//The Temple of Great Divide

The Temple of Great Divide

Jaya Menon, Indian Express, Monday, April 24, 2006

Karuppu Samy temple is at the core of bitter caste fanaticism and electioneering between Thevars and Dalits

Melavalavu (Madurai), April 23: Nestling inside a rocky hill and hidden behind trees, you could almost miss the village temple famed for its fierce-looking deity, Karuppu (Black) Samy. The rocky Somagiri hills are a sharp contrast to the Poorani lake flecked with storks at its foot. But, the apparent peace and harmony in the picturesque surroundings in the heart of Melavalavu is deceptive. The Karuppu Samy temple, which draws devotees from as far as Malaysia and Singapore, is, in fact, the core of simmering caste fanaticism that has once again dominated elections in Tamil Nadu.

On June 30, 1997, Melavalavu village witnessed one of the bloodiest caste clashes in the state’s history. The Thevars, a dominant caste in the state’s southern districts, brutally hacked to death seven Dalits, including the Melavalavu Panchayat president, K Murugesan, and his brother K Raja, the vice-president. Their crime: Daring to stand for elections to the panchayat (reserved for Dalits) and questioning the ‘‘mismanagement’’ by the Thevars of the large temple funds.

‘‘The temple belongs to all of us. The priests belong to the backward Moopanar caste. But, the Kallars (a Backward Caste sect of the Thevars) supervise the temple and use the funds for their community alone. None of us questioned them. We were too scared. But, there was growing discontentment, particularly since our people worked like slaves under them,’’ said N Vishwanathan, himself a Dait youth in the village. DMK president M Karunanidhi, who became Chief Minister in 1996, for the first time announced local body elections. For the Melavalavu Dalits, the reservation of their panchayat seemed a way to break out of their shackles. But the Thevar domination was intense and there were few who could stand up to their threats.

‘‘The first time elections were announced the Thevars confiscated the ballot box and dunked it into the village well. No one from the ‘‘colony’’ (as the Dalit locality, separated from the Thevars by a good half a kilometer, is called) dared to go to the Thevar side of the village. The second time, one of our candidates filed his nomination and fled. It was only the third time, that Murugesan bravely stood for election and was elected,’’ said V Podharayan. The result was the brutal killings.

The Thevars, with its various sects, the Kallars, Pramalai Kallars, and Agamudiars, thickly populated in the southern districts of Madurai, Dindigul, Theni, Tirunelveli and Ramnad, have traditionally backed the AIADMK. The consolidation was all the more prominent from 1991 after AIADMK supremo, J Jayalalithaa, first came to power and flaunted her closeness to Sasikala Natarajan, a Kallar. With the growing influence of Sasikala in the Jayalalithaa household and the AIADMK dispensation, the Thevars began to be favoured with tickets during elections, ministerial births and plum party posts.

Even in this election, the AIADMK has fielded mostly Thevars in the southern districts in a bid to lure large chunks of the caste votes. The Dalits, the next biggest group, are wooed by the DMK, Congress and Thol Thirumavalavan’s Dalit Panthers of India (DPI). The growing influence of the decade-old DPI can be seen in Melavalavu.

M. Manimekalai, wife of Murugesan, slaughtered by the Thevars for daring to continue to be the Panchayat president, today backs the AIADMK, which is actively wooing the caste to which her husband’s killers belong. Murgesan’s brother, K Karuppiah, a DPI functionary, campaigns everyday for the AIADMK’s Thevar candidate, R Samy for the Melavalavu constituency. ‘‘What can we do? The DPI has aligned with the AIADMK. We have no option,’’ said Manimekalai, brushing away tears. It was Thirumavalavan who had a memorial built for the seven murdered Dalits in the village, calling it the ‘Viduthalai Kalam (Field of Liberty).

Nine years after the dastardly killings, the High Court on April 19 cofirmed a July 2001 order of a Principal Sessions Judge sentencing 17 accused to life imprisonment and acquitting 23. The Dalits say just before the court verdict rumours that the ruling AIADMK’s help was being sought to get some of the accused off the hook threatened to disrupt peace in the village again.

So, while political parties continue to exploit the traditional Thevar-Dalit enmity, an uneasy truce prevails in Melavalavu. During a temple festival last year, the situation got out of hand, with the Dalits protesting the posters of Muthuramalinga Thevar that appeared on the temple walls. The police intervened and had it removed. Now a calendar with a picture of the caste leader, better known as a freedom fighter and founder leader of the All India Forward Bloc, hangs from a pillar, beside the deity. ‘‘Will they allow us to paste a poster of Ambedkar at the temple?’’ asked Vishwanathan.

Near the village manthai (a one-room hut where the panchayat meets and the Dalits cannot step in) in the Thevar segment, a heated discussion is on about the AIADMK’s electoral prospects. Said S Pandi, a CPI(M) member: ‘‘Our Panchayat has already passed a diktat that the 2,000-odd Thevars in the village should vote only for the AIADMK.’’

The Thevars dismiss charges of dominion over the Dalits. But it was the Thevars who handpicked the Dalit candidate for the Melavalavu Panchayat election held in 2001. The Dalits were forced to vote for S. Sellammaal, who had no rivals and who continues to be manipulated by her bosses. The village is dreading the next local body election slated for December 2006.