Thimmayya, a bow-legged daily wage laborer who has reared three children, was five years old when the Indian constitution was written, prohibiting discrimination against Dalits, the lowest caste of Hindus.
Yet it took 70 years for Thimmayya to enter three temples administered by the state government’s muzrai department, including two 900-year-old temples in his village of Dindagur in the beautiful south Karnataka, on September 28.
It was the culmination of a 10-month Dalit protest that began after one of them was denied access into a local cafe.
Officials reminded reluctant upper-caste representatives of the legal ramifications of discrimination, and police were eventually deployed to ensure Dalits could visit the temples.
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Dindagur is home to seven temples, all of which have been closed to Dalits until recently, a reminder of the entrenched discrimination that persists seven decades after the Indian constitution’s Article 17 abolished untouchability. It was relatively easy to see the three temples administered by the muzrai department when the demand entry movement began.
Two temples run by the village panchayat were the most difficult to enter. Despite the preparations, the doors of the two temples housing the village god remained closed when the day arrived. The district administration opened one of the temples after sustained pressure from Dalit organisations. The other remained shut.
“The village’s upper castes are definitely unhappy with our presence,” Thimmayya stated. “At the very least, I got to view the idol within.” My father, grandfather, and forefathers were all temple workers and devotees, yet they were never allowed inside.”
Experts say that having a law explicitly designed to combat discrimination and crimes against Dalits has benefited in some ways. However, a particular law, the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, is frequently not administered as it should be, and most discriminatory actions are accepted as part of daily life rather than being prosecuted.
The penalty for offences under the SC/ST Act ranges from six months to death, yet according to the most recent data available from the National Crime Records Bureau, such crimes have increased by 35% nationally in the last decade.
Discrimination is widespread, as it was — and continues to be — in Dindagur, and it is often difficult to combat.
A town in northern Karnataka imposed a penalty on a Dalit family whose two-year-old toddler entered a temple where Dalits were forbidden a few days before Dindagur’s Dalits entered their temples. A fine of Rs. 25,000 was imposed by upper caste members, which was utilised to “purify” the temple.
Discrimination against scheduled castes is frequent in Karnataka (here, here, and here), which registers around 1,300 offences against scheduled castes each year.
Santosh D D, a 34-year-old drama teacher in Dindagur, initiated the temple access movement after he refused to accept the village’s subtle and not-so-hidden forms of prejudice.
Santosh went to a restaurant near one of the two Hoysala-era temples described earlier in November 2020. Santosh was refused coffee by the hotel owner. When pressed for an explanation, he stated that “nimmavaru” (people like you) had never served there and would never serve there.
Santosh, whose tall physique and square shoulders accompany a startling clarity of intellect while discussing concerns of discrimination in his village, remarked, “It truly pained me.” “I discussed it with our village elders and community leaders.” No one seemed to take it seriously. They all requested that I fix the issue within the village.”
Santosh pondered submitting a first information report (FIR) under section (3) of the SC/ST Act, which specifies that anyone who prevents Dalits from entering enterprises where other castes and communities are allowed can be penalised with fines and imprisonment ranging from six months to five years.
Santosh, on the other hand, paused when other Dalits warned him about the ramifications: it would enrage the higher castes, who control rations and land, and so jobs, in the community.
Santosh mobilised support through a series of meetings held within the Dalit colony during the next ten months, a period marked by Covid-ear lockdowns and uncertainty. He insisted that the discrimination he and others suffer were not “little matters” to be dismissed.
“Many people began to wonder why we weren’t permitted into temples during these meetings.” “How come all the other castes were admitted, but not us?” Santosh wondered. “The intolerance I experienced at the motel fueled my desire to see the temple. The majority of the population supported it this time, believing it was an essential step toward being treated equally in the town.”
Santosh’s allegation drew the attention of the Bhim Army, a group of mostly Dalit youths who saw protest as a means of breaking down caste barriers. The community saw entering temples as a way to promote caste equality, and they petitioned the local government for police protection in order to carry out the “symbolic” campaign.
The two 900-year-old temples described before, both of which date back to the 12th century Hoysala kingdom, were among the first temples they entered with ease.