The car turns off the Sanand-Nalsarovar road onto a muddy track leading to Rethal, a village in Gujarat’s Ahmedabad district. The track has turned slushy from a light drizzle, so I opt to walk across the furrowed castor fields.
On a small clearing are a series of shabby shacks supported by bamboo poles. Corrugated tin plates and plastic sheets cover the shack, feeble protection against the elements. This is where nine families of Dafers, considered an extremely backward tribe of Gujarat, have been staying for 12 years. For these families, mostly daily wage workers, electricity is a distant dream, water is fetched from two kilometres away, and access to education is non-existent — the children are barred from entering schools in the adjoining village.
And they live with the constant fear of eviction: they are at the mercy of the farm owner.
Branded for life
Historically, the Dafer nomadic tribe — believed to have on occasion looted the caravans of the British — was branded ‘criminal’ under the Criminal Tribes Act, 1871 and members of the community were often tortured. The act was repealed in 1952, but the stigma remains. Seventy years after independence, no village in the country allows them entry.
But they have one prized possession: a voter ID. No political party has ever approached them, but they cannot wait to exercise their franchise in the Gujarat elections under way.
They got their cards only in 2010, thanks to Vicharata Samuday Samarthan Manch (VSSM), an organisation that works with tribal communities in Gujarat. Before that, they were not even considered citizens, and the only register their names appeared on was that of the police.
“We now have an identity, otherwise we just didn’t exist,” says Gaffer, a 75-year-old farm worker. I get a sense of just how important the ID card is to these communities when I talk to Pratap Bhoyan of the Bhartari tribe from Bhoyan village in Banaskantha district. “When the floods came in 2015 and swept away all our things, we just had time to grab a few possessions and run. The first things we took were the voter card and ration card,” says Bhoyan.
Since 2005, Mittal Patel, Managing Trustee of VSSM, has been working with 40 nomadic and denotified tribes in Gujarat. When she approached the government for welfare schemes for the community, the first thing they demanded was voter IDs.
So this became her priority. It was not easy, as the nomadic group had no permanent address. “Now almost 90% of the communities we work with have IDs,” says Mittal. And for the first time, 25,000 nomadic and denotified tribes met during a rally in Palanpur (Banaskantha district in North Gujarat) in October this yera to show their solidarity. They shouted ‘We also exist’ with a new-found assertiveness.
This has become their trump card, making them aware of their rights; there is a tangible change in attitude. Babubhai of the Rawal community refuses to follow the diktat of the dominant-caste sarpanch of his village, but asks politicians to visit their village.
The Meer community of Samalwada village in Banaskantha district was once ousted from the village. After they got their voter IDs, the sarpanch asked them to live closer to the village. They refused, but they are happy that they now count.
“Local leaders are now asking VSSM to identify the leaders of the communities so that they can approach them for votes,” says Mittal.
Their basic demands are simple: food, shelter, education and alternative sources of income for communities such as the Vadi Madari (snake charmers). The organisation also wants the restoration of the 4% reservation they had within the OBC category, which was removed in the 1990s.
Making a mark
Progress is visible in a few pockets. Ration cards, bank loans, and housing have started changing lives, albeit for a very few people. In the Devipujak community near Ahmedabad, broom-making is in full swing. “With loans, we bought a tempo and a moped. We sell more brooms now,” said Manjibhai.
Most of these tribes once provided services and entertainment to an agrarian society. Knife sharpeners, acrobats, ironsmiths, wooden comb makers. Now, they are redundant. Mittal met them first while working as as a journalist. Moved by their plight, she decided to work with them.
After voter IDs, her next campaign is to tackle illiteracy.
From being booted out to being voted into village Panchayats and local urban bodies, these tribes are slowly making a mark in the political space.
Jayantinhai Rawal, a nomad, faced stiff competition but won the Sarpanch election in Sisrana village. And he then made sure that government schemes reached his community.
The writer searches for positive stories across the country.