A Battle Over Common Lands Splinters Dalits in Periyar's Tamil Nadu

Written by SabrangIndia Staff | Published on: March 2, 2018

 What's Behind the 'Untouchability Wall', Read this Fact-Finding Report of the Sandaiyur Wall Dispute
 
Image Courtesy: The Hindu

 

Indranagar: As more than a 100 peoples, including the elderly and young chldren languish, abandoned in the foothills of the Western Ghats, the land of Periyar, Tamil Nadu sees no end to the hostilities between Dalit groups, one of whom was responsibile for setting up the infamous 'Untouchability Wall' to keep out the Arunthathiyars

 
Concerns / Objective of the visit
Concerned, on learning that more than hundred people, including the elderly, women, school going children and infants belonging to the Arunthathiyar community, had left their homes at
Indra Nagar, Sandaiyur village located in Peraiyur Taluk of Madurai district in Tamil Nadu and are staying in temporary shelters set up at foothills of the Western Ghats and in the edge
of the jungle, in protest demanding the demolition of “Wall of Untouchability” built by the Paraiyar community in the village common land, which is under dispute, we, the above listed
persons decided to visit Sandaiyur to understand the issues flowing from this protest / dispute.
 
All the members in the team have been involved in issues of social justice and it is a serious concern to all of us, committed as we are, to the plight of the underprivileged and engaged with
annihilation of the caste. The objective of the visit was to gather facts from the field. As there were multiple reports in circulation through different media, it was important that socially
committed academicians and those without any political affiliations study the situation to understand the conflict and objectively present the fact before the wider public and demand the
state’s speedy intervention.
 
Methodology of Fact Finding
The methodology that the team adopted was to visit the village and conduct interviews and group discussion among the different stakeholders: The team went to Sandaiyur (on February 18, 2018) village to meet people of the both castes and also visited the people who are protesting under the foothills with their families. The team also met the District Collector and other stakeholders.The team raised some critical questions to the stakeholders.
 
When did the whole conflict begin and what is its history?
Why was the wall constructed?
Why the construction of the wall was not stopped by the district administration as well as by the
public then?
What is the position of district administration?
What are the discriminatory practices prevailing in the village between different caste groups? What were the negotiations/peace building efforts taken in the past and why did it fail?
 
This summary report is based on the inputs drawn from the team members individually of their findings.
 
Respondents to the FFT:
  • Arunthathiyar community people protesting under the foot hills
  • Paraiyar community men and women residing in Sandaiyur
  • District Collector, Madurai
  • Inspector - Police station, Peraiyur
  • Revenue Inspector, Sandaiyur
  • Thalayari1
, Sandaiyur
 
  • Mr. Kathir, Executive Director of Evidence
  • Mr. Jakkiayan, Aathi Tamizhar Katchi
 
Profile of Indra Nagar, Sandaiyur
Indra Nagar, is an Adi Dravidar colony in Sandaiyur , wherein SC castes like Paraiyar and Arunthathiyar are residing. Besides, Sandaiyur has other communities belonging to different
OBC castes like Mutharayar, Maniyakarar and Naicker. There are about seventy Arunthathiyar[1] families and twenty Paraiyar families in the village. The Paraiyars reside on one side of the
disputed land and the Arunthathiyar families reside on both the sides of the disputed wall/land and use the passage footpath (12 feet wide) along with the wall. Both the settlements have a
common space for public utilities. The land which is adjacent to the Paraiyar settlement has a Rajakali Amman temple and in the land adjacent to the Arunthathiyar settlement has a
Sakthikali Amman temple[2] as well as an Arulmigu Vinayagar temple. There are also separate and identical community stage/halls for the Paraiyars and the Arunthathiyars in the common
space of the respective communities. The wall, which is still incomplete, encircles the Rajakali Ammman temple.
 
The Arunthathiyar version: “Untouchability” Wall:
The Arunthathiyars’ contention is that the common space in utility of the Paraiyar community is larger. Apart from it, the Paraiyars have constructed a wall around the temple, though not
restricting the access to the Arunthathiyar settlement on the other side of the Rajakali Amman temple, it narrows the pathway.
 
