We won’t sit quietly: Pardhi women demand justice

By MANJANA, KAREENA, AANAM, JYOTESHWARI, SAANISH

FROM the age of three years old or maybe even younger, our memories are filled with a sense of fear as we have experienced discrimination whenever we step out of our clans. When we went to school, when we went scrap-picking on the road, when we went to the market or even just to shit, there was always someone who would shoo us away and beat us. We had the police coming into our neighbourhoods and houses, in the middle of the night, without any real reason except that we belong to a community that they considered criminal. Amidst this, we have seen death closely, as we continually lose friends and family members at ages when they still had so much more to live. We have supported our families economically and emotionally since we were kids, and today as very young women, we have chosen to dream for ourselves and our communities. We proudly identify ourselves as Pardhis.

If you do a google search on us, you will find our communities’ identity associated with poaching and crime. But actually, we were traditionally a hunting community, with the knowledge and skills to live near the forests. Our grandparents and their forefathers hunted in a way that allowed every species to survive. Hunting rules included the release of female birds so that the species thrived; areas were marked where hunting was not permitted for a few seasons; and animals were always caught alive using special nets that even today our parents weave, but now only for museums. We were once favoured by royal families to establish bird sanctuaries in otherwise barren areas.

Life was much easier then, as our older people share, ‘There was open air, and there was peace.’ As a nomadic group, we would settle down on the village boundaries, near the forests. We were respected by the villagers. Our presence was considered good luck as our elders could ‘tie’ a field and protect it from hailstorms and other bad omens. The menfolk would go hunting while the women with their gathwaala would go around the village to sell medicines they had procured from the forests and get grains in return. Even today, if a child falls sick, they mourn that they could have healed the child promptly had they have been able to get hold of a peacock’s feet or a sambhar’s vertebrae.

‘We would not need to run around for ration cards and subsidized rations if our old life was given back’, shares Jyoteshwari’s mother. As we lost access to the forests, we lost our skills and source of livelihood. We were given neither jobs nor decent education, but were rather presented with a branding of being born criminal through the Criminal Tribes Act. Alongside the Pardhis, many more were similarly branded: the Kanjars, Sansis, Bedias and about 150 more such communities, who altogether form 10% of India’s population.1 For our survival nowadays, we are sometimes forced to thieve. In other communities like ours, some sell locally brewed alcohol and in some communities, girls sell their bodies to support their families. But we don’t believe that any of this makes us criminal. It is the mainstream society that has extracted from us and has made living with dignity and survival almost impossible.

Extraction is often understood as dispossession of materials/resources, but with us it is a dual extraction, a material and sensory dispossession that affects our lives in manifold ways. Yet we resist and continue to dream. The stories we share here are of our loved ones, of our communities.

Chinkari had lost her eldest sister in August 2020. She died during childbirth. A couple of months later, unable to cope with the situation, her husband had walked into a running train. Their house now lies abandoned, a mud structure falling, with no one having the resources, financial, emotional or human, to maintain the place. Chinkari,2 the second of six siblings, had decided to shift to her maternal home and help her parents to look after her sister’s three children.

Videos of her and her family members protesting in the hospital premises3 had circulated on social media on 21 March 2021. When we went to Guna (Madhya Pradesh) to meet them, her younger two siblings, her 16 year-old sister and a 14 year-old brother, sat quietly in their house. About two weeks earlier, their mother had been picked up from home. An excise case was slapped on her which the family says has no grounds, ‘See if you can find any flour in the house, where will we keep alcohol?’ And now, the siblings bear the loss of their father too, while he was trying to get their mother out on bail.

It was 2 a.m. on the intervening night of March 20 and 21 when, with no warrants against them, police from over four police stations raided the Pardhi settlement and thrashed up as many men as they could lay their hands on, detaining eight of them from the locality of Gokul Chak itself. Sheru was sleeping in his house, when 6-7 policemen came to the door, with an equal number at the window. 60 year-old Sheru and his 30 year-old son-in-law were taken from their house and pushed into the police vehicle. The policemen mocked him, ‘Sheru has the name of a dacoit, Dakait Sheru, where will you go now?’ His neighbours and family members describe how he was beaten up and dragged to the police vehicle. It is this trauma that probably killed Sheru.

