Anguish Bonafide: How Tamil Nadu's Irula students are struggling to pursue higher education

They made peace with the fact that college education was beyond their means, and chose whatever profession they could find.

Published: 02nd August 2020 05:47 AM  |   Last Updated: 02nd August 2020 02:14 PM   |  A+A-

M Dhanalakshmi, who hit the headlines for taking on her villagers and officials to secure a community certificate, with her family in a Irula hamlet in Vaanur taluk.

Express News Service

VILLUPURAM/KALLAKURICHI/CHENNAI: From a certain point, the road leading to T Parangini village is not paved. One has to navigate through slippery sludge and thick thorny bushes to get to the actual Irula hamlet further beyond.

It is in one such hamlet of Vaanur taluk that M Dhanalakshmi lives – the teenaged girl who hit the headlines for taking on her villagers and government officials to secure a community certificate so that she can continue her studies. The houses here have thatched roof, and are scattered around waterbodies, or on the margins of forestlands.   

As Express travels across the northern districts of Villupuram, Kallakurichi, Vellore, and Tiruvannamalai, it becomes clear that hundreds of Irula students, like Dhanalakshmi, have been struggling without a community certificate that will help them study higher. But, most of them, unlike her, did not continue their fight. They made peace with the fact that college education was beyond their means, and chose whatever profession they could find.   

17-year-old Sangeetha from Villupuram
is the first from her village to clear
class 10 and 12 exams. “I want 
to become a sub-collector,”
Sangeetha told Express. But, why a
sub-collector and not, say, a district collector?
“Because it’s the sub-collector who issues
community certificates. I want to ensure
all children of my community get that
certificate. I want that power,” she added  
| express

Why is it important?
Contrary to popular perception, it’s not low marks that make students dependant on community certificates. It is because the certificate provides them with much-needed social and economic support — in the form of scholarships, stipends, and hostel accommodations. Without these benefits, activists say, most Irula families will not be able to afford a higher education. Thanks to the difficulty in getting a certificate, most Irula youngsters in the northern districts discontinue studies after classes 10 or 12.   

“Over half of the Irulas living in Villupuram and Kallakurichi lack a house patta,” says Piraba Kalvimani, a social activist who has been working with Irulas for the last two decades. “A quarter of them do not have community certificates. Though the Constitution guarantees them reservation, it is being denied.” Kalvimani says even those who got the certificate, managed to do so with the help of a few politicians. “The VCK has been at the forefront of this initiative.

An agitation organised by  Thol Thirumavalavan in March last year helped 100 people obtain certificates.”  The impact these certificates have on the lives is immense. While Jayaraj of Villupuram is still struggling for an admission to study post graduation in mathematics because he does not have the certificate, Sakthivel, who got one, is now pursuing a doctoral programme from the Annamalai University. “The lack of that one paper turns them into daily-wage labourers at construction sites or agricultural fields,” says Kalvimani.           

What is the problem?
To understand the problem, it’s important to know how these certificates are issued. When an 
application is sent, a team of anthropologists, headed by the State anthropology officer, will investigate it and submit its findings. The findings would be based on the place where the family is settled, cultural, religious and traditional knowledge practices. Based on that report, the RDO’s office will issue the certificate. 

The trouble, activists say, is with officials taking terminologies too literally. The initial definition and continuing general perception is that Irulas are hill-tribes (Malivazhmakkal). However, the reality is that many of them have migrated or were forcibly brought down to the plains over the years. Now, the ones living in plains are treated as frauds, say activists. As Tamil literature and history recognises only the hill-folk as tribals, those who moved, or were pushed out, are not being recognised. In the early nineties, hundreds of people associated with the National Adivasi Solidarity Council staged a hunger-strike in Chengalpattu after they were denied community certificates repeatedly.         

The issue hit headlines and grabbed a lot of attention back then. “But, things have hardly changed over the last three decades,” recalls Krishnan Kandasamy, secretary of the council. Kandasamy himself has helped over 24,000 Irulas apply for community certificates over the last 25 years. The process some officers adopt, he says, is very insulting and reinforces caste stereotypes. “In order to prove they really are Irulas, applicants are asked to catch snakes and rats,” he says. “They are made to sing and dance in government offices before being sent back, empty-handed.

Some have even asked how they can be an Irula if they are not sexually promiscuous.”  As a result, Kandasamy says, generations that have moved to suburbs and plains are taught about their ancestral practices so that they can answer the questions asked by authorities. Not all officials are bad, reiterate the activists and the community members. There are many involved Collectors and tehsildars who actively conduct camps and issue certificates.  

How does it work?
A tehsildar has the authority to issue the certificates, but the procedures were tightened after many were found misusing the provision, say official sources. As Irulas lacked the political clout, the privilege provided by the certificate was often stolen from them by a few members of other castes, who were pally with officials. Still, it’s no reason to put the applicants through all the unnecessary hardships, say experts. 

“If the parents or the senior members of the family have a certificate, it must not be difficult to approve the applications of the next generation. Still, the government insists that they go through the anthropological investigation,” says Senthilkumar, a doctoral scholar specialising on Irula tribes. “The real issue is the casteist mentality of many officials,” he says. “That prevents the delivery of social justice to the real beneficiary.”  In the case of Dhanalakshmi, too, officials only bothered to probe her family’s traditional occupation and properties, say sources. “How is it that property and traditional occupation become a qualifier for the certificate, but not actual documented proof of evidence?” asks Rajesh Dheena, founder of STEPS Foundation in Tindivanam.

“The policymakers must consider issuing certificates in bulk instead of checking each and every applicant, if they really want to see social change in these parts.” When Dhanalakshmi went to the RDO office for the certificate, a bunch of villagers -- from a dominant caste group -- gathered there and protested her move. Their contention was that Dhanalskhmi’s family has the temple rights, and them being certified as a scheduled tribe made them uncomfortable. When they suggested that she get a BC certificate instead, she quipped: “Would anyone here from the BC communities marry into our family if we got such a certificate?” She was physically assaulted for her last remark. 

Within the community though, Dhanalakshmi is their new hero, shining light on an issue that was neglected largely in the outside world, inspiring many more youngsters. 17-year-old C Sangeetha is one such aspirant, who is pursuing a course in nursing from a nearby college. She was the first from her village to clear class 10 and class 12 exams. With the entire village enthusiastic about her success, she managed to secure a certificate just before joining the college. “I want to become a sub-collector,” says Sangeetha, talking to Express. But, why a sub-collector and not, say, a district collector? “Because it’s the sub-collector who issues community certificates. If I become one, I would ensure all children of my community get a certificate. I want that power.” 

Irula tribals are often asked to catch snakes and rats to prove they really are who they claim to be, if they want a community certificate to study higher and break that very social stereotype. Here are a few tales of how the colours are stolen from their future prospects

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