Capturing the Tribal Agony

[ ‘Sholagar Hamlet’ is a recent Tamil novel authored by Mr. Balamurugan. Mr. Balamurugan is a civil rights activist with the PUCL, and an advocate who is associated with the tribal eople’s movement for about a decade. He was also vocal in demanding the institution of Justice Sadasivam Commission to enquire into the excesses of the STF and in facilitating peoples’ depositions before the Commission. ]

Sholagar Thotty
Published by
‘Vanam Veliyeedu’,
Bhavani, Tamil Nadu

Solagar Thotty vividly brings out the hitherto unarticulated third dimension - the tribal dimension - to the whole Veerappan episode. Characters cast in the novel are ordinary tribals and they are the heroes and heroines in it. Their grim struggle for survival against the oppressive Special Task Forces (STFs) of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka is the theme of the novel. It is a tragic commentary on the state of affairs of the state machinery that suspended all human rights obligations under the façade of threat from a bandit.

The novel also insists that restoring traditional rights of tribals on forests is the only solution to the ever-increasing menace of destruction of forests by the nexus of the forest mafia and the forest department. The task performed by tribals for whom the forest is a way of life, can never be replaced by any number of forest or police officials.

The first part of the novel is an excellent attempt to capture the lives and culture of the tribals who inhabit the Tamil Nadu–Karnataka border region. It also traces historical and cultural linkages between Sholagars, the non-vegetarian, powerless tribe, and the vegetarian, and all-powerful Lingayat community in Karnataka. They speak a language that is a mixture of Kannada, Tamil and the tribe’s own dialect.

The novel has excellently described the alienation of tribals from their own lands which were originally undisputed. Initially, Tribals moved all over the forests with a sense of belonging and freedom. Claimants to their land emerged when the uncultivable forestland was made cultivable and fertile through hard and painstaking labour by the tribals. An upper caste village administrator and power broker takes advantage of the inadvertent killing of a bear by a tribal youth, grab tribal land forcefully and illegally, bribing the police and state officials. One fine morning, the tribals, the unwritten owners of the land, stand as orphans in their own land.

The tribals’ life, made vulnerable because of alienation from the cultivable land, is further aggravated and shattered by the entry of Veerappan and the Special Task Forces. The indigenous people are banned from entering the forest that was their home since time immemorial. The village being located in a border region of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, its tribal inhabitants are picked up from their houses every now and then alternatively by the task forces of both the states. They return home from the torture house of one state force only to end up in the torture house of the other state. All breadwinners of the family and physically capable in the community, for no fault of theirs, either remain on the run in the forest like animals to evade the police arrest and torture, or helplessly languish in the slaughterhouses of the Task Forces hoping for an immediate end to their lives.

Women were the worst victims of the Task Force operations as they experienced double torture, encountering sexual violence on the one hand and physical and mental torture on the other hand. Women victims were let off by one state force after being notoriously gang raped to be picked up by another state force for another round of rapes and electric shock treatments. The novel describes how sexual violence by the police force so scarred the entire life of one young girl, Sithi that her marriage was ruined, and her mental peace forever traumatized. Readers of the novel are consumed with anger, shame and agony long after finishing the novel. Questioned, the author says that the descriptions in the novel can, at best, be an understatement of what actually happened.

The novel also describes how Veerappan’s gang evolves as a spin-off from state terror. A tribal, Shivanna, pushed to the verge of death in police custody, escapes and has no other option but to join the ‘Veerappan gang’ as a mere servant carrying baggage, in order to stay alive. Finally, the very same tribal, unable to live like a fugitive, unable to bear with the tortures inflicted on his wife, daughter and mother, unable to bear with the mental agony of being branded as a bandit had to surrender to the court, expecting a better future at least after jail life.

The STFs of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka can bask in the glory that they have shot dead Veerappan but their cowardice has been amply proved by hundreds of stories of their atrocities on innocent and unarmed tribal people.

-- Sankar