Monday, 4 May 1998

Second sex? No way, say women in AP tribal village; men agree

Published in The Indian Express on Monday, May 4, 1998

By Syed Akbar
VIJAYAWADA, May 3: Tonta Kannaih, Korepu Satyanarayana and Bodu Gangaiah have left their village, Pedamallapuram. The three young men would have found it embarrassing to live there any longer after they were tied up, beaten and tonsured by women for selling arrack.
On April 29, they threatened a bootlegger from a neighbouring village who strayed into Pedamallapuram, got 150 half-litre sachets of illicit liquor from him and started selling them. Tribal women chased them on bicycles and a State Road Transport Corporation bus and caught them. They tied them to a column of the village temple, put red ants on their heads and extracted a confession. In Pedamallapuram, selling arrack is a crime and the punishment instant. The accused were beaten up and tonsured. The judgement was passed and executed by the women of the village.
Far away from preached feminism and the shadows of urban life, this tiny tribal hamlet in the East Godavari district of Andhra Pradesh, with some 225 tribal families, stands out for twothings: self-assertion by women and strict implementation of prohibition.
Such is the enormity of the power the tribal women assert here that when they speak, men keep quiet. Even the terror-striking Naxalites maintain a safe distance from them.
How could the tribal women gain supremacy over men? Tunta Ramulamma, the brain behind the tribal women movement, says: ``We have formed a mahila sangh and its word has become the law for the women in Pedamallapuram and around. The sangh has shown the women what they can achieve if they are all united and firm on any given issue''.
More than fighting for their own rights, the tribal women's concern, however, is the general well-being of their menfolk. They thought that they could not achieve this unless they prevented men from consuming intoxicants. The Chandrababu Naidu government's prohibition policy must not have cut much ice with the people in the plains, but the tribal women continue to enforce it with even more vigor.
(It may be recalled here that theState Govt had lifted prohibition early this year saying the liquor trade involved women force.) Brewing or sale of liquor is totally banned in Pedamallapuram. And no one can dare drink alcohol in this part of forest stretch. For, the punishment is quite severe and several men have been beaten up since January when the women imposed total prohibition. The ban-enforcers are the poor, illiterate and ill-clad tribal women, who toil for a living under the scorching sun by collecting soapnuts, honeycombs or wood from the nearby hilly forest tracts.
The tribal women's movement against intoxicants, alcoholics and bootleggers was not born overnight. They have suffered humiliation at the hands of their drunkard-husbands over the years. Some of them turned widows after arrack consumed their men. Then, there was the problem of the Naxalites and the police. Both of them attacked the tribals accusing them of each other's informants.
``Fed up with the trouble for over four years, we curtly told the Naxalites not tointerfere in our affairs. We also did not want the police and the excise personnel to enter the hamlet. Then came the idea of sorting out the problems on our own,'' recalls Lakshmamma, a front-runner of the movement.The tribal women turned more active after the local office of the Girijan Cooperative Corporation (GCC), which issues loans to tribals, was burnt down by suspected Naxalites in January. Immediately, the women convened a meeting and passed two resolutions: keep away from Naxalites to ward off police attacks and strictly implement prohibition.
When asked about the women's movement and their concept and execution of justice, the men in the village, including the panchayat president, chose not to speak. They only said in a hushed voice: ``Ask the women''.

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