Social Orphans, The Fate Of Nomadic Castes In Andhra Pradesh

Ignored by the government, shunned by society and caught in a
time-warp of their own, the nomadic castes and tribes of India are
almost “non citizens” of the land. INN describes the abysmal
plight of such people from Andhra Pradesh and highlights the
injustice and neglect that they are subject to.

Orphans are children who have no parents; who have nobody to care
for them or love them. Sadly, our society too has many who may be
called its orphans, whom we see around us but who remain ignored
and neglected by everybody – the government, civil society
organizations as well as media. These orphans of our society are
the nomadic castes who are among the poorest and the most
marginalized.

Ironically, these people are highly visible, especially in cities:
they beg, they hawk traditional medicines on roadsides, they break
rocks, dig trenches to lay cables, pipelines and so on, they clear
out rocky land for highways and high rises. Others of their ilk do
impossible tricks with the help of their bulls, put up puppet
shows and do rope tricks.

In the past, most of these castes earned a livelihood through
their indigenous art and knowledge that was perfected and passed
on from one generation to another. They took their talent, their
knowledge of art and crafts far and wide, travelling from village
to village and thus sustained themselves and their families.
However, as modernization spread, inexorably changing the way of
life of the people, the immense talent and knowledge of the
nomadic castes became redundant.

Their skills and artistry, their art, their talent, their
creativity and the knowledge of medical ailments and their
treatment that had been garnered over centuries and passed on for
generations from parents to children and that had sustained them
and their way of life now have no place in society. The people and
their art have been overtaken by the times. While a negligible few
among these people have moved with the times, got some education
and settled down in urban and semi urban areas, most of these
nomadic communities are struggling to survive, victimised by the
caste system and alienated by their nomadic way of living.

The result is that since they have no permanent home, they are not
enrolled as voters nor do they have a ration card. Since these two
things recognize them as citizens, the substantial numbers
belonging to the nomadic castes have become the ‘non-citizens’ of
our society.

Official data puts the population of nomadic and denotified tribes
at 60 million in the country, comprising 0.7 per cent of the
population. They belong to the 313 Nomadic Tribes and 198
Denotified Tribes. In Andhra Pradesh, as many as 28 major
communities are identified as nomadic, and denotified tribes.
Among these tribes, the plight of the Denotified Tribes is the
worst. These tribes were regarded as prone to crime and the
colonial rulers enacted the Criminal Tribes Act 1871 to keep a
check on them. Under the Act, these communities were defined as
‘addicted to systematic commission of non-bailable offences’ such
as theft. Since they were described as ‘habitually criminal’,
restrictions on their movements were also imposed. Often, the
adult men were forced to report to the local police on a regular
basis. However, an independent India annulled the Act which was
described by Nehru as a blot on the law books of a free India.
These tribes were ‘denotified’ and since then they have been
referred to as ‘DNT’.

As many as 14 out of the 28 Nomadic Tribes in Andhra Pradesh, are
‘DNT’s. These include Boya, Bavuri, Dandasi, Lambadi, Pardhi,
Paidi, Picchakuntla, Waddera, Yerukula, Relli, Yata, Yanadi and,
Dasari. However, this new identity has not helped them much in
living down the stigma for even today the police consider them as
the first suspects in cases of crime and they are routinely
rounded up and questioned whenever a crime takes place in the
neighbourhood of where these people live in towns and cities.

Such is the plight of the nomadic castes that most of them have no
permanent address or a home; their children don’t attend school as
their families don’t stay in a place long enough for the children
to attend school and develop an interest in studies. Besides,
since parents earn a pittance, the children are put to work or
made to beg to supplement the meagre earnings of the parents.
These families have no access to a ration card as it requires a
permanent address, which the nomadic castes don’t have. Nor do
they have voter id cards for the same reason. This means that they
cannot access any government welfare programme. It also means that
they are not in the reckoning of the political parties that
normally woo people for their votes.

