CHENNAI: When Santhi took the stage at a Chennai multiplex recently to recount her experiences of discrimination, it was a big moment for other members of her Puthirai Vannar community who were seated among the audience.
Puthirai Vannars or Thurumbars are notified as Scheduled Castes (Dalits), and their traditional occupation include washing clothes, hair-dressing and doing odd jobs at birth/death events of other Dalit communities like Arunthatiyars, Pallars and Parayars. The occasion on which Santhi and other members of the community spoke was the screening of a documentary titled Echam Micham, which details the trials and tribulations of the Thurumbars. The event was organised by Thurumbar Viduthalai Iyakkam, a group working for the liberation of the community, on the eve of Dr BR Ambedkar’s death anniversary, to appeal for restoration of human rights and dignity to the community members.
According to research scholars and social workers featured in the documentary, the community faces the same discrimination from other Dalits that the latter historically faced from the other three groups of the Varna system. Since a majority of them were historically in service of other castes, they were treated as bonded labourers with no proper pay. Most often, they were provided kitchen leftovers as dues for their work.
Educated or emancipated Thurumbars who married out of caste, even to fellow Dalits, were ostracised, a Thurumbar woman who married a Parayar man recounts in the documentary.
Former Madras High Court Judge Justice Chandru pointed out that leaders of Dalit organisations, who voiced support to Thurumbars, should first educate their cadre against the atrocities committed on Thurumbars by other Dalits.
Kiran Kamal Prasad, a member of the National Human Rights Commission’s committee on bonded labour, said that such community-based occupation exposed traditional forms of exploitation.
Activists alleged that the government census of 2001, which had identified only 127 Thurumbars, was flawed and that at least 29,438 of them had been identified by the Iyakkam in just three Tamil Nadu districts in 2010.
The problem got complicated as many Thurumbars were notified as Adi Dravidars in their caste certificate, the Iyakkam said. Only `4.08 lakh of the `1 crore allocated by the Tamil Nadu Government for the betterment of the community in 2009 had been utilised till date, it alleged.