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Building Up A New Movement
Against Scavenging:
Tirunalveli's Dalits Show The Way

By Vidya Bhushan Rawat

30 September, 2006

The bloody River

Every time, I pass through the Mythological Tamraparni river flowing in the middle of historical Tirunelveli town in the South of Tamilnadu, I am reminded with one of the most brutal massacre done by the police on the unarmed wageworkers, a majority of whom were Dalits some 7 years back. That fateful day of July 23 rd, 1999 when the tea workers of nearby Manjauli tea estate number around 3000 decided to take to street after the six month silent protest yielded nothing. And how the protest was met with by an irresponsible administration and political class, is another matter to discuss. That 17 workers died jumping from the bridge into the river fearing police violence on them. The police ran after them till the hapless workers found easy escape to save themselves from the police brutality and jumped into the river. About 11 of the workers died were Dalits and rest Muslims. The story still reminds how the unrest in the tea estates have not provided any lessons to our political class anywhere in India.

For me who had read the horror stories through the media and particularly heard some of the people who met with violence, the river and the bridge send chill reminder how the movements for people's right are met with brutality and unaccountability. One member judicial commission was formed to investigate into the incident and the judge exonerated the police from any brutality. Justice Mohan Rao said that the victims were responsible for their own killing and thereby police cannot be held accountable for the same. Since, the victims died by drowning and not by police lathicharge.

Self Respect Movement of Arundhatiars

In Tamilnadu, despite Periyar's strong anti Brahmin movement, the issue of Dalits rarely got the importance that it deserved during his lifetime. Perhaps, because analysts clubbed the issues of Shudras and dalits, despite major differences. There is no doubt that both were against the brahmanical hegemony but it never meant that Dalits would support the other hegemony of the backward communities without questioning their motives. While Periyar was a genius and committed in his philosophy against the caste based varnashram dharma, the political movement purportedly based on his philosophy was completely hijacked by the powerful communities. Nobody ever thought on the issue of Dalits and particularly the issue of manual scavenging which is done by the Arundhatiyar community in Tamilnadu. A large number of them were originally from Andhra Pradesh but now fully settled in Tamilnadu. One is amused why great Periyar's movement could not take notice of this heinous crime against humanity.

The fact is that communities have to moblise themselves to get their right. The Dalits also realized, though, very late, that their rights would not be fought by the backward community leaders who have become main power center in Tamilnadu. Regularly, the agrarian relation forced the powerful backward communities to launch their assault on the dalits. It resulted in various political movements and by 1990 when the north India was reeling under Mandalisation process, in Tamilnadu, the Dalits also started a new political alignment. Leader of Tamil Puthilgam Dr Krishna Swamy, started mobilizing various Dalit communities and was involved in the movement for the rights of the tea workers. It gave good opportunity also to build up the movement, though later Tamilnadu's Dalit politics also got divided deeply into various castes.

Yet, the events of Manjauli tea estate did not go unnoticed and a strong politically nonpolitical movement was building up since 1997 and the unfolding events also helped the Dalit to resolve further for their cause. The village Pettai people still remember that three Arundhatiars also died during this protest for their wages at the Manjlaoi tea estate. That was time when many of the politically enlightened in the community felt that a time was there to go with full force against their oppressors and to start a 'reawakening' movement of the community. V Sundaresan, a young dynamic youth from Pallaya community who had finished his schooling and pursued higher studies which became a matter of pride for any family, decided to organize the Arundhatiyar community. Along with him were a number of other community leaders like, M.Bhoopathi and C.Manoharan from village Pellai in Tirnelveli district who felt the need to liberate the community from the age-old practice of scavenging. Thus Tamilnadu Arundhatiyar Vidudalaya Munnetta Iyyakkam" which means Tamilnadu Arundhatiyars Freedom Movement was born in this village of Tirunelveli district, which had now spread to other districts like Nagarcoil, Madurai, Tuticorin, Kanyakumari and elsewhere in Taminladu. A proud Boopathi informs me how they have over 2000 strong committed workers in these districts only. Their number is growing as they wish to recruit the youths to lead the movement for self respect in the community.

About 30 kilometer from Tirunalveli district is village Amba Samudram under Mukudal Panchayat. Over 15-20 families from the scavenging Arundhatiar community is living here. Unlike many other places where you find pigs roaming around and filth making you sink, this village looks very clean. The houses are neat and women are more vocal about their 'liberation', even when there is no rehabilitation in terms of profession and resources are concerned.

The village Panchayat decided some years back that there would not be any manual scavenging here. The other communities also agreed after the Arundhatiar community had launched their own struggle to liberate themselves against the heinous practice of untouchability.

Liberation from bondage

There was a time when village women were not allowed to go with slippers on. Any new cloth would be highly discounted by the upper caste Thevars and Nadars. They were not even allowed to ride on bicycles. They had to clean the latrines and throw the human excreta. Now the women were happy and felt they had been really liberated though they still cannot eat and dine with other upper caste fellows yet the first thing what they felt was important that their Panchayat prohibited the practice of scavenging.

Masanam, who now is a beedi workers says : If we wear good cloths, they felt very bad. You would say, you are Sakline (scavenger), you are not supposed to wear good cloths. But after we have left this profession, there is no work. All men go for work. Life is very difficult. We make beedis but that is an unsustainable work. We do not do scavenging. We do not announce death. Life is still the same even though she is able to earn about Rs 25 per day by making beedi. She feel liberated. At least, I am not doing that dirty work which made us untouchable. Her husband is wood cutter and earn around Rs 60 per day. Both are happy for the day and living a better life.