In 2012, the Paraiyar community raised a wire fence around the Rajakali Amman temple, which was removed by the district administration following objections raised by the Aruthathiyar community. This led to clashes between the two communities, which lead to filing of cases by both the communities.
 
Arunthathiyars allege that Paraiyars constructed the wall since Arunthathiyars are into unclean occupation like carrying dead bodies (human and livestock) and accuse them of using the
passage adjacent to the Rajakali Amman temple. In 2015, there was an agreement between both the communities for the construction of the wall in the presence of Zamindar, a Caste
Hindu Naicker. But the Arunthathiyars claim that they signed the document because of threats/liquor inducement/lack of unity.
 
The Arunthathiyars say that after the construction of the wall, the people who come for the Rajakali Amman temple festivals park their vehicles in the common space adjacent to the
Arunththiyar settlement and at in one instance the water sump was damaged. The Arunthathiyar women accuse Paraiyar men of using derogatory language against them after the construction
of the wall. They alleged that these were sexual in nature. Hence, there were several protests and appeal to the district administration to demolish the wall that was constructed by the
Paraiyars.
 
There were also negotiations between two caste groups with the outsider elements. After all their efforts failed the Arunthathiyar approached the Court by filing writ petition with
prayer to demolish the wall. The Madurai High Branch issued direction to district administration ‘to take appropriate action on the representation’ filed by the Arunthathiyars.
The ‘undue delay’ on the part of district administration to execute the Madurai High Court directive, which they alleged that gave enough time for the Paraiyars for getting an interim stay
order from the same court. This forced the Arunthathiyars to protest by leaving their home and live-in the foothills in temporary shelters. Though, case in the court now, they claim that they
“will not relent or return to our home until the ‘untouchability’ wall is brought down”.
 
The Paraiyar version: Temple “Protection” Wall:
The Paraiyar community claims that the wall was not constructed to prohibit the entry of Arunthathiyar to the Rajakali Amman temple and they do not restrict the access of Arunthathiyars to worship the deity at the temple. The fact is the main entrance of the unfinished wall faces the Aruthathiyar settlement.
 
Earlier, both the Paraiyar and Arunthathiyar community people used the facilities commonly, including watching the Panchayat Board Television in the common ground (kalam), which is
adjacent to the Arunthathiyar settlement. Later, when a Vinayagar temple was constructed (the Paraiyars mentioned that the temple was constructed through the Hindu AraNilaya Thurai
when TTV Dinakaran was MP of Periyakulam constituency) in the common place adjacent to Arunthathiyar settlement, the Arunthathiyars were claiming control over that temple.
 
The land, which is adjacent to Rajakali Amman temple, is used by Arunthathiyars as a common pathway. Initially the Paraiyar community agreed to leave two feet of land to be used as passage
then after several negotiations and talks between two communities, 12 feet width passageway was mutually agreed (in the presence of the Zamindar, who belongs to the Naicker caste) for
road construction. (The road has been laid by the district administration.)
 
The Paraiyars claim that both communities reached a written agreement in the year 2015, a wall was erected around the Rajakali Amman temple. They claim that the wall was constructed
in order to prevent misuse; and or further share of the land by the Arunthathiyars.
 
The Paraiyars claim that they do not discriminate Arunthathiyars on any ground and deny the allegation that they have stopped sending their children to the Anganwadi located in the
Arunthathiyar settlement where an Arunthathiyar teacher works. The Paraiyars gave very positive comment about the teacher as she distributes egg and other nutritional supplement to
the Paraiyar children by visiting their home even today. The Paraiyars say that there is strong discrimination against both the Paraiyar and the Arunthathiyars by the Maravars where the
two-tumbler system is in practice till today. Since the Paraiyar are resisting working in the fields and are also against the untouchability practices of Maravars, the Maravars are plotting
enmity between these two SC groups. The Paraiyars believe that the problem was intensified after the construction of the wall and the arguments lead to usage of abusive language between
the two communities. The Paraiyars strongly affirm that the wall around the temple is not an untouchability wall and access into and around the temple is neither restricted nor prevented
for Arunthathiyars.


