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‘Violence against Dalits growing… all part of RSS bid to re-establish caste’: Kerala minister

Kerala Temple Affairs and SC/ST Welfare Minister K Radhakrishnan’s statement that he had faced caste discrimination at a Kannur temple, with priests reportedly reluctant to hand over a lamp to him, embarrassed the LDF government, which takes pride in the state’s renaissance values and cites appointment of Dalit priests in temples in 2018 as part of its inclusive policy. On Wednesday, the Akhila Kerala Thanthri Samajam, an organisation of top priests, said the incident was the result of a “misunderstanding” on the minister’s part, and that nobody was discriminated against in temples. A CPI(M) central committee member, Radhakrishnan rose from the ranks in the party, starting from its youth wing DYFI, and is seen as the most prominent Dalit face of the party in Kerala. The five-term legislator, who is also the state president of a CPI(M)-affiliated farm workers’ union, speaks to The Indian Express about the incident, why the caste system endures, and what needs to be done to fight it. Excerpts:

You said that the incident at the Kannur temple occurred a few months back. Why did you raise it now?

Radhakrishnan: My statement should be seen against the backdrop of recent atrocities against Dalits across the country. I want to bring focus to the Dalit hunt underway in the country. I was pained hearing recent incidents of cruelty towards Dalits in many states. In Uttar Pradesh, a Dalit was beaten to death for asking for his wages. In Madhya Pradesh, a BJP leader urinated on a tribal youth. All these incidents indicate that caste-based violence is growing in the country. I see these incidents as part of the Sangh Parivar agenda to re-establish the caste system.

Do you believe caste discrimination also exists in Kerala?

Radhakrishnan: I do not see it as an isolated incident in Kerala or a temple here. Such incidents are happening everywhere. In Kerala, the remnants of the caste system still linger in the minds of certain people. The statement should be seen from a larger perspective. Kerala has seen movements aimed at eradicating the caste system and ensuring equality. We had several renaissance movements in Kerala, Dalits have benefited from them, our state has a progressive approach. However, contemporary Indian conditions provide impetus to such regressive attitudes.

Who is responsible for this situation?

Radhakrishnan: I do not want to blame or find fault with any particular segment in society. I do not think that temple priests are alone responsible for this discrimination. The need of the hour is a concerted fight against the caste system. Our aim is a casteless society, but that cannot be achieved overnight. Instead, we require a mass movement against heinous acts like the one in that temple.

Do you think Dalits should take the lead in such a movement?

Radhakrishnan: All segments of society should take a common approach to end the caste system. If only one particular community fights against it, such a movement would be sectarian.

I hear from backward communities that they want an increase in monetary assistance and freebies. But more importantly, we need to find solutions for the problems at a systemic level. No amount of financial assistance can change lives if caste remains.

I felt contempt (at how I was treated).

Why did you not take any action against the priests?

Radhakrishnan: The temple affairs department could have suspended them for a certain period. But such an action does not solve the issue. My revelation was meant to prompt a change in the attitudes of the people who still want to see continuation of this discrimination. The debate should make people change their mindset.

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The temple authorities claim they acted as per rituals…

Radhakrishnan: Then why don’t they think about the sanctity of the money dropped into hundis at temples? There is no untouchability towards the currency and coins. Currency notes coming to the temple would have gone through the hands of Muslims, Christians… Why do they not impose untouchability on money?

The previous LDF government created history by appointing Dalit priests. What feedback do they give you?

Radhakrishnan: These Dalit priests are performing very well and have created an impact. But there have been attempts to discriminate. They faced resistance at some places from a section of the faithful. But the department intervened in a timely manner.

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A group of Dalit priests have moved the High Court challenging the Travancore Devaswom (temple affairs) Board’s practice of appointing only Malayala Brahmins as chief priests at the Sabarimala temple. What is your take?

Radhakrishnan: We are not against any faith, we will go as per the court directive. We adopted the same approach on the issue of women’s entry to the Sabarimala temple. At the same time, we will not hurt any faith.

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