Devotees throng the temple on the auspicious night of Shivaratri, but untouchability bars Sarathi Das from entering.
Home to multiple shrines dedicated to Shiva, Shivaratri is one of the most important Hindu festivals in Odisha. In the Mallikeshwar Temple, devotees are seen thronging the shrine, lighting prayer lamps and making offerings on the occasion. But Sarathi Das lights her lone prayer lamp outside the temple.
“The Brahmin priests do not permit us to enter the temple,” says Das who belongs to a Scheduled Caste community. She adds that no one from ‘lower’ caste communities like Dhobi, Kandara and Bauri is allowed to enter the temple.
The problem is not limited to temple entry. Community Correspondent Anupama Sathy visits Tentulia Village and discovers that untouchability is widely prevalent there. “50 Dalit families are experiencing untouchability”, says Sathy. Everyday life is rife with caste discrimination.
"The ‘upper’ castes tell us to sit separately, whether in common gatherings or in the temple. They don’t touch us."
Article 17 of the Indian Constitution abolishes untouchability and makes it punishable by law, and the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act of 1989 spells out the safeguards against caste discrimination and violence. But when Anupama asks Das if her community has opposed the practice or taken recourse to the law, she says no. She feels that opposing such regressive practices will yield nothing. “The ‘upper’ castes tell us to sit separately, whether in common gatherings or in the temple. They don’t touch us,” she says, adding that she feels awful.
In another incident of caste atrocity from Odisha, 12 Dalit homes were torched following an electoral defeat of a Brahmin candidate in the Panchayat elections coupled with tensions over observing festivals separately. Community Correspondent Ashok Samal, who reported the story, says that the main accused have not been arrested even months after the FIR because the police is protecting them instead.
“It the government takes steps to accept us, then it will be effective”, says Das, who is wary of the clout that the ‘upper’ castes wield in her village and knows that it is not easy to oppose them. Hopefully, Anupama’s documentation of the issue will enable conversation and action.
The contemporary temple entry movement has taken the media by storm in the last two years, the legal battles over the Sabarimala and the Shani Shignapur shrines along with the Haji Ali Dargah being the most prominent cases. The discourse around the movement unfolds as both the right to pray and the right to access public spaces but remains limited as it addresses gender narrowly without addressing caste. Exclusion of Dalits from Hindu temples does get reported time and again but it has not culminated into a movement in contemporary times, and with the kind of influence ‘upper’ castes have, it is a difficult battle to fight.
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