Page last updated at 15:56 GMT, Monday, 19 May 2008 16:56 UK

The walls still keeping untouchables out

By TN Gopalan
Tamil Nadu

The wall dividing the upper castes and Dalits being brought down in Madurai, India
The wall dividing the upper castes and Dalits being brought down (Photo: G Moorthy)

What do many higher caste Hindus in parts of India's Tamil Nadu state still not share with the Dalits, formerly known as untouchables?

They insist on separate glasses for drinking tea and they do not allow the untouchables to go to the same barber shops.

They ban them from temples, cremation grounds and river bathing points, among other examples.

All this in a state that prides itself on being one of the most politically progressive and educationally advanced parts of the country.

But studies have found at least 45 different forms of "untouchability" being practised by upper caste Hindus against Dalits in Tamil Nadu.

Social liability

So a recent news item about a wall segregating higher caste Hindu residents from their Dalit counterparts in Uthapuram village in Madurai district barely 600km (350 miles) from the state capital, Madras (Chennai) didn't exactly come as a surprise.

The higher caste Hindu residents say they won permission for the wall after inter-caste violence in the late 1980s. The wall kept Dalit people out of the main parts of the village.

Dalits comprise the majority of residents in Uthapuram and most of them are not badly off either.

The authorities demolished part of the wall following an order from the state government to allow Dalits to go where they wanted in the village. Chief Minister Muthuvel Karunanidhi himself announced the decision in the state assembly.

Dalit tribals in India
Discrimination against Dalits remains widespread

About 800 higher caste Hindus decided to leave the village and seek refuge on a nearby hillock in protest against the decision. They have now returned.

So does the decision of the authorities to back the demolition of the wall mark a turning point for the Dalits in Tamil Nadu?

Ravi Kumar, a leading Dalit intellectual, is doubtful. "I don't expect this to galvanise the Dalits for you don't have such walls elsewhere. The fight against other forms of untouchability would prove far tougher."

Dalits or the Scheduled Castes, the official name for the lowest castes, constitute roughly 19% of the Tamil Nadu's 62.4 million people.

They can swing election results by voting together for one candidate or a party.

Raw deal

Still they continue to receive a raw deal.

Economically their lot has improved in recent years, but they continue to languish at the lower end of the income scale.

They have their constitutional quota of members in the state legislature. They also have a couple of ministers in the cabinet.

But the Dalit ministers have to content themselves with relatively unimportant portfolios.

But this isn't just about discrimination within Hinduism.

More than 60% of Christians in Tamil Nadu are Dalits - most converted hoping to find more freedom. But they still have very little voice and are largely shunned in the church.

They again find themselves humiliated, with separate pews, services, churches, corteges, enclosures in cemeteries and so on.

Dalit women in India
Even in areas where they are in a majority, Dalits continue to languish

Recently a tentative effort was made in a village called Erayur to integrate the Dalits in all the services.

But a group of Christians protested and threatened to go back to Hinduism if the Catholic church went ahead with its initiatives.

The diocese had to back down. Right now it is trying to persuade the protesting group to re-open the church they had locked in the first flush of the protest.

But they appear to want an undertaking that the church would not do anything to "hurt" their sentiments.

"It is all unfortunate, but then bishops cannot go beyond a point in pushing the integration agenda," says Father Vincent Chinnadurai, chairman of the State Minorities Commission which advises the Tamil Nadu government on how to improve minority rights.

"The congealed mindset takes a pretty long time to come to terms with the realities of the modern world."

Clearly it is going to be a pretty long haul for the untouchables - Hindu or Christian - in one of India's most developed states.

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