by Bhanwar Megwanshi
For several years now, across large parts of Rajasthan Hindutva activists have been targeting members of the Banjara community in the name of ‘cow-protection’. Scores of such incidents have been reported—more than 200 in the last decade. Typically, Banjaras transporting cows and other cattle are stopped by such activists and their animals are seized. Sometimes, the police gets involved and the Banjaras are arrested. Cases are lodged against them, forcing the hapless Banjaras to do the rounds of the courts and police stations.
Today, many Banjaras, members of an impoverished former nomadic community, are engaged in the business of buying and selling cows and bulls. They have been forced by circumstances to abandon their ancestral profession of selling salt, going from village to village with salt laden on their animals. That profession had provided them with a certain dignity and wealth, but now, with salt-making having been taken over by huge companies, this way of life of the Banjaras is but a distant memory. Today, it is by buying and selling cattle that many Banjaras across Rajasthan barely manage to survive.
This practice continued without any major opposition till 1990, but at around this time the Banjaras, who are also ‘Hindus’, began being faced with mounting opposition from Hindu chauvinist forces that began to rear their ugly head in the wake of the so-called Ramjanambhoomi movement. This culminated in 1995, when the BJP government of Rajasthan, pandering to Hindu sentiments about the cow, passed a law that sought to ban cow slaughter and regulate the transportation of cattle.
The Rajasthan Bovine Animal (Prohibition of Slaughter and Regulation of Temporary Migration or Export) Act of 1995 treats the killing of any bovine animal, which includes cows, calves, heifers, bulls and bullocks, as a crime. It is forbidden for anyone to transport or sell beef or anything made of beef. Exporting bovine animals out of the state for slaughter is also banned. No person can export any bovine animal himself or through his agent from any place within the state to any place outside the state for the purposes of slaughter or with the knowledge that it may be slaughtered. Custody of seized animals is to be given to any recognised voluntary animal welfare agency, failing which they can be handed over to any gaushala or ‘cow-home’ or a person who volunteers to maintain the animals.
Once this draconian law came into effect, the economic backbone of vast numbers of Banjaras was crushed. Many Banjaras, being simply unable to take up another profession, continued with their animal business but in a way that would not involve breaking the new law. And so, they began buying and selling cattle not for slaughter but for various agricultural purposes. But, despite this, they continued to face tremendous opposition from their ‘co-religionist’ so-called saviours of the cows, being regularly targeted by activists of various Hindu chauvinist outfits. In order to stop the inter-state transportation of cattle, activists belonging to the RSS, VHP, Bajrang Dal, Shiv Sena and other such ‘cow-loving’ outfits put up check-points on the roads, forcibly seizing cattle being transported by Banjaras and even, on occasion, beating the hapless Banjaras up.
From the point of view of beliefs and customs, the Banjaras are also ‘Hindus’ and return themselves as such in the census. So, using the terminology of the Sangh Parivar, they are supposedly a limb of the ‘vast Hindu body’. But, and despite this, the same Parivar, it seems, is hell-bent on chopping off that very limb from its body.
What is the ‘crime’ of the Banjaras? Till now, the cattle that the Banjaras have been dealing in have been bought at cattle fairs, which are held in various parts of Rajasthan, or else purchased by touring individual villages. In order to transport these animals to other places, the Banjaras make it a point to procure and keep with them various necessary documents, including purchase receipts, letters of concerned village officials, health certificates of the animals as well as certificates permitting their transportation. Whenever they confront the Hindutva activists, they have to show them these documents. But the Hindutvawadis don’t care at all for such papers, certificates and laws, not even for basic humanity. Rather, they believe in sticks, swords, tridents and abuse. That is why first they beat up the Banjaras, and then seize their animals, which the poor Banjaras have bought with their precious little money. Then, the animals sent off to a gaushala run by a Hindutva-oriented organization or individual, so that these gaushalas continue to rake in grants and donations! Without enough water and food, the hapless animals trapped in these gaushalas soon turn into skeletons and often die before the courts are able to decide their custody or else become so miserable that they cannot be re-sold.
For the Hindutva-walas, ‘cow-protection’ is an enormously lucrative business. They tell the Hindus, ‘We are saving the cow’, and in this way reinforce their belief in the supposed divinity of that animal, while, in the name of establishing gaushalas, they grab government land. It is one of the many tragedies of this country, which is notorious for all sorts of extreme forms of human inequality, that people who run programmes ostensibly to protect the environment, tigers, the birds and the bees, and cows as well, care nothing for the Dalits, for the Adivasis, for the Banjaras. They supposedly love the cow so very much that they won’t think twice before beating up hapless Banjaras.
What, we demand to know, is the ‘crime’ of the Banjaras? Is their ‘fault’ this: that despite being treated as low-castes and having to suffer various forms of discrimination and oppression, they continue calling themselves ‘Hindus’? Here I must add, that, faced with this unrelenting oppression, a section of the Banjara youth is today refusing to accept this any longer. They do not want to belong to the religion of their oppressors, of people who are every ready to snatch the morsel of food that enters their mouths.
