who lives in Bhajana Madam Colony: “We lost a social place.”

Despite the peaceful nature of the agitation over the months, the police last week evicted the protestors. On Wednesday, the police arrested VK Joy, an activist who has been rallying support for the Dalit protestors, under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Prevention of Atrocities Act. The police alleged that Joy had abused workers of the Kerala Pulayar Maha Sabha who opposed the protest being moved to the premises of their office.

The Kerala Pulayar Maha Sabha was formed in the 1970s to work for the welfare of the Pulaya community. It split in the 1990s, with the faction headed by TV Babu joining the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Front in 2016. The other faction headed by Punnala Sreekumar remains independent. The Sabha’s Vadayampady chapter owes allegiance to the Babu faction.

“Police and local BJP leaders put pressure on the KPMS workers who are not living in our area to file a complaint against Joy and it resulted in his arrest,” said Mohanan, a protestor.

The temple committee erected a new entrance after the police evicted the protestors. Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen

Police action

On January 16, the police had issued a notice telling the protestors to dismantle the tent as it would cause inconvenience to devotees attending the annual temple festival, which was held from January 22 to 25. The protestors refused.

After the protestors were evicted, the temple committee hurriedly erected a metal entrance next to where the shelter had stood.

By dismantling the tent, the protesters alleged, the police and temple officials had violated a peace accord negotiated by the Ernakulam collector in June. The accord was to maintain status quo until a final court verdict was announced.

The society had gone to the Kerala High Court in February 2017 armed with a title deed for 95 cents of land adjacent to the temple. It claimed to have received the land from the government in 1981, and sought police protection to construct a wall around it. In a ruling on February 22, the court held that “the land assignment order was valid and if the Nair Service Society wanted to enclose the property along with the remaining temple property that cannot be objected to by anyone”. It also told the police to provide security till the wall was built.

The High Court, however, did not settle the question of whether the title deed was valid, leaving it to a civil court where the society had separately filed a claim. The case is pending.

On their part, the protesters said they have doubts about the veracity of the title deed. “A Right to Information application revealed that records of the NSS [Nair Service Society] getting the title deed were missing from Aikkaranad village and Kunnathunadu taluk office,” claimed Arun Chellappan, who had filed the application. “We think it was a clandestine deal.”

The Nair Service Society rejected the allegation, insisting the land was granted to the temple by the government. “Temple committee has the right to protect its property,” said Ramesh Kumar, president of the committee and also the Nair Service Society. The temple is said to have been built around 150 years ago.

Dalits in Vadayampady pulled down this wall built by the Nair Service Society on April 14, 2017. Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen

Caste wall

Kutty said Dalits in Vadayampady did not feel caste discrimination until 2016. “Earlier, we used to help the temple committee organise the festival,” he said. “I was the convener of the festival committee in 2012. Things came to head with the wall construction. It was a caste wall built to keep Dalits away from using the playground and the temple.”

But Kumar of the Nair Service Society insisted his community opposed the practice of untouchability. As for the wall, he said the temple committee had decided to build it in January 2017. “It was done to protect the temple land,” he said. “But we kept three gates for the local people to enter the ground.”

Kutty countered, “They kept the gates locked all the time. It was like telling us not to trespass.”

Angered by the attitude of upper-caste Hindus, many Dalit villagers have stopped visiting the temple. “No one would prevent us from entering the temple,” said Vijaya, a Dalit resident of Bhajana Madam colony. “But we decided not to go there. They consider us second-class citizens.”

They even kept away from the annual temple festival last week as a mark of protest. “We do not want to associate with them after all that has happened,” said Bindu, a resident of Laksham Veedu colony.

Protesters cook food at the Kerala Pulaya Maha Sabah office in Vadayampady. Photo: TA Ameerudheen

‘RSS support’

On the other side, a temple official who asked not to be identified said they would be forced to seek support from organisations such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh if the agitation by the Dalits continued. “The Sangh Parivar outfits have been in touch with us ever since this fresh round of agitation began,” he said. “We have been restraining them. But we will be forced to use their help if things do not improve.”

The circle inspector confirmed that Hinduvta groups “are planning to protect the temple”.

Kutty and fellow protestors take these whispers about the Sangh Parivar as a veiled threat, but insist they are not scared. “We will continue to fight till our death,” Kutty said. “The government must notify the land grabbed by the Nair Service Society as public property.”

As if to buttress his point, Kutty claimed that some of the protesters had planned to immolate themselves during Sunday’s police action. “We had stocked diesel in the tent, but the police found it before we could grab it,” he said. “We are not afraid of death. It is a fight for our dignity.”

A police official confirmed that a barrel containing nine litres of diesel was seized from the protestors’ tent on Sunday.

The Dalit activists are now collecting records to challenge the Nair Service Society legally, Kutty said. “Apart from continuing with the protest, we will challenge the Nair Service Society in the courts too.”