Tamil Nadu: Vanniyars of Melpathi threaten self-immolation if Dalits are allowed inside the village temple

The Draupadi Amman temple is controlled by the state government's Hindu Religious & Charitable Endowments Department.

ByVinodh Arulappan

Published May 19, 2023 | 9:33 PMUpdatedMay 19, 2023 | 9:33 PM

Vanniyars threaten self-immolation if Dalits enter temple

In a bizarre turn of events, Vanniyars — a dominant caste of the Melpathi village in Tamil Nadu’s Viluppuram district — have threatened self-immolation in a bid to prevent people from the Scheduled Caste (SC) community into the local Sri Dharmaraja Draupadi Amman temple.

The temple is, incidentally, managed and controlled by the state government’s Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HR&CE) Department.

Also Read: After an 8-decade wait, Dalits enter a temple at Thenmudiyanur

What led to the incident

According to the police, a group from the SC community hailing from the village lodged a complaint on Wednesday, 17 May, with Higher Education Minister Ponmudy K over the “atrocity” of not being allowed into the temple. They also demanded action against a few dominant caste people for assaulting Dalit youths.

Dalit representatives hold talks with Minister Ponmudy at Viluppuram Collectorate. (Supplied)

The minister assured of action and instructed the district administration to take steps to allow people from the Scheduled Castes into the temple.

Subsequently, the officials held talks with Vanniyar representatives, which eventually failed.

The following day, more than a hundred Vanniyars locked the temple and staged a protest in front of it. They raised slogans against the minister and officials. A battalion of police was deployed in the village to maintain order.

Four people, including two women, poured kerosene on themselves and tried to self-immolate. The bid to end their lives failed as the police rushed and secured them. The move led to commotion and chaos in the area.

Later, the caste Hindus threatened to surrender their government identity cards, including their Aadhaar cards, electoral IDs, and ration cards.

The officials sought to hold talks with the villagers, but the Vanniyar representatives turned down their request and denied the Dalits permission to enter the temple.

Also Read: Ammini, woman who entered Sabarimala temple, leaves Kerala 

We have to save our tradition: Vanniyars

Speaking to South First, the temple’s priest Jayakumar, who belongs to the dominant caste, said that they were following the traditions of the temple set by their ancestors.

“It is a false allegation. We allowed the colony people (Dalits) into the temple at the ‘Dharmar Pattabhishekam’ (coronation of the deity). Goddess Draupadi Amman is very powerful here and any violation of the temple shastras will lead to disaster. A few Dalit youths are creating unnecessary problems; the elders of the Scheduled Caste people know the tradition very well.”

Vanniyar women protests in front of the temple. (Supplied)

K Santhi, a woman who protested against the Dalits’ entry, told South First that the temple belongs to their ancestors and it is the politicians who are unnecessarily interfering in their temple’s affairs. She said they were the reason for all the problems in the village.

“We are not against the Dalits. We are preserving the tradition of the temple that has been followed for generations,” she said when asked if actions of the dominant caste was not a violation of the Right to Equality.

Also Read: Water tanks, exclusive schemes — and the othering of Dalits 

We donate, say Dalits

However, the Dalits refuted the claims of the Vanniyars.

Ramesh, a Dalit youth, said, “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.”

Another Dalit elder from the village, who didn’t want to be named, told South First that, years ago, they were not even allowed to walk on the streets around the temple.

“If we want to worship, we have to stand outside the temple, yards away from the temple gate. Even we make donations to the temple. Though the temple is under the control of HR&CE Department, it is fully controlled by them (Vanniyars),” the elder said.

“When the temple belongs to the government, why should it hold talks with other caste people and request them to allow us inside?” he questioned.

Also Read: Dalits attacked in Cuddalore for playing song on their liberation

Background of the issue

According to sources, in April 2023, the annual nine-day-long temple festival was conducted. On the ninth day, a Dalit named Kathiravan, along with his two brothers, tried to enter the temple. Following this, 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 Revenue Divisional Office (RDO), but no action was taken.

Police deployed for protection in front of the temple. (Supplied)

An RDO-level officer 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.

“In order to maintain law and order and avoid unnecessary clashes between the two communities, we are holding peace talks and trying to bring them to an amicable solution. The minister (Ponmudy) and the district collector are determined to bring equality in the village,” he added.