At least the dead must be spared of caste discrimination: Madras HC

The Madras high court called for common burial grounds irrespective of caste in the state, setting aside a lower court’s order to exhume a dead body that was buried in a “non-designated” plot

Representative Image
Representative Image

Amarabati Bhattacharyya

The Madras High Court on Thursday directed the Tamil Nadu government to end the practice of caste-based burial grounds and crematoriums, calling for common burial grounds irrespective of caste in the state.

Noting that “at least the dead must be spared of caste discrimination,” the two-judge bench of Justices R. Subramanian and K. Kumaresh Babu said that “even after 75 years of Independence, the country is still unable to break the shackles of casteism and even the secular government is forced to provide for separate burning and burial grounds on communal lines."

The HC set aside a lower court’s order that allowed the exhumation of a dead body buried in a plot that was “not a designated burial ground for the Scheduled Caste and Other Backward Classes." The body was allegedly buried on a plot designated as a cart track and not in the “designated” grounds of Navakurichi village, Salem district. The lower court accepted the exhumation plea filed by the relatives of the deceased.

The appellants contended that “it was a common practice in the village to bury the dead on the left side of said plot and the cart track only passed from the middle of the plot,” adding that there had already been several other burials and graves in the same spot as per the Advocate Commissioners report. Another report submitted by the Chief Police Inspector of the area also confirmed that said plot had been a burial site for decades.

To this end, the HC noted that there were no restrictions on burials or cremations if they adhered to the prohibitions set by the Tamil Nadu Village Panchayat (Provision of Burial and Burning Grounds) Rules, 1999, which states that burials should not take place within 90 metres from the nearest habitations or sources of drinking water.

Additionally, the appellants highlighted that the request for exhumation did not hold any value as the burial was done under the purview of the law set by the state–and that the respondents had based their request on caste-discrimination.

“Material is also available to show that there are designated burial grounds on a community basis in the village. In the absence of any prohibition of the enactment as is the case in the Tamil Nadu District Municipality Act and Chennai City Municipal Corporation Act, we are unable to persuade ourselves to agree with the conclusions of the Writ Court,” stated the HC bench.

The bench also mentioned that the lack of a prohibition should not result in cremations “anywhere and everywhere," however adding that in this particular case, the contention was based on caste. “Equality has to commence at least when the person travels to his/her maker. This situation has to change and the change should be for the better. We sincerely hope that the Government of the day would come forward to make a beginning by making at least burial grounds common to all communities,” the HC concluded.

At this juncture, it is imperative to note that in December 2021, the Madras HC bench headed by Justice R. Mahadevan called for a similar change, urging the Tamil Nadu government to convert all caste-based burial grounds and crematoriums located across the state into common grounds that could be used by all those who profess the same faith. Mahadevan also prescribed that those who continue to bury the dead based on caste should be penalised so as to eradicate the practice. However, his suggestions did not yield any consequences.

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