Kalyani’s association with Justice Chandru goes a long way back. He was part of the delegation that held negotiations with Sandalwood smuggler Veerappan when Kannada actor Rajkumar was abducted.

Activist Kalyani Thozhar being hugged by a Irular tribesmanKalyani Thozhar (left) hugged by a Irular tribesman | Source: Twiiter
Flix Interview Monday, November 08, 2021 - 18:39

I recently met professor Kalyani, weeks before the elections to the Tamil Nadu state Assembly. At 73, he was the same person I had met three years ago and several years before that – a frail, soft-spoken human being with an indomitable spirit. The Pazhangudi Irular Paadhukaappu Sangam (Tribal Irular Protection Movement) of which he is a part, had decided to boycott the elections, owing to the apathy of the political parties to the plight of Irulars but had decided to make an exception for Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi. “They have been part of all struggles led by the Sangam,” Kalyani said.

Over the next two days, I tagged along with Kalyani to visit some Irular hamlets in and around Vaanur, where VCK’s Vanniyarasu was contesting. For over 25 years since the 1990s, Kalyani has been working along with the Irulars — for their protection and betterment. In the recently released Suriya starrer Jai Bhim, Kalyani’s role is reprised by artist and activist Kaaleeswaran, as the activist who brings Sengeni to lawyer Chandru.

“Honestly, I had not heard of Irulars till my association with the Athiyur Vijaya case,” Kalyani says. Vijaya was raped by six policemen as a 17-year-old in 1993. The policemen had allegedly taken her to identify another person accused of theft. After a prolonged legal struggle, the district court in Villupuram awarded life imprisonment to the six policemen in 2006. But they were granted bail in three months, and in 2008, the High Court had acquitted all of them. “But when working on Vijaya’s case, we realised the importance of having a movement. In 1996, we started the Pazhangudi Irular Paadhukaappu Sangam,” Kalyani says.

Since 1996, the Sangam has handled over 900 cases. In 25 years, Kalyani has personally written over 600 complaints. “I have often been ridiculed for making the complaints long. But that is how I am. I want to put all the truths into the complaint. The idea is, anybody reading the complaint should believe in its veracity,” he says. “I learnt the art of writing complaints from my lawyer friends,” he smiles. Each complaint is also forwarded to higher authorities at various levels, ‘as a measure of extra precaution.’ 

Kalyani’s association with Justice Chandru goes a long way back. (Actor Suriya portrayed Justice Chandru’s role in Jai Bhim). Kalyani was part of the delegation that held negotiations with sandalwood smuggler Veerappan when Kannada actor Rajkumar was abducted. “But for Chandru, who took up my case, I would have been harassed by the police for this. He has always been there for me.”

Before turning into a full time activist, Kalyani was teaching physics at a government college in Tindivanam. Born in Tirunelveli, it was his job that brought him to Tindivanam. As a student in American College, he has been active in protests against Hindi imposition. Today, Kalyani also runs a school – Thaai Thamizh Palli – in Tindivanam. Over 240 students are studying free of cost in the school. “We provide them meals too. We do not take any government aid. The school was started in 2000 and since then we have been able to do this thanks to philanthropists, including actor Suriya’s Agaram Foundation, Sakthi Masala, etc.”

Kalyani says his love for physics also turned him into an advocate for having mother tongue as the medium of instruction. “You have such difficult concepts in physics, it's very hard to teach them in English. How many families in Tamil Nadu are fluent enough in English? How can you teach such difficult concepts in a foreign language and expect kids to love the subject? Someday, I hope to make this a state-wide movement – about Tamil as the medium of instruction.”

For now, Irulars and their work continues to haunt his soul. Among the people he took me to meet during his campaign for VCK were the 14 Irular families of Karasanur – whose huts were gutted in a fire in December 2020. Since then, they have been living in tents made of yellow tarpaulin sheets. It was scorching hot when we visited them. A small crowd had gathered around Kalyani, and they sat under the sky to write a memorandum for new houses. “We forgot how many memorandums we have sent before this,” a woman told me, “We hope something comes out of this soon.”

Kalyani symbolises this hope for them. His untiring efforts and relentless pursuit of justice symbolises this hope for them. “He never gets tired of writing memorandums,” the woman added.

When I called him a couple of days ago to speak about Jai Bhim, we ended up talking about Karasanur. “They have still not been allotted any houses,” the comrade tells me. “But yesterday, after watching the film in Chennai, we were able to meet the Chief Minister and hand over a hurriedly written memorandum. The demands also include houses for the families of Karasanur.”

As I write this piece, he sends me the memorandum on WhatsApp – a detailed one. The demands include community certificates for Irulars, houses for Karasanur and other hamlets where families have lost their huts to fire, and proper implementation of the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. “This is the moment. The film has thrown some light on the injustice meted out to Irulars. We really hope this government will act,” he adds.

Become a TNM Member for just Rs 999!
You can also support us with a one-time payment.