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The Usual Suspects

Gujarat’s tribes number approximately four million people, mostly detached from mainstream society—lacking homelands, voting rights, human rights and education. Tribal people may interchangeably be called nomadic or de-notified–since some nomads were de-notified and vice versa–the latter term coming from the British “notifying” them of their “criminal” status by virtue of the 1871 Criminal Tribes Act.

The act was vexatious as the tribes were retaliating, albeit violently, to the land-grabbing tactics, the violations of forest rights and indentured labour forced upon them by the British as they took traditional lands under colonial control for commercial exploitation. The legal suppressions of rights, movement and behaviour were enforced with one year’s imprisonment for the first breach, several years for the second and life in jail for the third. Despite partial dismantling of the legislation in 1952 and again in the 1990s, the socio-economic divide remains, with most tribes currently living in settlement camps on barren, peripheral land.

Still considered “criminals”, the tribes feel neglected and abandoned as Ramanbhai Dafer from the Sarvada settlement suggests,

“The Gujarat Chief Minister talks loudly about the ‘Five Crores’ people of Gujarat (Fifty million), but he has forgotten about us: he should say, ‘Five Crores and Five Lakhs’ (Five Million)—we are the Five Lakhs.”

Ahmedabad-based Janpath is an NGO taking up their cause, helping to unite the dispersed communities and assisting them in obtaining their basic rights. In India, unlike the UK, if you are not a registered voter, you are denied access to basic services: education, healthcare and ration cards which allow the holder to purchase staples—grain, rice, sugar—at a subsidized rate.

Our guide to the tribal settlements was Janpath’s Mittalben Patel, a trained journalist who visits all the communities and elicits their support. For a young Indian woman to work and travel alone is unusual, but her commitment is unquestioned, and she is treated with the greatest of respect wherever and whomever we visit, and anyone can see why: having spent two years documenting them and helping them, she understands their cause. She explains how the long-term issues exacerbate the social and practical issues:

“There are many manifestations of poverty, but when combined with the social stigma of being a tribal, things like gender discrimination become magnified, and many women shoulder a heavy work burden and can end up in the flesh trade (prostitution). A combination of narrow work opportunities, poor access to credit and their concentration in remote regions leads to greater poverty and a difficulty in access to the government schemes such as ration cards and medical aid. One of our jobs is to focus on effective implementation of these schemes and help form the local organizations with educated volunteers to help the tribes with paperwork and submissions—before anyone can obtain a ration card, they must first have a voter ID card—and our aim is to remove ourselves from the network: the tribes will eventually be able to help themselves.”

Ramanbhai is the only member of his tribe to possess a voter ID card, which reveals his age: 47. He looks older and darker from the sun than in his picture, but little to complain about compared to his neighbour, running out of patience with the system: “I had my photo taken, filled all the forms in, and spent one day travelling to the government office. They are now telling me that I will have to wait for the next round of registrations in April, three months away.”

Since Janpath’s first step is to get adults onto the voter register, there is no way to sidestep the efficiency (or inefficiency) of local government, meaning the tribes may spend years tethered to a settlement as their official address.

The defining characteristics and contrasts of a settlement are the basic shelter, made of canvas or sackcloth bound and stretched over wooden posts, and the elegantly-crafted bed frames made without lathes or machines, which were commonly pulled out for us to sit on. Doors do not exist, pots and pans hang off trees or furniture made from twigs and living spaces are loosely delineated by tarpaulin walls, exhausted from fending off mud and rain. Communication takes precedence over sanitation: mobile phones are ubiquitous and water is fetched in pots.

One place was not like the others: Prantij, home to the Raval, Vadi and Sarania communities, with bricks-and-mortar housing. The people were well-dressed, literate and politically-aware. Not only were all the adults registered voters, but all three candidates in the upcoming local elections were from the nomadic community which, for the first time, guaranteed political influence. This was truly history being made, although there was a slight discord in that the rally was for the BJP—right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party—and reconciling the progressive agenda of the community with the right-wing policies of the party raised contradictions.

“These party labels are for political convenience,” said Mittalben, “the central policies rarely represent the views of the local party members. But we (Janpath) are not comfortable endorsing a party – we support them as a community, but I could not back a political party.”

We settled at the house of one of the candidates, Dhilipbhai Sahib, and after an excellent vegetarian lunch, asked him about his work.

“The main thing is that we stick together as a community—while we have accomplished so much here, as you have seen today, there is so much more that is required. But we would not be able to do this if we were as separated and divided as we were in the days before independence.”

Dilipbhai is educated, English-speaking, and quietly resolute. His gentle nature has apparently earned him a large following, and a substantial retinue of supporters and advisers. That they are mostly his elders is the point, he explains, “Everyone recognizes that the future is better led by the young, with the elders providing experience and wisdom, and this is true even in the settlement.”

Harineshbhai from Janpath concurs,

“When we start helping the people with paperwork and bureaucracy, we are keen to put the young in charge, but to avoid any resentment by the elders, we must ensure they too play a role.”