The next morning when Chinkari and other women went to the police station, the person on duty told her to take her father to the hospital as he was not well. With four children in tow, she pleaded for mercy. The police vehicle dropped them in front of the hospital gate, where Sheru died a couple of hours later.

The cluster of eight Pardhi families in the Gokul Chak locality had bought plots of land and built their houses gradually, over the past three to four years. They were fleeing the disputes and violence perpetuated in their earlier village. These incidents had become normal after Ramveer Singh Dau, police personnel, had invaded the lives of the Pardhis in Guna. Today, they fear even taking his name. Ramveer Singh Dau was eventually charged with the murder4 of a Pardhi man but till date, he continues to serve in the police department.

Sheru’s brother-in-law’s words may be very much on the mark, ‘There is a deep hatred and resentment against us. Our women are not allowed in the weekly markets. All of us old people have seen enough of life. Nothing changes.’ His wife added, ‘The police taunt us, saying you have all the gold in the world and you still can’t pay up (extortion amounts). But people have mortgaged lands and never recovered from debts taken to keep up with the police demands.’

Whether we are living in the cities or in the rural countryside or are travelling for our survival, the extortion does not leave our lives. When we were younger, we felt that we were continuously picked on. We would be asked to get up from our seats while sitting in buses. The government school principal called upon the police when our parents tried to get us admission in the neighbourhood school. This happened in a similar fashion in another school, when our community members came to demand respect for their children who were studying there. We could not understand whether it was our language, our clothes, our traditional neckwear… What was it that made us stand out?

In one instance in March 2020, a big group of women and children belonging to the Kanjar community decided to step out of their village boundaries and enjoy the Holi fair in Berasia town. The idea that numbers may give them some protection was a foolish one, as the local police detained them all for a night (opening up a government building where 70 odd people could be kept) to be released only after money was extorted. Sonekutch village, near Berasia happens to be a place which was notified as a settlement area in the Criminal Tribes Act5 where currently people of the Kanjar community reside, and this legacy of detaining people of certain communities merely due to birth in a specific community continues to impact us even now.

When Soyna Pawar6 went to Deoli Police Station (Tonk, Rajasthan) on 25 November 2020 to request the police to release her teenage daughter, she may have already been holding her heart in her hands. We know how the police have always looked at us, and the arrogance and denigration she would have to swallow at the police station. Mandakini, Soyna’s daughter, had been detained from the Deoli market on charges of theft of a mobile  phone even though no phone was recovered on her. Soyna, who was a couple of months pregnant, was also detained and was beaten black and blue for over two days, even being hung upside down from a ceiling fan.  Only when she fainted and was continuously bleeding from her nose, did the police realize that something serious was wrong. Even then, when her daughter tried to take her mother in her lap to comfort her, the police dragged her aside to another room.

On the third day, the police sent Soyna to the Deoli Hospital and charging Mandakini with theft, dispatched her to the Juvenile Justice Board in Tonk. The young girl could only come home on bail a week after her mother’s death. Soyna’s family was one among a few nomadic families which had pitched their tents in Bundi and would travel around scrap-picking, when this incident changed their lives.

In most cases, a Pardhi is not officially arrested for several days while the police beat him/her up, extract information, and see what s/he comes up with, all the while playing on their families’ thresholds and seeing how much they will pay up.  In one instance in Bhopal in January 2021, the police detained four women, two of whom were teenage girls. There was a demand of 50,000 rupees for releasing each of them. The fear that young girls would be abused sexually is deeply ingrained. One family sold their house and paid up. The two under-18 girls were released and charges of theft were slapped on the two adults. Threats of this kind are thrown on people all the time.

In a similar manner, Simla Bai7 lost her husband in November 2020. Shankar8 was picked up by the local police of the Pardhidhana Chauki (Betul, Madhya Pradesh), when another community member complained that he was unnecessarily fighting with him and had asked the policemen merely to warn him. But merciless violence was meted out on him for a few hours, till he escaped from the police post in the middle of the night. For three weeks, Simla Bai got him treated in government hospitals and by private practitioners. Throughout he maintained that he would complain against the police functionaries once he recovered. However his treatment was to no avail and he succumbed to his injuries.