Many people feel that the municipality work is still better both as a financial security and a freedom from scavenging. The salary that the Panchayat offer to a permanent sweeper is Rs 4,500/- which is much better than any other wage worker involved in menial work. However, unlike any other government job, there is no increment provided no other social security measures for the people.

A majority of the people here remain in their traditional roots. They have not converted themselves. They have been celebrating all the festivals like dipawali, Pongal, Vinayaka chaturthi etc. A majority of the people have not completed their education and VIIIth standard is perhaps the highest education in the village for the community.

The movement started slowly building up with youths taking up cycle rally. However, community faced a lot of opposition with cycle rally as riding cycle was prohibited in the village for the community. Yet, the youths were determined to take on the upper castes. Today the youth are the backbone of this liberation movement which is considered to be one of the most powerful militant movements by the state government.

Says Boopathi, 20 years back the upper caste would beat us, cut our hair etc but today we are in a position to give them a good thrashing. They know it well that the Arundhatiars have mobilized themselves. Interestingly, Boopati has completely delinked himself with the scavenging work. He proudly displayed his identity card of a 'video camera person'. President Manoharan is a driver with municipality.

Tragically, the community has no linkages with other in the same profession. They do not know who are Balmikis though they know the struggle of Madiga community in Andhra Pradesh and had met some of the leaders of the movement. They participated in Asia Social Forum in Hyderabad. Women's who are the victim of both the caste movement as well as the religious fanaticism across the board are excluded from the decision making in the leadership. Said a community leader, women will lead only in our absence and should take care of the family. They should only lead when in the village only as they remain inside the village while men go outside the village.

Some of the activists were very angry with the apoliticisation of the community by NGOs. " They never helped us in our troubles and crisis but often use our community meetings and rallies to show their strength, said Boopathi. We are unaware of the any other movement related to the welfare of our community as our movement is totally based on the contribution by the community. There is no support and therefore we have to be careful. He also scoffed at the political leaders claiming for redistribution of land to Dalits. We do not know how much land has been given. This village and particularly Arundhariars have not got anything. All our people are landless and yet nobody comes here and distribute land to us.

Providing Alternatives

V. Sundaresan, is a proud man today. Hailing from another Dalit community, he decided to take a plunge in organizing the Arundhatiar community. With a remarkable career record with several degrees including masters and M.Phil, Sunderesan helped the community to organize themselves to build a strong rural movement. With his strong conviction and community support Sundaresan started Grama Udhayam, a cooperative bank for the agricultural workers, wage workers, sanitation workers of Tirunelveli. The most important aspect of this bank is that it is for the women. According to Sundarsen, the bank has a turn over of Rs 500 million, which is remarkable. That the working Dalit women are getting benefited from this another feather in the cap of the positive side of the movement. Sundarsen claims that 90% of the working staff of the Gramaa Udhayam are women. Interestingly, among these 90% working women, 50% belong to Madiga community which brings us to the great revelation how the positive aspect of Dalit movement and their liberation strategies are being ignored by not only by the media but also by the Dalit movement itself.

An angry young man, Sundaresan poses very disturbing questions about the motives of the NGOs. " We want to build a political movement for the rights of Arundhatiar community in Tamilnadu. Our reach is regularly increasing throughout the state. We fear that NGOs are killing our revolutionary spirit. If we want to empower people, we have to snatch political power", say Sundaresan. And political power without an alternative is not possible opine Sundarsen. 'We all need to understand that Brahminism thrive on our weaknesses. We are powerful community and must now educate ourselves. Our women's must be equal participant in our socio-political platform', says Sundarsen.

Long Battle Ahead

There is a long battle overdue. The caste system, untouchability and issue of women are of great importance. The people in the Arundhatiars Freedom Movement, one is sure that the issue of roots of Arundhatiars would also be discussed broadly, as one cannot fight against Brahmanism by being a part of it. Arundhatiyars political battle for honour, dignity and right place in the society will gain strength only if they could learn a thing or two from the Self Respect Movement of Periyar. That movement was hijacked by the backward communities and yet most of them remained as shudras in the brahmanical scheme of things. When ideological clarity is absent and smaller identities are submerged to powerful and bigger identity, the result is the growing clashes between the Dalits and backward communities. One is amused how the Tamilnadu Panchayats are the domain of the backward communities who are still not allowing the elected representatives of Dalits to take charge of the village. It is because the same ideas of struggle are not replicated against your own 'well-wishers', which you apply against the 'enemies'. It is because the issues are relegated to the back because your identity and numbers become more important. Dalit movement is not just a movement for replacement of one community from the other. It is a movement for the Self Respect and dignity of all those who are even less in numbers and living on the margins. It is a movement for human rights of all. It is an alternative philosophy of humanism and rationalism. A cultural revolution, therefore, should, essentially precede the political empowerment of the community otherwise it would turn counterproductive.

One hope that the Arundhatiayar community's struggle for Self Respect and human rights would not be against another Dalit community. It has to take lead in bringing them also to their field. Gram Udhayam is a great reflection of the power and vision of Dalits all over India. Their achievement would definitely help the communities living in other parts of the country to think about their self and work for a socio cultural revolution that would free from the bondage of the caste based discrimination.

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