The river gypsies of Bangladesh were so overjoyed at being allowed to take part elections that they broke an ancient tradition to cast their ballots.
A vote of confidence for Bedes
LAOHOJONG, BANGLADESH // Every year, as the river Padma, a distributary of the Ganges that empties into the Bay of Bengal, swells during the monsoon, the Bedes, or river gypsies, leave their homes in central Bangladesh. For months, they travel around the country, moving through the countryside in boats or by foot, working from place to place as snake charmers, traditional healers and talisman-sellers. By Eid ul Fitr, when the river bed dries up, this nomadic tribe of gypsies returns to Laohojong.
This year, however, eager to exercise their long-awaited voting rights, the Bedes broke an ancient tradition by returning a month early. Monday's national elections sent Bangladesh's mainstream society to the polls for the first time in seven years. But for Bedes, and thousands of others with no fixed address, it was their first ever chance to legally vote as citizens. After decades of campaigning by civil rights groups, the Bedes were this year recognised as legal voters among the country's 81 million-strong electorate. Bangladesh's Urdu-speaking Beharis, prisoners and eunuchs were also given the right to vote for the first time.
"For all these years, we were living as refugees in our own country," said Saud Khan, 51, a gypsy in this tiny village in the Munshiganj district in central Bangladesh. When the caretaker government sent out word six months ago, asking Bedes, to register in a new computerised photo voters' list, it set off a wave of jubilation among the river gypsies. It hardly felt like an election, said Mr Khan, but more like a celebration. Hundreds of river gypsies from Laohojong crowded the polling station at a local primary school, ecstatic that they now had a say in who governed the society that had long treated them as untouchables.
"Our ancestors would never have predicted we would get such an honour," he said. "For the first time, we feel like we have become citizens of Bangladesh." The Awami League, which as part of an alliance won a landslide victory in the polls, and several other parties had campaigned to end discrimination against the country's lower classes, including Bedes, as well as allowing them greater access to education and social benefits.
Known to be descendants of Bedouins, Bangladesh's 800,000 Bedes have long teetered on the fringe of society. UN and government agencies have launched numerous programmes for Bangladesh's poor and marginalised, but none for the Bedes, according to Grambangla Unnayan Committee, a Dhaka-based non-governmental organisation that has worked closely with the nomadic tribe. Statistics collated by Grambangla Unnayan Committee are a grim indicator of their social development: 98 per cent of Bedes live below the poverty line; more than 95 per cent are illiterate, a majority of whom are women. And because of a lack of awareness and health education, only two per cent of children have received immunisation against a raft of preventable diseases.
Education, too, is passing the Bedes by. As most of the children of these nomads travel with their parents for 10 months of the year, they are unable to get a stable education and end up repeating the cycle of illiteracy and taking up itinerant jobs. "Schools won't accept them because the teachers know they will be ready to leave soon after they are admitted," said AKM Maksud, 41, the executive director of the Grambangla Unnayan Committee. "And because they are so poor, adults want their children to work as snake charmers, snake catchers, and traditional healers to generate extra income."
Shahina, 22, a mother of three, ekes out a living as a traditional healer, skills she inherited from her mother. Her services include plucking plaque and tartar off infected teeth with a pair of tweezers, using a cow horn to suck out "poisonous blood" from a raw wound, providing herbal painkillers made from a concoction of guava juice and the skins of bears and offering spiritual chants to exorcise evil spirits and human afflictions like anger, greed and lust.
But she complains that there has been a drop in demand for her services. With Bangladesh urbanising at speed, people prefer professional doctors rather than traditional healers. "We'll have to beg if we don't do this," said Shahina, sitting on her haunches in a scarlet-red sari, preparing a meal of minced buffalo meat and pumpkin in her tarpaulin tent. "Because we are not land owners, we don't have any steady source of income."
She went to cast her vote on Monday, but questions what good it will do. Many of the Bedes are calling for the right to own land, and for jobs. "I wish I could give my children a better future," she said. "What will my right to vote do for them?" Shahina married Shahanur, a 35-year-old snake charmer, when she was only 15. She is the second of his three wives. Polygamy and child marriages are common among Bedes, with the average household size about 7.5, much higher than the national average of 4.5.
"A lack of education is the number one problem that plagues Bedes," said Mr Maksud. "They have no idea about family planning or any knowledge about contraceptives." In 2006, the Grambangla Unnayan Committee set up 21 mobile boat schools for the children of the river gypsies. One person in a group of 10 to 15 families is designated to teach the children and given education materials and training. The boat travels with the gypsies as they move around so that the children do not miss out on their education. The project has been a big success, Mr Maksud said, as it has managed to get hundreds of Bede children to school.
But there is still much more that needs to be done. Getting voting rights is a huge step, but there needs to be a political will to help them, he said. "No one understands the gypsies and their way of life. The gypsies are slowly wilting to economic pressures and becoming a more sedentary population. They are giving up their nomadic way of life. Their culture is slowly dying." He expressed reservations about whether, despite their election campaigning, Sheikh Hasina's Awami League has the resolve to include the gypsies in the political mainstream.
The Awami League insists that it is more "secular-minded" compared to its arch-rival, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, which it trounced in this week's elections. Its political manifesto reiterates the party's commitment to work aggressively on improving the lives of Bangladesh's minorities. "Bedes are Muslims, unlike other minorities in Bangladesh," said Prof Helaluddin Khan Afreen, 61, from the anthropology department at Dhaka University. "And so they are not recognised as minorities, even though they are socially excluded and stigmatised."
Obtaining voting rights, he said, has cleared a path for them to choose representatives to represent them in parliament. "However, getting them to be a part of the mainstream will take time," Prof Afreen said. "Social change is a slow process, but this is a good start." Ms Hasina, whose alliance won 230 of 300 seats in parliament, is to be sworn in as prime minister on Jan 6. But Shahina, the traditional healer, is sceptical that anything will change after so many years of discrimination. She said she will celebrate her right to vote "the day people stop treating me like an untouchable".
* The National