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Trouble in Tea land
Sometimes the funniest things happen. The undulating Nilgiri hills have basked under the golden sun for years and years, known only for being an ideal tourist destination for those who cannot afford Europe or Switzerland. Then, one fine season, the hill community takes to the streets, in silent and not so silent protest against the steep fall in the price of the tea grown hereabouts. The cops arrive. The media arrives. And of course, politicians of various hues arrive. Hey presto, the Nilgiris are on the national news. And so are the agitators, the Badagas.
This sudden glare of the spotlight on a hitherto self-effacing if quietly efficacious community has most of the Badagas wincing. This is no way for the community to steal their moments in the sun. Yet, when pushed to the brink as most claim they have, they are willing to see this fight to the finish. Visitors to the hill stations of the Blue Mountains invariably ask to see the Toda hutments, go gawk at a Toda tribal or two and then go home with an armful of Toda shawls and tribal silver jewellery. The Todas are a novelty item, remarks a prominent Badaga professional, not without a hint of rancour. People tend to forget that the Badagas have lived, worked, farmed here for ages. The Nilgiris are our home. What happened to us must, of a natural course, affect the atmosphere in the hills.
The anthropological origins of the Badagas in the Nilgiri hills are almost as rooted in mystic legend as those of the Todas. Indu K Mallah, prominent Badaga writer and social activist says, We are indigenous to the Nilgiri hills. There is a theory that we are descendants of the Gangathigara Goudas, and that those who came up here from Mysore just joined their kinsmen who were already well settled here. Historians say the Badagas are vaddakars (northerners) who fled Tipu's rule and came up the hills. Giving further credence to this theory is the fact that the Badaga language (which has no written script) is considered by many to be halleya (old) Kannada, a dialect of the mother language. The Badaga festivals are called habbas, like the Deve habba in July and the Oori habba in October. The Gowda appellation is there to many names. And most of the Badagas profess an innate fondness for Karnataka and Kannadigas.
Emotional pulls notwithstanding, the Badagas are definitely a separate entity, epitomising man's determination to carve a viable niche in a hostile terrain. The community is one that lives by simple, if strong rites and rituals and an even stronger support system. Virtually every Badaga will agree that their strength lies in their support system. The Badaga hattis (hamlets) perch on the sides of the hills, nestle in the folds of the green valleys and some, like an eagle's eerie, sit atop spurs and crags, shrouded almost all the time by the mist ubiquitous to the Blue Ranges.
Though they are Hindus, the community's religious roots lie in animism and they propitiate the female ancestral deity, Hettai Amman. The traditional attire is the pristine white dhotis for the men and a white thundu-mundu for the women. Marriages between members of some hattis are taboo since they are considered sibling hamlets. The old hill people cliche holds good here too: women work hard, men, by and large, show a marked predilection for alcohol.
D. Radhakrishnan, a journalist by profession, tries to explain. It is part of the Badaga culture, part of what we are. If we don't serve alcohol at a wedding, or even a saavu (funeral), then we lose face. I do not see it as a major problem, Geetha Jaiprakash, boutique owner and married to the scion of one of the leading families of the community says. There is an exquisite irony at work here: alcohol was virtually unknown till the British came. Geetha's husband Jaiprakash's grandfather Ari Gowder was the first Badaga graduate and statesman. He has a bridge right on the Tamil Nadu - Karnataka border at Mudhumalai-Bandipur named after him. His father Bellie Gowder helped the British lay the railways in the hills.
As must be inevitable with a community not too large (at last count they stood at 2.5 lakh people) most Badagas are related to each other by ties of blood, marriage or hatti. B. N Balachandran, a Badaga architect, says that such close bonds invariably make for a tremendous support base. He speaks glowingly of the hospitality in the hattis. The poorest of the poor will welcome you into their homes and overwhelm you with hospitality. You cannot leave a hatti without having a meal there. Adds Geetha Jaiprakash, This is what civilised society ought to be all about.
The hattis all have a chosen headman, usually a village elder from a respected family. He keeps hatti records and accounts; the hatti tax, paid by everyone who belongs to and has married into a hamlet, goes toward the upkeep of the hatti, any kind of financial or medical aid for those who may need it and suchlike. The funerals are occasions when the family of the deceased can just give over all responsibilities to the villagers and give themselves over to mourning. The funeral is conducted, a wake is held and food served to the crowds who attend, all by the villagers. Marriages, too, are a time when the sterling support of the hatti is revealed in all its all-enveloping embrace. The bridal parties are feted at the hattis regardless of family ties and the young bride or groom is given a rousing send-off.
