Salem Caste-Clash: Why Does Temple Entry Remain a Contentious Issue in Tamil Nadu?

In the district of Salem, Arunthathiyars, categorized as Scheduled Caste, were denied access to the Mariamman temple during a festival by dominant castes like Naiker, Udayar, and Gounder.
Clash on the Salem-Bengaluru Highway
Clash on the Salem-Bengaluru HighwayThe Print

Salem - The clash that erupted in Deevattipatti village, Salem district in Tamil Nadu, on May 2, was a distressing escalation of tensions rooted in longstanding social and religious dynamics. At the heart of the conflict lies the contentious issue of temple entry, which has historically been a flashpoint for caste-based discrimination and social exclusion.

The attempted entry of members from the Arunthathiyar community, categorized as Scheduled Caste, into the Mariamman temple during an ongoing festival reflects their assertion of basic rights and inclusion in religious practices.

However, their efforts were met with resistance from dominant caste groups, including Naiker, Udayar, and Gounder communities, who denied them access to the temple premises.

Despite attempts by local authorities to facilitate dialogue and reconciliation through a 'peace committee' meeting, tensions continued to escalate. The gathering of supporters from both caste groups at the Deevattipatti bus stand intensified the situation, leading to confrontations, stone-pelting, and acts of vandalism.

The eruption of violence, including the setting ablaze of shops and damage to property, shows the deep-seated animosities and unresolved grievances prevailing within the community.

According to a press release issued by the Salem district police, a “peace meeting was convened following a clash between two caste groups on the night of May 1,” related to the Mariamman temple festival in Deevattipatti.

During the meeting, representatives from both caste groups “requested a day's time to deliberate on the matter within their respective communities.”

Subsequently, they peacefully exited the meeting venue. However, shortly after, individuals from the Scheduled Caste community staged a road blockade protest on the Salem-Bengaluru highway, demanding entry into the temple during the ongoing festival.

The Mooknayak attempted to gather more information about the clash by reaching out to several locals in the area. However, the clash resulted in network disruptions and extensive damage to property, making it difficult to connect with many individuals over the phone.

Till now, more than 30 people have been arrested. Local police have said that due action will be taken after reviewing security footage.

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Temple Entry of Dalits in Tamil Nadu - A Never-Ending Tale of Contention

The Tamil Nadu Temple Entry Authorisation Act of 1947 permits individuals from all Hindu castes and classes to enter and worship in Hindu temples. While numerous prominent temples across Tamil Nadu are accessible to everyone and do not practice untouchability, there are still several smaller temples, particularly in the southern districts of the state, that continue to restrict entry for Dalits.

On January 2nd, 2023, approximately 250 Dalits made history by entering the historic Sri Varadharaja Perumal temple in Eduthavainatham village, Kallakurichi district, for the very first time. Their entry was facilitated by the presence of 300 police personnel deployed to ensure their protection.

In a similar historic event that month, a group of Dalits entered the Sri Muthalamman temple in Thenmudiyanur village, Tiruvannamalai district, marking the first time Dalits had been allowed access to the temple since its construction 70 years ago.

Later, The Hindu reported that members of the caste Hindu community had chosen to abandon the Sri Muthu Mariamman temple and its presiding deity, which they had worshipped for over a century, citing that the entry of Dalits "defiled the deity and polluted the temple."

Similarly, on the final day of the Sri Dharmaraja Draupadi Amman temple festival on April 7, 2023, a significant incident occurred in Melpathi village that transformed the atmosphere in the region.

As the villagers had completed the ritual of walking on fired coal, a 21-year-old Dalit man named Kathiravan entered the temple premises.

Since that day, Melpathi village has experienced significant changes. The temple, which used to be a focal point of the community, is now sealed shut, symbolizing a disruption in the village's traditional activities.

Additionally, the entire region in Tamil Nadu's Villupuram municipality has been heavily fortified by the police, indicating heightened security measures in response to the incident involving Kathiravan.

The presence of law enforcement reflects the tense situation and the efforts to maintain order and prevent any potential escalation of conflicts.

Temple Entry Movement in the South:

The temple entry movement made significant progress under the leadership of E V Ramasamy, also known as Thanthai Periyar. Thanthai Periyar, a prominent figure in Tamil Nadu history, spearheaded the 'Self Respect Movement' as a strong opposition to Brahmin dominance.

Thanthai Periyar advocated for the temple entry movement and played a key role in the Vaikkom Satyagraha, a campaign for temple entry that began in Travancore (now part of Kerala).

On March 30, 1924, Vaikom, a temple town in the princely state of Travancore, became the epicenter of a non-violent protest, marking the onset of a series of temple entry movements that would soon resonate nationwide.

This satyagraha initiative highlighted the significance of social reform within the context of the burgeoning nationalist movement, introducing Gandhian principles of peaceful resistance to Travancore.

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