God's forgotten people

Oppression, suspicion and a lack of access to even the most basic needs of housing and development have combined to keep the Bawarias of Alwar district in Rajasthan at the fringes of society

Bahar Dutt Alwar

About two hours from the outskirts of Delhi is a community that has been all but forgotten. Suspected by the police of being criminals, harassed by the Forest Department for poaching, and shunned by society at large for being marginalised, the Bawarias of Rajasthan are confronted with problems at every step of their lives. With no voting rights, no access to development schemes and a lack of even basic housing, the Bawarias live in open fields. They are, in the true sense of the term, nobody's children.

Historical records such as the Census of India of 1881 describe the Bawarias as a "hunting community who derive their name from the word bawar or noose with which they snare wild animals". The census further states that the Bawarias are "much addicted to crime" and "thieving comes easily to them. Their skill in tracking wild animals is notorious."

The tag "Criminal Tribe" was introduced by the British, under the Criminal Tribals Act of 1871. As per the provisions of this Act, more than 200 communities were declared criminal. After Independence, the Act was repealed for being discriminatory, but the social stigma against these tribes continues. Even today, new recruits in police training schools are trained to think that certain people are criminal by birth, and police stations keep records of the "criminal tribes" in their area. False arrests, torture and beatings in the wake of even petty theft are common experience for Bawarias. On top of that, their livelihood, hunting, has brought them in direct conflict with wildlife conservation laws such as the Indian Wildlife Protection Act.

So what do the Bawarias do today? Fifty-six-year-old Sualal Bawaria heads out to the paddy fields near the Sariska forests every evening with his countrymade rifle. He has been employed by a local landowner to drive away wild animals. Along with his teenage son, Kishan, he spends the whole night guarding the fields, returning only at sunrise to the small tent that they have constructed at one corner of the field. He does this every night, till the crops are harvested. In return, he gets a sack of paddy.

Sualal's is a typical example. The main occupation for most Bawarias is chowkidari, or guarding agricultural fields from crop-raiding animals such as nilgai and wild boar. In return, they are offered a few kilos of foodgrain and allowed to build their settlement on the farmer's field. Once the agricultural season is over, it is time for the Bawarias to move on to another dera (settlement). Today, the Bawarias claim that except during scarcity, when they may hunt a partridge or two, they have given up their traditional practice of hunting. Half the foodgrain they get for their services is consumed, the other half sold for cash.

Another source of income for the Bawarias is padda, high-pedigree male buffaloes that they provide for mating with female buffaloes in surrounding villages. Since the Bawarias are a nomadic community, this ensures that there is no inbreeding of cattle within a village. For a successful breeding, the Bawaria charge Rs 60–70. Some other sources of income for them are chakki khodna (making stones for grinding wheat) or wage labour work on agricultural fields.

A little probing, however, reveals that the Bawarias continue to practise small-scale hunting. Recently, a member of the community was arrested for illegally hunting peacocks, which were, ironically, supplied to the local police station for a feast. The animals they hunt most are hare, partridge and jungle fowl. In most cases, hunting is linked to poverty and hunger. Nearly 70 per cent of the community faces a shortage of food right through the year.

There is also word going around that a certain Surjan Bawaria, called the Veerappan of the region, is famous for his skill in hunting tigers. Forest officials claim that Surjan has close links to commercial wildlife traders in New Delhi, supplying them with the hides of endangered animals.

Surjan's case makes it clear that in order to make wildlife conservation a success in the region, it is essential to address the livelihood needs of the Bawarias to prevent them from reverting to their traditional occupation and turning into commercial poachers.

In a personal survey in 2003, out of 105 Bawarias, almost 70 per cent said they are unable to settle anywhere due to conflict with local landowners. Sixty-five per cent of them claimed they were harassed by law enforcement agencies. Of these, nearly 46 per cent had been sent to jail, 16 per cent had their property confiscated, while 31 per cent had faced general harassment such as being roughed up. Comments made by one of the police inspectors in Alwar makes the authorities' attitude all too clear: "They are such people that even our worst degrees of torture do not cure them of their habits."

Gyarsilal Gujjar, a local landowner who had burnt down the houses of some Bawarias after they refused to leave, said, "I will let them stay for six months till the crops are cut, after that I want them to leave. They do guard my fields but their way of life is not good."

Said Sua Bawaria of Viratnagar, "I had built a thatched hut on government land. The local administration put me in jail for three months and fined me Rs 2,000. Local villagers had also occupied 100 bighas of land but because they were from a higher caste they were not removed.  I had sown bajra crop — they burnt that as well. We are Bawarias, so nobody likes us."

Lachhman Bawaria of Thanagazi had a similar story: "Anytime there is a theft, the police officers come and accuse us. In almost all cases, the first action of the police is to arrest us; we are almost never produced before a magistrate. We are picked up randomly and even old members or women are not spared. The police beat us up brutally, with no proof against us. They arrest us, because we belong to the Bawaria community."

For Mana Bawaria of Viraatnagar, even the simple task of collecting water has to be done after dark: "Every time I go to collect water from the village wells, my pots are broken by the Rajputs. Even the lower castes have wells assigned to them in a village. Then why not the Bawarias?"

The system has completely overlooked them. Without access to housing, they do not have a permanent address and hence no ration or voting cards let alone education. So, even opportunistic politicians have not shown any interest in them.

What the Bawarias want, however, is simple: to be left alone. Some of them say they need identity cards so that they are not harassed by the police. Others want land to build their huts on, or some assurance that their makeshift settlements will not be destroyed because of social bias. Some others simply want a handpump so that they do not have their pots broken while accessing water from the village well. These are basic needs, not ones that a community should have to fight for.

The word bawaria, to the layperson, still means a petty thief. But here is a community engaged in innovative strategies like chowkidari or animal husbandry. Here were individuals trying to earn a living in an environment where the harshness comes not just from the semi-arid landscape but from the society around them.

It is difficult for us to stand by and ignore the plight of the Bawarias and the blatant cases of prejudice and physical violence against them. In conjunction with many members of civil society and human rights organisations, a "Public Hearing" was organised in August 2003. For the first time, the Bawarias travelled to New Delhi and presented their cases of human rights violations to a jury consisting of a retired judge, wildlife conservationists and a member of the Indian police, along with more than 150 participants from the general public.

Their treatment is a study in ironies. For instance, the erstwhile Bharatiya Janata Party–led government had announced the setting up of a National Commission on Denotified Tribes to look into the plight of communities such as the Bawarias. When the Bawarias returned to their villages, they found that many of their huts had been burnt by people from the upper caste, a backlash to their participation in the hearing.