The Badagas eat simple meals of rice, ragi, avare (a version of rajma beans) and of course, spuds. They do not give or take dowry. Men and women have equal rights in the matter of divorce and re-marriage, if not in property. Says Chandru Raj Bettan, a prominent and respected Badaga tea planter, It is an ideal community, when you come to think of it. No dowry, widow-remarriage is encouraged, divorces are not treated as a stigma and there is strong community support. This is our strength and hopefully will always remain so. Akamma Devi, the first woman graduate and Congress MP during the time of Jawaharlal Nehru, reminisces wistfully. Earlier, the emphasis was on work, not the money you earned or had. Today, change has crept in. However, I see change as inevitable and not too bad a thing. And luckily, the hattis have remained inviolate. R. Iyaroo, the Nakubetta chief, or local Badaga leader, has this to say, Our youth could be a little more aware of our fine heritage. The Badagas are like no other community in the whole wide world and it is time our young took pride in that fact and became a little more involved in community activities.
There is something beautiful about the innate innocence of the Badaga, says Radhakrishnan. It is an innocence that has survived for centuries. This is echoed by a non-Badaga, Nalini Prakash who does not consider herself an outsider, though. Nalini, of Sindhi-German parentage, is a dancer who has learned under Sudharani Raghupathy and when she expressed her desire to go in for an arranged marriage, her father suggested Prakash Raj Bettan, the younger brother of his friend, Chandru Raj Bettan. Nalini has been married into the community for over 13 years now and says the Bagadas are a warm people. I think the fact that they stand up for each other in times good and bad is their main strength. For a community with strong agricultural roots, the Badagas have penetrated the mainstream down in the plains of India and abroad, most successfully.
Doctors, lawyers, bankers, software experts, civil servants, architects, academics, you name it and there is a Badaga in the line! Most of those who have left the idyllic ambiance of the hills still carry a torch for the community most unashamedly. Some have property here that they intend to claim in later years. Still others dream of building houses on hillsides when they finally get off the fast track.
Into every Eden there must slither a serpent. In the case of the Nilgiri hills, it is the tea crisis. Radhakrishnan says, The warning signs were there to see, for quite some time now. People in authority chose to ignore it till it finally blew up in their faces. Tea prices have always fluctuated with highs of as much as Rs 18-20 but it never quite hit rock bottom the way it has this year. It's like asking a man accustomed to living in five-star comfort to move to a hovel. The Badagas blame the authorities. Of course, says Indu Mallah. The government weaned us from growing potatoes and other vegetables. They offered us wonderful subsidies to grow tea. And grow tea we did. Now they pull the carpet from under our feet. We need protection first, some kind of minimum pricing, and then, a level playing field.
Virtually all the people of the hattis came out in a stupendous show of solidarity when the tea crisis peaked during the summer season. It was a phenomenon hitherto unseen in the Nilgiris. Badaga women clad in white squatted on the roads while their menfolk pitched flags and shouted slogans. One could almost foretell the violence that entered on the heels of the agitation. There were buses burnt, mass arrests, lathi charges and the unfortunate incident at Meekeri village, where the cops went on a rampage. After which, every politician jumped on the tea bandwagon, promising to set matters aright.
The Badaga community, happily enough, has two elected representatives, Master Mathen, BJP MP and T Gundan, DMK MLA. And it is to them the people are looking for effecting a quick solution to stop the slow and inexorable downslide. Gundan rues the fact that the people took to agitating. We are a hard-working, peace-loving community,he explains. There is no denying that these are bad times for tea planters. But the Badagas do not constitute all the tea planters in the Nilgiris. This is not a community struggle, it is a larger problem. A solution can and will be wrought at the negotiating table, not on the streets.He agrees that the innate docility of the Badagas sometimes work against them. They can be very self-effacing. In fact, that is how I joined politics... to give vocal representation to the community. Then again, their humility is one of their best points and will help them see this tea problem through and settle back into their peaceful lives.
Chandru Raj Bettan strikes a pragmatic note. It is a bad time, he says. But agitating won't get us what we want. After all, the government can't keep giving us unlimited dole. We have to struggle out of this rut by ourselves.Gundan says, We have to see ourselves through this crisis. Now people view the Nilgiris as a disturbed area. It is time to wipe that image out and restore the earlier one of a lovely hill station peopled by some of the most hospitable inhabitants on earth.
Even as the political situation continues to do a slow boil, Radhakrishnan has the last word on the social change wrought by the tea crisis. The white of the Badaga attire has been tarnished, he says evocatively, sadly. In the villages, they found Molotov cocktails. Badaga women at the sit-in were found carrying chilli powder. Believe me when I tell you, this violence is not inherent in the Badaga psyche. We have been exploited, manipulated, controlled. We must break free of that and re-discover our real selves. It will be a difficult task but not an impossible one.
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