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From nomads to doctors: the story of the Banjara community

With roots in Rajasthan, Banjaras now live in several States but continue to struggle with stereotypes.   | Photo Credit: G. RAMAKRISHNA

Milind Pawar, 54, is a well-established architect. I meet him in his plush office in Navi Mumbai, and he obligingly smiles for the camera. He provides consultancy services to redevelop dilapidated buildings, giving old buildings a new lease of life, he tells me.

But I am here to talk to Pawar about his community and family: his forefathers who supplied commodities such as grains, salt and spices to villages across Asia; his grandfather who was a freedom fighter and social reformer, his parents who were determined to get their son educated; and Pawar’s own hard work and determination that secured him a place in Mumbai’s prestigious Sir J.J. College of Architecture.

Pawar belongs to the Banjara community of traders. Their trading style is called ladeni, and they used bullock carts. The word ‘banjara’ is derived from vanaj meaning to trade, and jara meaning to travel. Their dialect is Gorboli, with words from many regions. These nomads were the vital supply chain for villages, and they ended up all over Asia and Europe.

When Pawar was growing up in a traditional tanda or hamlet in Maharashtra’s Jalgaon district, his family had long abandoned its traditional occupation as traders and had a cotton farm. The Banjaras were among many tribes that resisted the British attempt to seize their lands for plantations and enrol them as labour. Their constant revolt frustrated the British, and in 1871, the Banjaras and several other tribes were brought under the Criminal Tribes Act, and put to hard labour in order to cure their “criminal” tendencies. “We could not trade any longer,” says Pawar.

After Independence, the community was denotified in the 1950s, but were (and continue to be) listed under the Habitual Offenders Act, 1952. They slowly became daily wage workers on farms and construction sites. The members continue to struggle with stereotypes. For example, says Pawar, “One assumption is that Banjaras are dancers. Yes, we have beautiful clothes and jewellery, but no, we are not dancers, we have always been traders.”

With roots in Rajasthan, Banjaras now live in several States, and are known by different names — in Andhra Pradesh, Lambada or Lambadi; in Karnataka, Lambani; in Rajasthan, Gwar or Gwaraiya. They are listed in various States as Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribe, Other Backward Class and as Vimukta Jati/ denotified tribes.

Banjaras number tens of millions in the country, but they remain marginalised. People like Pawar are in a minority — for most others in the community, daily wage work continues to be the source of income, as S.K. Shere, President of All India Denotified and Nomadic Tribes Welfare Sangh, Maharashtra, explains.

Catch of the day

It is a scorching summer day and hundreds of women are cleaning and sorting fish on Mumbai’s Sassoon Docks. These women are among thousands of third-generation Lambanis who have migrated from Karnataka. They stay in slums in Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar Nagar in Cuffe Parade and live with the constant fear of eviction. The women I talk to tell me their earnings depend on the day’s catch and are anywhere between ₹100 and ₹500 for cleaning fish for an average of 10 hours a day. Many have had no education but tell me they are determined to see their children through school.

Much like Vaibhav Bhanawat’s parents. The 51-year-old MBBS and Mumbai-based occupational health physician tells me that his grandfather was a daily wage worker in Maharashtra’s Yavatmal district — known as much for its cotton fields as for farmers’ suicides. “But my grandfather was determined that his son get an education. And just like him, my father had huge dreams for me and enrolled me in a residential school when I was five.”

Last year, Bhanawat was deputed by the government to analyse pesticide poisoning cases in Yavatmal. “I believe in giving back to the Banjara community and help individuals get medical treatment.” Bhanawat’s older son hopes to pursue medicine too. “But my dream for my children is that they remain grounded.” Bhanawat sold his car because he wants his sons to walk or use public transport. “At the end of the day, all I want for them is to be fearless; to grow up to be good human beings.”

Subhash Tanwar, 46, an engineer by training, joined politics also with a desire to give back to his community. He grew up in a tanda in Jalgaon district, where his father grew jowar and pulses and cotton on a small parcel of land they owned. “But my father got a job as a constable in Mumbai, and this is where I went to school and college.”

After a stint in software and telecom companies around the world, Tanwar returned to India and joined the Aam Aadmi Party. “This was when I travelled through Maharashtra and was able to reconnect with my community. I was saddened by their socio-economic condition, but I also realised that here was a community that lived across States, but was united by a common culture and language.”

I meet singer Parvati Bhanawat, 62, at her home, in a dilapidated apartment, part of a cooperative housing society allocated to the community in 1972 by the then Chief Minister Vasantrao Phulsing Naik, also from the Banjara community. She sings in Gorboli, the community’s dialect that doesn’t have a script.

From nomads to doctors: the story of the Banjara community

Born in Yavatmal district in Maharashtra, she moved to Mumbai 30 years ago. Bhanawat’s father was a cattle-trader and her ancestors sold salt. She recollects spending time near the bawdi (well) near her house and playing with friends in the small maidan (open ground). Bhanawat didn’t go to school, but mastered singing as a child listening to the women in her village. Today, she is a star performer at community events.

“The Banjaras have a special song for every occasion, whether it is a birth or death,” says Bhanawat. She recites one for me, a song sung for a deceased husband: Tu chaalo, man lagat thaalo thaalo/ Matheri tikli kar chaalo, mane kere havaale kar chaalo. (I feel so lost and lonely without you/ you have taken my sindoor with you, in whose care are you leaving me.)

Despite relatively better opportunities available to the current generation, “The stigmatisation as ‘criminal and wandering tribes’ continues in both popular perception and often times by acts (or inaction) of local authorities,” says Nidhi Trehan, a political sociologist with Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi.

Pawar speaks of how when he visits his village, he is struck by the precarious life the families lead. “They are fighting for bare basics. There are people without jobs. There are men and women toiling in brick factories.”

Authorities often fail to protect the rights of the Banjaras, says Trehan. In October 2014, there was an arson attack on the community of Thanagazi near Alwar in Rajasthan. Many of their homes were destroyed, the property was damaged and several victims suffered third-degree burns. The community was so terrorised they were even afraid to go to the local clinic for treatment. One of the reasons for this attack, it was speculated, was to drive out the Banjaras, who had been living there for 20 years, and to take over their land.

“The Banjara population of Rajasthan is far less educated than that of Karnataka, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and even Madhya Pradesh, hence less able to successfully fight for their rights (both in economic and social terms as well as civil/ political rights),” says Trehan.

The Banjaras’ connection with land is also misunderstood, she says. “They were commercial nomads, that is, hundreds of years ago they distributed salt and other essential items to interior villages, but they did have a connection with the land. Many ancestors of Rajasthan’s Banjaras were cattle herders with huge wealth in cattle.” Pawar speaks of Lakha Banjara who had one lakh heads of cattle.

Mumbai-based writer Dilip D’Souza, author of Branded by Law, a book on the lives of denotified tribes, says, “The fate of nomadic tribes like the Banjaras is tied intimately to the prejudice directed at them by the rest of society. As long as there is this widespread prejudice, they will stay marginalised. How will that change? First, by repealing the Habitual Offenders Act, which is used against such communities. Second, by training the police to treat them like other communities. Third, by deliberate and specific efforts to educate them. I believe these three steps are the minimum that is required to ‘uplift’ the Banjaras.”

The freelance photographer and journalist is based in Mumbai.

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Printable version | Nov 25, 2020 5:21:40 AM |

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