Lifting The Lowest
Tamil Nadu is contemplating a ‘quota within quota’ for Arundhatiyars, its most marginalised community, writes AMUDHAN RP
WHILE ‘meritocratic ’ India goes on and on a b o u t ‘quality’ and ‘efficiency’ with an attitude of brahminical hegemony and exclusivism, the Tamil Nadu government, with the support of all major political parties, has taken a commendable step towards greater social justice by introducing a sub-quota for the extremely marginalised Arundhatiyar community within the quota available for Scheduled Castes in the state.
Although the government has only decided to appoint a one-man committee consisting of a retired judge to look in to the matter and submit its recommendation, the fact that it is being discussed at the highest level of planners in the state itself is a good sign. Such a quota has been a long unheeded demand of Arundhatiyar activists and movements, yet the immediate trigger was the spate of meetings, rallies and protests recently organised by the Left parties, who seemed to have suddenly woken up to the cause.
The Arundhatiyar community, which includes groups such as the Sakkiliyars, Madharis, Pagadais, Thottis and Adhi Andhras, constitute 13 percent of the total population of Scheduled Castes in Tamil Nadu. They are involved in traditional caste-based occupations such as manual scavenging, cobbling, parai (traditional drum) beating and agricultural labour for centuries and are considered ‘lowest of the low’ in the state. Without access to education, housing, health and finance, they lack the prerequisites for participation in the modern globalised economy.
While other predominant dalit communities such as Pallars and Parayars have some political clout in the form of parties such as Pudhiya Tamilagam and Viduthalai Chiruthaigal, Arundhatiyars have no party representing them. The existing Arundhatiyar movements such as Adhi Tamilar Peravai, Neela Puligal and others are more in the activist mode, fighting for socio-cultural and political rights without taking part in elections.
Arundhatiyars used to be loyal followers and voters of erstwhile chief minister MG Ramachandran and his party AIADMK. However, now there is a growing voice among the community, especially youngsters, demanding a just and right space of their own for Arundhatiyars, thanks to the dalit uprising in Tamil Nadu following the caste riots in the mid 1990s. As fellow dalits have become political forces, Arundhatiyars too are rightfully keen on taking their share of the political pie.
Present in almost all the districts of the state, Arundhatiyars’ population is particularly high in the western parts of Tamil Nadu such as Coimbatore, Erode, Nilgiris, Dharmapuri, Krishnagiri and Salem. As they speak Telugu in certain parts and Kannada in other parts of the state, Arundhatiyars are made to feel alienated linguistically as well.
THEY ARE poorly represented in most forms of white or blue-collared employment. You only see them in the street corners surviving on the little money they earn out of repairing footwear and bags, or as cleaners or sweepers in offices. When the tsunami struck in 2004, it was Arundhatiyar sanitary workers from Madurai Municipal Corporation that were assigned to clear the corpses from the coastal areas of Nagaipattinam. If a luxury hotel is built anywhere in Tamil Nadu, the sweepers jobs are immediately reserved for Arundhatiyars, without any second thoughts.
Dalit and human rights activists in Tamil Nadu have for long held that Arundhatiyars were not getting the benefits of reservation, the reason why they have advocated forming a ‘quota within quota’. While most major political parties and dalit leaders have expressed their support for the move, the leaders of Pudhiya Tamilagam have suggested that the quota for Arundhatiyars be made outside the existing reservation for Scheduled Castes.
In a state where dalit panchayat presidents still find it difficult to enter their offices, initiatives to ‘uplift’ communities such as the Arundhatiyars have always faced obstacles. Activists have for years raised their concern about the decades-old backlog of vacancies in posts reserved for Scheduled Castes. Besides, crores of rupees that have been allotted by the Central government for the welfare of Scheduled Castes are being sent back by the states un-utilised every year.
One only hopes that this brand new initiative by the government does not run into the same old hurdles.