The invisible nomads of Madurai and their struggle to end social exclusion
Targeted without proof as ‘child-lifting’ Pied Pipers, the Boomboommatkarar nomadic tribe in Tamil Nadu is struggling to end decades of social exclusion.
Perumal is “above 100” years old. No one knows his age for sure, and his brother, Govindan, is supposed to be 115 years old. Both sit in the dilapidated straw-roofed verandahs of their respective mud houses in Sakkimangalam, 15km to the east of Madurai city by the river Vagai.
It is a settlement of Boomboommatkarars and Kudkudupakaragals, two nomadic communities that wander with fortune-telling bulls and perform to hand rattles. The cluster comprises around 50 families and 10 to 20 bulls.
Further down the street are settlements of the Pahalvesakrangar, (known as bahurupiyas in the North), and the Narikoravangas. None of them use a second name. The bull is their identity.
Perumal’s one-room tenement houses 36 members of his family and under Govindan’s roof are the offspring of his two wives: 16 children and 50 grandchildren. The brothers were born in Cauveripatnam in Krishnagiri district, northern Tamil Nadu, but have since wandered to Thindivanam, coming to Madurai via Nagamandalam.
Belonging to an India that had no linguistic divides, the Telugu-speaking community wandered freely from village to village through colonial India, through Independence struggles, and through free India, eventually settling down in Madurai some 30 years ago. Today, they sit immobilised by fear, awaiting a government dole that’s unlikely to come, since the government doesn’t know they exist.
Ever since WhatsApp messages regarding child stealers’ began to do the rounds, formerly friendly neighbourhoods have turned hostile.
Perisami, Govindan’s son and the clan’s chief, says, “The temples give us these bulls for free. Townspeople used to welcome us, give us a veshti, some pongal, something for the bull, and it was a very friendly atmosphere. We have survived generations on that.”
The friendly bulls that nod in response to questions draw a long trail of children as they wander from street to street. The performers dance to the sound of the rattles in their colourful clothes. “In our day, this was mobile entertainment, wasn’t it?” Perisami says, smiling. The bull nods.
A few months ago, a piece of jewellery went missing in a Chettiar home in Madurai, says Sangeetha, one of the Boomboommarakarars in Saimangalam colony . The police were called and told that the nomads had passed along the route a couple of hours earlier.
Perumal, patriarch of the nomadic clan. ( Gayatri Jayaraman )
They were arrested, searched, and let off as innocent. In another area, it was the accusation of stealing children for their entourage. They were beaten up, arrested, roughed up, acquitted again. It is a nomadic tradition to take some of their many children along on their wanderings, to teach them their ways, girls as well as boys.
The tribes due to generations of wandering across interconnected geographic regions — and intermarriages within the tribe — have surprising eruptions of genetic indicators: light eyes, or almond skin, brown hair.
This has given rise to rumours that they snare children like the Pied Piper of Hamelin, with their music, colourful distractions and unknown origins.
The rumours have put an end to their sole source of livelihood. It has been four months since anyone in these settlements have taken their rounds. Without a regular income, they remain at the mercy of money lenders who take a 10% interest on the money they lend.
For instance, they get only Rs 9,000 in hand if they borrow Rs 10,000 with each family receiving about Rs 1000, to buy food for a month. Unable to generate any income of their own they borrow again, resulting in a vicious cycle of indebtedness.
The frustration leads many in the community, both men and women, to turn towards alcohol for solace, adding to a further depletion in their earnings, zero employability prospects, and even more social ostracism.
With men moving farther away for work, women and children are left to fend for themselves along with the elderly and disabled. According to the women of the community, safety of girls and women is a huge concern. Several go missing.
“Our women teach daughters not to bathe, or wear nice clothes, or look attractive because sometimes we have to sleep at railway stations, bus stops and streets. We are safe only if we smell or look unattractive,”says Maheswari, a founder member of the The Empowerment centre of Nomads and Tribes (Tent) Society, hailing from the Kudkudupakaragal community.
Govindan, patriarch of the nomadic clan. ( Gayatri Jayaraman )
Her husband, Rajangam Raja, is one of the few from the community who have climbed the social ladder and gained some acceptance, thanks to a Christian priest who sent him off to a teacher training college in Kalpatti, after he completed class 12. Rajangam now works as a government college teacher apart from striving to make the community visible.
The couple estimates there are 5,00,000 nomads in Tamil Nadu spread across 20 communities. The assessment is based on a 2012 district collector’s survey.
No official census have ever been carried out. It was also in 2012, on World Human Right’s day, fed up of being invisible, the Tent Society bundled two leaders from each nomadic community into a van and drove from Rameswaram to Chennai.
There at the district collector’s (DC) office, they made a ruckus, refusing to move until the officer personally came down and acknowledged their presence.
They descended on the premises with their snakes, bulls and monkeys and a shell-shocked police kept their distance. While the trip, which cost them ~4 lakh, got them some recognition, the community failed to generate the money required to sustain the momentum of their campaign after that.
Balagurumurthy, an officer with the Karnataka government from the Budgajangam community — a nomadic community of street theatre artistes — is a published poet, dramatist, and the first graduate and post graduate from his community.
Also a law graduate, he is now the state nodal officer of the first-of-its-kind special cell constituted by the Karnataka government to mobilise nomads. What nomads everywhere need is this kind of special focus, he says.
“There has to be a dedicated cell with an exclusive budget, executive powers, and policy making ability. States either don’t classify nomads or confuse them with denotified tribes. By nature, nomads are secular and don’t adopt any religious identity. They only adopt the identity of their respective occupations,” says Balagurumurthy.
“Because they cannot be ideologically aligned, they are overlooked and as a result, they have not had a single representative in parliament so far,” he says. With no mobilising leadership, or government action, these nomads remain the eternal outcasts with their occupation, livelihood and safety, under imminent threat.
Activists working for the nomads, eagerly wait for politicians to notice their existence. They want their right to homes, identity cards, protection for women and an end to decades of social isolation. After these basics, they hope their children too will be able to achieve more, like Rajangam Raja has.