Dindagur (Hassan district), Karnataka: A frail, bow-legged daily wage labourer who has raised three children, Thimmayya was five when Article 17 of the Indian constitution was passed, banning discrimination against Dalits, lowest of Hindu castes.
Yet, it took 70 years before Thimmayya, on 28 September, was “allowed” into three temples run by the state government’s muzrai department—which manages about 34,558 temples in the state —including two 900-year-old temples in his village of Dindagur here in lush south Karnataka.
It was the culmination of a 10-month-long movement by Dalits after one of them was refused entry into an eatery in the village.
Dalit organisations pressured the local government to speak to the upper castes, officials reminded reluctant upper-caste representatives of the legal consequences of discrimination and eventually deployed police to ensure Dalits could enter the temples.
Dindagur is home to seven temples, all until recently closed to Dalits, a reminder of the entrenched discrimination that continues seven decades after Article 17 of the Indian constitution banned untouchability. After the movement to demand entry began, it was relatively easy to visit the three run by the muzrai department.
The hardest to enter were two temples run by the village panchayat. When the day arrived, the doors of the two temples housing the village deity stayed closed, despite the advance work. Sustained pressure from Dalit organisations saw the district administration opening one of the temples. The other stayed locked.
“I'm not even sure we'll be allowed into this temple again,” said Thimmayya from the scheduled-case Chalavadi community, who hobbled out of the temple that was opened.
“Upper castes in the village are clearly not happy with our entry,” said Thimmayya. “But at least I got a chance to see the idol inside. My father, grandfather and ancestors were all devotees and did work for the temple, but they were never allowed inside."
How The Law Works—And Does Not
Having a law specifically meant to curb discrimination and crimes against Dalits has helped in some measure, experts said. But, often, a special law, the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, isn’t implemented as it should be, and most discriminatory practices do not end up as criminal cases, accepted as they are as being part of daily life.
Punishment for crimes under the SC/ST Act extends from six months to death, but such crimes have risen by 35% over the last decade nationwide, according to 2020 National Crime Records Bureau data, the latest available.
Discrimination is commonplace, as it was—and still is—in Dindagur, and is often difficult to challenge.
A few days before Dindagur’s Dalits entered their temples, a village in northern Karnataka imposed a penalty on a Dalit family whose two-year toddler entered a temple where Dalits were barred. Upper caste members had imposed a fine of Rs. 25,000 that was used to “purify” the temple.
Such discrimination is commonly reported in Karnataka (here, here and here), which records over 1,300 crimes against scheduled castes every year.
The Police And Their Limits
“This sort of discrimination happens all across Karnataka,” said Nehru Olekar, a member of Karnataka’s legislative assembly from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and chairperson of the Karnataka State Commission for Scheduled Castes & Scheduled Tribes. “And, often, we find that police refuse to file a case.”
“It is only when we take cognizance of the event that the police respond properly,” said Olekar. “We have told the government and the police to be more proactive.”
The government does act when pressed to, and while there has undeniably been some progress, police officers have said the law is not enough.
“There are issues with the enforcement of the law, and there is no denying it has drastically reduced violent crimes against the Dalit community,” said S. Mariswamy, former Bengaluru police commissioner and Karnataka director general of police, who now runs ‘Spoorthi Dhama’, a social welfare organisation. “But the continuing discrimination of Dalits in villages can’t be solved by the law alone. There does need to be a strong social mobilisation among dalits to press for their rights.”
This mobilisation is necessary because non-violent discrimination against scheduled castes “has not been and will not be” a priority for governments, said Mariswamy. “There is a tendency by the district administration or political set-up to soft pedal these issues, that is, to search for a compromise,” he said. “You need strong Dalit movements in these places to press for fair resolution in these cases.”
That is indeed what happened in Dindagur.
How Dindagur’s Dalits Mobilised
Dindagur’s temple entry movement started because Santosh D D, a 34-year-old drama teacher, refused to accept the subtle and not-so subtle forms of discrimination that plague the village.
In November 2020, Santosh went to an eatery near one of the two 12th-century Hoysala-era temples previously mentioned. The hotel owner refused to serve coffee to Santosh. Pressed for a reason, he said that “nimmavaru” (people like you)” had not and would not served there.
“It really hurt me,” said Santosh, whose tall frame and square shoulders complement a striking clarity of thought when talking about the issues of dicrimination in his village. “I brought it up with village elders and our community leaders. No one took it seriously. They all asked me to resolve it internally within the village.”
Santosh considered filing a first information report (FIR), the starting point of a criminal investigation, under section (3) of the SC/ST Act, which states anyone found stopping Dalits from entering establishments where other castes and communities are allowed in can be punished by fines and imprisonment that ranges from six months to five years.
However, Santosh hesitated when other Dalits warned him of the consequences: it would antagonise the upper castes who control rations and land, and by extension employment, in the village.