When Tulsiram, a Kanjar man, was picked up from the marketplace where he had come for marriage purchases, an extortion amount of four lakh rupees was demanded. His wife, sharing the plight of a widow in their community, told us, ‘The police beat him in front of me, saying that they would teach me a lesson for not paying up. I would have consoled myself if he had died in sickness, or if he had committed some crime. What kind of vultures are these characters in uniform, to demand from poor people like us?’ His death in judicial custody9 remains under investigation.

Members of denotified tribes are the easy victims of a system that refuses to see us as people who feel, think, suffer. Whatever is said, we are seen as those who are making the most out of a situation which is so lopsided. In the investigation of Soyna’s case, as her daughter and friend testified, the officer mocked them saying, ‘How come you came out alive?’

The extended struggle for justice in Indramal’s institutional murder10 shows this only too well. It was not only the lower rung policemen who were responsible for harassing this 35 year old woman to pay up exorbitant extortion money. It was the entire police machinery that felt a Pardhi woman’s life was insignificant and stood in the way of justice. When the family went to court asking for a change in the investigation agency, the government lawyer is reported to have defended the agency, saying that ‘She was a Pardhi’. Later, pages and pages of cases against Indramal Bai and other Pardhi individuals in the district were presented as part of the defence. It was only on the High Court’s instructions11 that the CBI eventually filed an FIR and subsequently, in its investigation, found the accused policemen guilty of provoking her to commit suicide, finally leading to the arrests of two policemen.

Indramal’s teenage daughter had continuously tried to calm her mother down as the policemen returned again and again every day, and then three times on the fatal day. ‘You Pardhis always do drama. You won’t die’, was the final provocation that led Indramal to pour kerosene over herself. It was these exactly same lines which had pushed Bana Bai12 over the edge in April 2001, when in a crowded courtroom, she had set herself on fire.

In perpetuating the violence through its own functionaries as well as protecting the elitist powers, the state clearly sides with the existing power structures. There are numerous instances where each of us has borne the brunt of this, sitting inside a police station, scared to death. This showed up blatantly when we went to a police station to enquire into the death of a seven year old girl, Rihana13 who had succumbed to injuries caused by someone throwing bricks at her, probably with the intention to shoo away the waste-picker child who was harmlessly sitting by the roadside to
eat her breakfast. The senior police inspector had no qualms in suggesting that the primary question was why the child was waste-picking, and in defending the possible perpetrators behind this crime.

In many parts of the country, the denotified tribes (DNTs) remain unprotected by the constitutional and legal mechanisms available to Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. In the central state of Madhya Pradesh, the classification for Pardhis differs across blocks and districts. This situation continues in spite of numerous researches that has documented our tribal customs. While our tribal council leaders are wooed by politicians for votes, and we get called to capture maneating leopards or wild boars attacking fields, and to free airstrips from herds of deer, still we are not recognized for reservations.

In spite of repeated recommendations by anthropologists of the Tribal Research Institute that our community clearly shows tribal traits, as an off-shoot from the Gonds, there is an absence of political will, and our efforts to get recognized as an ST across the state have yet to yield result. Similarly, ‘educated’ people are told not to go to the villages of Kanjars as they are ‘uncivilized’ and ‘harmful’, but our Kanjar brethren are not given caste certificates as it is alleged that the revenue records do not show the community’s existence in the area.

Amidst all this, it is clear to us that even if our long-standing demand to be uniformly classified as a Scheduled Tribe across the state of Madhya Pradesh is met, there is much more that needs to be put in place for us to have a semblance of dignity in our lives. A policeman in Guna, out of contempt rather than concern, voiced that there won’t be a single Pardhi boy who does not have a case registered against him. These biases impact our lives on a daily basis and in extreme forms through custodial deaths, indebtedness, and incarceration. For 13 out of 16 years, five men belonging to the Wadar community were in jail serving death sentences, while one was freed in 2012 after it was proved that he was a minor at the time of the crime (rape, murders) they were falsely accused of. Three courts had held them guilty, before they were acquitted in 201914 in a review petition in the Supreme Court.

