Sri Bhadrakaliamman temple, Kallimedu.
Nagapattinam: S. Palanisamy, district collector of Nagapattinam, has banned the annual festival at the 800-year-old Pazhankallimedu Bhadrakaliamman temple, 40 km from here, which falls in the Tamil month of Aadi, in deference to caste Hindus who wanted to keep Dalits out of the festival. All that the Dalits wanted was to host mandagapadi to Bhadrakali one day during the five-day festival and the temple car taken out in procession should pass through the Dalit section of Pazhankalimedu village having a population of about 1,000, one-fourths of them Dalits. The festival should have begun on August 8.
"We asked for just one day, one day, to host mandagapadi to our Amma," rues 65-year-old Nagammal who believes the deity, Bhadrakaliamman, was born in the Dalit sector of Pazhankalimedu 900 years ago and had been taken over by the caste Hindus. "We have been kept away from performing mandagapadi ritual for ages." Last month the Dalits sent a petition to Collector Palanisamy, demanding their legal and moral right to perform mandagapadi. He conducted ‘peace talks’ with the caste Hindus, mostly belonging to the Pillaimar community, and the Scheduled Castes on July 30, but failed to reach a consensus. All the conditions laid down by the collector, including the allotment of one day for the Dalits, were unacceptable to the caste Hindus whereupon he banned the festival.
Only once in the past, the annual festival of this ancient temple could not be held and that was because it was undergoing major renovation.
Last year the temple car was not taken out in procession because there was a court order to include the Dalit area as well. Rather than honouring the court order, caste Hindus preferred to do away with the car procession.
The collector’s unprecedented decision now to do away with the five-day festival has made the Dalits lose their faith in the government. The Bhadrakaliamman temple at Pazhankalimedu is administered by the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Department and it is their constitutional duty to ensure that Dalits are not discriminated against, says the Dalits. Last year, N Pakkirisamy, the village head, filed a writ petition in the Madras High Court about conducting the annual festival. The court ruled in favour of the Scheduled Castes.
Clearly taking the side of caste Hindus, the collector advised the Dalits to follow the age-old traditions of the Bhadra kaliamman temple. "Only men tie thali to women. Women are not supposed to tie thali on men," said the collector as if to convince the Dalits that only caste Hindus can perform mandagapadi.
Jayabalan, accountant of the temple and a HR & CE department staff, said "certain rituals and traditions cannot be changed", meaning that only the caste Hindus were performing the mandagapadi all these years and so the Dalits now have no right to change the ‘custom’.
The issue would have ended there but for the Dalits threatening to embrace Islam en mass if they were not allowed to host mandagapadi for one day during the annual festival. "Why should we remain Hindus if we are not allowed to worship our Goddess? We have not yet decided (to convert) but if this discrimination persists, we have no other option", said Senthil Kumar, union secretary of the Viduthalai Chiruthaligal Katchi (VCK). The VCK has been saying that banning the annual festival by the district collector was tantamount to contempt of court.
"When we asked for just one day’s permission to host mandagapadi for our Amman, the caste Hindus and their Collector tell us that’s against the custom. We have been thus suppressed for ages and we are allowed to worship the deity only from the outside. Now our youngsters have become engineers, lawyers and doctors; will they fall in line with this discriminating custom?" challenged Kanagavalli, 65, MNREGA worker.
The Tamil Nadu Thowheed Jamat sent a team whose members distributed copies of the Holy Quran to the victims and asked them to study the basic tenets of Islam before getting converted. It may be recalled the entire Dalit population of Meenakshipuram village in Thirunelveli district converted to Islam in early 1980 as Islam does not practice caste discrimination and the Meenakshipuram converts have been free from discrimination.
The caste Hindus have accused the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) of instigating the Pazhankalimedu Dalits to defy the ‘custom’ and demand access in the temple rituals. They also allege that the Jamat is trying to fish in troubled waters. The Hindu Makkal Katchi general secretary Ram Ravikumar landed at the village and camped for over a week trying to ‘negotiate’ peace.
"It’s not wise to convert. Would they be able to host mandagapadi if they convert? We must negotiate", Ravikumar told this correspondent, adding that he too was taken aback with the Collector’s order banning the festival. "The collector did not give them time to think and decide when he just announced banning the festival. That was not proper", he said. Should the Dalits convert to Islam, only the caste Hindus of Pazhankalimedu, and perhaps the insensitive local administration, must be held responsible. And if that happens, the Badrakaliamman of Dalit Nagammal and caste Hindu Jayabalan is not going to be happy.