COVID Restrictions May Push ‘Criminal’ Tribes To Extinction

India | Affirmative Action
Among humans, it is the indigenous who lives the closest to the environment, to animals, foliage, and a topography, and closely in sync as an extension of his very existence. Yet, over the years, the native has transformed to adapt, with undocumented deft, to urban spaces and modern living. However, in his adaptations too, he has stayed loyal to nature: His friend for live. 

Over the last year and half, however, the COVID lockdown restriction imposed across India hit him the worst, restricting his physical movement, interactions with his ‘family’ of animals and his association with land – his home. 

The native’s tryst with animals is an association that transcends generations together in sharp contrast to the modern-day ‘ownership of pets’ and selective ‘love’ for pedigrees like the Pug spurred solely by Telecom advertisements. 

It isn’t rare to find families of local city tribals living with camels, poultry, a few dogs even ‘pet’ turtles on the loose living on a pavement in large cities like Ahmedabad. While their lives are mired with controversy, mostly owing to the acute dearth of information and surge in damaging hearsay available, they form an integral part of Modern India’s present.

Bolstered by Affirmative Law and policies formulated to protect them from the vagaries of urban settings and cultural bias, they existed, sturdily countering notions, noxious as ever. The indigenous groups formed their own symbiotic relations with modern communities who made peace with them but only after years of delivering the usual resistance and angst doled out to the ‘outsiders.’

So, after months of complaining to the authorities about the filth they created in public spaces, like pavements and roads owing to the cooking and cleaning in the open, and the consumption of alcohol, again in the open, the urban locals made peace with the city tribals.

That is for as long as ‘they,’ read city tribals, stayed within their lot, ‘cleaned up’ beyond public view and restricted any ‘nuisance’ created by their animals, they were ignored, and, in that, permitted to exist: And all of that persisted, till COVID struck the world in early 2020 and life changed for everyone. 

The urban resident simply moved indoors, worked from home and opted for home-based entertainment doled out through Over The Top (OTT) platforms at home itself, the city tribal’s life was hit directly and hard. 

The indigenous city tribal’s physical movement from one place to another, intrinsic to his cultural ethos, the upkeep of his animals in the absence of religious offerings, usually made by residents of the zone, and his earnings by way of ‘performances’ on the go, dwindling as they were, simply came to a halt! 

Already buckling under the apathy of urban attitudes, the lockdown hit the city tribals the hardest.

‘Hunter’ Tribe Now Hounded

Derived from the Sanskrit word Papardhi that connotes ‘hunting,’ the ‘hunter’ Pardhi is found mostly in Maharashtra, in parts of Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh and are also called Meiwaree even Advichincher, Phans Pardhi, Phanse Pardhi, Langoli Pardhi, Bahelia, Bahellia, Chita Pardhi, Shikari, Takankar, Takia Pardhi among other names distinct to the region they belong. 

Pardhi tribals performing pre-monsoon tarring
In modern-day India, the tribe notified by the British as a Criminal Tribe and ‘denotified’ in Independent India, following an act of legislation, they, like most others, continue to face apathy from the local police and civic authorities. The law apart, the disdain they face from urbanites is distinctly crippling. 

A Pardhi in, say Mumbai, may be a resident of South Mumbai’s prime locality Colaba where he lives with ‘family’ on a public pavement for years but not more than six months every year. After six months of selling wares in tourist zones catering to an influx from about September to March, he moves to another ‘home’ for the next six months to a village in rural Maharashtra. It’s here that he doubles up as a human scarecrow, swinging a stone tied at the end of a rope over his head, for hours on end in the day, as he stands in the middle of a field protecting the crop from flying pests. 

Landless, the Pardhi with family lives in a makeshift hut with basic amenities and a stove thrown in by the landowner, and some ration used to cook his meals for the time spent. Six months later, once he outlives his utility, he makes a beeline for the nearest urban setting, Mumbai in this case, to make a living again on the pavement. 

The pavement is his home despite the authorities driving him away, every day, and urban residents of the zone calling in the police on several occasions. He pleads to the authorities, his children beg for a living, his wife gives birth to more children, most of who are whisked away by the ‘Beggar Van’ to ‘Children’s Homes’ where they grow up, away from their parents unable to find them and repeat the routine. This community is known to perform petty jobs, like tarring during their time in cities, that too have been phased out owing to modern and effective water-proofing methods and the arrival of professional services. 

