`ARUNTHATHIYARS' constitute one of the three major social groups among Dalits in Tamil Nadu, the other two being `Paraiyar' and `Pallar'. Although Arunthathiyars are present in almost all districts, their concentration is relatively high in the western districts of Coimbatore, Erode and Namakkal. Brought into the State five centuries ago mainly as warriors by the Nayaks from the Vijayanagar empire, a substantial number of Arunthathiyar, who speak either Telugu or Kannada, work as menial servants or as sanitary workers employed by local bodies. Most others in the community are agricultural workers.
Just like the other sections of Dalits, they are segregated and required to do odd jobs such as burying dead cattle and digging graves. Worse, Arunthathiyars, particularly women, have been compelled for centuries to do the humiliating job of removing human excreta and cleaning dry latrines, which still exist in large numbers despite a ban. Like many other laws relating to Dalits, the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993, remains on paper. Arunthathiyars often complain of ill-treatment by not only caste Hindus, but also other sections of Dalits. Arunthathiyars are thus, apparently, the worst victims of untouchability.
Even in areas where they are said to be better off (such as western Tamil Nadu), Arunthathiyars silently suffer untouchability in its myriad forms - for instance, denial of access to common water sources, public roads and temples, shops and schools. Seldom do they protest their humiliation. Even the Dalit assertion in the 1990s after the birth centenary of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar apparently made little impact on their situation. Bezwada Wilson of Andhra Pradesh, who led a spirited campaign for a Central government ban on manual scavenging, said: "The pity is also that we safai karamcharis [manual scavengers] did not accept Babasaheb Ambedkar as our leader when he thundered that this occupation should not be glorified [as Gandhi did] but banned with immediate effect. Divided within ourselves, we did not use the momentum of the rest of the Dalit movements to further our cause."
Many Pallars in southern Tamil Nadu and Parayars in the northern districts have become aware of their rights and privileges, thanks to their access to education. However, Arunthathiyars remain backward in every respect. Only in recent times have there been attempts by Dalit activists to organise them.
The first major protest by Arunthathiyars was their boycott of elections to the Lok Sabha in 2002 at Kalapatti village in Coimbatore district in protest against the government's failure to concede their long-pending demands, including permission to enter the temple. Neither the caste Hindu elders nor the leaders of the political parties, including those of the Sangh Parivar who had often used Arunthathiyars as cannon fodder supports them in their struggle.
In fact, violence was let loose on the protesting Arunthathiyars by a 200-strong mob. More than 100 of their houses were ransacked and their belongings damaged. Many huts were burnt down. Nearly 15 persons were seriously injured in the attack. The assailants also destroyed university certificates of many Arunthathiyar youth. The police assistance came late, though a police station was less than 7 km away from the trouble spot (Frontline, July 20, 2004).
Courtesy The Hindu