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Conceding the long-pending demand of the Tamil Nadu government, the union government has finally approved the inclusion of the Narikuravar community, a semi-nomadic tribe, in the list of Scheduled Tribes. The community was so far listed among the Most Backward Classes. The decision is expected to go a long way in bringing an extremely neglected and often discriminated against community into the mainstream.
The Narikuravars, originally known as the ‘Hakki-Pikki’ in Tamil Nadu, are known as ‘Hikki-Pikki’ (meaning bird-catchers in Kannada) in Karnataka and Nakkawanto in Andhra Pradesh. The indigenous tribe traced back to ancient times, have traditionally earned a living by trapping/killing birds and jackals, and as tattoo artistes. The itinerant community are nowadays also seen selling beads and bead ornaments near temples and in market areas.
Dr. Karasoor Padmabharathi’s book Narikuravarina Varaiviyal (Racial determination of the Narikuravar), delves into the livelihood and life of the community who speak Vagriboli, an Indo-Aryan hybrid of Tamil, Telugu and Marathi.
The ST status accorded now to them is the fruit of long struggles and mounting pressures. Inmathi.com has also chipped in with articles stressing the paramount need for bringing the Narikuravars out of the margins. However, opposition to the move came from officials and political parties who said that given their nomadic nature, the inclusion in the list of scheduled tribes would not benefit them as they would not remain at one location to avail of benefits.
The Narikuravars, whose original name is Akki-Pikki, are known as Hikki-Pikki (meaning bird-catchers) in Karnataka and Nakkawanto in Andra Pradaesh. The most ancient tribal people have for ages been earning livelihood from trapping and killing birds with catapults, capturing jackals and tattooing. An itinerant community, they are also seen selling bead ornaments in urban areas
But shattering this myth, in 1981, the community for the first time asserted its right for a settlement at Avadi near Chennai. The agitation was coordinated by the Tamil Nadu Narikuravar Peravai. The Peravai aims to ensure basic amenities for the tribal community such as housing, education and has led the struggle for ST status. It has worked across districts in Tamil Nadu, conducting awareness meetings and holding rallies.
The Narikuravars’ voices reached the corridors of power at Fort St. George when a group of them set up a settlement near the police residential quarters on the Tank Factory Road at Avadi. Miffed by what was considered an outrageous act, the police launched an eviction drive and arrested three Narikuravars. This happened more than 40 years ago. The arrested trio were forced to break a community taboo that prohibits them from sleeping overnight away from their homes. What looked like a minor incident soon snowballed into a mammoth protest.
The Poonamalee prison where the three were lodged was soon thronged by Narikuravars from across the state. The initial trickle of visitors soon ballooned into a massive rally of the community members, demanding their right to life, livelihood and freedom of expression. For upto a fortnight, the tribals kept up the tempo of their agitation, pitching their tents at the Poonamalee bus-stand, taking out rallies to the prison, pressing not only for the release of the arrested men but also fulfilment of their other basic demands.
It is a disturbing irony that the then Chief Minister, M. G. Ramachandran, found himself facing off against a community which went gaga over his dance number with his heroine (Jayalalithaa) in the guise of a Narikuravar
Their day-and-night agitation, which caught the attention of the whole state, posed a challenge to the then AIADMK government helmed by M G Ramachandran. It was an ironic situation since the community had gone gaga over his dance number as a Narikurava with another former CM Jayalalithaa in the film Olivilakku
The intense agitation led to the release of the arrested Narikuravars, who were met with a rousing reception and huge crowds near the prison. DMK patriarch M. Karunanidhi, who was then the opposition leader, wrote elaborately in defence of the community. He hauled the AIADMK government over the coals on the issue, pointing out that MGR as a ruler was a far cry from MGR the matinee idol playing the role of a crusader for the oppressed. Photographs of MGR in the midst of a group of the tribals were widely circulated and are still available on social media.
The MGR government had to finally yield to the Narikuravars’ demands and agreed to hand over the land on which they had settled. Enthused and energized by the maiden victory of their struggle, the Narikuravars pushed for their inclusion in the ST list. Their struggle took them to Delhi where they met then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. It was V. Bodhi Devavaram, the prime mover behind the agitations of the indigenous group, who introduced the Narikuravars to Mrs Gandhi. That nascent struggle has borne fruit after more than two decades with the Union government’s decision earlier this week.
The new designation it is hoped will ensure better access to education and employment for the community, and ensure integration into larger society of a group forced to survive on the margins.
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