In earlier times, whenever the monsoons would approach, shops in old Mumbai would get their chappras (weather frames) treated with dambar (tar) swiftly to ensure there is no water leakage. With things changing, the Pardhis have landed up begging or selling wares like toys, flowers and gajras at tourist spots like the Gateway of India in Mumbai’s Colaba. Yet, with the lockdown having nipped tourism in public places like the Gateway of India as elsewhere, they're left with no option but to beg. And beg till they are apprehended by the police and locked up!

Wish Cow Didn’t Survive

Forty-five-year-old Gugububuwala, Shankar Gaikwad easily looks two decades older than his age. The frown lines have reached his temples and his face speaks volumes of an agonising life. 

Having lost three grown-up sons over the last few years to disease and untimely death, his wife has simply gone mum. She refuses to speak to anyone and has been sitting in shock for the last six months. “Mar jayegi buddhi,” he says, for his wife depressed with her loss and yet, the ordeal of having to struggle for a living.

Gugububuwala Shankar Gaikwad with nephew Rajesh Pawar and their cows
After the death of his third son, his favourite bull ‘Chintamani’, who would walk with him all the way from his village in rural Pune for days on end to Mumbai where he would ‘bless’ the devout, overcome by sorrow, died. The Gugububuwalas are nomadic tribals who travel by foot with bulls, known as Nandis, with an extra leg, hump or tongue and considered auspicious by most Hindus. 

The term Gugububuwala is derived from the sound that emanates from the drum he rubs with a special stick to which the Nandi shakes its head to ‘acquiesce’ or ‘refuse’ in answer to a query. So, generations across India have grown up with memories of having ‘asked’ a pressing question to a Nandi being led by a Gugububuwala and get an answer, almost always of choice. The trick being, the Gugububuwala usually gently tugs the bull by a string of bells tied to its neck to trigger a ‘refusal’ and the divine animal shakes its head in response. 

Concurrently, the rubbing of a stick on a special drum that emanates the Gugububu sound sends the Nandi into a spiel of frenzied nods that he has been trained into performing. The trick, almost always, fetches peals of joyous laughter among children watching the show and the Gugububuwala earns a few rupees for each answer procured from the Nandi. 

Now, for almost a year and half, the restrictions on pedestrian even vehicular movement across the state to keep COVID numbers in check have stopped all movement. 

The Gugububuwalas, no exception to the rule, have been left to fend for themselves in villages where their earnings have been reduced to naught. After all, they earn only by ‘performances’ in cities. And, till normalcy returns, they wait with bated breaths for things to change. Living on doles by non-governmental organisations and state entities, this community like its sort, is on the brink of extinction.

Whipping For A Living

And then, there are the Chabukwalas known as the Potraj, who move about in twos, mostly couples entertaining people in cities. The Chabukwala's wife usually plays a drum while holding an infant in a cloth slung by her side balancing an idol of 'Khada Laxmi' on her head, while the Chabukwala swings a heavy whip around his torso and hits himself to the astonishment of onlookers, while dancing throughout the act. 

Chabukwala Nagesh with wife and son

In another, he shakes a bell in close sync with the sound of the ghungrus tied to his feet. The Potraj, also a denotified tribe, walks about the streets of cities in India, performing the patent whipping to entertain people and beg for a living. 

They have been restricted from free movement throughout last year, once again, as the nation struggles with the second wave of COVID cases and now the Delta strain. Nagesh, who travels with his wife, and months-old son lives in a Western suburb of Mumbai has been unable to perform on the streets of the city owing to the lockdown. 

Last year, on three occasions, he was apprehended by the local police who, after making him sit crouched for, sometimes, hours in ‘punishment’ let him off with a warning not to step out on the streets again during the lockdown. But, Nagesh had no option but to walk out a third time but this time early in the morning and swiftly to another area, away from the view of the police who had apprehended him earlier. 

Now, the police weren’t there to stop him performing but nor were the audience who would pay him alms for the whipping he would inflict on himself. So, after trying his luck on several occasions and meeting with failure, Nagesh had to sell his gold bangles – a gift from his mother to bide him through the times. 

The lockdown has taken a huge toll on the Potraj who has been reduced to penury even mired in debt owing to the sudden stoppage in earnings.

