Hunted & haunted

The marginalised community of Pardhis, hailing from Karnataka and Maharashtra, is seeking to shed its ‘çriminal’ tag and reclaim its lost identity

Pardhis living on the street off The Gateway of India, Mumbai

The Masai of Kenya are known the world over for their lion-fighting skills. Back home, in India their counterparts, the Pardhis, are renowned in history for their exceptional skills in handling exotic wildlife and their knowledge of India’s jungles, but relegated to penury owing to the flurry of wildlife laws and skewed socio-legal perceptions.

During the Raj era, the Pardhis were known to have assisted in royal Bengal Tiger hunts, and even trained the now-extinct Asiatic cheetahs which they kept as pets and hunting companions. When hunting was banned in India with the promulgation of the Wildlife Protection Act in 1972, the Pardhis lost their traditional occupation. The lot were often blamed for
their hunting skills and their expertise in creation of traps for the decline of the tiger population in Panna in Madhya Pradesh.

For survival

Till a decade back, the Pardhis would be found selling deer musk (kasturi), wild berries and jewellery made from animal skin and beads. “Sheela, a Pardhi woman, would visit every few months to sell kasturi that I’d buy religiously for medicinal purposes. Kasturi is very useful for respiratory disorders and would greatly help my daughter suffering from chronic asthma. But she stopped coming saying the police were creating problems for her,” recalls Ahmedabad-based homemaker Vasanti Parmar, who is “sceptical of allopathic medicines and their side-effects”.

Today, she is left with little option but to resort to locally-available ayurvedic medicines for her daughter. Pardhis, whose name is believed to stem from the Marathi word for hunting — paradh, today work as low-paid day labourers in urban and rural areas. Today, in the city, they buy cheap Chinese goods in bulk and sell them on pavements to tourists while living on pavements for six months before moving onto their villages where they work for others on farms as ‘human scarecrows’ to
rid the fields of crows and other pests. 

In Mumbai, a heavily-pregnant Surekha doesn’t look a day older than 25 years, but speaks in a voice that doesn’t conceal the years of trauma and tribulations suffered. The Pardhi tribal braces an infant, barely a year old on her hip and is tailed by five more, all hers. And, as she manoeuvres her way through parked motorcycles on the road to sit on a pavement to breast-feed her sixth, she smiles all the way like any other Pardhi deftly concealing the agony of survival for their lot in urban India.

Abhi kya karega, hamare takdeer mein jo hai, woh hai (What can I do…it’s fated),” she says, attributing her situation to fate. “Surekha is one among thousands of Pardhi tribals who live on Mumbai’s streets, homeless in the eyes of the law, but on a pavement that has been home for her for years on end. “Hum bhi idhar hi paida hua tha aur yahin se bhagate hai mujhe (I was born here in Mumbai, on the very street from where they drive me away),” she says, revealing how all of them (Mumbai’s Pardhis) lived over generations in India’s financial capital but sans any legal paperwork. And, if you thought that being homeless in Mumbai was a deplorable situation to be in, there’s worse to follow.

Lost cause

Surekha, like thousands others, has ‘lost’ two of her infant children on the streets of Mumbai and not to an act of crime but, paradoxically, the State’s action. Almost each of the 5,000-odd Pardhis living in India’s financial capital has ‘lost’ a child or two to the trappings of urban legal processes which slot a child on the streets as ‘homeless’ and whisk them off in bachche ki gaadi (homeless children van) and off to a children’s home.
The Pardhi parent would probably be a few metres away selling Chinese wares in a tourist zone during that time but oblivious of his/her child’s predicament. No amount of cajoling and begging before the local police, for details on the child’s whereabouts, helps the Pardhi driven away as a rule.

So, each time, a Pardhi puts her child to sleep in a huddle on a make-shift bed at a street corner and goes to sell her wares, she risks losing the child, for life. “Hamare do bachche toh aise hi ghum gaye (I lost two of my children),” recalls paraplegic Sanjay Kale who rides a tri-cycle with three of his children atop meandering through the by-lanes of South Mumbai’s Colaba, selling balloons and toys for a living. Elder daughter Deepali rides behind while Radha sits with him and the youngest, Babu, at his feet throughout the day. “Ab kissi ko footpath pe chodneka risk nahin le sakta hoon (Now, I just cannot risk losing a child),” he says. While a handicapped Sanjay breaks into a sweat as he struggles to hand-run the cycle with his by-now-older children, it’s another issue that plagues him.

