Dalits barred from temple fest in Kannur; activist accuses Kerala's CPM of discrimination

The age long injustice of barring lower castes from entering temples was removed in Kerala through a royal proclamation in 1936, but the workers of the ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist) in Kannur district are not ready to accept the spirit of the revolutionary action even after 75 years.

A temple governed by the party at Azhikkal in the district has turned down a demand by Dalits to end its century-old practice of skipping Dalit homes from an annual ritual. The Dalits have viewed the exclusion of their homes from the "Thiruvayudham Ezhunnallathu", a procession of people carrying the sacred swords of the Goddess, during the annual festival of the Pampadi Aalinkeezhil temple as a clear case of discrimination against them.

The procession, an integral part of temple’s annual festival, is based on the belief that the homes where it visits will stand blessed by the deity. While the temple has been historically using the Dalits to carry the swords during the procession, paradoxically, it doesn’t allow the procession to visit their homes.

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Dalit activist Thekkan Sunil staging a fast in front of Kannur collectorate. Image courtesy: TK Devasia

When the procession approaches the house of a Dalit, the oracle utter aloud that the home belongs to a Dalit and will, therefore, stand omitted. The temple committee controlled by the CPM has justified the practice saying that it was part of the tradition followed by the temple for over a century.

Mullankandi Mukundan, president of the temple committee, said that the procession was usually taken to the houses of communities that are associated with the temple festival. He said that the Dalits had no role in the annual festival.

Thekkan Sunil, who staged a 72-hour fast against the alleged discrimination, refuted this claim of the temple committee. Though the ritual is conducted as per a Thiya community custom, the procession visits the houses of all Hindus except the Dalits, Sunil said.

He told Firstpost that the Kannur district administration had termed the practice as a clear case of discrimination of Dalits and ordered the temple committee to confine the ritual to the houses of Thiyas if the custom did not allow equal treatment to everybody. The order was issued on a complaint that various Dalit organisations had lodged in 2015.

"The temple committee had abided by the order in 2015 and 2016. However, this year they have reverted to the old practice without showing any reason. I have brought this to the notice of the district collector, who has not taken cognisance of my complaint so far," said Sunil, who is also the general secretary of Dalit organisation Janadhipathya Rashtriya Sabha.

The organisation is now mobilising signatures for a mass petition to be submitted to the state government and other agencies against the discriminatory practice. A case has already been filed by the Scheduled Caste and Tribes Commission against the temple committee, terming their action as a breach of law.

The Hindu Aikya Vedi, which is linked to the Sangh Parivar, has also come out against the practice. It has termed the practice as a case of untouchability and a violation of the Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1955.

"Letting Dalits enter the temple, but keeping them away from various rites and rituals is atrocious. Most of the poojas in the temple are conducted with the help of offerings from Dalit devotees. But keeping them away from rites and rituals is a reminder of the feudalistic era of bygone days. These were brought to a complete halt in 1955," said a Hindu Aikya Vedi statement.

Sunil said that many other Hindu organisations were also against the continuation of this archaic practice. However, the local CPM leaders have been opposing all the moves to change it terming it as part of the temple’s tradition.

“This is a strange argument. The CPM was always been in the forefront of the struggles against discrimination. The party had played a prominent role in the 1931-32 Guruvayoor satyagraha for entry of untouchables in the famed temple. It is now supporting a plea for entry of women in Sabarimala hill shrine. How can such a party support a discriminatory practice in a tiny temple in a remote area?" asks Sunil.

The Dalit activist feels this may be because the CPM maintains a discriminatory approach towards Dalits in Kannur, which is the cradle of  the Communist movement in the state. He said that the party men in many parts of the district were showing intolerance towards the Dalits for reasons not known.

He pointed out several cases to buttress his point. The arrest of two Dalit women, who raised their voice against alleged caste abuse by the CPM workers at Thalaserry, and the alleged persecution of a Dalit woman autorickshaw driver at Payyannur in the district are the two glaring cases in the recent past.

The two Dalit women Akhila, 30, and her 25-year-old sister Anjana, were arrested and jailed under non-bailable charges a month after the party-led government assumed power in the state on a complaint from a party worker that the two had barged into the party office at Thalaserry and beaten up two party men.

The women denied the charge. They said they had gone to the CPM office to question the caste-based taunts and obscene comments by CPM workers. The two decided to confront the party after they got fed up with the incessant abuse for years. The women were released on bail after the incident snowballed into a big controversy.

Chitralekha, a Dalit autorickshaw driver, had picked up cudgels against the CPM men when they made her life difficult after she joined the auto stand controlled by the party’s trade union wing in Edat, a village on the outskirts of Payyannur town. She had bought the autorickshaw under the Pradhan Mantri Rozgar Yojana.

The auto drivers belonging to the Centre for Indian Trade Unions (CITU), who did not like the woman’s foray into their domain, have been hounding her by attacking her and her family members and damaging the auto. Both came under attack several times in the last 12 years.

Though she staged a dharna for 122 days outside the Kannur collectorate in 2014 and another in front of the state secretariat for 20 days in February 2016, there has been no end to her persecution. Her autorickshaw came under attack a month after she ended her dharna at Thiruvananthapuram demanding protection from the miscreants.

An investigation into one such attack against Chithralekha in 2010 by a panel appointed by Feminists Kerala Network found that persecution of the Dalit woman was a ritualistic part of the untouchability practised in the region even today.

The commission, which included Gail Omvedt, publisher and activist V Geetha, and Nivedita Menon, concluded after a fact-finding visit to Payyannur that the intolerance towards the Dalit woman was the result of a fascist atmosphere created by the CPM in the area.

"The party enforces an extrajudicial power over all the people in its bastions in Kannur. It exists and thrives in the region through the use of power over entire villages. Anyone who questions the party or goes against its wishes is harassed, alienated, ostracised and sometimes even killed," the report of the investigation said.

The report said that the attack on Chitralekha was not an isolated incident. Other Dalit women auto drivers in the region had faced similar intimidation, sexual harassment and caste-related abuses. Many have quit the trade following intimidation.

Chitralekha was facing unrelenting intimidation because she fought her tormentors by aligning with Dalit and feminist activists. The CITU apparently could not tolerate her stubborn courage and confidence.

The Azhikkal temple committee president said that the anti-Dalit charge was being hurled against the CPM by the party’s political rivals. He claimed that the party has been fighting for the rights of all the marginalised sections, including the Dalits.

Mukundan said that the party was not against changing the custom at the temple. However, the committee cannot do it without the consent of the devotees. He said that majority of the devotees, including many Dalits themselves, were against changing the custom.


Published Date: Feb 10, 2017 12:36 pm | Updated Date: Feb 11, 2017 09:04 am


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