"The socio-economic history of the tribe reveals how their sustained alienation from the rest of the population forced generations to turn into criminals."
Several IAS officers have been in the news for their phenomenal work, and Nagendra Prasad Singh, Special Secretary, Rural Development Department, Uttar Pradesh, is one of them.
Singh was recognised for his work in uplifting the Bawariya community from the shackles of poverty and prejudice. Although it is the job of an IAS officer to empower the poor and downtrodden, his work is especially inspiring because of the people he is working for.
Often described as “a threat to the established social order,” the hunter community of Bawariyas in Rajasthan were labelled as criminals by the British, and even today, the members of the community live as outlaws.
But their story isn’t simply black and white, and NP Singh is working hard to take the community out of the shadows of the criminal title and provide them with a respectable livelihood.
Before we delve into Singh’s work in Uttar Pradesh, perhaps we need to understand where the community comes from, culturally and historically.
The “criminal” community:
The Bawariyas originally belong to the Rajput clan of Rajasthan. They are a semi-nomadic hunting community, and the 1881 census described them as “a hunting community who derive their name from the word ‘bawar’ or noose with which they snared wild animals.” Just ten years before the census, the British had enlisted them as criminals.
“In British India, under the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871, over two hundred communities were declared ‘criminals,’ the notion of ‘crime’ being used to help consolidate British rule over entire regions. The Bawariyas were one of these 200 communities,” writes B Dutta in her journal, Livelihood Strategies of a Nomadic Hunting Community of Eastern Rajasthan.
Their fates did not completely overturn even when the British left in 1947. In 1949, the Criminal Tribes Act was repealed and was replaced by the Habitual Offenders Act, 1952. But nearly 80 years of downtrodden living could not be erased by a change in the law. Not for the Bawariyas at least. Even when their community status was denotified, the Indian government passed the Wildlife Protection Act in 1972, criminalising the daily activity of the hunter community.
The community, today:
The odds are clearly stacked against members of this community—just being born into it results in a person being labelled a criminal—and they have very few opportunities to live in mainstream society, and gain acceptance.
Today, members of the community are known to engage in criminal activities like thefts, murders, burglaries and rapes! In fact, according to the Navbharat Times, performing pooja before committing a crime is a tradition in this community and bloodshed is considered holy. Not just men, but women and children also engage in criminal activity because that’s how they know life. Women, particularly in Uttar Pradesh, are engaged in making and selling alcohol, illegally.
In 2016, Bawariya men were arrested for their involvement in the Bulandshahr gangrape. As journalist Sweta Goswami wrote in The Hindu, “The socio-economic history of the tribe reveals how their sustained alienation from the rest of the population forced generations to turn into criminals.” They work in groups and unity, posing as poor salespersons and targeting isolated houses.
However, things are changing in Uttar Pradesh, thanks to NP Singh.
NP Singh’s efforts to empower Bawariyas:
Singh’s jurisdiction spreads over the 12 villages where Bawariyas live. When he first visited a village, all he could see was locked doors and pin drop silence on the streets. The next day, Singh headed to another village, this time ensuring a meeting with the village head. Singh was told that people of this “caste” are never educated.
It was important for Singh to educate them and engage them in respectable, well-paying jobs. But he couldn’t just change their lifestyle in a day. To ensure that Bawariyas trust him, Singh first engaged them in games.
Speaking to Navbharat Times, he said, “To establish a connection with the Bawariyas, I started some fun activities in the villages. As a result, I could have an open dialogue with the youngsters. They told me that they wish to pursue education. In 2015, I called for a gathering in January 2015 which women from the 12 villages had attended. They pledged to stop making illegal alcohol there. We have formed groups to help these women have a sustainable livelihood. We give them jobs like tailoring, animal husbandry, cooking etc.”
His activities would have certainly taken a long time to earn the trust of Bawariyas, but he is on a sure path to getting there. Take the example of Renu. She had approached Singh saying she wants to pursue high education but her mother could not afford it, and to add to her woes, her father had passed away.
Renu’s academic records convinced him of her genuine desire to study, and he helped her get admitted into Miranda House, a college for women, in Delhi. Today, she is pursuing her BSc and aims to become an IPS officer one day.
Singh’s actions have not gone unnoticed by the community. Taking inspiration from girls like Renu, perhaps more people from the Bawariya community have shown a willingness to pursue their education, and take up a respectable job. If the real work of empowerment starts at the grassroots level, Singh is showing everyone exactly how to do it!
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)