Liberation from labels

In a bid to remove caste identification in street names, filmmaker Kalpana Ambedkar is bringing about a change, one neighbourhood at a time
From caste-coloured ribbons and flags, to ‘untouchability’ walls, the echoes of caste have travelled through history and continue to persist.
From caste-coloured ribbons and flags, to ‘untouchability’ walls, the echoes of caste have travelled through history and continue to persist.

CHENNAI: Every colony or cheri in Tamil Nadu breathes a story. Narrow lanes in markedly Dalit settlements witness generations of discrimination and resound with footsteps of far-away walks to schools, public toilets, and hospitals, placed out of access.

Yet, even as residents move away from their isolated hamlet’s boundaries or have long left these spaces, the tag ‘colony’ continues to shadow them. “People would ask us ‘colony kaaran ah?’ and the tone changes. Only those who experience it will understand the way people see the name and address. Instantly, insecurity springs within us. No matter how much we have studied or what we have done, or left, caste follows us like this,” explains city-based filmmaker Kalpana Ambedkar, the first female graduate from her town in Erode’s Sathyamangalam.

From caste-coloured ribbons and flags, to ‘untouchability’ walls, the echoes of caste have travelled through history and continue to persist. A walk around any city or town in Tamil Nadu would yield a collection of caste names: Thevar Street, Nair Mess or Vanniyar Theru. A glance at Chennai’s blue area boards reveals more than just neat lettering: from Semmencheri to Kasimedu, names of neighbourhoods have histories, revealing caste statuses and ‘tags’ of discrimination follow.

This occurs despite the social justice movement, reformer Periyar’s efforts to abolish caste surnames and then-chief minister MG Ramachandran’s order to remove caste from street names. Recently, the Kerala government ordered the abolition of the term ‘colony’ to describe settlements of scheduled caste and scheduled tribe communities in official records. According to a report by The Wire, former Minister K Radhakrishnan said, “‘Colony’ is a term coined by oppressors and linked to slavery. Residents can suggest alternate names; generic names derived from their suggestions should be used and places should not be named after people.”

Growing up, Kalpana recalls the ooru and colony divide being stark. “Our town, Harijan Colony, was surrounded by Gounders, Chettiars and other dominant caste communities. The Arunthathiyar community used to serve as bonded labourers to them. My thatha and paati were like that. The only thing the ooru wants from us is our labour,” she explains.

As a child, she recalls markers of caste discrimination — tea served in coconut shells, elders in her village referred to without respect (va da, po da) or by their names, the two-tumbler system, and the dire lack of education and opportunities. In an effort to uproot discrimination and change the odds, a first step lay in changing the names of their areas.

Their hamlet of 77 Dalit families was termed Harijan Colony in official records, and Kalpana wondered how this tag originated. Mails, cherished graduating certificates, and crinkled ration or identity cards were addressed to this area.

As Hugo Gorringe writes in his research paper, Out of the Cheris: Dalits Contesting and Creating Public Space in Tamil Nadu, “the cheri, government constructed colony or urban estate similarly serve to identify and marginalise Dalits…Untouchability, Ambedkar insisted, ‘is a case of territorial segregation’.”

What’s in a name?

Every colony or cheri in Tamil Nadu breathes a story. Kalpana’s colony has several and one among the many is how the filmmaker and five other youngsters changed their area’s history. They reclaimed it by picking a name of their choice.

“Behind names, there is a lot of caste politics. We need to see each other as humans and see people as people. In all regions, caste has created hierarchies and created this politics. We need to change the minds of people. And the first step is changing the name,” underlines the filmmaker.

In 2018, after hearing a child being asked if he was a ‘colony paiyyan’, Kalpana and other youngsters Pandian, Vengayan, Jeeva, Nandakumar, Jothi, and Lokesh held a meeting, deciding an address change was due. “If someone from the colony searches for work, (potential employers see this address) and does not give jobs. We were losing out because the caste tag was attached to our addresses. It is not to hide caste but it is for respect,” she says.

Amid the lush harvests and Pongal festivities the next year, the group and other volunteers collected signatures from residents on this move. Despite setbacks and mild disagreements, they managed to collect 1,000 signatures and settled on the name ‘Periyar Nagar.’

Following two signature campaigns, applications, and several petitions at the panchayat’s office, district Collectorate, and CM’s cell, they managed to get approval to change the name of their area from Harijan Colony. While the panchayat head or party MLAs did not attend, Kalpana says, the community pitched in and they put up the board for Periyar Nagar.

On September 17, 2021, under the banner bearing photos of Thanthai Periyar and Dr BR Ambedkar, their hamlet was reverberating with upbeat drumbeats of a parai, speeches, and chattering. A green board was put up, with careful white printed letters: Periyar Nagar. This was a moment that filmmakers had waited for. A large banner, quoting the revolutionary, pointed out “The ambition of life is to serve society.”

While the name is yet to be notified in the gazette, visitors are greeted by this green board and new ID cards proudly carry their area name. This move inspired Kalpana’s friend Anusuya to change her area’s name from colony to Indira Nagar in Ariyalur. “Lots of Anusuyas must exist and maybe here, they don’t accept this name, but in the future, they will accept the name ‘Periyar Nagar’ in. There will be no other way,” says Kalpana.

Every colony or cheri in Tamil Nadu breathes a story. But look closer, the Kalpanas and Anusuyas of the world are trying to narrate their own histories and change spaces for the better.

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