Carving Out The Past  

At pristine UNESCO World Heritage Site Elephanta Caves located on top of Elephanta Island that lies 13 kilometres from Mumbai, even as tourists bask in the glory of the rock carvings on display, little do they realise that the artistes of the creations are at work even today barely a few feet away. 

A boundary wall to a tree being readied by a Wadar tribal with precision at the Elephanta Caves on Elephanta Island

Addressing the ruin of ancillary structures at the site due to tourist intervention and the travesties of nature are descendants of the original creators of the carvings themselves - the Wadars - who work diligently in concerted tandem over the years overseen by Archaeological Survey of India’s (ASI) officials.

Now, with Elephanta Island like most archaeological sites simply out of reach of tourists, even access to the island being denied following lockdown restrictions, the Wadars who work for months on end to restore the site, are now – and suddenly - left jobless.

The stone-carving community, relegated to a ‘criminal’ status, like the rest, have been closely associated with creating temple sculptures and cave rock carvings. The Wadars, now, left workless owing to the stoppage in restoration and repairs works of ASI in tourist spots like the Elephanta Island, have little option but to wait it out…like the rest of their ilk.

A Wadar girl waiting for her mother to finish cooking dal at Elephanta Island after a long day's work

Residents of Aurangabad district in Maharashtra, the Wadars are on the brink of poverty. Their work as stone-breakers and carvers is hardly ‘essential’ in these times and will be back in demand only when things normalise. 

The Wadars, now a denotified tribe in Maharashtra, have no place they can call their own. In Maharashtra, most of these tribals are engaged in construction work, also suspended during this period.

Markets For Tourists Lie Empty

In Goa’s flea markets, Arpora’s for instance, its mostly the Kannada Banjara and Gujarati Waghri communities selling wares. They converge from all across Goa for the Arpora Saturday Night Market in hope of better sales and decent earnings. “There are easily 2,000 to 3,000 Waghris in Arpora at the Saturday night market. They wait every week for this one day when people come specifically to buy unique items,” says Lata Ugreja, a Waghri selling scarves on the move at the flea market. 

Flea Markets usually have items ranging from spices, exotic varieties of tea, junk jewellery, handicrafts, hammocks, clothes, trinkets, wooden decoratives, metal artefacts, stones and landscape pebbles and other knick-knack items. 

And, despite the scorching heat, thousands of tourists, mainly foreigners arrive in large groups, couples and nuclear families of ‘resident’ foreigners. The larger groups of tourists, particularly Russians and British, arrive in tourist buses and taxis as part of their tour packages. But, all of that is in the past now.

A Banjara girl selling wares at a Goa Beach

Over the last year and half, following the COVID lockdown, everything has changed in Goa. The tourists have returned to their homes. India’s smallest state with its most-sought-after beaches today lies barren and the tribals left twiddling their thumbs. Shivaji Rathod, a Banjara from Hubli in Karnataka who had set up shop here for more than six years now has had to shut shop and leave. 

Just when things looked like they’d get better towards last year-end, the nation went into the second lockdown and the losses were unsurmountable for the tribals who had invested all they had in the rent for the shops they had taken, in advance. 

With no sign of any income in sight, the Banjaras and Waghris have left Goa for nearby cities like Pune and Mumbai to take up make-shift jobs to survive this wave, for now. As for the future, things don’t seem too good and, the investments they’ve made in goods and deposits to set up shop in Goa has been lost. 

Returning doesn’t seem an option for the near future at least.

Acts Unconstitutional Yet Persist In Spirit

It was a mischievous study on these nomadic communities carried out by officers appointed by the British colonial administration aimed at ‘identifying and enlisting criminal tribe-castes’ that these tribes were castigated as ‘criminal tribes’ in the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871,

However, in 1949, two years after India obtained Independence, the Central government appointed a committee to study the utility of this law. It was concluded that the act was against the spirit of the Indian Constitution and the committee recommended suitable steps to be taken for amelioration of the pitiable conditions of the Criminal Tribes rather than branding them as ‘criminals,’ and, concurrently, the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871 was repealed in 1952.

Yet today, years after the tribes were de-notified by a free India, the police and urban India continue to treat them with contempt and view them with a suspicion that legislation failed to remove. If that wasn’t bad enough, the lockdown has hit the last nail in their coffin.