Discrimination
PV Chinnathampy and PK Muraleedharan, who garnered national attention for starting the Akshara Arts and Sports Library in a tribal hamlet, face ostracisation from the community.
PV Chinnathampy

It was in July that a small library set in a remote tribal settlement in Kerala received special mention in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘Mann Ki Baat’ address. Now four months on, the promoters of Akshara Arts and Sports Library in Idukki’s Edamalakkudy, located in the Anamudi reserve forest, have been ostracised from the hamlet, allegedly over a 2014 book authored by one of them.

The ostracisation involves many elements of the structural violence of casteism, and denies PV Chinnathampy and PK Muraleedharan, the promoters of the library and their families any kind of involvement with the affairs of the unique Muthuvan tribal community. Edamalakkudy is entirely comprised of the Muthuvan tribal community, making it Kerala’s lone tribal panchayat.  Muthuvans are a reclusive tribe, zealously loyal to their ancient codes and customs.

The two men shot into the national limelight after Magsaysay award-winning journalist P Sainath visited the library and wrote in detail about the way they contributed immensely to the cultural, educational and social awakening of Edamalakkudy. While tea shop owner Chinnathampy belongs to Muthuvan tribal, Muraleedharan, a primary school teacher, is the only non-Muthuvan tribal in Edamalakkudy and has spent over 30 years servicing the people of the remote hamlet, which shares a border with popular tourism destination Munnar.

Community members have received dictates to even stay away from funeral proceedings of the family of the two men. As per the dictate, Chinnathampy and Muraleedharan and their families will also not be allowed to buried in the hamlet. Children and their parents of Iruppukalkudi area of Edamalakkudy have already been warned against attending classes of Muraleedharan and eating from the tea stall run by Chinnathampy.

PK Muraleedharan (Extreme right)

“Local panchayat president Govindaraj has informed us an oorukoottam (community meeting) was held under his chairmanship and the oorukoottam decided to ostracise us. Ostracisation is anti-constitutional and so the panchayat president violated the basic human rights concerns. We will meet the local affairs minister seeking steps to disqualify him,” said Chinnathampy adding that his fight is now to end the practice of ostracisation among tribals in Kerala forever.

Chinnathampy reached Thiruvananthapuram on Monday to make representations to Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and Tribal Affairs Minister AK Balan.

Muraleedharan’s 2014 book the trigger?

According to him, the ostracisation follows largescale misinformation spread by vested interests from outside the Muthuvan community members about the contents of the 2014 Malayalam book ‘Edamalakkudy Oorum Porulum’ (Edamalakkudy, the land and its realities), authored by Muraleedharan and published by Kottayam-based Sahitya Pravartaka Cooperative Society (SPCS). Chinnathampy said it was the first book on the past, present and future of tribal people living in the lone tribal panchayat of Kerala and it narrates the Muthuvan life through first person account of Muraleedharan.

Vested interests, he said, have taken three paragraphs of the book out of context and interpreted the constructive criticism based on real facts as an attempt to malign the reputation of the community. Without reading the book and knowing how it supports the Muthuvans and their struggles for survival, the community members are acting to the tunes of outsiders, alleged Chinnathampy.

It appears that certain quotes attributed to anthropologists in the book are what community members have found objectionable. These include quotes suggesting that the community would be wiped out soon due to growing infertility among the Muthuvan tribe, owing to excessive consumption of oral contraceptive pills by both married and unmarried women to avoid menstruation. During menstruation, the women have to stay in specially-made isolated huts named valapurais to avoid contact with the rest of the family. After childbirth, the mother and the infant are made to stay in the valapurais for 40 days risking elephant attacks. These rules are strictly enforced among the Muthuvans causing girls to delay menstruation by taking contraceptive pills.

“Vested interests had told my own people that it was I who gave damaging details about the community to Muraleedharan. The ostracisation is for my wife, children and I. A widower, Muraleedharan would not have to face much trouble as his children are living outside Idamalakudy. My wife is asking me what would happen if they keep our dead bodies unattended. There were such instances of keeping dead bodies of those ostracised unattended in the past,” he said.

Chinnathampy and Muraleedharan alleged that the conspiracy against them was hatched with the active involvement of some non-tribal officials and teachers working in Edamalakkudy, whose corruption and misdeeds have been exposed by the duo in the recent past. “The book was published in 2014. There was no voice of protest then. Only now, they are turning against us,” said Muraleedharan, who swears the book has nothing objectionable against the Muthuvans and he continue to respect them.

“We have been the watchdogs of Edamalakkudy on projects and programmes being implemented in health, sanitation, construction, food and education areas. So the contractors and non-tribals active here are apprehensive about our anti-corruption platform. We will fight the ostracisation with all our efforts. Hope the Chief Minister and Human Rights Commission will act in our favour,” said Chinnathampy.

To reach Edamalakkudy, one would have to trek through 18 km of dense forests from Pettimudi near Munnar to reach the tribal settlements. Edamalakkudy is a cluster of 28 tribal settlements scattered in the 106.19 sq km reserve forests. The Akshara Arts and Sports Library, the remotest in the state, has 1600 books.

Read: Trekking to read: The amazing story of Kerala's library in the middle of a forest