A temple in Karnataka has emerged as the latest flashpoint of a caste war in former prime minister HD Deve Gowda’s parliamentary constituency, escalating a raging debate over the social divide in the country.
The intervention of the state government and the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has so far failed to resolve the dispute between the dominant upper caste, Vokkaligga, and the Dalit community in Sigaranahalli, a village of 330 households in Hassan district.
The tussle, which has even led to violence, has drawn in the former prime minister, whose son HD Revanna is the local MLA.
Trouble began in August last year after some men of the dominant Vokkaligga caste objected to four Dalit women entering the temple to offer prayers. They were chided and fined Rs 1,000 each.
The matter rested there until a Kannada newspaper reported that Dalits were barred from even entering the local community centre named ‘Vokkaliggara Samudaya Bhavan’ and partially built with development funds allotted by Deve Gowda.
The NHRC intervened and asked ordered the district administration to sort out the issue.
The Vokkaliggas – to which Deve Gowda belongs – retaliated by locking the temple and imposing a social boycott on the Dalits.
On April 1, the upper caste reopened the temple after performing “cleansing rituals” for which they reportedly spent about Rs 2 lakhs. The Dalits complained to district officials, and when top officials arrived at the village, they were attacked. Rahul Kumar Shahapurwad, the superintendent of police, was among those injured.
The violence forced the local officials to act. They have since taken control of the temple and tasked the village accountant to open it twice a day for everyone including Dalits.
The name of the community centre has also been erased with a fresh coat of paint. But the tensions are far from being buried with members of the dominant caste abandoning the temple altogether.
“What harm have we done to these people? Why do they treat us like this?” asked Thayamma, one of the four Dalit women fined for entering the temple. “We must have justice.”
Deve Gowda, on his part, said he is ashamed at the developments in Sigaranahalli, just 5km from his own native village of Haradanahalli.
“I have represented the constituency since 1964. Has there been any such instance reported till now? Why is this happening now, for the last 8 months,” he asked.
But political rivals say he is to be blamed. For one, Vokkaliggas of the area are mostly his supporters. Deve Gowda is allegedly pandering to them by rooting for a separate community hall for the Dalits.
“They (Gowdas) are least bothered about upholding the constitutional rights of the Dalits of their constituency. If Deve Gowda would just come once to the village and hold a meeting the issue will be resolved instantly,” said Dharmesh, the district secretary of the CPIM.