Tired of Persecution By 'Gau Rakshaks', Rajasthan's Banjaras Are Raising Their Voice

For a community that trades in oxen, the rise in cow vigilantism has meant a loss of livelihood. Continued apathy from the state hasn't helped.

Banjaras gathered for the public hearing in Rajasmund. Courtesy: Cheryl D'souza

Banjaras gathered for the public hearing in Rajasmund. Courtesy: Cheryl D’souza

Rajasmand, Rajasthan: Dadri, Una and now Railmangra. How many more? Emboldened by their proximity to state power and riding the wave of religious fanaticism, self-appointed gau rakshaks have unleashed terror across the country. For communities that deal with cattle in any form, it has rapidly brought things to a boiling point, affecting the entire social fabric of an area and community – with implications far beyond.

For the Banjara community that trades in oxen, cow vigilantes have brought their livelihood to the brink of collapse. A recent incident in the Rajsamand district of Rajasthan brought matters to a head.

In the early hours of October 4, a truck carrying bullocks purchased by Banjaras in a government organised cattle fair was waylaid by Bajrang Dal goons in Bhama Kheda (Garasiyon Ka Kheda) village of Railmangra block. The vigilantes accused the Banjaras of taking the cattle for slaughter and demanded money to let the truck go. But when their bid for extortion was refused, they vandalised the truck, severely beat up the Banjaras, brandished weapons and made off with the damaged truck and the bullocks.

This hooliganism drew local support for the Banjaras and the Bajrang Dal leader was caught and handed over to the police. As Banjaras from surrounding areas began to gather at the police thana, the truck and the cattle were traced and brought back. By noon the next day, an FIR was lodged.

A historic protest

This attack and the reaction proved to be a turning point that brought together this nomadic community in southern Rajasthan to face the continued acts of indignity against them. Tired of constant fear, harassment and extortion related to their occupation, and exclusion in their social lives, the Banjara community awoke in a collective assertion for dignity and human rights.

For years, the community has been subjected to attacks by cow vigilante groups belonging to various extremist Hindutva outfits. The most recent attack galvanised the community to organise themselves into the Banajara Vikas Shakti Sanghatan, under the leadership of a young social activist from the community. With slogans like “Bail bechna Banjaron ki pahachan – humara adhikar, humara sangarsh! (Selling oxen is part of the Banjara identity – our right, our struggle)”, over 1,000 Banjaras gathered for a historic rally and public hearing on the rights of the community. The hearing was a cultural protest to assert their unique indigenous identity and a political protest to demand protection for their life and livelihood. Organised on the grounds outside the old collectorate at Rajasmand on October 18, this historic gathering was supported by rights-based movements and organisations from across the country, placing the Banjara community’s struggle within the larger struggle against Hindutva vigilante groups in the country.

Banjaras protesting in Rajasmund. Courtesy: Cheryl D'souza

Banjaras protesting in Rajasmund. Courtesy: Cheryl D’souza

The Banjara nomads were notified as a criminal tribe during the British rule and de-notified after independence, though they still bear the brunt of that colonial nomenclature. Their lives are riddled with fear while they make desperate attempts to earn a livelihood through their age-old tradition of selling oxen. With the increasing use of tractors, their sales are now restricted to tribal communities for farming in southern Rajasthan, where there are largely semi-hilly farming tracts. Despite there being no slaughterhouse anywhere near the area of sale or purchase, and it being acknowledged that the Banjaras do not trade for slaughter, they have become the hapless targets of cow vigilantes. They are constantly on the run, hiding from a police administration that is seen as complicit in the regular, orchestrated violence on the community. They live with the threat of being persecuted for their harmless and lawful occupation.

The discourse in the Banjara public hearing was rich in the pride of their own history of struggle and survival. They brought alive their nomadic journeys across deserts, seas and mountains, trading cattle (oxen) and selling salt for several generations. The community is spread across India, identified by names such as Banjara, Baladiya, Bamania, Maru, Labana and Lambadi. They explain their common roots and language with the Gypsies or Romas of the West. Around the world from Iran to Hungary, they are a clan known for their rich indigenous knowledge. Constantly travelling, they contributed to the development of the country’s settled population and made valuable additions to ancient India’s transport, communication and trade.

Their cultural practices and trading routes form an integral part of Indian cultural history, yet today they are poor, marginalised and endangered. Several of their traditional livelihoods have been obliterated by modernisation. With the shrinking space for them to carve out a livelihood in their traditional way by buying and selling oxen, their right to live with dignity also disappeared. In the past two decades, their right to trade cattle even during “government-organised cattle melas” has been jeopardised, with cow vigilante groups repeatedly harassing, assaulting and extorting money from them.

This is pushing the Banjara community to gradually give up their traditional trade altogether. Some of them are now forced to sell things such as tea, blankets and rugs, whereas others have gone from being traders to impoverished labourers and migrant workers. Being part of a nomadic community, they are now unable to settle anywhere or get a homestead deed (patta), further subjecting them to other kinds of social and economic injustices. The absence of a patta is almost akin to not being a citizen. No state entitlement promised to them reaches them in full and they do not have proper access to basic rights such as land, housing, food, water, health and education.

Unlike the scheduled castes (SC) and scheduled tribes (ST), the de-notified tribes are not categorised under the constitutional schedules. However, some of them have been included in the respective state lists of SC and ST. Although they have been victimised for centuries, they have not been given any safeguard due to their names not being on the list. The Banjaras are not alone – there are roughly 13.5 crore people like them, enough to populate an entire state. According to a national rapid survey done in 2008 by the National Commission for Denotified, Nomadic and Semi-Nomadic Tribes, the socio-economic status of these communities is dismal: 94% had no BPL (below poverty line) ration cards, 98% were landless; 57% lived in rag tents and 72% had no ration cards. Most of them faced harassment by the police. Most had no records of birth; there were no records of death, either.

Banjaras protesting in Rajasmund. Courtesy: Cheryl D'souza

Banjaras protesting in Rajasmund. Courtesy: Cheryl D’souza

At the public hearing and in their petitions to the government, the Banjaras explained that they valued the oxen and, as traders, were more likely to look after them than anyone else. It is only in protecting communities like the nomadic Banjaras, who have for generations had a nurturing relationship with the oxen, that the oxen will really be saved. In fact, as explained during the public hearing, it is the gau raksha campaign that has undermined the life of the cow in fundamental ways. Today, the bovine is being seen as a menace by the rural community. Thousands of cows have been turned out and in search of food and a place to live, they graze on crops and stand on the road only to be knocked down and killed by highway traffic. In search of food, they eat plastic and die, and since the Una incident more and more people are giving up the job of skinning of carcases. The animals decompose, affecting people for miles.

In addition, this public hearing also saw the Banjaras raise a host of issues of life and livelihood. There was the demand for homestead land; for cremation grounds as in many places they are not allowed to cremate their dead in the boundary of the village; for education, since a nomadic community has very poor access to schools; and to be included in the BPL lists, Food Security Act lists and health benefit lists, from where they are largely missing. But most importantly, they made a demand for land and for an alternative and dignified livelihood. Like the Valmikis in Una, who gave up skinning animals en masse and have begun a powerful movement demanding land for farming, the Hindutva brigade has brought the Banjaras to the point where they are saying – you look after your cows and bulls, and give us the land we never had. What India rally needs a is Banjara community with the unfettered right to trade in cattle and the additional right to settle and till the land.

Paras Banjara is with the Banjara Vikas Shakti Sangathan, Nikhil Dey works with the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sanghatan and Cheryl D’souza with the Campaign for Judicial Accountability and Reform