By Arockiam Savarimuthu, SJ

“Why don’t you ask the Jesuit Fathers of the Sacred Heart College (SHC) to give you some of their lands in Kodaikanal?” asked the District Collector of Dindigul, Tamil Nadu.

“We want justice, not charity” was the sharp reply of Mr. Suppiah, one of the leaders of the freed laborers of Kodaikanal to the question of the District Collector. The Tamil Nadu Government had promised before the Supreme Court of India to provide each family of the laborers with two acres of agricultural land. But the laborers had to hold public protests in front of the Collector’s house in Dindigul for almost fifteen years to force the Government to fulfill its promise. During one of those protests, the Collector held a meeting with the labourers at which he asked the question with which I began this article. That was when Mr Suppiah responded they wanted justice – not charity.

The workers told the Collector that the SHC Fathers had done what they could – and that it was Government’s duty to do what it had promised 15 years ago. The laborers seemed to have better understood the meaning and purpose of the Jesuit properties in Kodaikanal than many Jesuits themselves. For I remember the fears of some Jesuits about the repercussions of the bonded labor struggle on their coffee plantations. While some Jesuits and their critics could only see the contradiction between their huge properties and the struggle for the rights of the oppressed, the struggling laborers could see how these could be a source of liberation and empowerment for them also. After all, have not the middle and upper classes (castes) benefited from the economic and institutional strength of Jesuit (and Catholic) missionaries till now?

The Tamil Nadu Government had promised before the Supreme Court of India to provide each family of the laborers with two acres of agricultural land.

‘A Royal Battle on Kodai Hills’ was the title of a front-page article written by Mr. T.N. Gopalan in The Indian Express on the struggles of the families of these bonded labourers in the Perijam forests of Kodai hills. About 200 of them lived there in the deep forests, not because they wanted to. They were cheated and looted, not once but three times. Their ancestors were taken to Sri Lanka in the late 19th and the early 20th centuries by the British to clear the bushes and create tea plantations on the hills of central Sri Lanka.  After they slogged and labored to harvest tea – one of the most flourishing export commodities of that country -, they were disenfranchised in 1960s by the Sinhala-dominated Sri Lankan Government.

Under an agreement between the Governments of India and Sri Lanka, about two lakh labourers were repatriated to India and rehabilitated in the dry regions of Tamil Nadu during 1970s. The housing contractors and the rehabilitation officers in India were no less cruel and exploitative than their British and Sri Lankan masters.  Their rehabilitation was so poorly executed that most of them were given lands in forests in the Nilgiris and Palani hills – again leading to their exploitation by forest contractors and logging companies in Kodaikanal hills.

It was to bring some relief to these laborers in Perijam forests, Fr. Thomas Joseph of Madras-Mylapore arch-diocese started Maithri (an organization for the relief and rehabilitation of Sri Lankan repatriates) and sought the help of Madurai Jesuits to manage it from SHC in Shembaganur. I was appointed in charge of this work in June 1985. I carried on the usual relief activities of distributing medicine to the wounded, maize and milk powder to the hungry, and running balwadis for the children in thatched sheds in the forests of Kodai hills. As days went by, I was growing uncomfortable with balming the wounds of exploitation. For, the workers there were by no means lazy or irresponsible. They toiled from 6 am to 10 pm and yet they were poor and hungry. Obviously they were not only denied their due wages but also their basic needs and freedom of movement to procure them.

A case was filed in the Supreme Court of India and a series of street protests by the workers in Kodaikanal town and Dindigul, the district head quarters were organized.

I discussed this issue with some Jesuits engaged in social action and lawyers in Madurai. After a meeting on the issue, a group of us went to the Sub-Collector of Kodaikanal, Mr. Gurnihal Singh and submitted a petition on the sorry state of the laborers. On receiving the petition, Mr. Singh immediately took action. He visited the area, conducted an inquiry and ordered the release of the laborers and payment of back-wages by the contractors. The next day the Sub-Collector was transferred from Kodaikanal!

And thus began a long battle for justice. A case was filed in the Supreme Court of India and a series of street protests by the workers in Kodaikanal town and Dindigul, the district head quarters were organized. After an inquiry for about five months by a one-man commission, the Court ordered the release and rehabilitation of labourers by the Tamil Nadu Government with a grant of two acres of agricultural land, two milch animals and a house to each family. The Court also reinstated Mr. Gurnihal Singh, the Sub-Collector, who was transferred overnight for his just, courageous act.

On 31 July 1986 there was a rally that ended with a public meeting in Kodaikanal to celebrate the verdict of the Supreme Court in favor of the laborers. Speaking at the meeting, Mr. Henry Tiphagne, Founder, People’s Watch, who took the case to the Supreme Court, said that as a lawyer it was only his duty to fight for the rights of the laborers. Mr. T.N. Gopalan, the journalist, who brought the issue to light, talked of his education from school to college at the expense of tax-payers, said that it was a debt he was repaying by writing about the plight of the laborers in Indian Express.

The person who spoke after him was Swami Agnivesh of Bonded Labor Liberation Front who followed the case in Delhi. Referring to some workers trying to touch his feet in respect as he walked through Kodaikanal streets during the rally, he said, “The food I eat and the clothes I wear are the result of your sweat and blood. I should rather touch your feet and honour you”. What came to my mind was the Gospel incident of Jesus washing the feet of his apostles. Isn’t it what Ignatius means by the third degree of humility in one of his meditations?

The Jesuit formation house in Dindigul, Beschi Illam (called Beschi College earlier) invited Mr. Gurnihal Singh to speak of his experience. At the end of his speech, somebody asked him about what motivated him to visit the laborers in the forests and order their release. He simply said that he was only doing his duty for the salary he received. Moreover, as an IAS officer, he was only following the Constitution of India which commanded that a sub-collector should release any person held in bondage anywhere in India.  What a great country India would be if only our education could produce citizens with similar thinking and consciousness! During the process of rehabilitation of the freed laborers, Kodaikanal revenue officials were trying to identify land for distribution to the laborers in Gundupatty area. In one case the laborers refused to accept a piece of land because it was taken from a poor widow. Their argument was that the government should take land for distribution from wealthy people who had encroached plenty of government land, and not that of a woman who was as deprived as they were. I became more and more convinced about what Jesus said about the poor and the persecuted. Blessed are they because theirs is the Kingdom of God.

 Fr. Arockiam Savarimuthu, SJ was the Director of PEAK (People’s Education and Action) in Kodaikanal in 1990s. He taught Theology in two national seminaries in South Africa for five years. Later, he was the Superior of Sacred Heart College in Shembaganur and Manager of St. Joseph Farm in Perumalmalai. He is now preparing to go to Guyana for pastoral work.