Irula - Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. In the tribal manner, the Irula maintain an open and free society. Each hamlet or village has a headman ( gaundan or muppan ) whose role is not to control from above but to help in the solving of problems and to act as a mediator among his people and between them and government officials or non-Irula neighbors. Following the ancient Indian tradition of the panchayat (the hamlet or village council), the headman can call a varying group of males together to help him. As Samban patrician members (or Koduvan patrician members, if a Samban person is involved) traditionally have acted as mediators for the Irula, a headman can also turn to one of them for counsel. There is also a local go-between person ( bandari ) who assists the headman. Any decision of a council is considered to be binding ( kattu manam ) on an individual or family. Each friendship patrician in a hamlet or village is headed by a facilitator ( jatti ) who plays the vital role of organizing any cooperative effort. A local priest ( pujari ) is also present to take care of religious matters. Lastly, a Kurumba helps during ceremonial occasions. South of the Nilgiri massif, such an individual (a Palu Kurumba) also serves to protect the Irula from Muduga sorcery.

Political Organization. In the period of the British Raj, the lowest political division was a village unit with one or more villages and several hamlets. Along with several appointed officials, such as the maniagar who was the representative to the Crown and the tahsildar who kept the land records (and therefore the basis for taxation), there was a formal group of males who formed the village panchayat. The members of the panchayat then managed the affairs of the village. After independence, the village units were kept and the panchayat was envisioned as the grass-roots organization that would guarantee representation by the people. Its members were to be elected. Unfortunately, primarily because the Irula are so lacking in education, they are poorly represented in the larger panchayats. Also envisioned in the Indian constitution was the establishment of land units called blocks, each with a block development officer, in which economic development would be promoted with governmental assistance. Although some Irula—lowland Irula in particular—have benefited, including those living in Hallimoyar, Kallampalayam, and Thengumarahada, the general lack of Irula representation among block development officers has too frequently precluded Irula from obtaining the type of aid that would enhance them economically.

Social Control. The Irula as tribals place a premium upon the avoidance of conflict. They are in many ways rigidly controlled by their caste and patrician standing. The possibility of being made an outcaste for unacceptable behavior normally causes members to abide by the mores. Even though they may have few actual contacts with officialdom, the Irula are subject to all the rules and regulations of the central and state governments.

Conflict. The Irula, beset by circumstances forcing change upon them from the outside world, are liable to come into conflict with their neighbors. Our best retrospective example of this is offered by the hamlet of Koppayur, on an eastern slope of the Nilgiris. The British managers on the nearby Kilkotagiri tea estate enabled the Irula to continue living at Koppayur and to cultivate the adjacent land. Irula worked on the estate and were considered to be dependable laborers who periodically needed time off for their own agricultural pursuits. Even after independence, the continued British management enabled the Irula at Koppayur to live in the same way until at least 1963. By 1978 the British had left. Because the Irula and their fields at Koppayur then occupied land in forest reserve, they began to be evicted. (By contrast, in the early 1800s, the Irula had usufruct use of all the surrounding land.) They were supposed to occupy a steep slope not far away. Under Indian management at the Kilkotagiri tea estate, coffee had already been planted right up to the Irula hamlet and over land once used by the Irula for the cultivation of millet. Originally, the dismal prospect of the move was alleviated by some possibility of government aid enabling 20.5 hectares of land to be opened to coffee and tea gardening near the new hamlet, but by 1988 this brighter prospect for the Irula had long since been extinguished. There were then fifteen Irula families living in the limited space (about 1/4 hectare) covered by the new hamlet. The original hamlet, however, still had seven occupied houses. The only landowners are headmen Balan (1.6 hectares) and Masanan (3.6 hectares). Garden jackfruit and bananas are the main produce. The nearby ancestral temple, the koppa manai after which Koppayur is named, no longer has a roof, and the burial ground is choked by weeds. In that the estate management now restricts the access of the Irula to their hamlet, there is even more cause for ill will. The management considers the Irula to be a menace, because they stand accused of stealing coffee and selling it.

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