An endless wait at the temple gates: Casteism in rural Karnataka – Deccan Herald

Until last September, Hanumavva (50) hoped she would one day enter the village temple and see the deity. Now, this Madiga woman of indomitable spirit, who once contested in gram panchayat elections despite the disapproval of privileged castes, says, “Entering the temple is like walking into a fire.”  
In a year, she has witnessed the backlash faced by Dasar families — another Dalit community — in Miyapura village, Koppal district. They lost their livelihoods and were ostracised after Vinay, a three-year-old child from their community, accidentally entered a temple next to his house. 
The privileged caste demanded a fine of Rs 25,000 from the family for the child’s ‘offence’.  “They wanted the money to ‘purify’ the temple after my child stepped inside to take shelter from the rain,”  says Lalitha Dasar, Vinay’s mother.
In response, the district administration facilitated the entry of Dalit communities into all the temples in the village. However, Lalitha narrates what followed —  the family was forced to leave the village before the accused were released on bail, they are living on shaky ground, and life will never be the same for them. “The state adopted my son, but our family has been orphaned.” 
The Ganiga community members who are a majority in the village say that the temples are open to all now. However, discouraged by such social and economical exclusion, aspiration to enter the temple has been driven out of Dalits.
Watch | Karnataka Dalits continue to face caste discrimination over temple entry
Their trepidation stems from the everyday experience of the ‘untouchable’ Dalit communities — comprising Madiga and Chalavadi (Holeya) castes, and several sub-castes.
A recent incident has brought into sharp focus how the grim realities of caste discrimination play out in rural Karnataka. A week ago, a fine of Rs 60,000 was imposed on a teenager in a village in Kolar for touching a pole that was attached to a Hindu deity. Such incidents are common, even 67 years after our Constitution abolished untouchability. It has also been close to a century since Mahatma Gandhi initiated a socio-religious movement (1924-25) in Kerala, challenging untouchability and hegemony over temples, and nine decades after B R Ambedkar led the Kalaram temple entry movement (1930). 
Dalits’ claim to public spheres has life-altering consequences, yet the crucial human rights issue remains on the periphery of public focus. This is reflected in the poor implementation of laws and government schemes, and even the lack of evaluation of the situation. For instance, the Koppal district administration initiated a survey of the discriminatory practices last year, after a series of incidents of caste-related violence in the district. But it has not been completed yet. 
A 2022 survey by Grameena Koolikarara Sangha in Raichur district has found that Dalits enter temples in only nine of the 56 surveyed villages.

Across the state, 34 per cent of the Dalits are not allowed in their village temples, according to a 2018 survey by the Institute of Social and Economic Change. Prof Maruthi I, who co-authored the study, says that many hesitate to reveal the discrimination. “Discrimination is high in places with low literacy levels and high income inequality. But people there do not open up. We see incidents of Dalits asserting their rights in places where they have better education, and thus, improved social and economic status,” he says. 
As a result of illiteracy, fear, tradition and caste hierarchy, temples top the list of public spaces that remain out of bounds for Dalits. Even other public spaces like hotels, toilets, salons and water sources continue to be out of their reach in some places. 
The oppressor can be any majority community in the village — from varying castes including Kurubas, Nayaks, Gowdas, Brahmins and Lingayats.
In an atmosphere that is turning increasingly hostile towards Dalits, backlash from dominant communities in Karnataka’s villages has become common. Between 2019 and 2021, there was a 11 per cent increase in violence against Dalits. While access to public transport, government offices and schools has become easier, temples have remained the last bastions for oppressors to impose the idea that oppressed castes are ‘impure’.  
“Dalits and upper castes did not even rub shoulders in the past. Now the form of discrimination has changed. In places where discrimination is not possible, like in public transport, it is not happening. But wherever it can continue, it persists,” Justice H N Nagamohan Das says.
In several villages, Dalits are only allowed till the steps of the temple. Even in places where they are allowed entry, they are treated as inferiors. 
Those who muster up courage to stand up to discriminatory practices struggle to sustain the effort as they lack support from the government or a coordinated social movement.
Economic boycott 
In Dindagur village of Hassan district, for instance, Santosh D D led the Holeya community’s temple entry campaign, after he was not allowed into a hotel on the temple premises last September. He is now struggling to create opportunities for members of his community who had to face an economic boycott as a consequence. He has been running from pillar to post to get funds or a loan under a government self-employment scheme. 
“The entire district administration was there when we entered the village temples. But the joy lasted only for a day. The next day, privileged caste members (Vokkaligas) stopped hiring people from our community for work. They also put pressure on us to repay the money they had loaned. Now, my community members are going to the neighbouring town to make ends meet,” he says. 
Santosh has been visiting government offices every month to no avail. 
Those who did not enter the temple on that day or promised the privileged castes that they would not enter the temple again are getting work in the village. But 14 of the total 40 families, who did not relent, await any kind of support.