Raj Kumar Girasyia, a social activist from Chittorgarh, is the General- Secretary of the Rajasthan Banjara Sansthan. He has done detailed research on the Banjaras. He claims that under the guise of the 1995 Act, the police and Hindutva organizations are persecuting the Banjaras. Based on his research, he argues that almost a third of the legal cases slapped on the Banjaras are a result of the nexus between Hindutva groups and the police. He also opines that almost a fourth of all those engaged in the business of animals in Rajasthan have, at some time or the other, been beaten by the stick of the 1995 Act. Scores of Banjaras, he says, have lost lakhs of rupees, with the animals that they purchased being seized by Hindutva activists, who take the law into their own hands. And while appearing to let these animals off, later these very same activists capture the very same animals! The Banjaras are also being targeted by the Hindutva chauvinists because they often engage in economic transactions with Muslims, which is something that the Hindutva-walas simply cannot tolerate.
The 1995 Act and its misuse have definitely had a very deleterious impact on the economic, and, therefore, social and educational, conditions of the Banjaras, making them even worse off than they hitherto were. No alternative occupation has been offered to them. While making this law, no one seems to have thought how the hapless Banjaras, many of who are dependent on supplying animals to survive, would manage to feed their families as a result of the Act. They could have been granted priority in terms of employment in gaushalas, fodder banks, fertilizer and bio-gas
farms etc., but this was not at all the case and they were left to die of hunger.
But it is not just the Banjaras who are fed up of being targeted by the Hindutva cow-protectionists. This targeting is also impacting on various rural pastoral communities in Rajasthan. Earlier, peasants could earn a sizeable sum selling the milk and dung of cows, as well as calves and cows themselves. But today it is very difficult to find anyone willing to buy cows, calves and bullocks, and this is having a very negative impact on the rural economy. The farmers have never opposed the Banjaras. They have never seized their animals. They are not the backbone of the ‘cow-protection’ movement. If you want to see the reality of that movement, please visit the marble-floored mansions of the so-called ‘brave’ liberators and protectors of the cow. You will find dogs kept therein as pets but not a single cow!
In many parts of Rajasthan, Banjaras have no houses of their own. Not long ago, a group of Banjaras decided to set up home in the centre of Bhilwara town. Soon enough, they were thrown out of there in a town ‘beautification’ drive and dumped on a plot of land near a water tank, which was surrounded by a dense jungle. Later, when the town expanded and incorporated this area, they were thrown out from there, too, and were forced to shift to a plot near the police lines. But the BJP government expelled them from there as well and destroyed some 200 houses of the Banjara Basti.
An additional reason for this targeting of the Banajaras of Bhilwara was that a Muslim guru named Mohammad Hanif Shah Sailani had taken up residence in the Banjara Basti. The fame of this guru soon began to spread, and his disciples from various parts of India, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Jains and others, began flocking to the Banjara Basti. Activists and sympathizers of outfits like the RSS and VHP could simply not stomach this. And so, after orchestrating a well-planned propaganda drive, the Banjaras were compelled to leave the Basti. They were sent off to another place and were told that there they would receive plots of land there. But, these hapless Banjaras did not receive their titles to these plots from the concerned authorities despite having deposited the money that they were required to for this purpose.
Because the Banjaras are relatively small in number, they lack the political muscle to have their voice heard. They are still victims of the practice of untouchability. In Rajasthan, they are officially classed as Other Backward Classes, but their conditions are worse than even the Dalits. They have an extremely low level of literacy, and are bereft of many basic rights. Many of them still lead a nomadic life. Says Raj Kumar Girasiya of the Rajasthan Banjara Sansthan, ‘It is gross injustice to the Banjaras for them to be classed as OBCs, given their deplorable social, educational and economic conditions.’ Perhaps, then, they should be treated as a Scheduled Tribe. In fact, they satisfy the criteria set by anthropologists for classifying a particular group of people as a tribe. Cognizant of the conditions of the Banjaras, the Kaka Kalelkar Commission, set up in 1951-52, had advised that they should be declared to be a Scheduled Tribe. After a long delay, in some states they have received that status, but not so in Rajasthan, despite demands of the community.
Faced with enormous odds, not least of which is being targetted by Hindutva forces because of many of them are engaged in dealing in animals, some Banjaras are even talking of mass conversion to another religion as a reaction. At the same time, Hindutva forces have sought to block even that possibility, and the government even passed a law that clearly restricts the freedom of citizens to convert to other religion. And so, in the face of this talk of mass conversion, what will actually transpire remains to be seen.
Bhanwar Megwanshi is a noted social activist from Bhilwara, Rajasthan. He edits the Hindi monthly ‘Diamond India’, a journal that deals with grassroots’ social issues. He is associated with the Rajasthan-based Mazdoor-Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS), and can be contacted on [email protected]
(Translated by Yoginder Sikand)