CUDDALORE: The reality of caste strikes us when something as shocking as a death happens. But in this hinterland village in Cuddalore district, the Irula tribe families say their caste identity has over the years inflicted on them something more profound. They say education of a generation of their children has been hampered.
Their story is intricate. But in short, a trivial incident involving two school boys from the tribal community in 2014 resulted in a friction with the dominant caste Hindu community of the region. The sense of caste supremacy soon spread even to the children in the panchayat school where the Irula children studied. The castiest slurs and harassment at the hands of their own school mates made almost all children from the tribal community to drop out of the school, which is located in the caste Hindu dominated village. This batch of children are now left out of the education system forever.
The memory of the 2014 incident is vivid in minds of many in the Anguchettipalayam village, surrounded by farmlands about a kilometer from the Panruti town. The secluded Irula community at Anguchettipalayam has about 65 families and almost about 200 people, including a little over 80 children, many of whom are visibly malnourished. K Arasappan, a few hours before attending his final year semester exam on Human Rights paper, takes a brief pause from last-minute preparations to narrate to Express what happened in 2014. He is one of the two from the Irula community at Anguchettipalayam who is continuing education and made it to a college. All other children of his age had dropped out since 2014 as they said they were worried about the caste violence and slurs from their school mates.
"Two boys from our village after the school hours had gone for bird hunting at Siruvathur village, which is about a kilometer away from here. But, the caste Hindus in the village claimed that the boys snatched a five sovereign gold chain from a woman while she was bathing. They caught and thrashed the two and soon 20 men came to our village," recalled Arasappan. He was then a class 10 student and like most other Irula children from the village, went to the Panchayat Union Middle School at Siruvathur.
“What followed next were nightmares for all of us," said Arasappan.
Kumar, Anguchettipalayam's village head said, "Siruvathur men stormed into our village and blamed the boys for the robbery. They told us to return the gold chain or give them money. But we refused to believe our boys were involved in the robbery. During the argument, when a woman of our village questioned them, they assaulted her and threatened us of serious consequences."
"When the assaulted woman filed a police complaint, the enraged Caste Hindu men subsequently barged into the village in a night and attacked us," he said.
After this spate of violence, there has been no clash between the Irula community and the caste Hindus. However, what happened was more subtle, and perhaps caused much more damage to the future of the Irula community. Statictics collected by Express from the Panchayat Union Middle School at Siruvathur shows that in 2012-13 academic year, 32 Irula children studied in the school. In 2013-14, it was 29. The numbers sharply dropped to 18 in 2014-15 and to a mere 4 in 2015-16.
Currently, out of 138 total children, only two Irula children study in the Siruvathur school. However, both these children do not hail from the Anguchettipalayam village.
"Since the incident, gradually our children started to drop out of the school and even many parents did not wish to send them. Although over the years there has been no clash, a certain tension continues to prevails between the two villages," laments Kumar.
Many of Arasappan's schoolmates did enroll in two different government-aided school in Panruti. However, hailing from one of the socially backward community the children never felt comfortable studying in the new school or with the English language. "Due to lack of interest and fear of English, many students avoided going to school," said Arasappan.
This batch of students are now in their prime youth and due to lack of education, they take up odd jobs that are available in the rural area. They have lost forever a fine chance to overcome the limitations of their social background they were born into.
When Express interacted with these children, they blame the castiest harassament by other children in the school as the sole reason.
M Dhanush, aged 16, one of the students who discontinued from the Siruvathur school said, "I was constantly given demeaning names associated with the caste and work, which barely any of us are now involved in. But, most painfully humiliating slurs are also thrown at our forefathers and the profession they did. Although teachers always made sure this did not happen in the class hours, we were physically and mentally harassed by caste Hindu students after school hours."
On the other hand, M Karthikeyan, 22, who managed to study till class eight at the school talked about the oppression he had to endure at school.
"The caste Hindu students would not sit with me during lunch. I was always isolated. Although teachers never discriminated us, I was constantly reminded of my caste by the other students and villagers while walking to the school," said Karthikeyan.
Another 14-year-old boy who dropped out from the school said, "Teachers did not let other students harass us. But after school, we would get beaten up, also because we were less in number. I feared speaking up. Additionally, with struggling to understand the subjects, especially English, I dropped out."Like these students, several other Irula students are said to have dropped out due to fear, oppression, and violence. But the few students still continued to go to Siruvathur school even after 2014 incident, had to face slurs from villagers while walking to the school.
"A few caste Hindu women would call us with demeaning names and question us why we need to study in the first place? More than anything, the fear of caste oppression kept us from going to school," said Sindhu (name changed).
When Express tried to cross check the incidents of 2014 with the local police, the personnel at the Pudupet police station said they were posted in the station in only in the recent years and unaware of the incidents. A few government school teachers who then served in the school said they remember police enquirying about a few Irula children in connection with a theft case. K Rani, whose children were particularly blamed for the incident, said, "On one night, a few caste Hindu men took a few of us, including my husband and me to their village and blamed that my children had committed the crime. But, our children were not involved in the incident. However, the police still took them to the station for inquiry, but no cases were filled."
A lawyer who was said to be engaged in the case also corroborated and said no police case was filed since the victim was unable to identity the accused.
When Express contacted the Siruvathur school management to inquire about the dropout of Irula children, they said it was only because of lack of proper path to the school from Anguchettipalayam. "They have to walk several kilometers, take a bus and then walk again to school or cross the farm land, which is at a shorter route from the school. Even when these children were coming to school, they hardly turned up during the monsoon. There is no other reason for the dropouts," said a school official.
When Express spoke to a local leader of the caste Hindu community at Siruvathur, "The Irula children found it difficult to come to our school due to the distance and nothing else. Also, they do not want to study at a government school. They are interested going to private schools."
However, these explanations do not hold water from what the children of Anguchettipalayam say and that till 2014, before those fateful events, many of the Irula children were studying in the Siruvathur school as the school records also establish.
Efforts of building a tomorrow:
Arasappan, who is studying final year Bachelors in History at an Arts college in Panruti has been holding tuitions every evening to as many as 60 children of his community. Of these, about 45 students have been enrolled at other government-aided schools under the Right to Education (RTE) Act.
"Having already faced discrimination at the Siruvathur school, I noticed the government-aided schools having separate attendance book for children from our village. With constantly being reminded of caste and struggle with the basic needs, how do we raise to lead a decent life?”questions Arasappan.