Following a police raid on his makeshift shop and the ceremonious ransacking of balloons and Chinese toys that followed, his Aadhaar card was misplaced. And now, without an Aadhaar card and the associated phone number, another’s borrowed for temporary use, Sanjay is left twiddling his thumbs. “Abhi, Aadhaar ke bagair toh kuch bhi nahin hota. Aur ye police log to har roz pareshan karte hai (without an Aadhar number, I can do nothing. And, the police refuse to stop harassing me),” he rues.

Sanjay Kale with his children Deepali, Radha and Babu. PHOTOS BY AUTHOR
Sanjay Kale with his children Deepali, Radha and Babu. PHOTOS BY AUTHOR

A ‘criminal’ lot

The origins of this disgrace can be traced back to the pre-Independence era when the British swiftly adjudged the entire lot as preordained criminals. According to an 1880 report of the Bombay Presidency, an area dominated by the modern states of Maharashtra and Gujarat, members of a Pardhis sub-tribe are “always ragged and dirty, walking with a sneaking gait,” justifying the tag that stuck for years on end.

In fact, the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871 was created to ensure members of about 150 tribes registered with the police; they were banned from moving around freely and, often, cordoned off into wired camps in a flagrant violation of the Rule of Law and Presumption of Innocence tenet and one that stuck till date. The Criminal Tribes Act of 1952, in Independent India, repealed the notification, i.e. ‘de-notified’ the tribal communities. This Act, however, was replaced by a series of Habitual Offenders Acts that asked police to investigate a ‘suspect’s’ ‘criminal tendencies’ and whether their occupation is ‘conducive to settled way of life.’ The de-notified tribes were reclassified as ‘habitual offenders’ in 1959.

Today, 90 percent of Pardhis hail from Maharashtra mostly from Solapur, Osmanabad and Parbhani districts, according to a study on the Denotified and Nomadic Tribes (DNT) conducted in 2010 by Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) on Pardhis in Mumbai. In the study, researchers interviewed approximately 5,189 Pardhis across 1,018 households, settled in 31 enclaves, and, predictably too, found little evidence to support the popular belief about organised Pardhi gangs engaging in robbery and theft in the city, a notion held by the police force across India.

Laxmibai Pawar displaying her PAN card, which is of little practical use for her
Laxmibai Pawar displaying her PAN card, which is of little practical use for her

Deprived

Valsad-based social activist Meghabhai Parmar, an authority on Pardhis, maintains, “They originally resided at different settlements at Solapur, Vijayapura, Bagalkot, Gadag, Hubballi, Khanapur, Belagavi, Baramati, Ambernath, Jalgaon, Dohad, Ahmedabad, Dhulia, etc. — and would be used as labourers for spinning and weaving mills, railway workshops and factories.”

The Pardhis are deprived of the single-most important document to protect them, the Caste Certificate that links one’s personal identity to one’s social identity. Technically, depending on their sub-group in Maharashtra, Pardhis fall within the category of either scheduled tribe or a denotified tribe. However, in 89 percent of Pardhi households, not a single member possesses a caste certificate leaving just 11 percent of the total Pardhi population in Mumbai with one that may be put use.

Surekha has lost two of her kids and is expecting her seventh child
Surekha has lost two of her kids and is expecting her seventh child

Now, gather this: To procure a caste certificate, one requires a series of documents to prove that s/he is indeed a Pardhi and belongs to the caste in question…documents s/he can simply never provide. “In order to get a caste certificate, the Pardhi needs to produce a school-leaving certificate issued by the headmaster, a caste certificate of a family member, a domicile certificate, etc.,” says ‘disability’ activist Smita Raje. For one who hasn’t been to school, never received any benefits of a caste certificate at home or lived continuously in ‘one’ place for 10 years owing to the very nature of his nomadic existence, getting a caste certificate is a near impossibility.

While, on paper, the laws for DNT tribes like the Pardhis seem perfect, in practice, they lack teeth leaving the erstwhile tiger hunters in urban jungles risking extinction.

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