A marriage sharpens caste divide in Kerala village

After girl elopes with upper-caste man in village bordering Tamil Nadu, SC residents agitate in temple alleging they face discrimination, upper castes deny. The settlement, spread over 20 acres, has 460 families, with 133 houses occupied by Chakkliyan families. Other families are of upper-caste Gounders and various Hindu communities.

Written by Shaju Philip | Palakkad | Published:June 23, 2017 3:54 am
caste discrimination, untouchability, Govindpuram, chakkliyan, gounders, ezhava, inter-community marriage, This water tank at Govindapuram, Palakkad, has two taps; Chakkliyan (SC) villagers allege they are made to use one while the rest use the other. (Photo by Shaju Philip)

Bitterness over an inter-community marriage has suddenly brought to fore the caste divide in Govindapuram village in Palakkad, Kerala, on the border with Tamil Nadu. In the weeks since a Hindu Ezhava man married a scheduled-caste Chakkliyan woman at Ambedkar Colony of Govindapuram, Chakkliyan families have gone on an agitation, demanding steps to end alleged “untouchability” — a claim denied by the upper-caste communities. The settlement, spread over 20 acres, has 460 families, with 133 houses occupied by Chakkliyan families. Other families are of upper-caste Gounders and various Hindu communities.

Many of the Chakkliyan villagers have stopped going to work on farmland owned by the Gounders. Agitating Chakkliyans have been camping on the premises of a community temple, where they are spending nights and cooking food with free supplies from social organisations. The Chakkliyan woman had eloped with the Ezhava man on May 27. Since then, members of the Chakkliyan community allege, their houses have been attacked by upper-caste Hindus.

“This is the first such marriage in the colony,” says local Congress leader S Sivarajan, who belongs to the Chakkliyan community. “Non-Chakkliyan Hindus at the village were outraged that a Dalit woman should dare to love a Ezhava man. Stones were thrown at our houses that night and next day, our men were manhandled at farms. So, we have decided to stay together on the temple premises, shunning farm work.’’

When the controversy first broke, a compromise formula was reached between Chakkliyan and Ezhava communities at the instance of police and revenue officials. Under the agreement, the bride and the groom would stay at their respective homes for the next six months. This was aimed at ensuring that the wedding of the bridegroom’s sister could be held smoothly during that period. If the bride and bridegroom had not been separated, the fear was that it would have become a law-and-order issue. This is not the first time that allegations of untouchability have been raised from the village’s Ambedkar Colony, where Tamil-speaking Gounders and Chakkliyans live on either side of the same road. In 2004, the colony had made headlines when Chakkliyans alleged that they were not allowed to visit a barbershop where Gounders and other Hindus went. They said they were also denied entry in a local temple, which was controlled by Gounders.

Following a public outcry, the communities segregated themselves further. The Chakkliyans built a new temple for their worship and recruited a new barber, from Tamil Nadu, to open a salon at the village. Now, Chakkliyans no longer go to the barbershop where Gounders go. Following the marriage, one of the fresh allegations about untouchability relates to a public water tank, which has two taps. The tank was erected two months ago in the wake of a severe drought.

“There is an unwritten law that we should take water from only one tap,” says Sarasu, a woman of the Chakkliyan caste. “If we use the other tap, women from other communities will empty their pots and fill them afresh. This was exposed but now everyone is saying there is no such discrimination.” Another allegation is that a small tea stall has two kinds of cups — steel cups for customers from the Chakkliyan community, glass cups for everyone else. Thankamma, the Gounder woman who runs the stall, denies any such discrimination. “We do have steel and glass cups,” she says, “but we use the steel cups to serve tea or coffee to children, as they might break a glass cup.” Kannappan, a Chakkliyan, alleges that Thankamma is lying. “No, the steel cup is not meant for children. Little children don’t go to that stall for tea. We have a video of a Chakkliyan man being served tea in a steel cup,” he says.

A trader on the Tamil Nadu side of the border, T Jagadesan, who belongs to Chettiar community, says not all people discriminate against Chakkliyans. “I have had good relations with them for years. However, there is a section of people who still avoid them. Since the issue has come out, let us hope things will improve,” Jagadesan says. Muthalamada panchayat vice-president M Radhakrishnan, a local CPI(M) leader, says untouchability is an allegation that is raised only by Chakkliyans. Clashes between Chakkliyan and upper-caste Hindus had taken place even before the marriage, he says. “Now, they are raising the allegation only to get better facilities at their settlement,” alleges Radhakrishnan, a Gounder.

The Chakkliyan community, who had migrated to this village from Tamil Nadu three generations ago, are living in poverty. Most of their houses are dilapidated — the 133 houses have 210 families living there. The ration cards of villagers, however, mark the Chakkliyans as above poverty level, while others in the settlement have BPL cards. Only a few of the Chakkliyans’ houses have a toilet and drinking water facilities. The community has no one working in the government or private sector. D Chilambarasan has an Master of Social Work degree, but is making a living out of rearing a cow. His friend D Shiva, an M Com graduate, plucks coconuts for a living. Veeramuthu and Veeramal live in a small two-room house, with three daughters and two grandchildren. “Our house can cave in anytime. Since 2009, I have been submitting applications for a new house, but the local panchayat has not considered it. Look, my school-going grandchildren have to squat on the floor to do their homework,” says Veeramuthu.

This week, the district police and revenue department conducted an adalat at the settlement to address the issues of Chakkliyans. Palakkad SP Prateesh Kumar says there is “no untouchability per se” at the settlement. “But Chakkliyans are facing social discrimination, which has stemmed from the sharp difference in economic status between the communities. We have already registered a case under the SC/ST Atrocities Prevention Act against a member of the Gounder community,” Kumar says. The SP says police will place surveillance cameras in the settlement and appoint a squad round the clock. He says a coaching class will be introduced to help colony residents attempt competitive examinations. District collector P Marykutty says the government got 325 petitions from the community during the adalat. “Most of them relate to access to basic infrastructure and housing. We have asked all departments to speed up developmental activities at the Chakkliyan colony.’’ Chakkliyans are not ready to give up their agitation yet. “We want this discrimination to end. We want to live with dignity,’’ says villager S Sivarajan.

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