Pre-colonial India was host to hundreds of wandering folk artists, or ghumantoo jaatis, practicing various traditional arts. They were singers, dancers, acrobats, sword-swallowers, rope dancers and so on. Readers will be familiar with some of their names—Bhopas, Saperas, Bauls, Madaris andKathputhliwallas. Since most of these communities posed tough resistance to colonial rule, many of them were declared as “criminal tribes” by the British in 1871. They were “de-notified” after Independence, but their brutalisation at the hands of government agencies continues even today—often using paternalistic laws passed ostensibly for the benefit of the poor.
For several years MANUSHI has been helping Nat families obtain the release of their children when taken into state custody under anti-begging and anti-vagrancy laws. The Nat community traditionally performs acrobatics. They make a living by wandering from place to place doing street shows with their children. Nat children begin performing around the age of 4-5 when the body is light and supple.
Earnings are quite meagre, but the Nat folk are proud of their traditional skills. They believe it is their duty to perpetuate their tradition of child-acrobatics. Poverty and the wandering lifestyle make it difficult for Nat children to be educated in formal schools, and this is where they get entangled with the law.
In the name of child protection and the right to education, the police, in cahoots with NGOs, snatch Nat children and their parents when they are found performing on the streets. The children are sent to orphanages or welfare homes. The women are sent to women’s shelters. The men are jailed on charges of the crime of “begging”.
The children’s fate is decided by Child Welfare Committees (CWCs). The process of release is complicated, expensive and takes months— even years. In the meantime, the children are kept in poor conditions in the so-called “protection” Homes. They complain that the food is bad, showing they consider it inferior to what they had while living with their families. Whenever MANUSHI volunteers have been allowed into the Homes, we have observed their squalid conditions. Even the employees at these Homes say that they lack the resources to provide for the inmates.
The children are made to do cooking, washing and cleaning—work which is no less “labour” (and that too unpaid!) than the acrobatic performances they were giving on the streets. This begs the question as to what is being gained by taking these children into custody?
Readers will get a sense of the trauma to the children, and the injustice of this kind of “child rights” intervention from the following case studies.
Case of Gandhi Lal and family
Gandhi Lal and Beena Devi came to Mumbai from their native Chhattisgarh with their children, 11-year-old Sanju and 7-year-old Mahesh, to earn a living by showing traditional acrobatics—tamasha. One day, Sanju and Mahesh went to VT Station by themselves to perform acrobatics. Their mother did not accompany them as their sister was unwell. While the boys were returning home some well-dressed men approached them saying one of their friends was calling them back to VT Station. Guessing that the men were probably NGO workers looking to lock them up, the children refused to go along with them.
At this, the men grabbed the children’s hands and called two policemen. The police forced the children into a vehicle belonging to a child-care Home. When Gandhi Lal and Beena Devi reached the Home they were told the children were being held under the Anti-Beggary Act and they would have to apply to court for their release.
In court Gandhi Lal and Beena Devi found numerous other parents in the same situation as themselves. When Beena Devi’s turn came, she was told her children would not be returned as instead of putting them in school she was “using” them for begging. Beena Devi pleaded for their return saying she would take the children back to her village and admit them in school there. But her pleas fell on deaf ears. Instead she was told that she could only see the children for two hours every Saturday morning.
When Beena Devi visited the children that Saturday she found them dressed in dirty and over-sized clothes. The children told her that they were not even getting proper food. They said they got a decent meal only on days when some rich person brought food in donation. Otherwise, they were fed burnt rotis and poorly-cooked vegetables. In addition, they were made to help with washing clothes and sweeping the Home by day and every night they had to help wash the inmates’ jootha plates after dinner.
Beena Devi and Gandhi Lal made several trips to the Home begging the authorities to return their children. But they were refused every time and told to bring a certificate of enrollment of the two children from a regular school, along with a letter from a recognised NGO undertaking to ensure that the children remained in school.
This in itself was an unrealistic demand. Which school would give them an admission certificate mid-session and that too without seeing the children? Secondly, schools invariably ask for proof of residence, which this poor family, which lived in a makeshift jhuggi,could not possibly produce.
It took three months of court appearances with MANUSHI volunteers, and commuting between Mumbai and their village in Chhattisgarh to obtain documentation from the village sarpanch and school, with bribes demanded on all sides, for Gandhi Lal and Beena Devi to regain custody of their children.
Case of Parmeshwar and family
Seven adult male Nats along with five children (Avinash, Akash, Surya, Kavita and Moni) and two women (their mothers) were picked up by the police. When the relatives of the children went to the police station to inquire about their missing family members, the two women were released, but all the men were taken into police custody under the Anti-Beggary Act. After a night in the police lock-up, the men were sent to Tihar Jail. The girls and boys were separated and sent to different Homes run by the internationally famed NGO: the Salam Balak Trust (SBT).
With MANUSHI’s assistance the family were able to procure orders from the CWC to visit the girls in their Home.MANUSHI’s team reached the Home on the appointed day to find the Nat families had reached there much ahead of time, indicating their deep anxiety and insecurity about their daughters.
The girls, Kavita and Moni, began crying on seeing their parents.
The compound of the Home had left-over food carelessly thrown on the ground,attracting flies and vermin. A good number of monkeys were also prancing around without any attendant to protect the children.
When the MANUSHI team spoke to member of the concerned CWC, at first they spoke enthusiastically about the acrobatic skills of Kavita and Moni who had clearly performed their kalabaazi in the Home to the appreciation of all. But when MANUSHI requested for their release, the CWC members changed their tune and said, “No, these children cannot be given back to their parents who are cruel enough to put them to begging by performing dangerous forms of kheltamasha. We are not going to permit their parents from exploiting them any further. The children are in good hands here. No question of letting them out.” The CWC also appeared to be ignorant of the dirty and unsafe conditions in the Home for the children.
MANUSHI said that if the children were better off in the Home, why did they cry to be back with their parents? The only response from the CWC members was that they would not release the children without an undertaking from the parents, backed by MANUSHI, that the children would be enrolled in school. It may be noted that the NGO that snatched the children never offered to give such an undertaking or to otherwise help the families stay together.
MANUSHI gave the undertaking knowing very well that it would be difficult for these families to provide regular schooling to their children. Even if they stopped their Nat performances, the families would have to move from place to place in search of work—whether in brick kilns or other forms of casual labour. Being on the move in search of work made it difficult for their children to get regular schooling. In any case, the drop-out rate of children even from non-itinerant communities was extremely high in their village school. I will discuss the issues posed by this blind insistence on putting such children in school in Part-II of this essay. To be continued next week.
The author is currently Maulana Azad National Professor of ICSSR and founder president of human rights organisation, MANUSHI