Monday, July 29, 2002

The evil system won't tumble down

By S. Annamalai and S. Vijay Kumar

Chennai July 28. Despite police action against the practice of untouchability in tea shops of rural Tamil Nadu, several shopkeepers, under pressure from caste Hindus, continue with the discriminatory ``two-tumbler'' system. In the caste-riven State, tea shops in several villages do not serve just hot beverages but also trade untouchability in ``two tumblers"- cheap glass ones for the Dalits and shiny stainless steel containers for the caste Hindus. And now, a ``three-tumbler'' system too is adopted in some areas- plastic cups for outsiders whose caste identity is not known.

The Tirunelveli police arrested a shopowner yesterday for offering tea in a glass tumbler to Dalits and in shiny stainless steel containers to caste Hindus.

Though the ``two and three-tumbler'' system is a brazen violation of the SC\ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act and the Protection of Civil Rights Act, it is an accepted practice in southern Tamil Nadu. If tea shops do not discriminate against the Dalits, the caste Hindus will throw the shop owners out.

The only positive development over the years is the withdrawal of coconut shell, referred to as `sirattai', which served as the tea cup for the Dalits.

In certain Virudhunagar villages, this system has been so perfected that there is now a `three-tumbler' system. When a stranger asks for tea and the shop owner is not sure of his caste, a disposable plastic tumbler comes out.

At a `balwadi' at Poovani near Srivilliputtur, the Dalit children from Saliakudi are served meal in separate plates. Activists of Dalit organisations point out that many tea shops openly display the glass tumblers, while in some cases the second tumblers are kept inside. The practice is to keep the glass tumblers inside tea holders for Dalit use. And, the Dalits have to wash the tumblers, they use.

In Madurai district, the activists say, the practice is more visible in the Chellampatti panchayat union. The `two-tumbler' system is in vogue where people of three intermediate caste groups- Thevars, Naidus and Reddiars- are dominant.

Lingappanaickanur, Meenakshipatti, Chennampatti, Kuppalnatham, Pappapatti, Keeripatti and Salappanpatti are some of the villages, which have two tumblers in tea shops. The Virudhunagar district CPI (M) secretary, K. Balasubramanian, points out that according to a survey undertaken by the party, the system is practised in 38 villages, including Thadampatti, Nallamanaickenpatti, Ramuthevanpatti, Boovanathapuram, Karisalpatti, Maravar Perunkudi, Thoppur and Vidathakulam in the district.

In Sivaganga district, the villages known to adopt the system include Kattikulam, Sundaranadappu, Melavellur, Sangankulam Konthagai, Peramalur and some around Ilayankudi.

Though widespread, the practice has been escaping the attention of officials. The primary reason is that the Dalit victims are not willing to lodge a formal complaint for fear of further oppression by the caste Hindus. Another reason is that the villagers do not want to ignite caste flare-ups over a cup of tea.

When officials make surprise inspections, the tumblers vanish and disposable cups take their place. Whenever there is a threat of agitation from any organisation, the villagers `unite together''.

Source: The Hindu, July 29, 2002

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