The Lede
Is Casteism On The Rise In Kerala? 

Is Casteism On The Rise In Kerala? 

Rejimon Kuttappan

Recent incidents of open casteism have left Kerala’s thinkers wondering what is causing so many instances of caste-related tensions 

For the past 10 months, 180 Dalit families in Vadayampady village of Kerala’s Ernakulam district have been protesting in an effort to reclaim their right of way through a 95 cent piece of land, adjacent to a Bhajanamadam Devi Temple ground run by dominant caste Nairs.

The protesters insist that the disputed plot claimed by the Nair Service Society (NSS), a community organisation that runs the temple is actually public land.

Is Casteism On The Rise In Kerala? 

Ayyappan Kutty, convener of the Bhoo Avakasha Samara Munnani, which is leading the protests, said that their claim is genuine and the ‘upper’ caste is deliberately trying to sideline the Dalits. “We are living here since 1964. We were using the 95 cent common ground for our own celebrations. We also had two of our deities placed in the ground. All of a sudden, the Nairs are claiming that it is their land. They erected a temple and also a wall,” Ayyappankutty told The Lede.

The 400 metre long compound wall erected in March 2017 by the NSS was pulled down completely by Dalits in April 2017. Since then tensions in the area have worsened.

According to protesters, the wall was built to block their entry into the temple and the ground. Last week, an all-party meeting was convened by District Collector K Mohammed Y Safirulla and it was decided to reinstate all traditionally enjoyed rights of local communities over the ground.

Vadayampadi temple president Ramesh Kumar and NSS Karayogam president, told The Lede that claims by the Dalits are baseless. “We lived together. Now, there are outsiders who are instigating these issues. We still have a Dalit to perform rituals in the temple. We don’t intend to make any issues. But outsiders are poisoning the ears of local Dalits,” Ramesh Kumar said.

It is being alleged that other Dalit organisations like Kerala Pulayar Mahasabha, Socialist Democratic Party of India and reportedly Maoists have also joined the protests. Dalit protesters plan to move their agitation to the state capital.

Over His Dead Body 

When renowned artist Asanthan’s body was brought to the Kerala Lalith Kala Akademi and placed at the government-owned Durbar Hall Arts Centre for last respects last week, a group of people protested in the area.

Is Casteism On The Rise In Kerala? 

Akademi Secretary Ponniam Chandran said that the Ernakulam Shiva Temple administration president P Rajendra Prasad and local councillor KVP Krishna Kumar met him around the time, asking him not to bring the body for display in the courtyard of the arts centre, as the temple, situated over 50 metres away, had not closed for the day.

With the help of the police, Asanthan’s body was brought to the Akademi through the eastern entry of the gallery and displayed there.

Painter Asanthan, who was born Mahesh VK, died at the age of 50 and had won several accolades including the Kerala Lalith Kala Akademi award and the CN Karunakaran Smaraka Award.

Is Casteism On The Rise In Kerala? 

Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan had condemned the incident in a Facebook post. He claimed there was a deliberate attempt to mislead the devotees. SC/ST Minister AK Balan said legal action would be initiated against those involved in the incident.

The police arrested seven people in connection with the ruckus over keeping the body of artist Asanthan at the Durbar Hall Art Centre. They were booked under IPC Sections 147, 149, 143, 294 (b), 506 and 427 and later released on bail.

According to Rupesh Kumar, a Dalit filmmaker, the dominant caste is allergic not only to living Dalits, but to their dead too.

“We all saw what kind of treatment was meted out to the dead body of a well-known artist. It is all a fallacy that there is no casteism in Kerala,” he said.

“Dalits are allowed to drink tea and eat with the ‘upper’ caste. But an invisible line is drawn. If you cross that, then you will face repercussions. That’s the fact,” Ajayakumar VB, Director of RIGHTS, a Dalit rights research organisation and activist told The Lede.

“In the past, social reformers were able to get rid of caste-related open discrimination. But caste was still there. Now that open discrimination or casteism is coming back,” he added.

Rahul Easwar, author and activist, said that caste is a reality in our country and we cannot deny it. “However, I can’t say that Kerala has become casteist. Such theories are propagated by people with vested interests,” he said. “It is a political move by the so-called Leftist groups to divide the Hindu unity and turn the Dalits against the Hindu community, so that they can make political gains. That’s why as the government alleges, I also doubt whether outsiders are playing a dirty role in the Vadayampady Caste Wall issue,” Easwar added.

Mini Mohan, a sociologist, said that the Left government is least bothered about the Dalits and the challenges they face in the state.

A Rigid Hierarchy

In the past in Kerala, the ‘upper’ caste had varying rules regarding the degrees of ritual pollution while interacting with people of different castes. In return, most castes practised the principles of untouchability in their relationship with the other regional castes.

The rules of untouchability were severe to begin with, and they were very strictly enforced in the 17th century.

In the past, a Nair (an ‘upper’ caste) could approach but not touch a Namboodiri Brahmin. A Chovan (Ezhava, an OBC) must remain 36 paces off, and a Pulayan slave at a 96 step distance.

A Chovan must remain twelve steps away from a Nair, and a Pulayan 66 steps off, and a Parayan some distance further still.

Pulayans and Parayars, who are at the bottom of the caste hierarchy, may approach but not touch.

Additionally a “breast-tax” was imposed by the king of the erstwhile State of Travancore on the basis of caste. According to the “breast tax”, women from lower castes were not allowed to cover their breasts, and were taxed heavily if they did so.

The system was gradually reformed to some degree, with one such reformer, Swami Vivekananda, having observed that it represented a “mad house” of castes.

In a 2014 survey ( by the National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER), Delhi it was found that one in four Indians practises untouchability.

And according to National Crime Records Bureau, a total of 40,801 incidents ( of crime/atrocities against Scheduled Castes were recorded in 2016 in the whole of India. This was against 38,670 in 2016.

As for Kerala, the number of cases of atrocity against Scheduled Castes was 696 in 2015. It shot up to 810 in 2016.

“The 2017 report released by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) also states that the conviction rate under SC/ST Act, 1989 is a mere 2.4%. This exposes how ineffective the law is,” said sociologist Mini Mohan. “Sadly, we talk against caste and practice casteism more openly nowadays,” she added.