Over the next 10 months, a period categorised by Covid-ear lockdowns and uncertainties, Santosh rallied support through a series of meetings within the Dalit colony. He pressed his point: the discrimination he and others face weren’t just “small issues” to be brushed aside.
“During these meetings, many had started to question why we weren’t allowed into temples. All other castes were being allowed, but not us?” said Santosh. “The discrimination I faced at the hotel became a larger demand for temple entry. This time, it had support from most of the community who felt it was an important step towards being considered equal in the village.”
Santosh’s complaint eventually attracted the attention of the Bhim Army, a group of largely Dalit youths who viewed protest as a way of overcoming caste barriers. Entry into temples by the community was seen as a way to assert caste equality and they petitioned the local government for police protection to conduct the “symbolic” programme.
Among the first temples they entered with ease were the two 900-year-old temples mentioned previously, both of which trace their construction to the 12th century Hoysala kingdom.
However, Santhyamma temple, the abode of the village deity and one of the four non-muzrai temples, became the community’s major victory. During a popular annual village jatre or fair, Dalits were explicitly told not to enter the temple and instead to stand in a field opposite the temple.
“They are important for us because they contain the village deity,” said Thimmayya. “It is also here that we face the most discrimination.”
Denying Dalits entry into temples is just one of many kinds of discrimination, a large number of which remain addressed.
Invisible Discrimination Endures
Most instances of discrimination against Dalits go under the radar of the police and district administration, experts said.
Temples are, often, at the core of the continuing practice of discrimination.
In 2016, 35 km west of Dindagur, 10 policemen and two journalists were injured in stone throwing by an upper-caste mob that objected to the entry of Dalits into the village temple. In 2019, Dalits were denied entry into a temple, 50 km north of Dindagur.
Of the 4,227 crimes against SCs recorded over two years to 2020 by the NCRB, only seven pertain to sections involving obstructing or preventing Dalits from accessing public places (NCRB reports: 2018, 2019, 2020).
But those data do not appear to reflect reality.
For instance, a 2016 survey of Dalit households in 87 villages in the central Karnataka district of Haveri found that 82% of villages did not allow Dalits from entering the village temple; while, two-thirds of households reported discrimination in hotels and tea shops.
A similar survey, published in 2018, from sample households across the state concluded that while the SC/ST Atrocities Act may have curtailed more violent forms of oppression, “but invisible discrimination appeared in different forms”: 84% of respondents said they did not protest discrimination because they were dependent on non-Dalit households.
“It is obvious that caste practices and biases are strong in all villages,” said the 2018 survey. “Moral and ethical values are needed at the individual, group and community levels to end caste discrimination in rural areas.”
There are many examples in Hassan district alone. In 2019, barber shops in one hamlet refused to serve Dalits. In another village, Dalits were attacked for using water from a tank. In central Karnataka, a Dalit member of Parliament from the ruling BJP was denied entry into a village in his own constituency.
The Influence Of The Outside World
Dindagur is flanked by irrigation canals, swathes of paddy and coconut fields, common enough landscapes in Hassan district, whose politics is dominated by the party and caste represented by its most illustrious resident, former Prime Minister H D Deve Gowda.
Dindagur’s Dalits comprise about 10% of 1,473 residents, and they live in a crumbling colony at the edge of the otherwise prosperous agrarian village.
Santosh is one of few Dalits with a postgraduate degree. The seven years he spent outside the village—studying drama and theatre in university in Mysuru and the prestigious drama school Ninasam—opened his eyes to the entrenched discrimination in Dindagpur.
When Santosh was denied a coffee at the temple, he decided he couldn’t keep quiet. “I’d organised plays with government-school children and the whole village came out to see it,” he said. “But, they don’t want to see me as an equal. No matter my education, they’ll still discriminate against me.”
Santosh found little support from Dalit organisations, such as the once-powerful Dalit Sangharsha Samiti (DSS). Two decades ago, the DSS was by influential Dalit writers and activists and had been at the vanguard of battles against discrimination in much of Karnataka.
Within Dindagur village, DSS-led protests in the late 1990s ensured access to a borewell, which had been out of bounds for Dalits.
Thimmayya had participated in these protests, which expanded to stopping caste-based roles, such as the employment of Dalits to sacrifice animals to the Santhyamma deity or to play the tamate (traditional drums) during temple processions.
“We got success in both these movements,” said Thimmayya. “But it came at a cost. Upper caste families wouldn’t hire us as agricultural labourers, while even government school teachers had refused to teach our children for a few months.”
Some members of DSS attended the peace meeting on 28 September but did not participate in the temple entry.
“What happened to Santosh is a small incident,” said Thimmayya D T (no relation to the other Thimmayya mentioned in this story), a former member of DSS. “There is no point antagonising the entire village for this.”
Santosh was persistent. It wasn’t a “small incident” for him.
“Brushing it aside would mean accepting the hotel owner’s view that we are inferior to them,” said Santosh. “I wanted an apology from him. I wanted him to admit that he was wrong to discriminate,” he said.
Help came from outside Karnataka.
