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India's nomads are earning respect through integration

Previously harassed as criminals and ineligible for access to food, schools and jobs, India's nomads are now being given a chance. Suryatapa Bhattacharya reports from Ahmedabad

Dafer tribeswomen at Vijapur village in the Gujarat state hold their new ID cards issued by the Indian government.
Dafer tribeswomen at Vijapur village in the Gujarat state hold their new ID cards issued by the Indian government.

AHMEDABAD // Umar Ibrahim walks through a cluster of brick and mud homes, calling out to the children, making sure their shoes are polished, their hair is combed, and their nails are clean before sending them into a one-room school.

Mr Ibrahim's current role as an unofficial minder of his formerly nomadic community is a far cry from his previous life as an armed bandit.

Mr Ibrahim, 47, belongs to the Dafer community, known in India as one of 12 former "criminal tribes", so called because they were accused by the British of being robbers, thieves and dacoits. Traditionally, Mr Ibrahim said, his family were hunters and gatherers.

Though branded as criminals by the British government in India in 1871, these nomadic tribes included petty traders, story-tellers, acrobats, puppeteers, tightrope walkers, and hunters.

After India gained independence from the British in 1947, India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, annulled the colonial law that designated these tribes as criminals. They are now officially designated as "denotified tribes", but discrimination against them has continued.

The Dafer are one of 40 nomadic tribes - distinguished from the general population by their ethnicity, language and itinerant professions - who used to roam Gujarat and parts of neighbouring Pakistan.

A scar across Mr Ibrahim's left cheek is a reminder of his previous life. He still wears a gold stud in his left ear, as he did in his bandit days, but now tops off his look with a baseball cap.

"Before, I didn't sleep at home, I didn't eat at home because I was afraid the police were watching for wood fires and knew I would be home to eat," he said. "When the police would come, even my wives would run away into the forest. They didn't want to be detained because of me.

"Back then I used to think robbery was the only way to prove I was something. No one told me that what I was doing was a crime until the police started chasing me."

Gujarat's nomadic tribes make up an estimated 10 per cent of state's population, according to estimates by the Vicharta Samuday Samarthan Manch (Nomadic Community Support Organisation), a non-profit group that works to improve their lot.

Their actual numbers are not clear because most of India's 100 nomadic tribes, apart from members with government documentation such as voter ID cards, have not been included in national censuses. Neither were they, until now, entitled to subsidies for the poor or underprivileged, including cheap foodgrains, or access to schools, government jobs, childcare and social welfare.

The National Advisory Council, which helps the government formulate policy, particularly on social issues and the rights of disadvanted groups, last year asked the government to integrate the nomadic tribes into the mainstream community by helping them get identification documents, which are needed to access a variety of government schemes for those who live below the poverty line.

So far, Gujarat has been among the the most successful states in uplifting these tribes, in part due to the work of Mittal Patel, a former journalist who founded the Vicharta Samuday Samarthan Manch in 2010.

Ms Patel was drawn to the plight of the nomadic tribes while reporting on them and quit journalism to work for a non-profit group where she tried to help document their population numbers.

"It was hard to keep track of them because they were constantly moving around," said Ms Patel.

To connect with the nomadic tribes, she arranged to get invites to their weddings, she said, but "they were not interested in talking about their rights at events like this, so I started asking to come to funerals, where the mood was more sombre and people were more willing to talk than dance".

"In the beginning, they had no idea about their rights. Their main concern across the board was police harassment."

Without identity papers, they were often targeted by the police, who detained or searched their caravans without a warrant.

There were other concerns too, such as access to food. In 2010, Ms Patel remembers trying to fill out a questionnaire about the nutritional intake of the Dafer community. Sitting under a tarp , Ms Patel asked a woman holding a wailing baby about her breastfeeding routine. The woman told her that she had not eaten since the child was born, a week before.

"She got agitated, and started yelling that, 'in this weather even the stray cats don't come out so we can kill them and eat something'. I was so ashamed that I quit my job with the NGO and focused on how to start with getting them their basic rights."

Integrating the tribes has not been without challenges. For children receiving schooling for the first time, sitting still was difficult as they were used to learning not from books but through story telling, she said. Ms Patel then set up pre-schools to accustom the children to a classroom setting.

Ms Patel also faced opposition from village leaders who were resistant to allowing nomadic tribes to settle in their villages. "The villagers' nature is hard to change," she said. Fights broke out as village elders refused to endorse the names of the nomads into their village voter lists, while others were worried that their land would be stolen.

They also worried that the influx of residents would lead to the building of either mosques or temples, a common way of seizing land in India.

Now, the Gujarat government recognises the list of nomadic tribes compiled by Ms Patel as the basis for the issue of official documentation.

Mr Ibrahim and his community are a model for Ms Patel's work. Six years after the first members of the community received government documents, they now have plots of land from the government to live on. The women in the community continue to sew their traditional blankets and trade with other tribes. The men work as security guards, protecting properties and fields. The children have access to schools and medical care.

"Before, we used to steal and eat," said Mr Ibrahim. "Now even the police talk to us with respect."

sbhattacharya@thenational.ae