The backwardness of these communities lead to caste panchayats
holding sway on the people. These panchayats discourage people
from approaching police and continue to use superstitious methods
to determine the innocence or guilt of a person. The primitive
methods include holding a red-hot iron crowbar or dipping one’s
hand in hot oil, according to leaders of these communities. Some
of these castes live in abject poverty: one of their leaders did
not attend a roundtable meeting of nomadic castes organised in
Hyderabad recently as part of the first attempts to organize
themselves to bring about a change in their situation. The leader
of the Mandula caste, people who hawk indigenous medicines, could
not even afford the bus fare to attend the meeting.

Incidentally, this writer had the good fortune to be invited to
this roundtable. The extent of their marginalization may be
understood from the fact that in all my 30-odd years of newspaper
reporting, this was the first meeting of nomadic castes I was
attending. The reason was simple: it was the first roundtable
organized by a few men who had the time, means and importantly,
the awareness and concern to discuss the issues plaguing their
communities and seek solutions.

Odde Narendar, President of the Struggle Committee for the Rights
of Nomadic Castes, the first ever organisation for nomadic castes
in Hyderabad, believes that they have not moved with the times
because no leader emerged from their ranks. They have no role
model to emulate or any mentor to inspire and guide them, as the
Dalits had in B R Ambedkar.

Leaders of the various nomadic castes pointed out how these castes
lagged behind others in modern times such as Dalits and Lambadas.
The latter have gone a long way in overcoming societal prejudices
mainly because of leaders and mentors who showed the way in recent
times. Traditionally castes like toddy tappers and Lambadas have
had ‘gurus’ who guided their people. But the nomadic castes had
none, either then or in the modern era. “Our people have no
awareness of their rights. We have had no one to guide and inspire
us, to give courage and strength to demand our due from the
government,” said Narendar.

In the pre-modern days, the nomadic castes had a role to play in
society: each caste fulfilled a need; each caste had a social duty
and role assigned to it. But modernization rendered redundant
several of these tasks or roles. To cite a few examples:
entertainers such as the Gangireddula people who trained bulls to
do impossible tricks, or those like the Dommara whose women and
children were trained to walk on the rope now have no takers;
Mandula people who were itinerant dispensers of traditional cures
and medicines, Picchakuntala people who held audiences in thrall
with their story-telling and narration of local histories of
people and events have been rendered jobless. Modernisation has
destroyed these caste professions and made beggars of the people.
According to the leaders of the nomadic castes, an overwhelming
majority of beggars in all major cities across India are nomadic
men, women and children.

To add to their woes, some of these castes have not yet been able
to live down the negative image they acquired when the colonial
rulers labelled them as criminals. Even today, people in urban
areas are deeply suspicious of these castes and deny them even
casual jobs, often forcing these people to lie about their caste.
Some other tribes, such as those rearing pigs, have been
victimised by the authorities. In the past few years, from 2005
onwards, whenever diseases like dengue, encephalitis or
chikungunya have broken out affecting people on a large scale,
pigs have been identified as the cause behind the spread of these
diseases and hence, a threat to public health. Consequently, pig-
rearing communities such as Yerukulas were hounded out of their
villages and settlements in cities and in some instances, their
only assets – their animals – were rounded up and killed.

What can be done to improve the lot of these nomadic people? They
continue their way of life because they know of no other. Some
castes and some groups have settled down in towns and villages but
they continue to depend on their traditional professions which
barely allow them to eke out a livelihood. Those who have given up
their traditional profession have now taken to cleaning the city
as rag-pickers or have managed to get regular earning through the
municipal bodies of urban and semi-urban areas as garbage-
collectors, going from house to house. Yet, the majority of the
nomadic people remain outside the purview of any official scheme.

Their leaders believe that the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes
and Backward Castes – whom they call the ‘children of the
government’ – benefitted from special residential hostels, schools
and colleges, financial corporations and housing corporations
reserved for them. They too need such a helping hand. “Let the
government hold our hand for just one generation; we will then put
our past behind and make our future,” said Narasimha, President of
Gangireddula Caste Welfare Society who is now considered among the
elite since he owns and runs a taxi in Hyderabad and whose son
attends college, one of the very few Gangireddula children to have
crossed that rubicon of college education.

