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Who we are? : “Freedom fighters” or “Born Criminals”

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santosh pawar- denotified tribrSantosh Pawar-

You must have heard about the stories of many freedom fighters, you may probably inspired through their life journey and struggle, but have you heard about the community which had been punished for their act of freedom fighting against British? Have you heard about the community which had been recognised as “Born Criminal” and every member of community had been charged with a “Crime” without any investigation ?

Even till today many of the community members are charged with crimes though they are not. The community which served society through Ayurveda knowledge, is now stigmatised in Independent India.

Nomadism

According to Spooner the term, “nomadism” has been applied to any society that is not settled in permanent dwellings, although etymologically it implies a pastoral subsistence base”. (Spooner, Jan 1973)

There is no clear population data of nomadic groups. Some NGOs have conducted there surveys and requested government to include these vast population in 2011 census. According to ECONET- Pune city based NGO, there are more than 513 groups nomadic in nature i.e. 60 million of the India’s population. There are 315 Nomadic Tribes and 198 De-notified Tribes. The government data is based on 1931 census, after that there is no survey done to include these large number of population.

Nomadic Tribes

Those communities involved in nomads doing animal husbandry, foraging, track or servicing is based on their physical mobility and their economy based on mobile herding. They also have known as division of labour, territoriality and aspects of social and political organization. Primarily endogamous communities are economically dependent on generally their own food livestock. In the first millennium AD, in different parts of western India they were sailors, fisher and pastoral nomads. South Asian Nomads are backward according to the anthropologist”. (Bharal, 1968 P.358)

De-notified (Vimukta) Tribes

According to Criminal Tribe Act 1871, “If local government has reason to believe that any tribe, gang or class of persons in addicted to the systematic commission of non-bailable offences, it may report case to the Governor general council, and may request his permission to declare such tribe, gang or class to be criminal tribe…Any person registered under the provisions of the Act, who is found any part of British India, beyond the limits so prescribed for his residence,…May be arrested without war and by any police officer or village watchman, and taken before a Magistrate, who, on proof of the facts, shall order him to be removed to the district in which he ought to have reside, or to reformatory settlement”. This act criminalised 198 tribal communities and stigmatised as ‘Born Criminals’. In 1952, Indian Government repealed ‘Criminal Tribe Act’ with ‘Habitual Offenders Act’ and these communities became ‘De-notified/Vimukt’.

A_Pamphlet_on_Gobinda_Doms_Gang,_under_the_Criminal_Tribes_Act_(VI_of_1924),_dated_1942British government had used ‘Criminal Tribe Act’ as weapon to control the huge nomadic population and converted them into very cheap labour and treated them as slaves. The clauses of “Criminal Tribe Act” itself humiliate the human rights and “Habitual Offenders Act” too. These acts destroyed nomadic culture and supressed the wealthy history of nomads. British government had snatched their livelihood and kept them in so called “reformatory settlement” which was actually a place of exploitation.

I belong to Nomadic Tribe (Vaidu) community. Vaidu Community has existence in many parts of Maharashtra as well as some parts of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and may be other parts of India (No any proper research has been conducted on Vaidu community till today). Our forefathers have been migrated from Andhra Pradesh to many other parts of India (in search of livelihood), hence the language & tradition of community has big impact of local language & tradition. We used to speak Telugu at home which is mixture of Marathi & Telugu.

