Vadivel Gopal and Masi Sadaiyan From the Irula Tribe Won the Padma Shri. Only Calling Them ‘Snake Catchers’ Reinforces Caste Stereotypes.
Vadivel Gopal and Masi Sadaiyan from Tamil Nadu were jointly conferred the Padma Shri award for social work on Thursday. Gopal and Sadaiyan are members of the Irular Snake Catchers’ Cooperative society in Chennai, and engage in the practice of catching snakes for anti-venom extraction, as well as international awareness and advocacy around snake-human conflicts. The Irula community is traditionally associated with healing, traditional medicine, and snake catching — Gopal and Sadaiyan themselves learnt the profession from their families, according to reports.
However, media headlines on Gopal and Sadaiyan’s achievement have predominantly focused on calling them “snake-catchers” instead of using their names — a term that inadvertently reinforces caste stereotypes around community identity and labor.
The Irula community, or the Irular, is designated as a Scheduled Tribe community and carries historical baggage for its work and culture. Members of the community continue to be stigmatized like many other Adivasi communities — a legacy of the Habitual Offenders Act, 1952 that criminalized many tribes. Although they are now classified under the “Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups” category in Tamil Nadu, Irular continue to be subject to criminalization and police brutality — a reality that the recent film Jai Bhim depicted, based on a real story of custodial torture. Often, the criminalization of indigenous communities is rooted in their association with certain forms of labor. With communities like the Irular, it’s their historical association with snake and rat-catching that’s often been weaponized against them. This makes them vulnerable to bonded labor and state violence.
“We were often also falsely accused of crimes we never committed just to torture us. Once, somebody complained that we had caught fish in a pond nearby. We were then taken to a room and beaten up. We kept telling the authorities we didn’t do it. But no one believed us, or maybe they didn’t want to,” Ravi, the chief of one hamlet in Tamil Nadu, told The Citizen.
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The difference between equating individuals with their profession and recognizing their labor as one part of their identity, then, is important. The former reinforces the idea of inherited occupation: a caste-based construct, while the latter views the community as a whole without essentializing it.
Moreover, the overuse of the label “snake-catchers” when it comes to describing members of the community, also warrants scrutiny for how it undermines Irular traditional knowledge of medicinal plants and treatments. In 1978, the formation of the Irula Snake Catchers Industrial Co-Operative Society led to the community being one of the only authorized entities to provide anti-venom in India. In a country with a high burden of snake-bite mortality, the Irula community’s expertise and knowledge are invaluable to saving lives. “Previous studies — particularly of the Irula tribe in Tamil Nadu — have also noted the necessity to study and complement traditional medicine practices, particularly the knowledge of plant-based antidotes that several communities claim to lead to fewer snakebite deaths,” The Swaddle noted earlier.
The Irular have also been instrumental in afforestation projects for their knowledge of local biodiversity and ecosystems — resulting in the formation of seed banks. But the continued insistence on equating Irular culture with snake-catching overshadows the heterogeneity of Adivasi culture and histories.
“We are so much more than that [snake-catching]. We follow a tradition rich in music, dance, and love,” S Swarnalatha, a community member, told Times of India. Irula songs, too, contain frequent mention of the exploitation of forests by various governments — speaking to how the community is often reduced to their association with snake-catching in the mainstream without any heed to their marginalization in other forms.