The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Conversion crisis after temple tussle

Kancheepuram, Sept. 15: A long-drawn caste row over temple rights in a small village about 10 km from here is threatening to snowball with about 55 Dalit families preparing to convert to Islam.

As the upper-caste Hindus in Koothirambakkam, mainly Vanniyars and Yadavas, geared up for the finale of the three-day festivities at the Muthumari Amman temple this evening, the Dalits braced for a matham maarum vizha (conversion ceremony).

The festival was held up for eight years as the Dalits went to court, claiming rights in the temple administration, their share in temple resources, like the lake, and that the deity — goddess Durga — be taken round in procession during the festival through their colony on the outskirts of the village.

The lower court had ruled in favour of the upper castes administering the temple, against which the Dalits have appealed in the high court.

Armed with the court’s order, the upper castes — about 300 households, almost all of them growing paddy and groundnut — are going ahead with this year’s festivities according to tradition. Songs in praise of Shiva and Durga are blaring from loudspeakers at the temple. At 3 pm, women began circumambulating the temple with freshly-scrubbed cows and bullocks as they are “auspicious elements” which will ensure agricultural prosperity while the Vanniyar boys beat drums to mark the last day’s rituals. Usually, the Dalit boys play this part, but this year they have stayed away.

A stone’s throw away from the temple, the Dalits are playing songs in praise of Allah on hired speakers at the entrance of their colony to signal their defiance of the celebrations at the temple.

The village has been tense for three days and a large police force has been deployed to maintain law and order. Neither the upper castes nor the Dalits are in a confrontationist mood.

“But both sides are adamant. If only they had showed some flexibility, the issue could have been sorted out yesterday when the collector, the local minister and representatives of both sides held a peace meeting,” said a police official.

Elocuting the upper-castes’ case, Venugopal, a farmer, said: “We are not against the Dalits worshipping at the Muthumari Amman temple. Despite several verbal provocation from them all these years, we have been restrained. We do not practise untouchability; they can participate in the festival. But we cannot change the customary practice of taking the deity in procession only through the four streets around the temple.” The upper castes are also not averse to taking donations from the Dalits for the temple activities.

A Dalit, G. Vedachalam, contended: “Are traditional practices so rigid that they cannot even slightly modify the procession route of the deity to visit our dwelling place'”

But the Dalits’ case has been given a twist with villagers saying it is not the first time they have threatened to convert. A village official said the Dalits have been using the “threat of religious conversion to bring the district administration to its knees”. They have managed to get several demands fulfilled over the years with the do-it-or-we-shall-embrace-Islam threat, he added.

Ezhumalai, a Vanniyar youth, agreed. After they issued such a warning in protest against the lack of basic amenities, they “now have a cement road running through their colony, drinking water facility and a separate ration shop for just 55 households”. The Dalit colony also has two temples, he added.

But the Dalits are unfazed. Sitting under a huge neem tree, some of them chorused: “The administration is favouring the upper caste and if Hindu religion cannot ensure our basic human rights, denying passage access to the goddess for whose temple we have all contributed, then we do not need this religion.”

“People may poke fun at us that we are merely threatening to embrace Islam, this time we are firm and all of us here want to convert to Islam,” asserted Vedachalam, producing a charter of demands.

“We will not publicise it. But we are in touch with the Jamat at Kancheepuram and the whole thing, whatever needs to be done, will be a low-key affair, possibly in the next few days,” he said, blaming the “hegemonic” upper castes and the administration of “pushing them to make this choice”.

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