 
The District Administration version: “Disputed” Wall
The disputed site is a Natham Poromboke land which could be used for public purposes. As a practice, constructions are allowed for any public utilities of the community. It is the district
administration’s responsibility to look into the welfare of everyone. Since the wall at Sandaiyur village was constructed based on mutual agreement of the two SC communities, the district
administration had no role to play at that point. Still, it may be the failure of the then district administration for allowing the construction of the wall.
 
The District Collector has initiated a number of Confidence Building Measures (CBM) between the two communities. He had visited the village and the foothills where the
Arunthathiyars were camped in protest and initiated peace-building measures. The district administration is keenly in touch with both communities which are protesting and revenue
administration is also keeping a close watch on the people. Money has been sanctioned for construction of Anganwadi besides the Rajakali Amman (where disputed wall is), since the
existing Anganwadi is in private land and on rented premises. Though he has powers to take any action, the District Collector and the district administration are seriously taking steps for
the long-term peace-building measures between both the communities since they need to co-exist. The Collector expressed that demolishing the wall neither solves the real problem nor is
it difficult to speak to the people and convince them, but there are some ‘outside elements’ who are influencing the communities for their own political gains. Keeping a watchful eye over the
situation, the district administration has posted police officers both at the disputed temple site and at the foothills where the villagers are protesting and the administration is getting updates
and reports regularly to keep the situation under control.
 
Observations of the FFT Team:
After reading all the documents obtained from both warring communities regarding the ongoing dispute and the peace negotiations between the Paraiyar and Arunthathiyar
communities and also after having interactions with different stakeholders the following are our observations:
 
Arulmigu Vinayagar Temple:
A Vinayagar temple has been constructed by the Arunthathiyars in a common space. The peace talk agreement (held on 21.07.2008) in the presence of Tahsildar shows that there was a law
and order issue over worshipping at the Arulmigu Vinayagar Temple. The content of the agreement details the timings that the temple should be kept open and also specifies that both
the communities should be allowed to worship at the temple in a manner to maintain peace.

The agreement has been signed by representatives from both the communities. It is understood that there has been conflict over claiming control of the Vinayagar temple. At present the
Vinayagar temple is locked and the key is with Arunthathiyar community and the priest who conducts the puja is an Arunthathiyar.
 
We could infer that both the communities have worshipped at the temple previously without any restrictions and constrains. Some of the Paraiyars community inhabitants have fluency over
Telugu language (Arunthathiyars speak Telugu at their home), which is a sign that there were  frequent interactions between both the communities.
 
Dispute over Possession of Control over the Common Lands in both Communities’ Settlement Area:
 
After the series of interviews with various stakeholders it is quite obvious that main contestation is for possession of control over space which had been in common usage over
three generations and it has become a serious phenomenon only in the past ten years.
 
 The Wall is neither “untouchability” nor for “Temple Protection” but could be for Possession of Control Over the common lands available in the settlements;
 There has been dispute over claim and counter claim on the ownership of the common space and allegations and counter allegation of both caste groups at Sandaiyur village.
 Both parties claimed that one did not prevent other for from using the areas but one group claims that the wall limits possession and control;
 Though, both caste groups are structurally located as outcastes but there are disparities in terms of education, employment and landholdings and relative differences in the cultural
practices, which is also a cause of the problem today;
 In the past, both the communities had friendly relationship and exchanging food and meat mutually was a customary practice. Both communities also attended all social functions
like marriage, etc. irrespective of caste differences. This shows that there has been no constraint or restrictions on either side to make use of the common space in the past.
 
Linking the Issue with Macro Caste Politics in TN:
However, the dominance of the Maravar caste and their discrimination against both Arunthathiyars and Paraiyars is strongly prevalent. The Paraiyars have filed (Under Prevention
of Atrocities Act) cases against the Maravars to resist the oppression by the Maravar community at Sandaiyur village. Paraiyars have boycotted work in the fields owned by
Maravars. Maravars still remain feudal landlords in the village. It is understood that the two-tumbler system is still prevalent as a sign of untouchability. But there has been no collective
effort put forth by Arunthathiyars and Paraiyars to resist or retaliate against the Maravars who practice untouchability for ages.
 
