Part - II
upper castes do to dalits, the dalits do to vannars
Puthirai Vannars, the diktat is clear. They are destined to live as their
ancestors did. And die everyday. Without self-dignity or aspirations.
As slaves in modern India. That is why they ask: Who says India is free?
If given a choice,
most Puthirai Vannar families would like to put an end to the practice
of begging for food. They long for the day when they can cook at home,
for it would give them a sense of self-dignity. But dalits don’t
allow them to cook. The reason is not far to seek. When the Vannars beg
for food, it destroys their self-worth. The tradition perpetuates the
slave mentality, pre-empts and crushes a rebellious spirit.
Within: They carry the torch during wedding processions
There have been cases
where dalit men have raped our women. They bear the cost of abortion
and put an end to the matter. The victimised women don’t
go to the police. There have been
cases where dalit men have exploited our women when they go to
get food from their houses
— Irusan Ragupathi, president, Tamil Nadu Harijan Washermen
“It’s worse than the slavery that existed in the West,”
says Professor A. Sivasubramanian, currently doing research on the community.
“People bought the slaves there. To a certain extent, they were
looked after well because the owners had to suffer losses if they fell
sick or died. But the Vannars have no such advantages. Dalits treat them
just as slaves but refuse to take their responsibility in terms of welfare.”
In most ways, this social oppression is the mirror image of how dalits
are treated by the upper castes all over India. Till date, in many villages,
the Vannars cannot sit in front of a dalit. They are not allowed to take
water from their street taps. “When there is a death in a dalit
house, we have to perform special duties. We prepare the dead body and
make the padai (burial cast). As people walk to the crematorium, we are
required to spread sarees on the ground before them to walk on it. After
the rituals are completed, we sit down wearing a white dhoti and the mourners
drop coins on it,” says Santhappan of Velankani Nagar in Tiruvannamalai
According to another tradition, the Vannars are required to carry the
‘theepantham’ (a flaming torch) during wedding processions.
There is fire in their hand, and darkness within.
Those defying this ancient heirarchy are repressed ruthlessly. There have
been instances when Vannars in some villages have refused to beg for food.
But they have either been forced to fall in line or driven out of the
village. Rosamma of Elanthapet village in Cuddalore district decided to
stop this daily house-to-house begging for food, and instead started cooking
food at home. But she was forced to go back after direct threats from
dalits. “They forced me to eat the leftover food,” she says.
About two years ago, in Athanur in Villupuram district, a man was forced
to eat leftover food by a dalit family. When he refused to eat, they chased
him out of the village. The diktat is clear. If you are born a Vannar,
you are destined for a predetermined way of life. Live as your ancestors
did. Have no dreams or aspirations. Die everyday.
All over the country, dalits suffer at the hands of upper caste people.
As far as the Vannars are concerned, the same dalits are the perpetrators
of atrocities against them. Irusan Ragupathi, state president of the Tamil
Nadu Harijan Washermen Federation, a Puthirai Vannar outfit, talks of
dalit atrocities. “In many villages in Senji taluk in Villupuram
district, dalit men have raped our women, then they bear the cost of abortion
and tell us to keep shut. The victimised women don’t go to the police.
There have been cases where dalit men have exploited our women when they
go to get food from their houses.”
The Vannars face other forms of harassment as well. In Fathimapalayam
in Villupuram district, instigated by the upper castes, dalits have been
creating problems for about 35 families living there. “They want
to take over our land. They are using the dalits to drive us out of our
homes,” say the villagers. A case of manhandling was registered
against some dalits but no action has been taken so far.
The younger generation, however, is getting restless. They want an end
to this injustice. “Everyone says that the country has attained
independence and we are now free. What independence are they talking of?”
asks Esumuthu of Vandipalayam in Villupuram district. This is a question
which no one wants to answer, especially the political establishment.
13 , 2005