The Mettupalayam wall collapse in which 17 members of the Arunthathiyar caste (Scheduled Caste) lost their lives, has returned as a reminder of caste fissures which run deep in Tamil Nadu.
Caste walls, which serve as a physical reminder of discrimination isn’t just limited to the face-off between Dalits and caste Hindus. Southern parts of Tamil Nadu is also witnessing this wall of division between Dalits themselves.
“India has 6,000 castes, but no two castes are equal. Inequalities also prevail between Dalits. However, instead of saying that the discrimination happens between Paraiyars or Arunthathiyars, we should see as it happened to Dalits. So, the question of whether Arunthathiyars are affected, becomes redundant,” says Punitha Pandian, editor, Dalit Murasu magazine.
It is surprising that Tamil Nadu with a growth rate of 8.17% and literacy rate of 80%, still struggles to come to terms with caste divisions. The Mettupalayam incident is just one of the many such flashpoints between caste Hindus and Dalits.
A history of divide
In 1989, Uthapuram in Madurai saw a 30 metre wall raised by the Pillaimar community, an OBC caste that wanted to keep out residents belonging to the Devandra Kula Vellalar community from the Mariamman temple. The wall was brought down finally in 2008, after the intervention of various groups working to abolish caste system.
The wall of caste divide isn’t restricted only to the living, in 2010, a 200-year-old caste wall to demarcate a graveyard belonging to Christians converts was demolished. The 600-feet long wall in Melapudur in Trichy, which was first demolished in 1976, rebuilt subsequently, still stands albeit at a length of 2 feet as a symbol of the deep-rooted schism.
Three years later, another wall built in 2013 in Madurai’s Santhaiyur village was demolished in 2018. This wall wasn’t raised against Dalits by caste Hindus, instead, Paraiyars, built it against Arunthathiyars, the lowest among the Dalits in Tamil Nadu.
In 2010, a wall built in Nagarajapuram of Coimbatore district was demolished. In the same year, another wall built in Periyar Nagar, where Arunthathiyars reside was demolished.
In 2011, a caste wall, which stood for 40 years in Salem’s 42nd ward was demolished, incidentally the street in which the wall existed was named after Gandhi.
Ravichandran Bathran, founder, Dalit Camera, a YouTube channel believes that the reason behind Dalits discrimination between themselves could be due to them accepting popular narratives tilted against them.
“Caste Hindus used to term Dalits as untouchables, carcass eaters and menial workers. This normalisation has now been adopted by Paraiyars over Arunthathiyars. In Santhaiyur, this was what happened. Paraiyars started to act like upper caste and Arunthathiyars became the victims. Pallars have land and money and the Paraiyars have strong leadership but both these factors are lacking in the case of Arunthathiyars, says Bathran, who was a member of the study group which brought out the story behind the Santhaiyur caste wall.
“Unless we question the caste system, we cannot find a solution to these atrocities. But we are questioning only the atrocities and not the root cause,” says Pandian.
However, Jakkaiyan, founder president of Aathi Tamilar Katchi, a political party for Arunthathiyars, are different. While all other discriminations are common for Pallars, Paraiyars and Arunthathiyars, the walls are built mostly in the places where Arunthathiyars live, says Jakkaiyan. “Because they are the ones who do manual scavenging works. Even in north India you don’t see such walls in the places where manual scavengers reside,” he added.
Another dimension to Jakkaiyan’s contention is the class conflict within Dalits. “For any movement to grow, a middle class should be formed. Among Pallar and Paraiyar’s the middle class exists. But among Arunthathiyar’s it doesn’t exist. Also unlike Pallars or Paraiyars, who have strength in numbers in certain areas, Arunthathiyars are scattered. They are largely dispersed in urban areas. So it becomes difficult to bring them under an umbrella organisation,” says Jakkaiyan.
Caste divide in Tamil Nadu isn’t a new phenomenon, an example of its existence is centuries old. An example of it is the wall in Cuddalore’s Chidambaram Nataraja temple. “As legend has it, the wall was built after Nandan, a Dalit managed to get a glimpse of the deity from the street. Now, if anyone wants to enter the temple, they should come through either the east, west or north entrance,” says Maniarasan, district secretary, Revolutionary Students and Youth Front, Cuddalore. The organisation protested against the wall in 2013.
Maniarasan says political parties aren’t interested in taking up the issue as they are interested only to win votes.