During our journey through rural Rajasthan, we came across the Van Bawariyas tribe, a hunting gathering tribe of Rajasthan.
The Wildlife Protection Act (WPA) of 1972 which apart from declaring hunting these animals as illegal, surprisingly, it also criminalized the status of Bawariyas.
Hunting was a livelihood skill for these people, but since hunting was criminalised they were forced to look for other ways to live and survive.
“Do you still practice hunting?,” we asked Radha. With an exasperated sigh, she said, “No, not anymore. Don’t judge us for what we did. This is all we had and this is what we were expected to do for centuries. We have started doing menial jobs now that get us enough money to survive from day to day.” Like her, the rest of her family has lost all hope and no longer do they long for a better life. Today, Radha is not sure if she will live to see a day when all her troubles might vanish; where her children will no more be accused of crimes committed by their forefathers.
Sometimes, they volunteer to take goats out grazing into the fields or go to Nawa near Sambhar Jheel and assist in salt production. But most of the time, they fill up tractors with sand and sell the entire lot for a meager sum of Rs 500. “That’s how we earn our living now. We are not skilled at anything else. How are we supposed to survive? How can the government declare something illegal without considering what our identity has been so far? How can they order us to stop doing the only thing we know and not provide an alternate solution?” asked a teary-eyed Bangaram.
A few months earlier, a government official from the Flying Squad or perhaps an imposter, no one can really be sure, visited the clan and threatened to complain against them. Simply, because they are Bawariyas and could probably slide back to their old devious ways of living — one that was hugely advocated by royalty alike back in the day.
Despite stringent laws, the villagers continued to consume teetar from time to time. Eating such delicacies was a part of their lifestyle. And, the Bawariyas were expected to deliver them no questions asked. “That would earn us Rs 150 to Rs 200. When the person from the Flying Squad accused us of treachery, we begged him to show mercy. He told us that we would be arrested and sentenced to a prison term of 20 years. We ended up giving him all our savings. After that, we never heard from anyone. All that we had earned or inherited was gone,” said Bangaram.
Gradually, the clan was forced live like vagabonds amidst filth and dust. Sab loot ke le gaye who flying waale. Sab peesa le gaya… Radha’s voice echoed from the corner.
There are no more animals left to hunt in the area. Yet, Bawariyas are constantly accused of committing a crime that is a punishable offence in the country. As soon as we were done talking to the family, we walked towards the next set of tents in the vicinity. Here, we met Bajrang who narrated to us devastating stories that left us distressed and shaken.
“Kya fasal karenge hum idhar? Hum toh bhooke mar rahe hoon. Yahan toh sirf mitti hai. Yahan kuch nahin ugta. (What do we grow here? We are all dying here. There’s nothing but sand all around. Nothing grows on these terrains),” said Bajrang.
Neither has the government provided them with basic facilities that the society deems necessary for survival nor have they taken any measures to ensure that life for them becomes bearable.
“They have enslaved us. We are prisoners here. In all, we are about 150 or 200 people. I was born here and I will die here. We don’t have electricity or water. The least they can do is provide us water on time. Don’t I constitute the society?” asked Bajrang.
After repeated complaints, a single tap was installed for the entire clan in the area. Water is provided for an hour everyday and all of them are expected to survive with what has been given to them. It is a game of probability. Everyday they wonder whose turn it is to go thirsty today. No one should be treated like this! It is nothing but a sign of barbarism reigning supreme in a society where one is still targeted for belonging to the lower caste.
“We were told that we are animals and don’t deserve any of these facilities. I am a human being and I most certainly deserve dignity and respect from fellow individuals if not materialistic possessions. We even told them that you can take some money from us and get more taps fixed. If we had water, why wouldn’t we take a shower? Why wouldn’t we be more presentable?,” asked the young lad.
A few children were seen playing around a broken pillar that was installed by the Sarpanch and the Police Department a few weeks ago to facilitate a continuous supply of electricity within the area. Now, the pillar is in a shambles. Before elections, there were several politicians who visited the group and made ‘bold’ empty promises. They were told that all their problems would be addressed and that they would be given everything that they had been deprived of so far. They would be welcomed back with open arms to human civilization and no longer would they have to live a life of recluse and misery. After the requisite 200 votes were secured from the community, they were forgotten and left to drown in their own sorrows.
“Pehle bola phool main vote dena aur hum sab theek kardenge. Kuch nahin hua. (Vote for the flower. We will solve everything. Nothing happened). At least, if some scheme comes out where we get Rs 500 per month from the government as pension, we will be able to survive. How are the elderly folks supposed to go out and look for work?” inquired Bajarang. For these people, every single day in the past few decades has been a constant reminder of the fact that we live in a world where trust is betrayed and souls are slaughtered without any remorse or regret.
Even if they go to the Sarpanch to complain or ask people from the Panchayat to address their issues, they are looked down upon. Moreover, thanks to a few backward practices still prevalent in major parts of rural Rajasthan, the family is unable to educate their children and send them to school. In a modern context, these practices are usually categorized as socioreligious and involve the outrageous ritual of ostracizing a group by separating them from everyone else or in other words untouchability. Those who live in an era where equality is a mythical concept perhaps best understand the perilous nature of this particular practice.
As a result, most of the Bawariyas find it impossible to educate their children even if it is their fundamental right to send them to the same school as the rest of the villagers. “A few of our kids manage to sneak into schools and attend classes every so often. On numerous occasions, kids and teachers who belong to the Jaat or Baniya community gang up against our children and tell them, “Tum toh achuth ho. Hum tumare saath nahin padh sakte. (You guys are untouchables. We cannot study with you),” explained Bajrang who further added that they keep trying to bring these issues to the notice of the authorities but what can they do if they have absolutely no support from the government — the very establishment that is supposed to cater to our needs. Hypothetically, if everyone decided to step out of their boundaries and travel to distant places, they wouldn’t have to conform to societal norms prevalent in their own territory. In unknown lands, even foes turn to seek connection witheach other. And, the Bawariyas have borne witness to all such behavioral tendencies.
The worst affected in this mindless battle are the children. The atrocious behavior towards them breeds hatred and spite within their hearts. And, before they can even comprehend what hardships of life or struggle for survival means, they are thrown into the battlefield. Their childhood is stolen mercilessly from them. Innocent souls that belong to the realms of fantasy and adventure are now spewing venom and challenging each other’s integrity.
“I have stopped going to the police now. No one takes me seriously. They look at me with disgust and tell me You can’t even keep yourself clean! You have no water to drink! Are you an animal or a human being? Sometimes I wonder why am I still alive? What’s the point of living like this? I hope I find peace when I die. That’s all I have left to look forward to, ” said Bajrang with a heavy heart.