As the tribes master their fortunes, Janpath are emphatic about handing over all control and support to them within the next three to four years as they join the mainstream, even if it may take longer for the mainstream to accept them as competition over land and resources creates tension. But with each settlement visit, we are given progress updates; there will be no regression here. The greetings are warm and ritual, with fresh tea slurped from saucers. Then, to business: Which schemes have been applied for; the ration card situation; homeland applications.

However, this was not the case in Iyava: taciturn at first, making only small talk, and it transpired that two local villagers were present, and the tribals would not discuss their matters until the villagers left. A settlement, however transient, leads to antagonism between the tribe and any nearby village–accusations of thievery, hostility and often violence against the former by the latter often the rule than the exception. We arrived having heard that a man had been arrested two days earlier.

It was a complicated story, involving a fight between Latifbhai Dafer—the arrested man’s father—and some villagers, with suspicions that they had made a false report of theft to the police.

“The police came late at night, surrounded the entire area, and ran in to arrest my son,” said Latifbhai. “When I went to visit, they took my bicycle and would not return it unless I can prove I owned it.”

A century of precedents provides the police with a long leash, and now Latifbhai could not easily travel to the police station. The British in 1871 advocated that as India’s caste was linked to trades, so “there must have been hereditary criminals also who pursued their forefathers’ profession”. When the 1871 Act was abolished in 1952 by newly-independent India, the Habitual Offenders Act replaced it, and under its purview—tribes were still listed by name, reversing the presumption of innocence over guilt—the persecution continued.

That second Act was largely repealed in the 1990s, but people take longer to change than policies, and the stroke of a pen is no antidote to 120 years of being labelled as criminals. They might all be registered voters here, but still guilty until proven innocent, and Latifbhai’s son was the latest suspect. Mittalben was ringing anyone with influence to find out more information; Latifbhai was desperate to know anything. Resigned but not bitter, with the acquiescence of a man accustomed to being treated like this, he asked, “Please write your details down,” pulling out a large bundle of paper scraps from his pocket, all covered with information: numbers, names, details–a dossier of confetti. He started sorting through the papers, awkwardly, and we saw why: he was missing his right thumb.

“Why do you want his details?” asked his neighbour.

“It may prove useful, yes? Who knows?”

“He will write in English–how will you read it?”

They both laughed. Turning to me as I wrote, his neighbour spoke, “We would like to not be forgotten—so many people came to see us and forgot about us—please don’t forget.” They would not forget me—though they might not be able to read my address.

When the police were not bothering them, the Iyavans were protecting farmland and allowed to live there by the farmer, who paid them by three installments, at the beginning, middle and end of the season.

“Sometime we are not paid the final amount. But what can we do once the crops are harvested?” said one labourer as he unrolled a water pipe.

Risks are high, but the tribe had a source of water and there was little capital investment in their own livelihood. By contrast, the four basket weavers living at the side of the road several miles away were spending more and more on their raw materials. Said one weaver,

“Between the four of us, we make three to four baskets a day, but sometimes we have to spend several days bringing in the cheaper bamboo from far away.”

Four a day, costing 320 rupees in materials, and sold at 100 rupees each—90 if the customer is particularly businesslike—equals a 20 rupee profit (at most). That’s 25 pence, or one-third of a euro, meaning a day’s work by four people fetches one pound. India’s economic boom has not yet reached the rural poor, even if the inflation has: cooking oil has gone up 70% in the last twelve months.

Particularly with capital-intensive labour, children often fail to get an education. While it is free in India, tribal customs and attitudes can be unshakable: many children share their parents’ negative associations with rooms and walls, identifying them with jails and confinement.

Education needs to be relevant to the lifestyles of the children and their families, and the 50% dropout rate indicates it is currently not. While some children may simply not like the confinement, others are forced to work by their families instead of studying, hence residential schools now exist to keep them focused, yet still, some students have found that education is proving a barrier to acceptance within their communities.

Mittalben talks of one former student at Bakshipanch Ashram Hostel, “she was particularly studious, and progressed so far that no boy of equivalent status could be found to marry her, and from then on, no girls from that area were allowed to progress beyond the seventh standard–age eleven.” Sometimes, community relations prove more powerful a force than the advantages of education.

Among the subjects of a two-year plan to reduce the dropout rate is one of custom: many children bring curious habits with them—the principal of Bakshipanch told us an amusing story concerning a young boy:

“He was from a fishing tribe, and he had the taste for fish. Secretly, he would visit the lake a little way away, catch a fish and eat it—raw—there and then. Inevitably, the other children discovered this and teased him. We gradually eased him out of the habit, but he occasionally revisits the lake. We would never punish him, though.”

This gentle concern shows why the Bakshipanch Ashram Hostel school near Ahmedabad is one of the most successful schools, in terms of progress, educational standards and dropout rate, and why their students are optimistic. Facing fifty or so children, and asking “What would you like to be when you grow up?” we counted four future doctors, six for the military, many teachers and, endearingly, a few budding cricketers. Thinking back to the educated Dilipbhai, and how education had given his community a leader and a representative, maybe one of these children here would not just be a future voter but a future leader too.

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