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In some Tamil Nadu villages, caste bias overshadows death

By, Chennai
Sep 21, 2023 12:05 AM IST

Dalits in Kudimangalam, Tamil Nadu, are still facing caste discrimination even in death, despite a government scheme mandating common burial grounds.

The neighbourhood is called Ambedkar Nagar. But the Dalits of Kudimangalam in Tamil Nadu’s Tiruppur district have no equality even in death. The entrance to the village’s burial ground is reserved for the dominant Gounder caste, and the Scheduled Caste community relegated to burying their dead on a separate patch of land in the shadows. “There is a big patch of land for burial by the lake. But we have to take a separate mud road and enter only from the back. We have stopped questioning it. This how it has always been,” one Dalit resident said.

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Except, this is not how it still should be.

In November 2021, Kudimangalam was among 60 villages in Tamil Nadu selected by the DMK government in a scheme that sought to puncture caste discrimination by mandating a common burial ground for all communities. Six months after coming to power, chief minister MK Stalin announced the scheme that offered 10 lakh to these villages for development work, as long as they did not discriminate on caste lines in burial grounds, making a budgetary allocation of 11 crore.

Close to two years later, Chennai-based anti-corruption group Arappor Iyakkam(roughly translated to the ‘movement for a good fight’)said that they conducted an audit in 13 of the 60 villages, and found that only two have a common burial ground consistent with the scheme. “Based on the data we collected, the selection of villages for awarding the cash incentive for being caste-free role model villages is incorrect,” said Jayaram Venkatesan, founder of Arappor Iyakkam, which identifies gaps through social audit to improve governance.

In many ways, the audit confirms lived reality. On the ground in Tamil Nadu, caste shapes everyday life, and dictates electoral outcomes. In the hinterlands, there are streets where Dalits are barred from upper caste streets even to collect water; neighbourhoods are demarcated by caste flags, and these colours adorn road infrastructure. In several parts, a Dalit neighbourhood is referred to as a “colony” and there are separate temples, shops and saloons for the community.

The issue is important at a time when Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) leader and Tamil Nadu minister Udayanidhi Stalin, the son of MK Stalin, has stirred controversy by arguing for the “eradication” of Sanatana Dharma, on the grounds that it promoted inequality. Even as the comments have caused a political firestorm, with even allies of the DMK distancing themselves from Stalin’s position, even as he has doubled down on his comments.

In Tamil Nadu, efforts to counter caste discrimination go back several decades.After a spate of violent caste clashes that dominated the first half of the 1990s, then chief minister and DMK patriarch M Karunanidhi launched a radical experiment in 1997 called Periyar Ninaivu Samathuvapuram, or “equality villages”, where by design, castes would necessarily intermingle.

The idea, with mixed housing, aimed for a change, even if glacial, and Stalin revived his father’s dream project in April 2022, when the state government passed an order to refurbish 180 of the existing 238 “Samathuvapurams” at a cost of 130 crore. In June that year, Stalin inaugurated 100 homes built at an equality village in Sivaganga district.

In November 2021, Stalin made another policy attempt to attack discrimination, launching his scheme for casteless burial grounds, and began with the admission of a continuing problem. “Caste-free burial grounds function in many villages in Tamil Nadu. But these villages (meant to have casteless burial grounds) set the example that a person must not be discriminated against based on caste in their final journey. They will be awarded 10 lakhs as an incentive from the government…”

But in the audit carried out between October 2022 and July 2023 in 13 villages across eight districts, most failed this stated premise.

The study found that even in a thriving urban centre such as Coimbatore, the village of Konde Koundampalayam had a separate burial ground for dominant castes such as Gounder and Naidu, and a bifurcation that led to a separate burial ground for the scheduled castes.

In Tirupur’s Ambedkar Nagar, selected for the scheme in February 2022, there are 200 Arunthathiyars (Scheduled Castes) who are outnumbered by the dominant Gounder caste, under the most backward community(MBC) in the state’s reckoning. “At that time there was a discussion that there may be a change for all of to use the burial ground like a common space. But the village elders didn’t want anything to change. And nobody in our community had any strong feelings about it so we let it remain how it has always been,” a Dalit resident said.

In Athipattu in Thiruvallur district, there are four burial grounds -- one for each community including Dalits. “Nobody talks about it. It’s now become normal for us not to impinge on the others space,” one resident said.

There were only two exceptions in the organisation’s social audit -- in Kadakathur village in Dharmapuri, and in Konamoolai in Erode. The former has a common burial ground, and the latter an electric crematorium, used by people of all castes. Mohan Kumar, a villager from Konamoolai, said that everything changed five years ago. “The installation of the electric crematorium seemed to automatically lead everyone to use it without any discrimination. The SC population is very low and therefore there is little chance of conflict. We used the incentive provided by the government to lay new bitumen roads, pavements and a sewage connection,” Kumar said.

Venkatesan said that the discovery of such a positive example suggested that the scheme does have potential, but that in at least 11 villages, there was a clear flaw in verification processes. Under the scheme, villages are identified by the welfare officer of the department of Adi Dravidar and tribal welfare, who then sends the proposal to the District Collector, who in turn forwards this list for verification to the revenue officer, and based on this verification the list is finalised.

A senior official at the chief minister’s office however said, “We have to get this enquired and will initiate a departmental probe.”

Madurai based anti caste activist S Karthik however said that the buck to act against those practising discrimination and untouchability lay at the door of the government. “Just having common burial or cremation grounds will not help end discrimination unless the government takes action as per law. When there is impunity, those who can will continue to discriminate,” he said.

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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    Divya Chandrababu is an award-winning political and human rights journalist based in Chennai, India. Divya is presently Assistant Editor of the Hindustan Times where she covers Tamil Nadu & Puducherry. She started her career as a broadcast journalist at NDTV-Hindu where she anchored and wrote prime time news bulletins. Later, she covered politics, development, mental health, child and disability rights for The Times of India. Divya has been a journalism fellow for several programs including the Asia Journalism Fellowship at Singapore and the KAS Media Asia- The Caravan for narrative journalism. Divya has a master's in politics and international studies from the University of Warwick, UK. As an independent journalist Divya has written for Indian and foreign publications on domestic and international affairs.

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