The ban on a Dalit percussion artiste from performing at the famous Sree Krishna Temple at Guruvayur is a grim reminder that caste system continues to retain its hold even in states like Kerala. Unlike most other Indian states, Kerala has not reported an instance of upper caste groups oppressing Dalits for a long, long time now. However, instances of caste discrimination have continued to happen and remain a blot on a state making rapid and impressive advances in human development, economic and social indices. The percussion artiste’s sin was to take part in the panchavadyam, an ensemble of four percussion and one wind instrument, at the Guruvayur temple on January 5 where the percussion instruments are traditionally performed by the Marars, an upper-class Nair sect. Hearteningly, a few civil society groups, a leading musician from the Marar community, and a Hindu religious figure have supported the Dalit artiste, Kaloor Babu. But those upset with his participation in the ensemble and the temple authorities who cited anachronistic tradition while restraining Babu continue to be a dominant mindset in society.
Temples continue as a site for perpetuating demeaning casteist practices in various parts of the country despite the temple entry movement throwing open the gates of temples to all people. Only this December, the Kukke Subramanya temple in Mangalore held the made snana ritual in which over 150 lower-caste devotees rolled over banana-leaves containing leftovers of food eaten by Brahmins and then washed themselves in a nearby stream. Even after strong protests by communist and socialist parties against the ritual, those defending it claim that the devotees came voluntarily. Earlier last year, Vadugapatti village near Madurai came under the scanner of the National Commission for Scheduled Castes after a Dalit boy was forced to carry his slippers on his head. Dalits were also reportedly denied entry into the temple village and various modes of untouchability were committed against them. The malleability of the caste system becomes evident in these three instances. In Guruvayur it constrained occupational mobility; in Mangalore it seamlessly merged with superstition and ignorance; and in Vadugapatti it took to outright oppression.
It’s almost 25 years since the Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act came into effect, with the uniform grievance that very few cases are being registered by police officials despite complaints. Amendments were introduced to the Act in the Lok Sabha, this winter session, criminalising acts like preventing temple entry and imposing or threatening a social or economic boycott. Besides laws, industrialisation, urbanisation and the free market were expected to dismantle the caste system. But caste continues to operate in subtle ways through direct and oblique questions to ascertain a person’s caste identity by colleagues, landlords and acquaintances. Excluded from skilled jobs in the private sector, reservation in higher education and government jobs benefit few Dalits. While political power has mostly benefitted a creamy layer among Dalits, the mobilisation of Dalits is a project in progress despite threats of violence, regional, religious, linguistic divides, and political affiliations. Notwithstanding the advances made by Dalit movements, organs of the modern State like the government and judiciary cannot retreat from the Dalit emancipation project yet.