In ancient times, Vaidu community was known as ‘Vaidya’; the community was well known for ayurvedic treatment on any kind of ill and disease. Giving treatment to people and rulers was main livelihood of community. The knowledge about the Ayurveda was served and practiced by community mainly. I heard many times from my grandfather, Mr. Mallu Tatyarao Pawar- who was head of Jat Panchayat of our area i.e. Khambala, that our forefathers were used to heal any kind of illness, disease or surgery too by using jadibuti and ayurved shashtra. Therefore, we were very close to rulers and common people. Because of our skills and knowledge the people used to appreciate us and call us ‘Mandlod’, a Telugu word, means the people who give ayurvedic treatment. But sudden political changes made us more vulnerable and forced to migrate. We were close to Kings and people too, so British Empire was afraid of community movements. We always lived our life with dignity and pride, but because of British rule we lost our culture and livelihood. Razakar- militant of Nizam, attacked our community, they tried to do religious conversion but we strongly opposed it. They tortured us and did exploitation, due to which we migrated to find safe place to stay. We travelled through jungles and stayed away from society for many years. Gradually our skill and knowledge got effected and now our generation have very little of it. It was hard for us to find other livelihood so our community mostly chosen to sell some ayurvedic mixture and jadibuti on name of miracles. Our women used to sell suya, pot, manni, kanghi (niddles, garlands, ornaments, comb, etc…).

Vaidu has its population more than 20 lakhs across Maharashtra only. Political, Social and Economic vulnerability made this community to stay from main stream society. Society, sometimes, uses to call this community as ‘Bhondu Vaidu’. Jat Panchayat – community council was very strong and it was whole and sole for community people. Marriage institution is mainly effected by Jat Panchayat decision. Many inhuman practices were done by Panch –judges of community, on the name of justice. Child marriage used to done even he/she is in comb; girl child marriage with men with age difference of more than 40-60 was also common.

Denotified Tribes, Chapparband
Image Credit: Santosh Pawar

Women were most suffered victim of decision; many of the times they have to suffer from virginity test in public, cutting nose/ears/hair, putting hands in boiling water/oil, eating rice/grains/wheat and other inhuman practices. Many widows or rape victims had to marry or sleep with Punch- Judge. Men and children were secondary victim of decision. The huge threat of Jat Panchayat was to social boycott, due to which no one used to dare to go against decision of Panch. It is mandatory for people to offer liquor, money and meat to Judges. Till today, inter-cast marriage seems impossible among the community because of the presence of strong endogamy and fear of social boycott.

Vaidu community is mainly facing issues of Education, livelihood, citizenship entitlement, Jat Panchayat- community council, child marriage, atrocity, political representation and many others, out of which Jat Panchayat from many areas has been dissolved. I think to overcome out of these vicious issues Education is very important but there is lack of interest towards education of community and those who want to get education, due to financial crisis and unawareness (negativity), they have to stop their education. Common words I used to here that “Shikun kunach bhal jhalay?, Shiknyat vel aani paisa barbad kashala karayacha? Kuthe government chi nokari lagnar hay. Poth bharnyasaathi kam dhanda karun sansar sambhalalech bar!” (“Who is benefited by education? Why we should waste our time and money? We are not going to get any government job, so instead of getting education doing work is the best way to fulfill our daily needs and support our family!”). There is huge negativity about education among the community. The literacy rate of Vaidu community is very low and girls are rarely educated

Government is pooling down financial and other supports for nomadic and de-notified tribes in many ways, which is making these community more vulnerable. There is need of special care of these communities. There is no research been done on Vaidu community so far, it is very difficult to get exact population of community and government has no proper policies. There are many cases of atrocity but community don’t have constitutional safeguard.

denotified tribes
Image Credit: Santosh Pawar

During one year field work with TANDA (Towards Advocacy Networking and Development Action- TISS field action project) and rural practicum with Bhasha Academy, Gujarat, where we engaged with Pardhi, Vaddar, Masanjogi and other nomadic & de-notified tribe community similar issues were found.

