The Tamil Nadu government on Wednesday, 7 June, sealed the Sri Dharmaraja Draupadi Amman temple in Melpathi village of Villupuram district where caste Hindus continue to deny entry to members of the Scheduled Caste (SC) community.
After several rounds of talks with members of the dominant Vanniyar community of the village and representatives of the SC community failed, revenue officials, on the orders of District Collector Dr C Palani, sealed the temple on Wednesday morning.
While the Vanniyars control the day-to-day affairs of the temple, it comes under the state government’s Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HR&CE) Department and is supposed to be accessible to all communities.
What the restraining order says
In his order, Villupuram Revenue Divisional Officer (RDO) S Ravichandran said since a report from the police — which was overseeing the peace talks between the two communities — suggested that a breakdown of law and order was a possibility after the failure of the talks, he had sealed the temple until a solution is found.
The RDO also summoned the stakeholders of the temple and the elders of both the communities to come to his office on 11 June and give their statements in writing, failing which he would issue a warrant to ensure their appearance.
In the detailed order, RDO Ravichandran said that several rounds of talks had failed and no amicable solution has been arrived at between the two communities.
“Misinformation and rumors are being spread through social media and a worrisome situation is prevailing in the village, which creates tension between the two communities. Further, public tranquility is affected and a possible threat to the law and order situation prevails. In order to avoid those, I am restraining anyone from entering the Sri Dharmaraja Draupadi Amman temple and directing them to seal it until further orders,” the order read.
Police move in
Following the RDO’s order to seal the temple, a large police contingent has been deployed in the village, and armed police were posted in front of the temple. The IG of North Zone and Villupuram DIG are camping in the village and monitoring the situation.
About the failure of the talks, a senior police officer told South First: “From 7 April to 17 May, several rounds of talks were held between the the Vanniyars and SC community. On 26 May, the final talks were held in the presence of the revenue officials and senior police officials.”
“But the Vanniyars were stubborn and said they would not allow the Scheduled Caste community members into the temple. They said that they had no objection to the Dalits worshiping the deity while standing outside the temple,” he added.
The police officer also said that there are intel reports that a few Hindu outfits are backing the caste Hindus and this could lead to protests.
On 29 and 30 May, the Vanniyars, including women in the village, held a demonstration in front of the temple against the government officials for seeking to resolve the matter through talks.
K Rajagopal, a Vanniyar resident of the village, said: “The temple belongs to us. Other community people very well know about the customs of worship; they are creating problems in the village.”
However, HR&CE officials said that, as per the records of the Revenue Department, the Dharmaraja Draupadi Amman temple has been built on government poramboke land, and has been under the control of the HR&CE Department for the past 45 years.
Political parties insist on equality in worship
On 5 June, an all-party delegation, including representatives from the CPI, CPI(M), SDPI, Tamil Nadu Muslim Munnetra Kazhagam, and Dravida Kazhagam, led by Villupuram MP D Ravikumar, petitioned the district collector to take measures to permit the Scheduled Castes into the temple.
Ravikumar also alleged that the priest from the temple was the prime reason for the caste discrimination and urged the district collector to initiate legal action against him.
The delegation said the collector should ensure equality of worship, and insisted that he appoint a Board of Trustees for the Draupadi Amman temple and other temples that fall under the HR&CE Department in Villupuram district.
Background to the case
South First has learnt that trouble began in April during the annual nine-day-long temple festival. On the ninth day, a Dalit named Kathiravan, along with his two brothers, tried to enter the temple. The caste Hindus castigated the brothers and it resulted in a minor clash between the two groups.
After this incident, a peace meeting was held between the representatives of the two communities, brokered by the Viluppuram RDO, but no action was taken.
An RDO-level officer earlier told South First that the village is dominated by the Vanniyars and the Scheduled Caste people don’t have any other problems with them, except for the temple issue.
“We clarified to the caste Hindus that the temple belongs to the HR&CE Department. We also warned them not to prevent the Dalits from entering the temple.
As the issue festered, members if the SC community, on 17 May, petitioned the Higher Education Minister K Ponmudy, who belongs to Villupuram district, against the caste atrocity and sought his help to allow them into the temple.
The minister assured of action and instructed the district administration to take steps to allow the SCs into the temple.
Subsequently, the officials held talks with Vanniyar representatives, which eventually failed.
Meanwhile, some Vanniyars even tried to self-immolate themselves to protest the decision to allow the Dalits inside the temple.
“This is not happening all of a sudden. The problem has been there for years. The temple belongs to the HR&CE Department and it is not anyone’s private property. Earlier, when such an issue arose, the then district collector held talks with the Vanniyar representatives and took us into the temple. But the caste Hindus erected a screen and covered the deity in order to prevent us from worshipping,” a Dalit youth, Ramesh, had then told South First.