Nomadic communities, wrongly notified during the colonial times as 'criminal communities', found the earliest expression of their agony in the report of a reform committee headed by Antrolikar on the eve of India's independence. But the issue had to wait for a voice till Marathi writers like Laxman Mane and Laxman Gaikwad came up with their life-stories in the early eighties. These writings were initially seen as 'experimental dalit writing' by readers of Marathi literature. Nomadic communities in the states outside Maharashtra did not find similar spokespersons.
My attention was drawn to the enormous scale of the problem - there are nearly six crores of denotified and nomadic 'citizens' in India! And when, together, we founded the Denotified and Nomadic Communities Rights Action Group in 1998, I found to my utter surprise and dismay that even the most enlightened of the progressive sections of Indian society had barely been aware of the plight of India's nomads. Invariably one had seen the Banjaras and heard of the Pardhis, but one was not aware that these had been victims of a hugely discriminatory law, the Criminal Tribes Act, subsequently replaced by the Habitual Offenders Act. Therefore, bringing the denotified and the nomads of India together was not an easy task.
I was convinced from the beginning of the struggle that the denotified and the nomads have to make common cause with other tribal communities from the adivasi groups and the pastoralist communities such as the Bharwads and the Dhangars in order to be effective in even a small measure, and mainly because numbers matter in democracies with a weak fabric of social justice holding it together. But, bringing the nomadic, pastoralist and adivasi communities together has not been an enviable matter. One imagines, in a theoretically loaded discussion room, that being marginalised the communities would be all ripe and ready to fall within a single basket of a marginalised class; but the differences between them are quite stupendous.
The denotified communities have been asking for a Third Schedule, and think of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes as far more fortunate. Adivasis have, even in a small measure, an acre or two of their own, even when its legal title has been a matter of dispute between the Forest Department and the Revenue Department. Adivasis have a profound equation with the land of their habitation going back to times beyond one's memory; the nomads have neither the land nor the relationship of any lasting nature. The nomadic world-view is unique. The pastoralists have a completely different set of issues surrounding their lives. They have a large movable property in their cows and sheep, but the grazing land traditionally available to them has been rapidly shrinking. These are relatively prosperous communities forced in our time to shift their occupations. Jal, jungle, jhamin are the central concerns for the adivasis, livelihood and food security, social respect and legal protection are the crucial issues with denotified and nomadic communities, and respect for non-sedentary cultures is the main preoccupation with the pastoralists.
I tried to bring them together several times during the last decade, and met with failure every time I made the attempt. Twice, in Delhi, we had meetings of representatives of these three sections, once at the India International Centre, with speakers such as Ashis Nandy and Justice M N Venkatachaliah, and another time at the Constitution Club with Mahashweta Devi herself to guide our footsteps. These meetings progressed well till the concluding sessions; yet, in the conclusion differences took over similarities. The common cause theory failed disastrously.
Therefore, before making yet another attempt, my colleagues in Bhasha and I had long consultations, lasting almost over a year, and decided that we would approach the matter more through cultural practices than through political aspirations of the communities. However, we felt that a mere cultural mela would amount to a cruel travesty of the agony and suffering of the adivasis, nomads and pastoralists. Therefore, we put forward the proposition that "the primary mission of the predatory state is sedentarisation of the subject." Nomads and pastoralists responded to this premise very enthusiastically, and the adivasis decided to join in on the plank of the state's being predatory and, therefore, self-aggrandising.
After we came up with this formulation, we had a series of discussions with the Adivasi Ekta Parishad, which has an impressive spread in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat, and the newly formed DNT network under the title Lokdhara, which has started energising the DNTs in Maharashtra. My own Bhasha Centre contacted adivasis in the north-east, Orissa, Assam, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, as well as my colleagues in the now ceased DNT-rights action group. They responded promptly. Besides, of the hundred and forty NGOs working with tribals who had come to Tejgadh last November for the Tribal Policy Conference, were contacted. In about eight weeks of campaigning, we found that about two thousand individuals were prepared to participate in a convention, should such a convention be held. When we approached Dr. Kalyan Kumar Chakravarty of Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts in Delhi, he more than welcomed the idea of so many numerous communities coming together at the IGNCA campus with their dances, theatre, musical instruments, life-styles, traditional knowledge, medicinal systems, and so on. This is how the first ever National Convention of Nomads and Adivasis was organised at the IGNCA from 21 to 24 April this year.
The desire to come together was clearly the dominant note in the Convention. But, as expected, the drive for unity was sustained by the amazing show of cultural diversity seen in the dances, theatre, acrobatics, music, rituals and everything that was put on that remarkable and magnificent display by the adivasis and nomads of India. In terms of documented materials alone, the IGNCA had gathered a pile of about three hundred hours of cultural and social documentation.
The numbers need to be understood in their proper context. When an adivasi or a nomad travels to Delhi from his or her village or basti, the expenses involved sometimes cross the ability of that person to earn over a period of several months. Their days in a conference such as this one count back home as days of no-income. It is at a great personal cost that such delegates participate in such conferences. To have fifteen hundred delegates for the Convention, therefore, expressed a nation-wide and deep seated desire of the adivasis, nomads and pastoralists to be seen as belonging together where their cultural identities are not threatened, where they can express themselves without being intimidated into a 'single' class as 'subjects' victimised by the predatory state whose mission of sedentarisation has marginalised the resource base of these communities.
Nomads together with adivasis in Delhi's Convention in April, have, in my opinion, spelt out the beginning of a new chapter in the history of social struggles in India.