How does this reflect on the mainstream? Has society given us a real chance? Whenever Pardhis have spoken up for their rights, there has been retaliation from the middle class society, traders and even politicians. In 2008, when the Pardhi community of Kotra Sultanabad in Bhopal demanded an investigation into the suicide of Tinti Bai, a 14 year-old,15 and a public hearing took place within the police control room, a mob was mobilized against anyone who even acknowledged that Pardhis have grievances that should be heard. The mob that attacked the Pardhis in Chauthiya village, rendering them homeless since 2007,16 and the attack on the Pardhi settlement where Bana Bai lived,17 reflect the deep-rooted biases that the Savarna classes hold against us. Local leaders, including political figures, have been leading such mobs.

European prejudices against the nomadic Roma gypsies are well documented.18 These long-standing biases were present in the colonial mindset which drafted and passed the Criminal Tribes Act in 1871, a law that was partly disciplinary (primarily for controlling the foot soldiers after the first struggle for independence that took place in 1857) but more so designed to enable the functioning of the British Empire. On the one hand, it curbed the movement of local trading and forest communities, thereby giving the colonial powers access to these resources and markets, while on the other hand it helped create a cheap labour force within the state’s control.19

The instrumentality of the British Empire in conjunction with the stigma of criminality was the basis for the so-called justification of the Criminal Tribes Act in a similar way to that in which Roma gypsy communities were criminalized. The genetic transmission of criminality, presented as biological determinism, was used to criminalize the nomadic communities.20 A coup-ling of Victorian and Brahmanical hegemony was used to brand and formally criminalize 200 communities as ‘Criminal Tribes’.

While the British colonial Criminal Tribes Act dates to 1871, the deep-rootedness of caste biases and the assumed superiority of the Savarna classes lie at the root of this lack of empathy towards other members of the human race. Even at the time of the introduction of this bill, T.V. Stephens had said, ‘The special feature of India is the caste system… the meaning of professional criminal is clear. It means a tribe whose ancestors were criminal from times immemorial, who are themselves destined by the usages of caste to commit crime and whose descendants will be offenders against law, until the whole tribe is exterminated or accounted for in the manner of the Thugs.’21

We are yet to have moved much from the point when the Criminal Tribes Act was repealed in 1952, with Nehru referring to it as a blot on Indian democracy. The struggle for daily survival and against police repression defines our existence. We are still told to our faces that we learn how to steal in the womb. We cannot understand what is so very wrong with the so-called educated world. Apart from several commission reports, nobody acknowledges the stigmatization
that continues to extract our life possessions, be it material possessions like our forest resources, the criminalizing of our livelihood sources, and displacement from our natural habitat; and to extract our sensory and sentimental well-being by inflicting mental and physical violence in our everyday lives.

As life continues, our only certainty is that the challenges faced by Mandakini, Chinkari and many others are not very different from those faced by our earlier generations. We know what society has planned for us and we do not accept it. While one form of extraction was displacement from our natural habitus, where the state supported their crony allies to acquire the resources of our forests, the form of extraction that we face today in our everyday lives is direct violence through state-led agencies (police). We have been historically oppressed and left with no resources for our sustenance, and now we are further dispossessed as they continue to extract from us by accumulating what we are forced to take as debt to pay them. Taken together, this leaves us powerless as there is an absolute absence of all forms of social, financial, natural, physical and human capitals.

The political scientist Iris Marion Young has explained the faces of oppression through five aspects; Marginalization, Exploitation, Violence, Cultural Imperialism and Power-lessness.22 Historically, we DNT communities have experienced injustice and this continues to be perpetuated through all five forms of oppression outlined by Iris Marion Young.

Through Majal,23 a youth collective of the Pardhi community, we work and earn for our families, as our men are more susceptible to police harassment. We challenge the patriarchal norms within our communities, which restrict us in many ways, which have become more rigid against women’s liberty as the external repression is translated internally against us. We go on fact-finding missions and support our people by writing letters, waiting outside police stations, fearful of reprisals yet submitting applications and giving testimonies to those very people who are to be held accountable for the suffering that has come our way. We consistently dream for a better future for our next generation.

