Kasaragod: Hopelessly far from the ongoing debate of untouchability in Kerala -- triggered by Minister K Radhakrishnan's revelation -- is a place called Swarga, a hamlet in Kasaragod's Enmakaje grama panchayat on the border of Karnataka.
Swarga is a haven for the Communist Party of India (CPI) in a panchayat dominated by the Bharatiya Janata Party but controlled by the Congress-led UDF.
Krishna Mohan (47), a former state-level badminton player from the village, watches with amusement the arguments on either side of the untouchability debate. "All of them want to create some noise and be in the news. No one really cares about 'ayitham' (untouchability)," he says, his Malayalam laced with a touch of Tulu.
Mohan's bitterness is understandable. Five years ago, in May 2018, he revolted in Swarga. He entered the Shri Jatadhari 'Devasthanam' (abode of god) by taking the 18-step stairway, forbidden to the 'untouchables'. And all heaven broke loose.
The four Brahmin families that control the Jatadhari Devasthanam -- dedicated to the incarnation of Lord Shiva -- chose to shut the temple when the 'untouchables' insisted that from now on they would enter the temple using the front stairs and not the backway. Five years on, the centuries-old temple remains locked and is slipping into ruins.
"There would have been a quick solution if the government had intervened," said Mohan. But the government chose to be a spectator. That's why Mohan found unconvincing Minister for devaswom, and the welfare of Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, and Backward Classes K Radhakrishnan's argument that he was speaking out so that Kerala would not regress to a casteist society.
"We are being discriminated against and humiliated. The government refuses to act," said Mohan.
K Radhakrishnan, a five-time MLA, brought to focus the untouchability issue by sharing his experience at a temple in Kannur's Payyannur town. Two Brahmin priests of Nambiatrakovval Siva Temple in Payyanur lit the inaugural floor lamp and placed the lamp on the floor instead of handing it over to Radhakrishnan, the chief guest at the event.
The temple committee's executive member T A Beena took the lamp from the floor and offered it to the minister to light the inaugural lamp. Radhakrishnan refused. Payyannur MLA T I Madhusoodanan also followed suit.
The incident happened, ironically, on January 26, 2023, India's 74th Republic Day.
Radhakrishnan, the MLA from Thrissur's Chelakkara constituency, did not let the incident pass. In his inaugural speech, he said the priests considered him an untouchable but not the money he offered in the temple.
On September 17, the minister repeated his ordeal at a function of the Bharatiya Velan Service Society (BVSS), a Scheduled Caste community organisation, in Kottayam.
An organisation of high priests defended the Payyannur priests saying it could be a misunderstanding and individuals are not discriminated against in temples. Explaining why the small lamp was left on the floor and not handed over to Radhakrishnan, the Akhila Kerala Thanthri Samajam said priests performing 'deva pujas' do not touch anyone, be it a Brahmin or non-Brahmin, while the ritual was on.
But in the video of the inaugural event, the two priests could be seen jostling for space among the crowd.
Radhakrishnan, who disclosed he was not new to being discriminated against, said casteist thoughts were alive in the minds of some people but they were not being expressed fearing societal backlash.
Discrimination at every step
Only members of the Kannada-speaking Brahmins, Konkani-speaking Brahmins, Bunts, Tulu Gowda, Nair, Marathi (officially a ST), Maniyani (Yadavs), Vishwakarma, Paatali, and Agasa -- the last four being other backward classes (OBCs) -- can take the 18-step stairway to the Shri Jatadhari Devasthanam. The steps take devotees directly to the front of the Sanctum Sanctorum.
Members of the Scheduled Castes such as Nalkadaya (Kopala), the caste which performs the ritual of Jatadhari 'Theyyam' (guardian spirit), Mogar, and Baira; Scheduled Tribes such as Koraga and Mayila; and OBCs such as Tulu-speaking Billava (equivalent to Malayalam-speaking Thiyas) are prohibited from taking the steps to the front door.
There is a narrow, unguarded flight of stairs at the back, where the toilets are, for the 'untouchable' devotees. Those steps would take them to the back of the temple courtyard.
The 'untouchables' have dedicated areas to stand in the courtyard, depending on where they stand in the hierarchy. They are also not allowed to offer money in the temple's brass offertory plate. They have to hand it over to a member of an intermediate caste without touching them, Jagannath 'Sanku' Poojari, a grocer at Swarga, told this correspondent in 2021.
Poojari belonged to the Tulu-speaking Billava community, considered on par with the Malayalam-speaking Thiya community. He too cannot take the front stairs.
If anyone violates the rule, they will have to apologise and make a repentance offering, which has to be dropped on a wooden plate.
Also, the temple committee serves food during the Jatadhari Theyyam festival first to the Brahmins, then to the governing members of the temple, and then to members of the forward communities.
By the time, the 'untouchables' from the Moger and Koragga communities are called it would be night.
Interventions and deadlock
In September 2018, Krishna Mohan, Satheesh Naik, and several others from the oppressed communities filed a complaint to the Special Mobile Squad (SMS) of the Kerala Police that investigates complaints under the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. Kasaragod's SMS did not convert the complaint to an FIR. Instead, the then DySP of SMS Harischandra Naik took an undertaking from the Brahmins controlling the temple saying they would end the discriminatory practices.
They signed the undertaking but returned home and decided to close the temple.
Later, Kasaragod district collector K Sajith Babu took up the matter during an adalat -- grievance redressal platform. But he did not resolve it.
Leaders of the CPM's Pattikajathi Kshema Samithi (PKS) -- an organisation for the welfare of Scheduled Caste -- made a stunt entry into the Devasthanam and claimed they ended discrimination in November 2021. "What we want is the reopening of the Devasthanam and access to it through the front gate. They (PKS leaders) just came and made news and left," said Krishna Mohan.
In February 2022, Sivagiri Math president Swami Sathchidananda visited the place and said he would intervene to reopen the temple to all communities.
"Monks of the Math and I will join hands with the people to protest against the denial of justice so that everyone can visit the temple," he told them.
Neither was there a protest nor was there any follow-up.
'Discrimination is normal'
Sudheesh Chattanchal, a rights activist fighting against caste oppression, said such discrimination was rampant in family-controlled temples and at 'tharavad' (ancestral houses where Theyyam is performed) on Kerala-Karnataka borders.
In Kasaragod's Mogral Puthur panchayat, the Theyyam cannot enter the Savarna temple. "He can perform only in the paddy fields near the temple after the harvest," he said.
In Swarga, Krishna Mohan said, the people were planning to launch a protest to press the government to reopen Shri Jatadhari Devasthanam. Every year, the devotees celebrate three festivals at the Devasthanam. "It is not a good omen for the village if Jatadhari Devasthanam remains closed," he said.