For the government to wake up, perhaps the push has to come from
political parties for which the nomadic castes have to emerge as a
vote bank; as Narasimha said. “Only then the politicians will
recognise us,” he said. For which they would have to mobilize
themselves, unite and show value as voters. They have taken the
first step, a very small albeit important step of vocalizing their
concerns and seeking redressal.

I am amazed at how some communities have lived literally in
isolation although they are fairly visible physically. I was a
press reporter for a little more than three decades, mostly
reporting events and people of Andhra Pradesh. Yet, it was a
casual attendance at a roundtable discussion that made me aware of
the issues of the Gangireddula people and other nomadic and
semi-nomadic tribes in the AP.

I had seen the Gangireddu, a bull that is trained to do various
tricks and is believed to be auspicious, bringing good luck to
those who respect and worship it, I knew of its significance since
it had strong links to my home town of Nizamabad in the Telangana
region of Andhra Pradesh. Around the Sankranti festival in AP
which is a harvest festival, the Gangireddula people go with their
bull which is decorated in brightly coloured clothes from house to
house playing the shehnai to herald celebration and cheer.

Women and men worship the bull which represents vitality and
strength; they pray to the bull to bless them with plenty and
continued prosperity of their family. One had heard, read and
discussed the rehabilitation of the so-called criminal tribe of
Yerukulas. But the Round Table discussion opened up a hitherto
unknown world of neglect, poverty, discrimination and
marginalisation of a large number of people of so many different
castes.

In the three decades of news reporting that I have done, I
travelled the length and breadth of AP, came across many people
who deserved to be reported and indeed, reported and wrote
extensively on the injustice, exploitation and suffering of the
weakest in the society. Yet, I hadn’t come across anybody, either
in government or political circles, among social activists or the
NGO community, these are the usual sources for reporters who put
us on to a ‘story’__ who articulated the issues of the nomadic and
semi-nomadic tribes. What does this mean? It simply means that the
issues and concerns of these communities who lived on the margins
of society, were not mainstreamed. They had not come to the notice
of those who fight for the rights of the under-privileged.

Just like themselves, the problems of the nomadic and semi-nomadic
communities too were marginalised among the large number of groups
and organisations who make it their business to take up the issues
of the marginalised people. The issue came to light only when a
few individuals among these communities assumed leadership to
demand their rights and organised small meetings in Hyderabad with
the help of academics and activists from their own and similarly
oppressed communities who had come up despite the prejudices and
poverty.

As a journalist, I have seen abject poverty and heard many a
heart-rending account of the wretched lives that the poor lead in
our country. But the lives of the nomadic tribes seem to be apart
from the rest. They are the invisible people of our land, existing
in flesh and blood and yet not in the eyes of the rest of the
society.

As I researched the issues of the nomadic and semi-nomadic tribes
and interacted with them, several things began to fall in place
for me. As a child growing up in a small town, even if one went to
an elite school in Hyderabad, one would sometimes be abused or
hear others being abused without understanding the meaning of the
abuses hurled. A youngster who rarely stayed at home was called
“pardesi,” another name for the nomadic people who were at the
bottom-most rung of the society. A rebellious girl would be termed
“Jogudana,” that is a Jogin.

Any small task or negligible amount of anything or anything of low
value would be dismissed as “Picchakuntla,” another nomadic tribe.
Any colourful dress would be sarcastically equated with the
Gangireddula dress as comical or garish. Only now all of it falls
into place: that the words of abuse were derogatory of the
lifestyle and livelihood and poverty of the poorest of the poor;
contemptuous of the so-called ‘low’ or ‘untouchable’ castes. They
denoted the undesirability of the professions that they practised
that had been imposed on them since times immemorial.

It seems like time has stood still for these nomadic castes: they
continue to be unrecognised, demeaned, and shunned by mainstream
society.#KhabarLive