Kerala villagers try to block Dalits, face action from state Commission
The Kerala State Commission for SC/ST has initiated action against residents of a village in Pathanamthitta district for stopping eight Dalit families from constructing houses on land donated by a local individual in the latest case of caste discrimination.
Commission chairman B.S. Mavoji, who led a team of officials to the site in Pazhavangadi panchayat in Ranni on Friday as part of the investigation, confirmed caste discrimination and death threats faced by the Dalit families and directed the police to book a case under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989.
The commission recorded statements of the beneficiaries of the land donated by Valliath Thomas Varghese, 77, an American citizen with roots in Ranni, and the locals, all of them Christians.
“People from that area have taken an anti-Dalit stand. It has become a conflict between Dalits and those against them,” he told reporters after hearing both sides.
Each family now owns three cents of land in the village as the donor completed the registration formalities two weeks ago. The locals had been up in arms against Varghese’s decision to donate the land, part of his inheritance, to the Dalit families a few months ago.
“This is a gross violation of Article 17 of the Indian Constitution (abolition of untouchability). We are directing the police to register cases against those who used caste slurs, tried to attack them and gave death threats to the Dalits under the atrocities act,” he said.
Quite similar to an earlier case in Alappuzha district where upper caste families prevented a Dalit woman from building her house, the obstruction in Ranni was based on the argument that the locality would end up being a “Dalit colony”, an unofficial term used to describe enclaves where members of the community reside.
A harried Varghese told The Telegraph that he only wanted to help the needy and did not look at their caste while shortlisting beneficiaries from a batch of 65 families. “I picked the eight families since all of them lived in rented accommodation with their children. But the local people accused me of converting the area into a Dalit colony, which they shamelessly described as a brothel,” said Varghese, who has been living in Ranni for four years.
A few local families had recently filed a case claiming ownership to the panchayat road that connects the donated land in a bid to stop the project.
Varghese blamed local ward member Shirley George of the Congress for coming in the way. “She clearly told me that she won’t allow Dalits to live in her neighbourhood as long as she is a panchayat member.”
“I have lost my peace of mind for doing something, which I thought was good for the society until the same society came back to bite me,” Varghese added.
Sources privy to Friday’s developments said the commission chairman chided Shirley for her stand.
Shirley could not be contacted for comments as her phone was not reachable.
Ranni MLA Pradeep Narayanan of the Kerala Congress (Mani), a part of the ruling Left front, had recently visited the place and promised suitable action. However, the Congress has refrained from commenting on the issue apparently because the neighbourhood is its stronghold.
Member of the SC/ST commission, S. Ajayakumar told this newspaper that the visit by the chairman was part of the procedure after registering a case. “We had registered a suo motu case based on media reports,” said the CPM leader and four-time MP.
Ajayakumar attributed the surge in cases related to atrocities against Dalits to the rise in complaints and media reports. “There was a time when they (Dalits) rarely came forward to lodge complaints,” he said.
Retired academic and socio-political commentator, M.N. Karassery described the atrocities against Dalits as a blotch on Kerala. “We are the most syncretic of societies in the country. But it’s appalling how the downtrodden are being ghettoised and blatant untouchability is openly practised,” he told this newspaper.