Kalbeliyas were known for their dance and music,
today they struggle to make ends meet
With their gypsy features of light eyes and tan skin, they are hard to miss on the New Delhi traffic lights, selling last minute things to people in a rush— wilted roses in plastic wraps and cheap Chinese balloons, quick dances and entertainment. They are Kalbeliyas and like most of their lot; they are a little out of sync with the world of today. Their makeshift tents under the flyovers are a testimony to their nomadic existence. Historically, they’ve always been on the fringes of society. Once upon a time they used to hunt snakes and were known just as snake charmers, Jogis or Nats. The Maharaja’s were constantly on the look-out for them because of their exotic women and the entertainment they provided. Their dance, which is extremely popular, is performed by the women of the tribe while the men play musical instruments are accomplished percussionists. However, as the royals disappeared, so did most of their livelihood. Today, most of them survive as street performers. Dance is a matter of cultural pride and helps build their communal identity, which has been at a loss because of them being classified as a de-notified tribe.
De-notified tribes are tribes that were referred as criminal tribes under the British rule and were said to be “addicted to the systematic commission of non-bailable offences.” Once you’d been identified as a criminal tribe, all members of that clan were expected to go and register themselves at the police station, failing which they could be charged with a crime under the Indian Penal code. The Criminal Tribes Act of 1952 de-notified these tribal communities, but it was replaced by a series of Habitual Offenders Acts that had police investigate a ‘suspect’s criminal tendencies and whether their occupation was conducive to a settled way of life.’ In 1959, these de-notified tribes were re-classified as ‘habitual offenders.’
Even though the UN’s anti-discrimination body Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) asked India to repeal the Habitual Offenders Act (1952) and effectively rehabilitate the denotified and nomadic tribes in 2007. And in 2008, the National Commission for Denotified, Nomadic and Semi-Nomadic Tribes (NCDNSNT) of Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment recommended equal reservations, as available to Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, for around 110 million people belonging to the denotified tribes, nomadic or semi-nomadic tribes in India. The misnomer has cost them dearly.
Add to this, their mystic rituals, like burying their dead, despite being Hindus that confound the locals and make them unaccepting of them. Social ostracisation is a reality they have to live with. 27-year-old Gona Devi, resident of Dhuwala village in Mandal tehsil of Bhilwara district had to give birth on a filthy road as the doctor and the male nurse at the government hospital refused to admit her. Even after delivery, the woman remained on the road for hours until activists of the Kalbeliya Adhikar Manch reached the spot. The community is now demanding action against the hospital staff under the SC, ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. Third degree torture to Kalbelia males by the police is a common sight in Rajasthan; they are mostly persecuted and convicted for crimes they have not committed because of the impression of being a criminal tribe.
Most of the locals endorse the highest amount of prejudices against this tribe despite never having directly interacted with them. Victims of vicious stereotyping, the community lives in Cabanas made of dried bush. They have no electricity, no scope of sanitation and no toilets. They cannot attend social gatherings unless invited for entertainment purposes. They cannot be part of normal Hindu community and must live on the outskirts. Despite the government orders of rehabilitation, this moral code is followed throughout Rajasthan and an entire society is complicit in making them feel like the other and less than civil society.
A study carried out in 55 Kalbeliya settlements in the Barmer district revealed that 81 per cent of them beg for subsistence and 86 per cent of them do not have any caste certificate to avail of the benefits offered by various government schemes. It was also found that 95 per cent of the families lived outside the villages and 42 per cent of them did not have a place to bury their dead. The community continues to be a victim of untouchability as 72 per cent of those surveyed talked about barbers refusing to cut their hair. 80 per cent of the Kalbeliya families were found to be landless.
In the middle of the Pushkar desert in Rajasthan, along the railway line, is the largest settlement of Kalbeliyas. The government has allotted them the land far from the village. Currently there are more than 500 families settled there. Most villagers who live in close vicinity of Kalbeliya settlements known as Dera, like to coin them as ‘dirty and aggressive beggars’. Others, like the police, believe they are famous for thievery since British times and are responsible for their own abysmal condition. Caste system is seldom blamed for that. Routinely called out for being liars, the villagers say their business of henna tattoos is just a mean to disguise their livelihood. It is a means to get foreigners close so that they can rob them. “While applying henna, Kalbeliya girls try to tell their customer how poor their life is and what problems they face in daily life and cajole the customer to pay anything between Rs 300 – Rs 3000 for applying henna which cost not more than Rs 20,” says a local villager. He says that a more beautiful and confident woman can even convince her customers to pay for her family or get them clothes/blankets, which are often traded back to shops for easy cash.
The only way you can get to Ganera, the Kalbeliya dera, is by foot or by camel. Kalbeliya women know that a stranger approaching, means a monetary opportunity—they stop you mid-way and interrogate you of your purpose. “Everyone thinks that we don’t want to work and are always looking for shortcuts to earn money. We are labelled thieves. We are not to be trusted. But the truth of the matter is, no one gives us work. We do not have any land and we have families to take care of, how do we do that?” says a striking 20-something girl called Kajal. She says her daily living expenses amount to Rs 200 daily, this includes two meals and feeding her five member family. Most Kalbelia couples have more than three children, because infant mortality is high due to poor healthcare. They recently got voting rights, but most of them are still unrecognised citizens of the state.
The only person to have broken this cycle of poverty and social ostracisation is the popular dancer Gulabo Rani, was picked by Rajasthan tourism officials and now has achieved international fame. But she too has been unable to help the plight of her tribe. Unless the society takes an active part to be more accepting of the Kalbeliya rehabilitation, they will forever remain to be the other.