Maria Maheswari, a Catholic nomad, fights government officials for the dignity and rights of nomadic community members and reclaims their identities in society.
Her main goal is to educate nomads and employ them as government workers in all fields to serve their communities and society.
On November 5, 1977, Maheswari was born as the ninth of 16 children born to Suppaiah and Guruvammal in Sathyamoorthy Nagar in southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu.
Her husband Rajangam R, a government school teacher, her elder son Thiraviyaraj, a student of medicine, and her younger daughter Emily, a candidate for the Indian Administrative Service, supported her fully.
"Fortune-telling is our traditional occupation, and my parents took me from house to house to earn their living and did not allow her to attend school,” she said.
In 1990, she was 15 years old and lived in Marthandam, in Kanyakumari District of Tamil Nadu. She visited the Church of South India (a Protestant) prayer hall with her friends once. As they were praying, the pastor asked about their occupations and their community.
The pastor had beaten them in front of the crowd because he thought they had entered to steal. In the end, they warned them and chased them out of the prayer hall.
It disturbed Maheswari a lot and she started working to remove this social stigma from society.
Over 70 years after India’s independence, the untouchability and discrimination of the nomadic people have not diminished.
False allegations are made against these people after thefts occur elsewhere, and they are increasingly being prosecuted and detained by the police. The basic rights of them are violated not only by other oppressed ethnic groups but also by other dominant groups, she said.
As a result of many struggles, she wanted to create a trust that would protect society and give it an identity to nomads.
To promote the welfare of this tribal nomadic people “TENT” (The Empowerment Centre for Nomads and Tribes) society was formed in 2003 by seven nomadic members under the Tamil Nadu Society Registration Act 1975 in Register No, 75/2003.
In 2005, she started the TENT Society to encourage nomadic parents to educate their daughters.
Catholic Church’s intervention
Father Anandam L. a member of the Desk for Nomads said, “Pope John Paul II constituted the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant people on June 2, 1988. This Pontifical Council initiates and encourages welfare works for the improvement of the nomads all over the world.
The plight and poverty of these nomads have no privileges from the government in comparison with other unprivileged social groups. In Madurai Archdiocese, there are about 2047 families living in five localities.
Archbishop Antony Pappusamy of Maduari formed the Desk for Nomads on November 27, 2018. It is the first of its kind in the whole of India.
Since its formation, the Desk has put in a lot of effort to safeguard safety, improve living conditions and ensure the education of their children. The legal cell of Archdiocese helps them when they are harassed and attacked by the police and anti-social elements.
Free higher education is offered to those who pursue their college studies at Fatima College and Arul Anandar College in Madurai, Tamil Nadu. The assistance offered by Madurai Multipurpose Social Service Society (MMSSS) and the religious congregations is to be commended.
Father Emmanuel, Societas Apostolatus Catholic (SAC) is in–charge of the desk, Father Anandam L and Sister Gnana Soundari A, a member of Congregation of the Immaculate Conception (CIC) Madurai Province are its members.
Fight tooth and nail
Maheswari organized a protest in front of the Revenue Divisional Officer (RDO office) on October 29, 2021. The community of Kattu Nayakkar relies on catching snakes and snake charmers, and the government distributed their community certificate on November 10, 2021.
Out of this, she has organized a lot of demonstrations, hunger strikes, human rights exercises, law exercises, and awareness classes for nomads.
Many young people in government positions hold successful jobs because of her commitment to serving nomads.
In Tamil Nadu, four revenue officials are employed. Nine police constables and sub-inspectors work in the police department, nine post office employees work in the Post Office Department, four fire services are employed, and two are employed by the Forest Department.
On May 25, 2008, Maheswari was honoured with the “Pope John Paul” Award from Archbishop Emeritus of Madurai, Peter Fernando (late), south India.
Education is the key
By establishing evening study centres, she brought out in the children of nomadic tribes their ability to interact with a hierarchical society.
There are several students from different nomadic communities who have benefited a lot like the Bull Nodding Masters community (Boom Boom Mattukkarar) from Sakkimangalam village. About 50 students are studying now and are taught by two eligible teachers.
From the Blabbering Foretellers (KuduKuduppai fortune tellers) community from Thiruparankundram village, 70 students are studying with three eligible teachers.
Street circus (Kalai Kuthadigal) from Manamadurai village, Tamil Nadu, 20 students are trained by one qualified teacher.
She provides free notebooks, school bags, uniforms, and stationers to nomadic children to equip them with knowledge of society.
Nomadic tribal senior citizens, youth, housewives, and young girls were given training programs on the protection of the Civil Rights Act (PCRA), Domestic Violence Act, health and human rights, and other basic acts.
She provided tailoring services for the young nomadic women to develop their lives.
A member of the Kudikudupai community, Chinna Ragavan, suffered from heart disease and helped him through TENT Society by giving Indian rupees 200,000 (US$ 2,641.24).
She also explained that in India, there are three types of nomadic communities.
First, hunter-gatherers/trappers of birds and animals, gamers, such as Narikkuravas, whip beaters (chaattai adippavar), and day maskers (parallel veshakkararkal) Hakkipakkis.
Second, pastoral communities such as Pardis, Keetaharis,Guzzars, Banjaras, Bhils, Minas, Kurumbas, Kurmans and Madhuras.
Third peripatetic groups of peddlers, itinerants, fortune tellers, storytellers, wig makers, acrobats, dancers, and dramatists, such as Lohars, Kaikaris (basket makers) Kewats (jute weavers), Yerakalas (basket Makers), pitcakuntls and Jogis.
India's population comprises 10 percent of these ethnic groups, which are religiously mixed and can be difficult to identify.
Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh communities also exist, and some are half Hindu and half Muslim.
Social and economic problems, as well as psychosocial problems, plague nomadic tribal communities.
Since nomadic people move frequently from one place to another, they have permanent settlements. As a result, they are given this ration card, Aadhar (federal government’s national identity) card. Besides, they are not eligible for government welfare schemes.
Dare to dream
Dhevayani G, 19, from the Kattu Nayakkar nomadic community said, “I want to become an Indian Administrative Service or a District Collector and to help my community to create an identity in society through my education.”
She managed to complete the twelfth Grade (Senior High) by studying under a streetlight outside her house. On the board exam, she scored 500/600 marks and was declared the top student in her class.
“After that, I was interviewed by many media outlets and reached people throughout Tamil Nadu. In 2020, the Tamil Nadu government provided many basic services to village residents, such as electricity and caste certificates,” she said.
Maheswari Akka (like an elder sister) continuously motivated Dhevayani to study and work for their people in community who are not seen as the least in society.
Dhevayani expressed that some people yell, "Do not you have legs and hands?" “Why are you begging? Stop begging and start working."
“I cried when people shout like this. Then I decided we would not continue this work beyond our generation,” she said.
Maheswari added, “I have not lost my hope and vigour and I will continue my journey of rights filled with hope, confidence and courage.”
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