When the British exiled the last Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar and imprisoned him in Rangoon (Yangon), he penned a couplet that still tugs at the heartstrings a century-and-a-half later: “Kitna hai badnaseeb Zafar dafn ke liye / do gaz zameen bhi na mili ku-e-yaar mein (How unfortunate is Zafar! For burial / Even two yards of land were not to be had in the land of the beloved)”. The lines beautifully capture the pain of exile, where one pines away for something as mundane as a final resting place in one’s homeland. The same pain rends the hearts of the nomadic tribe of Kalbelias in Rajasthan today. This is the story of their endless struggle to find a place to bury their dead and get basic rights for survival as citizens of India. So far their pleas to the administration and government authorities have fallen on deaf ears.
In Rajasthan’s Bhilwara district, a woman named Suadi Devi is just one such victim who came face to face with this particular manifestation of social exclusion not once but twice — when she lost her father-in-law three years ago and again after her husband’s recent demise.
In the Gujjar-dominated Gyangarh village of the district, the minuscule Kalbelia community comprising just 15 households has been repeatedly barred by the other communities from burying their dead in the cremation ground. This, despite it being on government land to which all villagers should have an equal right of access.
Eventually, Suadi Devi was forced to have her father-in-law buried in the backyard while her husband was put to rest 2 km away from the house.
Left to Beg
“We are nomads. Our entire lives are spent wandering in search of food and money,” says Suadi Devi. “We have no place to live. We have neither BPL cards (ID proof of being Below Poverty Line) nor ration cards or any other facilities. In fact, we even have to buy water to drink.”
The one-room mud house that Suadi Devi shares with her four sons and two daughters-in-law stands on land whose ownership deed (patta) is held by Bhairon Singh, a man she calls a “village bully.” Because of the lack of space, both the daughters-in-law, one of whom recently gave birth, have to sleep outside. The family has no access to a toilet so all of them have to venture into the fields to answer nature’s call.
Suadi Devi’s eldest son, 23-year-old Ugamnath Kalbelia, has just returned from Jodhpur after he fell seriously ill working as a bonded labourer at a farmhouse. He has studied till Class VI, which makes him the most educated among the boys of his community in the village.
“It is becoming increasingly difficult for the Kalbelias to eke out a living from the traditional occupations of the community such as snake-charming, juggling and acrobatics,” says Ratan Nath Kalbelia, state president of the National Commission for Denotified, Nomadic and Semi-Nomadic Tribes. “Many of them are forced to beg or play the been (a woodwind instrument played by snakecharmers). “Ugamnath chose bonded labour over begging and went to Jodhpur. But within three years his health deteriorated. He barely managed to make it back alive.”
Village within a Village
In Gyangarh, the upper castes exercise strict control over all the public sources of water by the using the threat of violence. The Kalbelias don’t even get enough water to drink, forget washing clothes or bathing. Every house has a water tank, and a family has to pay Rs 300 to get it filled. A family of 10 survives on this water for about one and a half months. When the lid of the tank was removed in front of this reporter, the water was found to be swarming with tiny insects and worms.
A similar situation was witnessed in another hamlet in Bhilwara, Nayakon ka Khera. The hamlet is located at a distance from the main village, Gorakhia, which comes under Karera tehsil. The village was divided because the relatively prosperous Jats and Gujjars did not wish to live along with the Kalbelias. While more than 3,000 people live in the main village, Nayakon ka Khera houses just 10 families of the Kalbelia community.
Bhanwar Meghavanshi, a local activist of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan, an organisation of farmers and labourers that had played a key role in launching the movement for Right to Information, tells Tehelka, “The oppression of Kalbelias is not confined to a few villages only. In fact, it happens in most villages of Bhilwara and other districts such as Barmer, Pali, Jodhpur, Ajmer, Banswada, and Rajsamand.”
According to Meghavanshi, the upper castes are not the only ones responsible for the exploitation of the Kalbelia community. Other backward castes, too, treat the Kalbelias with disdain.