Dalit Sangharsh Samiti Hassan District President, Govindaraju Dindagur, who did not enter the temple, feels that such actions should only happen after taking all the communities into confidence. “We tried having a discussion with the privileged castes, but they were not ready for change. We should have given them some more time. Now, this has divided the Dalit community itself. After all, Ambedkar himself rejected temples, why do we crave for it now?” he says.
Local Member of Legislative Assembly C N Balakrishna says, “The problem has been solved, and the loss of work has not come to my notice.”
Elements of feudalism
In many villages it is the feudalistic mindset, earlier in society and now in politics, that facilitates oppression and discrimination to retain power. 
A member of the Vokkaliga community in Dindagur, who did not want to be named, says that the entire village once lived in harmony and supported the talented Santosh, a theatre artiste, until this ‘unfortunate’ incident happened. He feels Santosh’s campaign was a hasty move, which brought a bad name to the village. 
Shivalingegowda, a village elder, says, “Change is hard as the education and awareness levels are low in the village. There are more graduates in the Scheduled Castes (SC) than in the Gowda caste.” 
With education comes awareness and assertion of rights. But it can lead to change only if the deprived communities are backed by local awareness and efforts by all castes.
“Tradition is like an iron cuff for Dalits. Privileged castes have no problem as long as they do what is expected. The moment Dalits start fighting for their rights, privileged castes use power and fear to push them back,” says Arun Joladakudligi, a researcher at Karnataka Folklore University, Haveri.
Progress has only touched 10 villages says Virupama, a social worker from the Madiga community who surveyed 123 villages in Kushtagi taluk last year. She says that economic dependence, political and feudal pressure and internalised fear stop Dalits from asserting their constitutional right to equality. 
All these factors have led to Dalits shouldering a disproportionate burden, even though they have few socio-economic resources. Consider these numbers: SCs own only 10 per cent of the land and the average size of the landholding is 0.2 hectares. The magnitude of informal workers is highest among SCs at about 84 per cent. Even the school enrolment rate of scheduled caste children is half (21 per cent) of that of privileged castes (41 per cent).
Change of heart and mind
Hanumavva puts it this way, “We have not become eka yet.” Eka or Ekavali, to her community, is the feeling of oneness where everyone is treated equally, has equal rights and access to public spaces. 
This phrase echoed in all the 10 villages DH visited across the state, laying bare the grimmer realities behind reported incidents of atrocity when Dalit community members resisted denial of access to public spaces. 
“There are many laws in furtherance of the Constitutional abolition of untouchability. The legislation will only have an impact when backed by effective social movements, which are lacking now,” says Justice H N Nagamohan Das. He initiated a Dalit temple entry campaign in 2014 which resulted in the state government putting up a board in front of some Muzarai temples, mentioning that all castes could enter without restrictions. 
He stresses that continuous social awareness programmes are crucial when there is a rise of fundamental and communal forces. “They (communal forces) contribute in a big way to the perpetuation of caste inequality,” he says.
The current developments are compounded by the disintegration of social movements and their lack of direction. “We need to strengthen Dalit campaigns emotionally and intellectually. Dalit movements should understand that it is equally important to solve local problems as it is to respond to incidents in faraway places,” says writer and researcher Guruprasad Kantalagere from Tumakuru. 
Without support, Dalit communities might face a plight similar to that of Ambamma and other women from Singanala village in Gangavathi taluk. Violence erupted following a village Muharram celebration, where Dalit youth simply danced beside privileged castes. 
The community, which does not have access to public toilets, was soon in a fix when someone cleared the bushes that covered an open field where they defecated. “No one else should face our plight,” Ambamma says.  The violence also forced some Dalit families to send their children to cities to avoid being targeted.  
 Discrimination manifests in different ways in temples. In Surakod village in Gadag district, Dalits were invited to the annual temple festival in May. However, snide comments made by privileged castes infuriated SC youth, resulting in violence. Many ended up in the hospital and jail, and all Dalit families lost work in the village. 
 Unfortunately, some practices of untouchability have become so common in many places, that they do not evoke shame or anger. 
 But these developments haven’t dampened the spirit of 4-5 youngsters who make it a point to visit the temple whenever they feel like going. 
Sigaranahalli in Hassan district saw violence and brutality for over a year before the district administration facilitated temple entry for Dalit communities in 2015. Now, a board in front of the temple says, “No one except the priest is allowed into the temple.” The village community hall is also closed for all. 
R V Chandrashekhar of Tala Samudaya Adhyayana Kendra, National Law School, Bengaluru, says that discrimination in public spaces can be seen in 90 per cent of Karnataka’s villages. “Very few incidents come to light, the rest of them are ‘settled’ in the village,” he says. The need of the hour, he says, is constitutional awareness programmes for privileged castes. 
“We can imagine the predicament of common people when even elected representatives face discrimination because of their caste. Without concerted efforts, the Dalit temple entry might end up being a one-day spectacle,” says former Social Welfare Minister Priyank Kharge. 
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