State role in Tamil Nadu temples: Dalit experiences add to the debate

The DMK government may have promised to appoint eligible non-Brahmins as priests in HR&CE-managed temples, but the decision will grant scant consolation to Dalits living in villages around the state

Modi, Mamallapuram, Xi Jinping, Tamil Nadu
The Shore Temple at Mamallapuram Photo: Istock. For Illustrative Purposes Only

The DMK government in Tamil Nadu may have promised to appoint eligible non-Brahmins as priests in HR&CE-managed temples within its first one-hundred days, but the decision will grant scant consolation to Dalits living in villages around the state, where caste Hindus continue to have a say in who can and cannot pray at local temples.

These village temples – nearly one lakh dotted across the state – fall outside the purview of the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Department (HR&CE), which manages and controls temple administration in Tamil Nadu. Two recent cases of caste-based discrimination – which have come to light only now – will add to the recent debate over the role the state should play in temple affairs. In both cases, Dalits allege that caste Hindus denied them their constitutional right to worship.

The first incident took place at Vilukkam village in Villupuram. The village, located 4 km from Theevanur block in Tindivanam, has about 1,000 families. In 2013 the villagers decided to construct a temple dedicated to the Goddess Selliamman, with funds raised from everyone in and around Vilukkam, except the Dalits.

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“Both caste Hindus and scheduled castes live here. For many years they worshipped at a makeshift temple. A few years ago, they decided to build a proper temple. They had a budget of around 40 lakh,” said Bhoopal, an advocate based in Tindivanam.

“The funds were raised through donations, but the caste Hindus did not accept the 1 lakh donated by the SCs,” he said, adding that a former panchayat president and caste Hindu was behind the decision to turn down the donation.

When the newly built temple was inaugurated on April 29, the caste Hindus allegedly did not invite the Dalits. They also told the Dalits that they would have to pay a fine of Rs2,000 if they entered the temple premises.

“We were unable to visit the temple that day [the day it was consecrated]. However, our people went the next day [April 30],” said P Murugan, a villager.

“We used to take flowers, fruit and saris to the deity [Goddess Selliamman] when the temple was still makeshift. We took these gifts on April 30. But upper caste men threw our gifts into a nearby lake that very night,” he said.

Murugan said the Dalits wanted to file a police complaint, but an upper caste man named Ajit Prakash, a retired government servant, offered to mediate.

“But nothing happened. So we filed a complaint on June 3. When police started investigating the case, the upper caste men said that they would allow us to enter the temple.”

Less than two weeks after this incident, a similar one took place at Ottanandhal village in Villupuram, when three elderly Dalits were allegedly made to prostrate before caste Hindus for organising a temple festival during COVID lockdown. In this case police file charges against eight people under various provisions of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. But the villagers say police action is not enough.

Call for State Action

Bhoopal told The Federal that the government should consider bringing all temples in the state under HR&CE management – an idea backed by the Dalit villagers.

According to the local MP, another way to ensure that Dalits have equal access to temples would be to link the salaries and benefits of priests at non-HR&CE shrines to steps taken by them to end discrimination.

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“It is sad that the backward castes have started accepting priests from all castes, but they do not want to give Dalits the right to worship,” said D Ravikumar, who represents Villupuram in Parliament.

“HR&CE has formed welfare boards to oversee village temples that don’t come under the department,” he said. “To become a member of the welfare board, the candidates must ensure that everyone is welcome to pray at the temple,” he said.

Currently around 4,000 village priests are paid 3,000 per month and their families also get various state benefits, Ravikumar said.

“The government can introduce a new rule saying in order for the priests to receive salary and benefits, their temples must be open to people from all sections of the society.”

“If we can bring in such a rule, these kinds of discrimination will end,” he said.

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