Former Bonded Laborers Pray For Liberator Swamy’s Release
By Irudhaya Jothi
Nangathur: Several former bonded laborers in Tamil Nadu are praying for the release of Father Stan Swamy as the Jesuit social activist enters his 100th day in Mumbai’s Taloja Prison on January 15.
“We are praying for Father Stan who had helped liberate our family from landlord’s bondage some 50 years ago,” says Arputham, a Dalit resident of Kalyanampoondi, a village in the Villupuram district of the southern Indian state.
Human rights activists along with the friends and supporters of Father Swamy have planned various program across India to mark Father Swamy’s 100 days in jail and pray for his release.
The Jesuit activist was arrested on October 8, 2020, by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) from his residence near Ranchi, capital of the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand. He was accused of Maoist links and alleged involvement in violence at Bhima-Koregaon village near Pune, western India, on January 1, 2018.
An NIA court then sent to him the jail the following day.
Arputham, 41, says he has not seen Father Swami but heard a lot about how he helped liberate his parents and others from bonds.
Kalyanampoondi is around 170 km south of Chennai, Tamil Nadu capital. The village now has some 250 upper caste and 150 Dalit families.
The Dalits were landless laborers, who worked for the landed higher caste people.
Ganeshan, a former bonded laborer, the landlords served them gruel in mud pots. “Dead worms and insects used to float in the food which was always poured in our hands,” recalled the 64-year-old villager. The Dali laborers never used plates, glasses or cups those days, he added.
Although the village had a primary school in most Dalit children like Ganeshan could not attend it as education was considered the privilege of upper caste.
“Instead we went to the landlord’s fields along with our parents for food. We joined the workforce at a very young age. When we became little order, we were asked to graze cows,” Ganeshan explained his childhood.
The child laborers were given only food twice but no remunerations.
Arputham’s elder brother Gnana Pragasam, said he has been praying for the release of Father Swamy, who got him released from bonds
He started working from the age of 6 for 15 rupees a month until his release in 1977 through the Jesuit’s intervention.
“I used to take care of the landlords’ goats and cows,” said Pragasam, who is now 53. He also had to clean the cow shed, carry cow dung to the field, cut grass for the cows and leaves for the goats.
The situation changed after a bonded laborer, Narasiman, ran to neighboring village of Nangathur after his landlord tied him to a tree and beat him for a minor mistake. He wanted justice and liberation from the bondage.
The Jesuit priest, who was then working in Indian Social Institute, Bangalore (now Bengaluru), had come to Nangathur, a parish under the Pondicherry-Cuddalore archdiocese. He took village leaders from Nangathur along to Kalyanampoondi and demanded a meeting with the landlords to settle the issue once and for all.
At the end of one hour meeting it was decided that no one would work as bond laborer and the Dalit landless people were free to choose their work and life, recalls Narasiman, who is now 72.
Father Swamy and his confrere Claude D’Souza encouraged socially conscious teachers and retired soldiers in surrounding villages to build a movement against the practice of untouchability and exploitation of the Dalit people.
Arputham, who now takes parts in the local parish activities, says children of recused bonded laborers like him are educated and settled with secure jobs in major cities and towns.
“Our village has been transformed in to a paradise in the past four decades,” he added.
Former thatched mud houses have been replaced with pucca buildings. “All children are educated and many are working in the neighboring cities and towns,” he added.
Some have bought the land where once they and their parents had worked as bonded laborers.
One of villagers, Veerasamy, 85, thank Father Swamy for liberating them to “live our lives as we decide.” The octogenarian did not move out of the village but his children now work in cities and send enough money for him to live comfortably.
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