Chhapparband is one of those communities which had been punished for their act of freedom fighting against British under the ‘Criminal Tribe Act’. This community had been recognised as “Born Criminal” and every member of community had been charged with a “Crime” without any investigation. It is one of the De-notified Tribe communities in Pune, Maharashtra. The ‘Chhapparband’ is elaborated as ‘Band’ means the group of people and this community is mainly known for their art of building the ‘Chhappar’, so together this community is known as ‘Chhapparband’. Traditionally this community used to make coins such as Mohara, Hon, etc., through melting gold-copper and other metals and secondly they were well-known for the art of making temporary tent (Chhapparband) for Kings and Sardars. They were criminalised for making fake coins of British during before the Independence of India. Chapparband has been migrated from Bijapur (Karnataka) and Solapur (Maharashtra) in search of livelihood. They have their presence in whole Pune but most populous community places are Juna Bajar and Yerwada.

denotified tribe
Image Credit: Santosh Pawar

Juna Bajar, which was wrongfully known as Chor Bajar in past, constitutes more than 900-1000 houses. The houses have been built aside of railway track. Every Sunday and Wednesday they used to set up big market on Juna Bajar road along with other community members where second hand materials, furniture and products have been sold. The most of the products are daily use one but due to very cheap cost, market gets huge crowd of customers.

I identified three basic issues which need to be focused. Those are Education, Citizenship Entitlement and Livelihood. This community don’t have any educational inspiration, due to which huge negligence has been found towards education. Very few people are graduated from the community. Women are more backward than men. They even don’t allow girls to get higher education and gives preference to marriage. They have basic issues with documents. Many of them don’t have Caste Certificate due to which they are unable to avail their rights. Now with the help of our volunteer team, which has been formed in the community, we are trying to cope up with these problems.

When I was new in the field, firstly many community people were not comfortable to share their experiences but through field work activities and constant trust building process they opened up.

There are many stories among the community about their experience of vulnerability. Hasim Bhai says, “Panchi apna ghosala chhodake apane baccho k liye dur tak khane ki talash me nikal jata hai, jab wo bahar rahata hai to usaka pura man apne baccho ke bare me soch kar pareshan hota hai aur wo khana leke fir apane bacchon ke pass jaldi vapas aa jata hai. Lekin sir, hamari to jindagi isase bhi buri hai, hame to ghosala bhi nasib nahi hota hai aur khane k talash me ham dur tak nikal jate hai. Yaha bhi hum aasara aur kam dhundate dhudante aa gaye hai”. He tries to put not only his own life experience but also the community’s one. He explained about how he suffered only because he is born here. People used to label him in many different forms even though he says that he is proud to be Chhapparband.

According to Mr. Ajij, Mr. Feroz, Mr. Salim, Mrs. Memuna and many other community people 95% of community is illiterate. They have their own language i.e. ‘Bhatvalli’. Their forefathers were freedom fighters. They used to make original coins in Indian Kings Darbar. After the encroachment of British they lost their livelihood. Then they started to make Chappars. They were masters in making Chappar and Coin. Because of the British exploitation, they decided to fight indirectly against them and started to make fake coins. The aim of making fake coins was to shake British Empire economy and they got huge success in that. British government was afraid of increased Chhapparband activities; they had understood if Chhapparband continues there activity then it will badly impact their economy, so to suppress their activity they brought this community under ‘Criminal Tribes Act’. Using this act British sent community in ‘reformatory settlement’. It was not reformatory but the place of exploitation.

After many years of independence PM Jawaharlal Nehru made community free (Vimukt) from these ‘reformatory settlement’ but due to the lack of community’s welfare policies of government and constitutional safeguards they are still fighting for basic needs and rights.

Ignoramus person will only believe that these communities are just wanderers and they don’t have shelter or any livelihood options because of their lack of capability or their preferred choice of living. The caste and community based discrimination/marginalisation has taken a different shape in modern India with government having role at the core of it with its policy and intention. 

I struggled throughout my life to complete education. In our community area, my family is the only family which fought for and got education. Though my father and mother completed their higher secondary schooling, they tried to give us good education. I have two siblings; both have completed their graduation. I am the first post graduate in my whole family. I completed my schooling with the help of my school teachers (many of the times teachers did their contribution and gave financial support): Did graduation in BSc Computer Science by working with some media & advertisement agencies and with the help of the government scholarship I was able to complete MA in Social Work in Criminology & Justice from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. My mother and father always tried to inspire me for education even in very difficult circumstances. It was very difficult for me to even think about getting education without financial support of teacher and government scholarship.

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