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Who Are The Irular Tribe, The People Who Face Injustices In ‘Jai Bhim’?

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Much of the movie Jai Bhim is about how the Irular tribe of Tamil Nadu is marginalised in society. It has realistically portrayed how tribal communities are routinely exploited by other communities and by institutions that misuse their powers. It has very honestly shown real events and has sown the seeds of change.

Jai Bhim has not only left its viewers in tears but also made a huge impact on their minds. The movie has captured the world view of the tribals, which has been incomprehensible and mysterious for others to understand. The injustice done to them is completely expressed through the scenes, dialogues, music, silence and emotions.

Irular settlements outside a village without basic amenities. (Image provided by the author)

People living in the plains believe that tribal people live only in the mountains. Therefore, they are unaware of the tribals residing in their own vicinity, such as those shown in the movie.

The Irulars in the plains worship the common resources found there, such as land, water and the goddess Mullai Nilam. In some areas, they call themselves Villiers. Anthropologists believe that these people have nothing to do with the Irulars living in the forest, but they fail to realise that the two share similar worldviews.

Today, Irulars have lived for generations on the outskirts of the city, isolated from other communities. They live in low-density areas such as places with water sources, beaches and small dunes.

 

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The Irulars living in most districts of Tamil Nadu continue to follow ancient practices unique to their community. They are humble people who rely on procuring common resources from the plains for sustenance such as hunting, rat-catching, snake-catching, herbal medicine and fishing in water bodies.

The Irulars are those who not only do not produce anything for the market but also have no faith in ownership. But in the context of globalisation, especially for the last generation (25 years), the lands and natural resources that had depended on these tribals have fallen into the hands of big bosses, thereby strangling the livelihood of the Irular community.

The ancient cultural beliefs of the Irulars has been branded by others, including the state, as “uninterested” in development, reactionary and ignorant. It was then that over time the Irular community living in Tamil Nadu became enslaved for the rest of their lives through bondage by taking payment on credit at various work sites.

Irulars who had worked as slaves were rescued from sugarcane farms in the Sivagangai district. (Image provided by the author)

Violence, cruelty and sexual harassment against them in various places such as brick kilns, rice mills, stone quarries, sugarcane mills and factories are incalculable. Even a thousand movies like Jai Bhim would not do justice to them. The phenomenon of continued denial of all rights, including education, is because the Irulars living in the plains are still unable to obtain their community certification.

In the movie, when jewels were stolen in the Panchayat leader’s house, Rajakannu told the wife of the Panchayat leader that he also belonged to the same village and hadn’t stolen the jewellery. The wife of the Panchayat leader questioned Rajakannu, “Are we both equals?”

This dialogue shows the cruelty that is practised. This is how Irulars are kept out of the village in many places. Many Irulars settlements are mere dwellings separated by the village boundary and without a land certificate for their dwelling hut. As a result, the Irulars in the plains are most vulnerable to natural disasters such as heavy rains, storms and droughts.

Essentially the Irulars are like other inhabitants who live by the principle of prosperity and equality. Even in their workplace, men, women and children work together as a family and contribute on equal terms. Husbands and wives never want to be separated for their work. They have consensual marriages with the person they love and have no practice of dowry.

Such is their trust in each other that their huts do not even have doors on them. There is no domestic violence, no lying and no gossip about others.

jai bhim poster
Jai Bhim embodies the cultural virtue of the tribals.

The Irulrars are also great storytellers. They tell tales of their traditional knowledge, experiences, culture, history, beliefs, art, biology, mastery and tragedies. Everything we hear is stored in memory trays as footage. Especially from the old to the next, the chain will move smoothly for the young. It is this vibrant discourse that keeps the tribal knowledge intact.

Non-tribals like me are proud and happy of the Keeladi excavation that celebrates Tamil history. But we refuse to celebrate the tribals who live before their eyes. The people and the government have failed to provide a dignified life to the tribals living in our vicinity. The movie truly establishes this fact.

We close our eyes and hearts to the injustices perpetrated against the tribal community but we act completely differently when our language is oppressed, when we are subjected to racial violence and when there is cultural colonisation.

Jai Bhim embodies the cultural virtue of the tribals, something that cannot be detached from their biological virtue.

Irular women of the Ariyalur District are expert snake catchers. (Image provided by the author)

The Mahabalipuram Masi Magam festival is one such example of how culture and biology mix. In this festival, people celebrate the pregnancy of animals. Irulars do not harm animals when they are pregnant. They also claim that they can tell the species of a snake by its smell even before they have seen it.

The Irulars are largely distrustful of the government’s administrative structures. It may even be the frustration of constantly being deceived. This is why they don’t even trust the police and the courts, as they are mistreated most times.

Four thugs once sexually abused a tribal girl in the presence of her parents near Bodi in the Theni district. Three days after the incident, I asked them, “Why did they not tell us what had happened before and why they haven’t gone to the police station?”

The parents replied that being born in a marginalised society, they are used to it and they can’t do anything to the abusers as they are well supported and this is where their destiny lies. The parents innocently asked how they would go to Theni to see the collector.

This is how these people do not even know where to go and seek justice for the atrocities committed against them. In other words, they think that even the injustices inflicted on them will be overcome as a rule has already been decided for them.

It is a fact that people who have learned from the tribes that the inhabitants are the commoners are the ones who live as role models for the left. That is why people with leftist ideology are always supportive of the cause of tribals. The activities of the left for the tribes are invaluable.

 

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At the same time, the voice of the tribal people who must recognise and ensure the leadership of the tribal movements and its leaders is not absent.

In the film, Rajakannu’s brother told him, “We will confess to the crime as I cannot bear the beatings by the police.” Rajakannu wanted his brother to accept his pain and said that their injury and pain would heal someday, but the charge of theft would not change no matter how much time passed.

Rajakkannu Irular showcased the tribal nature and culture at the moment of death by refusing to be falsely convicted of theft. Yes, these people have given more meaning to Dr Ambedkar’s famous line, “the society is superior to me”.
It is only when we acknowledge the injustices perpetrated against the tribals that things can change for the better. Adivasis have made sacrifices throughout history to protect nature, but they have only been met with exploitation and injustice.

Jai Bhim as a movie has showcased this slice of history. Tribals need to document their lives. They need to record aloud their biographies and the injustices and struggles inflicted on them. Only then can tribals certainly live in peace. It can be made possible by our initiative “Voice of the Tribals”.

This article has been created as a part of the Adivasi Awaaz Project, with the support of Misereor and Prayog Samaj Sevi Sanstha.

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