From all the above observations it is clear that the caste-based identity politics of the Caste-Hindu groups such as Vanniyars, Kallars and Gounders in different regions of Tamil Nadu has
infiltrated into Dalit politics. The Dravidian parties have always capitalised on the caste votes to be in power. The oppressed communities like Pallars, Paraiyars and Arunthathiyars were
also looked at as mere vote bank by these Dravidian parties and they have consciously negated the importance of Dalit political assertion, which is crucial for annihilation of caste.
 
The progressive political parties, which claim to work for social justice in Tamil Nadu, have hardly made a conscious effort to uniting the various Scheduled Castes or at least prevent antagonism among them. The various Dalit movements/parties/ groups who are trying to consolidate their power against the dominant caste in different parts of Tamil Nadu are continuing the same catastrophic imaginations and are mirroring this same identity politics (of identifying with their specific caste (Pallar, Paraiyar and Arunthathiyar) instead of consolidating and converting it as a larger political force.
 
As an imitation of the dominant caste political parties who propagate their caste pride, legacy, valour and masculinity some of the Dalit political movements have also started reclaiming their caste legacy (Veera Paraiyar, Veera Arunthathiyar). This is also creating hostility among the Dalit sub castes and prohibiting solidarity among Dalits.
 
Further, the scarcity of resources, its attendant contestation for scarce resources including land, living in a feudal set up, shrinking opportunities is resulting in the conflict based on identity
between identities. Macro policies of the government such as demonetisation, inflation, reducing job opportunities due to climate change and drought is also playing over these less
educated or uneducated people, forcing them to locate an “other” for the lost economic opportunities.
 
Suggestions:
1. The district administration should clarify its position to the wider public the reason for undue delay in executing the Madurai High Court’s directive and why it could
not prevent the “outside elements” from injecting caste based venoms in the minds of innocent people for their vested political interests;
 
2. The Fact Finding team is seriously concerned about the plight of the school going children and women; therefore, the state government should not remain a mute spectator and wait for this unpleasant situation to resolve itself. Instead, the state should act immediately to take steps to resolve the issue.
 
3. As both caste groups seek court intervention, they should adhere to whatever its decision of the court on the disputed wall and positive attempts to promote peace between both communities should be undertaken;
 
4. Besides, the state should implement its poll promise of providing two acres of cultivable land of each Aruthathiyars household. In fact, this was promised by the then TN government in 2005/6 that providing two acres land for landless and this would go a long way in alleviating poverty and help such downtrodden communities to come out of oppressive caste practices.
 
5. Today’s economic development centres around the Corporates, which enjoy many concessions from the state in the name Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). Corporates should be asked to adopt the Aruthathiyars of Indra Nagar, Sandaiyur,for better and fair access to quality education and employment;
 
6. We also appeal to Christian institutions and other private schools and colleges to provide free and fair education to Aruthathiyar children, which is one of the programme envisaged by Dalit Christian Development Programme in 2001/2.
 
7. The NGOs and other organisations working among Dalits in the villages should address these identity issues to build harmony among various Scheduled Castes.
 
 
Composition of Fact-Finding Team:
The fact-finding team was constituted with a conscious effort to have equal representation from both the SC communities and also included two non-SC academicians.
 
  • Ms. Semmalar Selvi, Assistant Professor, Department of Social Work, Loyola College, Chennai
  • Ms. Pazhaniammal, Lawyer and Independent Human Rights Activist, Chennai
  • Dr. Ponnuchamy, Independent Human Rights Activist, Madura
  • Dr. C. Lakshmanan, Associate Professor, Madras Institute of Development Studies,
  • Dr. S. Samuel Asir Raj, Professor and Director i/c, Centre for Study of Social
  • Exclusion & Inclusive Policies (CSSE&IP), Department of Sociology,
  • Manonmaniam Sundaranar University, Tirunelveli
  • Mr. Francis Adaikalam, Assistant Professor, Department of Social Work, Loyola
  • College, Chennai.
 
 
[1] Unlike in the western part of TN, the Thalayari here belong to the Maravar community. In Northern and Kongu regions mostly this position is held by SC, particularly Paraiyar and Arunthathiyar, hence they are called village police and Thoti as well. Because the job requires to do drumming for announcing the government’s messages time to time.
[2] Some of other fact finding report did not mention this temple and two identical community stage/halls in
their respective settlements.