Enter, The Bhim Army
In 2019, Chandrashekhar “Ravan” Azad, a radical Dalit leader from Saharanpur district in western Uttar Pradesh had come to Karnataka to sow the seeds of his organisation, Bhim Army, in Karnataka.
Karnataka had a long tradition of Dalit movements, but never a radical one; Azad wanted to change that, he said in an interview to the Hindu during that visit.
Eagerly watching Azad’s speeches were young Dalits across Hassan district. Influenced by his speeches, the Bhim Army was formed in Hassan district in 2019. Protestors began wearing a striking blue scarf and white shirt made famous by Azad.
Santosh contacted the Bhim army in August 2021, nearly seven months after failing to get an apology for how he was treated. The Bhim Army, said Santosh, did not think it was a small issue.
The group met the tahsildar with Santosh’s complaint of the discrimination.
“When we realised that people in the village had never entered the temple, we decided to press for this too,” said Ravichandra D C, 39, a teacher at a private school and a core committee member of the Hassan district unit of the Bhim Army. “It took us just two weeks to bring the tahsildar to the village.”
In December 2020, Ravichandra was attacked by upper-caste people in his village who opposed his inter-caste marriage. He filed a case under the SC/ST Atrocities Act, and a counter complaint was filed against him. There was little progress in the case.
“People are willing to stand up to discrimination,” said Ravichandra. “All they need is support from an organisation to help them face the consequences.”
Doing The Least Possible
Under the Karnataka Police Act, 1963, a village tahsildar has to conduct a “peace meeting” if untouchability is suspected. B T Venkatesh, a former state public prosecutor, called these meetings “hogwash”, more performative than substantive.
Before the meeting on 28 September, however, a closure notice was served to the hotel. The notice did not mention caste discrimination. It ordered closure on the grounds that the hotel did not possess a valid trade license.
“The matter of discrimination can be investigated by the police if they receive a complaint,” said J B Maruthi, the local tahsildar. “But there was no police complaint. Until then, we have taken action against the hotel for the evident violation of trade licenses.”
At the peace meeting, Santosh demanded that the hotel owner—who had not turned up at the meeting—be summoned to apologise for his actions.
Both the tahsildar and the police department, who chaired the meeting, rejected that demand. “We will call the hotel owner if there is a written complaint,” said deputy superintendent of police Lakshme Gowda. “Until then, we can’t.”
But for Santosh a written complaint was not an option. “If the district administration can brush it aside as a small case, then would the police take it seriously?” he asked. Furthermore, he believed a formal FIR would be futile: justice would remain elusive while it would polarise the village.
Convictions under the SC/ST Atrocities Act are low. In Karnataka, just 3.4% of cases that completed trials in 2018, 2019 and 2020 resulted in conviction, according NCRB data.
Upper-castes in Dindagur were dismissive of the issue of temple discrimination and alleged it was “the handiwork of only a few”.
Anil Kumar, the priest of the Kalleshwara temple, one of those run by the state muzrai department said he “didn’t had any objection” to temple entry by “any community”
“They can enter the temple, but they can’t enter the sanctum sanctorum,” said Kumar, a third-generation priest at the temple. “That’s off limits to any community. I don’t think they attempted to enter the temple, and we never actively asked them to enter. Things have been this way for years.”
Shivalinganna, an upper caste resident of Dingagur denied any untouchablity and discrimination, while acknowledging the episode at the eatery with Santosh.
“It was only a small incident,” said Shivalinganna. “It is better to sort these things out in the community itself."
Maruthi the tahsildar said he did not have the power to summon anyone to appear before him and explain themselves at peace meetings.
“The peace meeting is conducted to gauge whether discrimination is prevalent in the village, Both the representative of the Dalit community and other communities said it wasn’t prevalent,” said Maruthi. “This matter remains closed.”
Fear, Hope And Caution
On the night of the temple entry, villagers say that over 200 upper-caste people organised an impromptu meeting, followed by a motorcycle rally through the Dalit colony, where aggressive slogans were heard.
“We are also men,” riders on motorcycles sloganeered in a video. “We can also show what we can do.”
Since 28 September, of the seven temples in Dindagur, one run by the panchayat remains out of bounds for them.
For the Bhim Army, the temple entry programme sent the right kind of message.
“We’re receiving complaints from at least four other villages where people aren’t allowed entry into temples,” said Ravichandra. “We’ll take them all up one at a time.”
As for Santosh, he neither got the apology he wanted nor a sense that justice had been fairly served. The hotel that denied him entry is closed, and the proprietor sells groceries and food from his house.
“I just don’t feel right about it,” said Santosh. “There are whispers around the village that I’m a troublemaker.”
“The Dalit community itself is cautious and scared of the consequences,” said Santosh. “But there is a sense of strength in unity. We’ve had meetings in the Dalit colony. and we’re encouraging people to report any discrimination, no matter how small they think it may be.”
(Mohit Rao is an independent reporter based in Bengaluru.)