Amidst the struggle to avail justice in each of the instances of violation of our freedom within our community and by external state-led institutions, we collectively work to organize and come together in creative ways to visibilize our issues and fight against such violations. We hold hands to support each other, so that no one is compelled to take their own life; we have lost more people than we should have and we won’t allow this anymore. Some of us are studying to use the written word to fight this system and society that has been so unjust to us. We await the day when we are treated as equal citizens and our truth is not suppressed.

Footnotes:

  1. Balakrishna Sidram Renke, National Commission for De-notified, Nomadic and Semi-nomadic Tribes Report, Vol I. Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, Government of India, 30 June 2008.
  2. All names of living people have been changed to protect them. Original names of the deceased have been maintained.
  3. https://m.facebook.com/watch/?v=266204921720132&_rdr
  4. P. Goyal, ‘Cops Under Scanner in 80-Year-Old Mother’s Search for “Shot” Son’,Times of India, 3 June 2017.
  5. The Criminal Tribes Act Enquiry Committee Report 1949-50, p. 146.
  6. Heman Oza, ‘Violations and Violence: Everyday Reality of Denotified Communities in India’, 2021, https://maktoobmedia.com/2021/05/04/violations-and-violence-everyday-reality-of-denotified-communities-in-india/
  7. https://www.bhaskar.com/local/mp/hoshangabad/betul/news/pardhi-youth-dies-family-members-accused-police-beaten-up-127902990.html
  8. Shankar came from the Sapera community (snake charmers).
  9. ‘Bhopal: Prisoner Dies Behind Bars, Bhopal Cops Under Lens, Judicial Probe Ordered’,Free Press Journal, 31 May 2021.
  10. Sushmita, ‘Hope In the Face of State Apathy: Indramal Bai’s Institutional Murder and Subsequent Events’, 2017, https://cjp.org.in/hope-in-the-face-of-state-apathy/
  11. A.K. Aditya,‘Two Years After Death of Woman Belonging to “Criminal” Tribe, Madhya Pradesh HC Orders CBI Investigation’,Bar and Bench, 8 November 2019, https://www.barandbench.com/news/death-woman-pardhi-tribe-madhya-pradesh-high-court-cbi-inquiry
  12. Dionne Bunsha, ‘The Plight of the Pardhis’,Frontline, 10 November 2001.
  13. A. Kumar, ‘Bhopal: As 8-Year-Old Hungry Girl Begins to Eat Food, Bricks from Nowhere Hit Her, She Dies’,Free Press Journal, 30 October 2021.
  14. ‘Five Murders, Six Men and 16 Years of Stolen Lives’,BBC, 24 June 2019, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-48578767
  15. Amman Madan, ‘Labelling and the Creation of Pariahs: A Pardhi Story’,Srote Science and Technology Features, April 2008, http://home.iitk.ac.in/~amman/articles/pardhis.html
  16. S. Malpani, ‘Why Madhya Pradesh’s Pardhi Tribe Has Been Homeless for 9 Years’,DailyO,4 February 2017.
  17. Dionne Bunsha, op. cit.
  18. Council of Europe, ‘Anti-Gypsyism’, https://www.coe.int/en/web/roma-and-travellers/anti-gypsyism-/-discrimination (accessed January 2022).
  19. M. Radhakrishnan, ‘Colonial Construc-tion of a “Criminal” Tribe: Yerukulas in Madras Presidency’,Economic and Political Weekly 35(28-29),  8 July 2000.
  20. M. Radhakrishna,Dishonoured by History.Orient Longman, Delhi, 2001.
  21. K.M. Kapadia, ‘The Criminal Tribes of India’,Sociological Bulletin1(2), 1952, pp. 99-125.
  22. Iris Marion Young, ‘Five Faces of Oppression’ (Chapter 2), in I.M. Young,Justice and the Politics of Difference. Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1990, pp. 39-65.
  23. https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCYyXMhYiiMbXQu65LrmItEA

 

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