Administration Tears Down Seven‑Foot Tall Caste Wall in Tamil Nadu Following Dalit Villagers’ Demands
The Thiruvallur district administration on Tuesday demolished a seven-foot tall caste wall in Thokkamur village, reported The News Minute. The wall, constructed in 2016 for “flood mitigation,” segregated the village’s Dalit settlement from the nearby temple’s adheenam ( a form of Hindu monastery) land for the last six years. After the demolition, Samuel Raj, general secretary of the Tamil Nadu Untouchability Eradication Front (TNUEF), told The News Minute, “It is time for the state government to take the initiative on its own, identify caste walls such as these in the state and demolish all of them.”
Caste walls — built along Dalit settlements to segregate them and restrict their mobility — are a common occurrence in the state of Tamil Nadu. These walls force Dalits to take longer routes to reach their homes from the road, keep them away from temples, and prevent their entry to neighboring settlements of non-Dalit castes. Thus, they serve as modern-day tools for propagating and maintaining untouchability long after its legal abolition. In the last couple of years, the government has demolished a few of these walls after demands and protests from the community. However, as Raj’s comment suggests, it’s too little, too late.
Consider the story of one such wall in the Nadur village in Coimbatore district, for instance. Originally built by an upper-caste resident to separate himself from his Dalit neighbors, the wall collapsed due to heavy rains in 2019, claiming 17 lives. The event sparked massive outrage at the time. However, within a year, the wall was up again, made after obtaining clearance from civic authorities. In another village, Uthapuram, in Madurai district, a caste wall has existed between the Dalit and dominant-OBC settlements for more than three decades. In 2008, when the state broke down a small portion of the 200-meter-long wall, several OBC families moved away from the village, settling in another village 3 kilometers away. There have also been reports of caste walls coming up in villages even as recently as 2021.
These incidents, and the ubiquity of caste walls in Tamil Nadu, point to the importance that caste continues to have on people’s lives in the state. The purposes these walls serve, and the reactions of the dominant and upper caste members, also show how prevalent untouchability continues to be, and how petty its manifestations often appear. This at times may perplexing, given that Tamil Nadu was the birthplace of the self-respect and Dravidian movements — anti-Brahminism movements that rejected the hierarchical notions of gender and caste and espoused equality for all, attracting Dalits and OBC castes to come together to oppose Brahminical hierarchy.
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In reality, however, the rejection of Brahminic authority didn’t automatically end caste atrocities on Dalits. Tamil Nadu remains a hotbed of violent inter-caste riots and clashes, often between Dalits and other non-Dalit, non-Brahmin lower castes. As scholar Gail Omvedt wrotes, “caste conflicts in southern Tamil Nadu show the persistence of the casteist attitude among even poor OBCs… In spite of the formal openness and some social mobility, caste continues to be highly correlated to both occupation and political power.” Dalits in Tamil Nadu, then, continue to be subject to caste walls and atrocities despite the state carrying a rich legacy of radical anti-Brahminism, and electing a party that claims direct descendence from that radical movement.
The continued oppression Dalits in Tamil Nadu have faced even under Dravidian governments has also resulted in them seeking other forms of assertions, and alternative movements for expressing their social and political aspirations. Strong cultural movements where Dalits are telling their own stories — through art, cinema, poetry, and music — have become one such new site of resistance. Filmmakers like Pa. Ranjith and Mari Selvaraj, and musicians like Arivu and Tenma, among others, are active contributors to building this culture of Dalit resistance.
Options of daily resistance are also offered by instances in neighboring states. For instance, in Karnataka, when a Dalit boy’s family was asked to pay a fine of ₹60,000 for touching a wooden pole of a temple they were not allowed to enter, the family responded by discarding all images of Hindu deities in their house and replacing those with images of the Buddha and Dr. Ambedkar. It symbolizes moving away from seeking validation from Brahminic rituals and practices.
The caste wall in Thokkamur was brought down following constant demands from the TNUEF, reflecting yet another front of resistance. But, as Raj points out to The News Minute, “…They [the administration] cannot keep waiting for organizations such as ours to point out wherever these walls are, before they take any action.” Indeed, to eradicate segregation and untouchability, the state must act much more proactively against the structures and individuals that perpetuate these notions.