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Dr.Gift Siromoney was one of the rarest species the Madras Christian College has ever produced. He is still an enigma to some of us who have admired him ever since he came into contact with us, having impacted our values and character which we recognize at this point in our life.
It was the year 1973 ( a year after my marriage) I registered for my Doctoral work under the guidance of my teacher Dr. M. Abel. He was the first to have congratulated me saying I was one of the youngest (nearly 26+) to have ventured to register in Humanities. From day 1 till my public viva voce was completed, he was not only with me, but "after me". A versatile genius that he was, could influence any one to take up research on any topic.
I was interested in Panchayat Administration, which was a field of research almost fully exhausted. When I discussed the scope of this context, he took me to a table and pointing to the grains on the tabletop and said, "Alex, one could produce many doctoral dissertations on the patterns you see" implying, it is not how many have researched on Panchayat Raj but how different one's interpretation and analysis could be.
Together, we flipped through the pages of "Madras Panchayat System" by S.Saraswathy and hit on a short paragraph entitled, "Traditional Panchayat". We chose that for our research. He said, "lesser the information in a book greater the scope of original contribution". I chose the traditional communities in the Nilgiris and every time I returned from my fieldwork with data and photographs, his excitement was much more than mine. He once said, "Alex, you have struck a gold mine". I guess this was his strategy to encourage youngsters like me!
When the University of Madras turned down my request for extension of time for the third time, we were left with just 10 days to format the thesis, analyze the data, draft the chapters and have them typed, print multiple copies of photographs and obtain the clearance from Dr. M. Abel. He was not perturbed. He took me to my flat in his old White Herald. With the deadline as the starting point, we worked out the date backwards. Then he took me to the stationery shop to buy 10 box files and papers, met a former student of his who owned a typing institute to organize typing work. After having done the preparatory work he told me, "Alex, now it is your responsibility to feed the typists with materials". So together we set to draft the chapters hours together long past midnight. The last draft was the Introduction. That made sense.
After making 1+ 4 copies of all the materials, we adjourned to the farmhouse on campus to arrange the chapters into 5 sets. At 3:10 p.m. on the penultimate day I looked at my watch. Dr Gift Siromoney asked me "what is the matter?" I said, "Should pick up David" (my son who was in II Std at the Christ King Primary School). Asking me to continue with my work, he disappeared. After about 15 minutes, Dr. Gift Siromoney reappeared with a smile. He had picked up my son from his school and dropped him at home. Such was his concern not only for a child but also a young teacher like me one who will not be a Principal of a great institution but for his love, care, concern and encouragement.
The popular notion that traditional panchayat system which existed in ancient times (even during the Sangam age) had been replaced by modern modes of self governance due to process of modernity was tested as a hypothesis. The empirical study among the traditional communities namely the Badagas, Todas, Irulas, Kummbas, Kotas and paniyas revealed that the traditional panchayat system, contrary to this popular belief, was deep rooted and was bound to play a predominant role in the life of these communities especially in the context of family, religion, culture and society. The ancient concept of social ostracism is even today a binding force.
The authentic documentation prior to this work was done way back in 1907 as recorded in "Castes and Tribes of Southern India" by E. Thurstone.
Statistical techniques such as numerical taxonomy and similarity matrix by using the single linkage method were employed in the study of Tribes in India for the first time.
The effective coexistence of the traditional panchayat system along with the statutory local governance system was brought out, much to the delight of the Badagas, which served as an eye opener to some of them in other parts of the Nilgiris.
The importance given to the communal harmony and the deliberate effort to retain solidarity through the effective and judicious exercise of the tradition of the elders even to this day is most rewarding
The addition to existing knowledge was possible only through the unstinted effort and support of Dr Siromoney in all my ups and downs for which he will be remembered. This exclusively unique quality of Dr Siromoney is immortalized in the life of all of us.
- Alexander Mantramurti (Ph.D in Political Science and Public Administration, 1979).
Currently: Principal, Madras Christian College.