For over 70 years, perhaps much earlier, Dalits of Thenmudiyanur village in Tamil Nadu's Tiruvannamalai district have not been allowed to enter the Muthalamman temple.
This state of conflict between 'upper' and 'lower' castes reached a new chapter when the government intervened to have the Dalits enter the temple last year. This only enraged those who did not want Dalits to enter.
The latest in the conflict is that one section wants to move away from the temple and host the traditional 13-day post Pongal festivities on private property, whereas the Dalits allege this to be a form of untouchability. The former have even built a private temple for themselves.
The Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HR&CE) Department is scheduled to hold talks in order to find a way out. This, however, is not the first time that temples in rural Tamil Nadu controlled by HR&CE have been the venue of caste conflicts.
The Draupadi Amman temple in Melpathi village of Villupuram district was sealed in June 2023 after such clashes. A month earlier, some villagers had threatened to self-immolate themselves if Dalits were allowed entry into the temple.
In December 2022, the Revenue Department sealed the Sakthi Mariamman temple in Virudasampatti near Salem.
These conflicts are but a small sample of things that have gone or remained wrong in Tamil Nadu's temples under the HR&CE Department that administers these temples.
The political rhetoric in the state has always been that 'upper' caste Hindus would not permit 'lower' castes or Dalit worshippers to enter temples and hence a government body such as the HR&CE was required to address and avoid this.
Chief Minister M K Stalin had once said that temples are for the public and the department was formed to change the situation of them being under individual control.
"Whether it is monarchy or democracy, temples are for people only. They are for the public only, irrespective of any kind of rule. Shrines are not the personal property of someone. This (HR&CE) Department was created during the Justice Party rule only to change that situation (of temples being in individuals' control)," he said.
HR&CE's administration notwithstanding, it is not hard to identify temples where Dalits continue to be kept out. The Dravidian political system's political line that HR&CE will act as an instrument of social justice is not particularly test proof. Even before independence it was reformers outside the fold of HR&CE who had fought for the inclusion of Dalits in temples.
Take for the example, the entry of Dalits into the Meenakshi Amman temple in Madurai. Freedom fighter, A Vaidyanatha Iyer led a group of four Dalits into the temple on 8 July 1939. Among those who supported their entry was Mahatma Gandhi.
Given these facts, the issue of temple freedom or even better temple management can move forward only when all sides are made to see that Dalit entry and their participation in temples is not ensured by HR&CE but by other organs of state.
Further, social reform per se is a difficult enterprise for a government department — that task should be in the realm of the society.
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