The residents of Amlihal, a village with the population of about a thousand people in Yadgir, Karnataka, had never seen a police force so large.
Led by three circle inspectors and ten sub-inspectors, over 150 policemen dressed in riot gear took up positions in the village to facilitate a simple act of defiance by a group of Dalit women.
On 28 May, five women belonging to the Holeya Scheduled Caste (SC) community were scheduled to enter the local Hanuman temple for the first time, breaking an unwritten code imposed by the dominant communities in the village.
The women – Lakshmi, Yellamma, Jayashree, Shyamala and Devamma – entered the temple amid heavy police security that evening hoping that their act would end decades of caste oppression in their village.
“We had to be brave. We asked ourselves how long should we keep respecting rules set by them? We had police on all sides and we entered the temple with them," says Lakshmi.
Caste Order Remains Unchanged Despite the Move
But when the day arrived, the doors of the temple housing the Hanuman deity stayed closed, despite the preparations made by the district administration and the police.
“When we came to the temple, the situation was different to what we expected. 250-300 upper caste women from Amlihal had gathered in front of the temple and were blocking the entry,” says CB Vedhamurthy, the Superintendent of Police (SP) of Yadgir district.
Police officials imposed restrictions under section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC) to curtail the protest by upper caste women. “We reminded the elders from Amlihal of the legal consequences. We said a case can be registered against them and they can be arrested if they prohibit people from entering the temple,” says the SP.
“There were tense discussions throughout the day till around 4 pm when they finally relented, and it was agreed that five Dalit women would be allowed to enter the temple,” he says.
The nerve-wracking experience of the women entering the temple lasted only 15 minutes but it took weeks of discussions and a day of tense negotiations, which are indications of the entrenched caste discrimination that continues in the village.
The temple has since been locked other than for official visits; and the Dalit residents of the village say that despite the women entering the temple, the caste order has remained unchanged.
How Dalit Residents Mobilised
The first rumblings of dissent over the ancient ban on temple entry in Amlihal started in Hoovinalli, a neighboring village one kilometre away where the majority of residents belong to the Holeya SC community.
Hoovinalli and Amlihal are separated only by cotton fields that stretch alongside the narrow mud road connecting the villages. However, the differences between the residents of the respective villages run deeper.
It was in the second week of May when the Holeyas of Hoovinalli wrote to the tehsildar asking for protection to enter the Hanuman temple in Amlihal. They said that they were being kept out of the temple by the upper caste Hindu Lingayats or Reddis living in Amlihal.
The temple entry movement started because of residents like Sharanabasappa, a 38-year-old social worker from Hoovinalli, who refused to accept the caste discrimination that was commonplace in his home village. Sharanabasappa, who has a masters degree in social work and experience working in non-governmental organisations (NGO) in Bengaluru, has been working with an NGO called Chiguru (meaning ‘sprout’) in Yadgir for the last three years.
Six months ago, Sharanabasappa says that the owner of an eatery in Amlihal refused to serve him as he was a Dalit. “I was with a friend who came from another village and I didn’t know how to explain it to him. I was hurt by the behaviour of the people at the eatery,” says Sharanabasappa.
“I brought it up within the village with our elders and community leaders that Dalits are not allowed entry in public spaces like hotels and temples in Amlihal,” he says.
He considered filing a police complaint against the owner of the eatery but decided against it after the elders in his village – also Dalits – warned him of the consequences.
In March 2021, a police sub-inspector of Kembhavi police station, Sudarshan Reddy, was accused of assaulting and abusing a Dalit pump operator who hailed from Agni, a village less than 10 km away from Hoovinalli. The Kembhavi police station limits also covered Hoovinalli.
Sharanabasappa was also fearful that it would provoke the upper caste men of Amlihal, who controlled land and employment in his village.
