'People of the night' left in the dark

'People of the night' left in the dark

Neither here nor there

Devappa rubs the leaves of the Majjige Ragi Gedde plant vigorously, all over his arms and neck. He?climbs up?a tree in no time, and reaches out to a beehive on one of the branches on top. The crushed leaves repel the bees, and Devappa brings down a hive without being stung. This is one of the many nature-inspired practices of the Iruligas, a forest-dwelling?community scattered across the Deccan states.

75-year-old Mahadevappa is among the community’s elders. As we walk with him into the Bannerghatta forest in Bengaluru, he reels out the names of various plants and shrubs around us. Like many other indigenous?communities, Iruligas are known for their traditional knowledge on ethnomedicinal plants. Mahadevappa says, “The forest has a cure for every problem — for snake bites, fever, infected wounds, menstrual cramps, skin diseases— almost everything!”

Spending a day with them shows that Iruligas are masters of sustainable living.?Iruliga is believed to be derived from ‘irulu’, the Kannada word for ‘night’. The language of the Iruligas draws heavily from Kannada, Tamil, and Telugu.?

According to a paper published in?the Indian Journal of Medical Research, the Iruliga tribe has amassed vast knowledge of the forest’s obscure healing herbs, passed down from?generation to generation through oral tradition. They seem to have a song for mostly everything, and it is only a handful among the older women who remember these songs to this day.?

The hunter-gathering community has always collected tubers, plants, herbs, and honey for their livelihood needs. Their deep regard for the forest’s benevolence is reflected in how they worship the goddess of the forests.

The Iruligas, along with the Soligas (among the Scheduled Tribes from the region) have been facing a series of problems since 1998, the year when the Iruligas were served an eviction notice and were forced out of the forest area in accordance with the Forest (Conservation) Act 1980. Tribal populations and their cultures were viewed to be separate from the forest under the Act. Bannerghatta was declared a national park in 1974.?

The Act to arrest the depletion of forest areas?pushed millions?of Adivasis across India’s states out of the forests— their homes.

At Bannerghatta, some hamlets of the Iruliga families in Budagayyana Doddi fell inside national park limits. These families were evicted under the promise of being granted alternate land elsewhere. However, not all families got land as promised.

An overarching law had thrust the Iruligas into mainstream society and made orphans out of the forest’s children.

As years went by, the Iruliga families were involuntarily absorbed into rigid caste structure in nearby villages, and were treated as outcastes. They began to exist in the fringes of these villages, living impoverished lives. As these families shuttled between villages, it became hard for the children to stay put at a school.?

The dead are not buried, nor cremated among the Iruliga tribe. Instead, they are laid to rest inside caves deep within the forest. Trails snaking through the hills lead to the caves where the Iruliga ancestors are worshipped.

Along with their burial practices, the Iruliga way of life itself is facing extinction.

Returning home?

The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 recognised the rights of the Scheduled Tribes and other traditional forest-dwelling tribes. They were given access to the forest for their livelihood needs, and the Iruliga claim that the forests are not whole without them was vindicated. However, the Iruligas haven’t seen a restoration of rights yet, and have been tangled in a slew of bureaucratic screening committees.

Fed up, around 43 Iruliga families decided to protest, and 22 years after being evicted, they?started returning to the exact place from where they were driven out. Proof of their inhabitation exists everywhere in Budagayyana Doddi. The wells, farm demarcations, and a pile of rubble where their homes once were, hark back to a time when they were left undisturbed.

A game called the ‘Ghattada Mane’ is etched onto a boulder nearby, and Mahadevappa says that his ancestors?used to play the game. It continues to remain a favourite pastime among the community.

The Iruligas are in the know that the 2006 Act puts them in the right side of the law, and have continued to protest since January. Their dogged resistance forced authorities to relent, who agreed to hand over land papers in three months. Over two months after their return to Budagayyana Doddi, and a month before the promised papers to their land, a nationwide lockdown was announced in March, and put brakes on the Iruligas’ persistence.

Amid a strict lockdown, forest officials and policemen swooped on the Iruliga settlement on the morning of April 1. Every single hut, intricately built, was razed to the ground by afternoon. In the midst of the lockdown, more than a 100 Iruligas were left to fend for themselves.

With no food, shelter and nowhere to go, the Iruligas are left stranded between a deadly virus and systemic apathy.