‘Vettaikarans’ seek life of dignity

S. Dorairaj

PUDUCHERRY: “For generations, we have been performing temple-related works such as carrying the processional deities, petromax lamps and torches, particularly during the festivals. Still, our fathers and forefathers have been at the receiving end. But we have decided not to put up with insults anymore…” This is how young D. Ramalingam of the Vettaikaran tribe residing at Vadhanour asserts.

A group of persons representing 37 Vettaikaran families called on Collector G. Theva Neethi Dhas and presented a memorandum highlighting their problems.

K. Ramkumar, president of the Puducherry Scheduled Tribes’ Federation, told The Hindu that people belonging to the Vettaikaran community, a sub-tribe of Irular, had been residing at Vadhanour in Mannadipet commune for several decades.

Strict implementation of the provisions of the Wildlife Act had forced them to abandon their traditional occupation of hunting wild animals and switch over to farm work and bamboo basket making. Every now and then they were forced to do works related to temple festivals in the village located 27 km from Puducherry, he said, adding that they were humiliated and fined if they failed to fall in line. However, the new generation who, for the first time, had gone to high school-level and rallied under the welfare union, had decided to send a “thus-far-no-further” signal to the influential sections, he said. P.Anbalagan, a physically challenged person, said that on one occasion in 1998, the Vettaikarans had to remit a “collective fine” of Rs.500 for “failing to perform their duties” during a temple festival.

“Even some children belonging to other communities have been insulting our elders. We feel humiliated when we are dubbed ‘Theevattis’ referring to our occupation of carrying the torch during the temple festivals,” said Ramalingam.

For trivial issues too, the dominant communities called the “oor panchayat” in the wee hours to “hear the cases involving the tribe and award punishments” against them, Mr. Ramkumar said.

The people had another grouse. As they had decided to perform their traditional festival-related works, they were allegedly not allowed to draw water from the farm pump-sets. They were not even allowed to walk along the ridges of the field, according to D.Muthukrishnan, a farmhand. S.Krishnan, secretary of the Ekalaivan Ilaignar Nala Sangam, said the tribe wanted to be treated with dignity and honour.