“The men and women from our community work as labourers in the fields owned by the zamindars who belong to upper caste communities,” says Sharanabasappa. Even though punishment for crimes under the SC/ST Act extends from six months to death, over 1,300 crimes against scheduled castes are recorded every year in Karnataka.
Dalit Groups Look For Long-term Solution
Instead of the police complaint, Sharanabasappa decided to press for a long-term resolution, and conducted a series of meetings in his village involving the elders and the youth who had experience outside the village working for Dalit and farmer organisations. They consulted the Yadgir unit of the Dalit Sangarsha Samiti (DSS), an organisation working for the rights of Dalits.
"In the meetings, we discussed what kind of oppression we faced everyday in the village. One of the main things mentioned was the entry to the temple in Amlihal. A lot of people in our village had raised the question why we were not allowed into the temple," says Jayashree Hoovinalli, one of the women who entered the temple.
"We decided last month that it was important for us to enter the temple to be considered equal in their village," she says.
But they were disallowed by the elders of Amlihal village who said that Dalits are not allowed to enter the temple. “The Dalit residents in our own village did not go inside temples, so, we were surprised when they (residents of Hoovinalli) sought permission to enter the temple,” says Sharanagowda, a resident of Amlihal.
The decision by the elders in Amlihal was relayed back to the residents of Hoovinalli by Yamanappa, Sharanabasappa’s relative and one of the elders in Hoovinalli.
“Everyone was seething in anger…They (upper caste men in Amlihal) don't want anyone upsetting their order. But their order does not give us our rights,” says Sharanabasappa.
“We came to a point where we asked ourselves how long we will continue living by their wishes,” he says.
The residents of Hoovinalli approached the tehsildar, the local police, the SP in Yadgir, the MLA Raju Gowda of the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), among others, on 21 May, a week before the village fair.
The district police led by the SP Vedhamurthy held three meetings in the village before deciding that the police will facilitate the entry of Hoovinalli’s Dalit residents into the temple.
Temple Remains Locked After Dalit Women Enter
Despite the entry, Hoovinalli’s residents feel that there is a long way to go to address the caste-based discrimination they face.
When this reporter visited Amlihal, days after the tension, the temple was locked. A police vehicle continues to be stationed in Amlihal and Hoovinalli over fears of violence. Though Sharanagowda, a resident of Amlihal opened the temple doors and allowed this reporter inside, he refused to enter the temple himself and declined to give his reasons.
“The priest has not come here and the lamps inside have not been lit for days. The elders are discussing the future of the temple,” a resident of Amlihal told TNM on the condition of anonymity.
The residents of Hoovinalli allege that the upper caste persons of Amlihal consider the temple to be impure now that Dalits entered it. “Why did they lock the temple doors after Dalit women entered it? We have to remember it took the might of the district police to ensure five women entered the temple. The police will be there for a few more days but what happens when they leave?” he asks.
"It should not have been just the five of us. All of us from the village should go to the temple. There were so many police officials but they were not brave enough to take all of us to the temple," says Jayashree.
“The caste order will only be broken when we can go to the temple everyday without fear,” she says.
The temple was opened again on June 1 when police officials and the MLA Raju Gowda arrived to hold a peace meeting among the residents but it has been closed to the public since the women entered it. “The meetings were a missed opportunity since they were held separately for the upper caste people and the people of our village. There was no chance to address the root of the discrimination,” says Sharanabasappa.
District police officials say there is a threat of violence breaking out if Dalit groups assert themselves and try to re-enter the temple regularly.
“We have to go gradually and not all of a sudden. Even if we (police) are there, if thousands of people there start throwing stones, we cannot do anything. There were chances of them doing this if we used force,” says the SP Vedhamurthy.
But Hoovinalli’s residents say that if there is a threat of violence, the police should take action against those perpetrating it. “The police have not taken up our complaint against the men from Amlihal. Shouldn't the police continue their work and help us all go to the temple?,” asks Sharanabasappa.
(Published in arrangement with The News Minute.)