By Torsa Ghosal
One stormy night, Kajri (Madhuri Dixit) begs Swami Dharam Bhushan Maharaj (Anupam Kher) to let her perform the last rites for her deceased one-month-old son in the crematorium. This riles up the priest’s minion, Kedarnath (Prem Chopra), who scoffs at Kajri for wanting to cremate a baby with no father’s name or caste attached to it. He orders the priest’s sevaks to throw Kajri out. In Prem Granth (1996; dir: Rajiv Kapoor), this isn’t the first time Kajri, the daughter of a mashak wala, is being ousted from a site. Mashak wala or water-bearers (also called Bhisti) usually come from Muslim landless communities in north and west India. In Prem Granth, the mashak wala is a lower-caste Hindu who travels around, selling water. Kajri had accompanied her father to a fair, danced at a ‘jashn’ there, and was raped by Kedarnath’s friend on the way back to her village. Subsequently, she fled the village, so that her entire family wasn’t ostracised. She was also forced to flee a Mahila Kalyan Kendra, before she could terminate her pregnancy from the rape, as a staff member advanced to assault her.
In the film’s denouement, Kajri seeks retribution, saying the law should allow every rape survivor to kill those who raped her. Her wish is fulfilled on Dusshera when her rapist is tied to Ravana’s effigy and she shoots him with a flaming arrow. Good triumphs over evil in the fiery spectacle and through the scene’s Rama-Sita-Ravana imagery, the reformed priest as well as the religion of which he is a custodian come out unscathed. Apparently, all the social and religious structures leading to Kajri’s rape, persecution, her baby’s death, and expulsion from the crematorium have been brought down by that one arrow.
These days in the aftermath of a rape that receives national attention, we inevitably see the surge of brief opinion pieces (read: status messages, tweets, politicians’ statements) that argue something to the effect of “a rape is a rape; why put communal, ethnic, religious colors on it?” They point to certain universals: rape is heinous, hang the perpetrators. Blood for blood, that is justice. But beyond this, any consideration of the particulars related to the actual violence is interpreted as, either pandering to “party politics,” or conspiring to defame the community to which the perpetrators belong.
What this commonplace plea to de-politicise conversations around rape overlook is that the heinousness of rape does not cut across communal, ethnic, and religious lines; rather it reinforces those lines. This is why rape continues to be a wartime practice. When a community’s land is invaded or conquered, women of the community, often recognised socially or legally as the property of men (like the land itself), are raped just as the community’s property is looted: For instance, in an attempt to supposedly retrieve Jerusalem from the control of infidels (Muslims), Crusaders (Christians) raped women on their way to Constantinople; during World War I the German army raped Belgian women; Pakistani soldiers raped Biranganas in Bangladesh during the 1971 war, and in occupied territories, such as, Kashmir, the Indian army has raped women. During Partition, the religious majority on either side of the newly drawn border raped women from the groups that would have to flee to the other side. Thus, rape is first and foremost a show of strength, an expression of the will to dominate over an ‘other,’ an attempt at forced ownership of body, historically tied to the annexation of land—which also means that communal, religious, and ethnic contexts determine who is more susceptible to be raped. Simply put, though the alarming frequency of rape in India might suggest the aphorism “no woman is safe,” not all women are equally vulnerable.
Now, if women are especially susceptible to be abused when their community’s land is seized, then, what becomes of women who don’t belong to typically land-owning communities?
No land is hers in life or in death
An 8-year-old girl goes missing while grazing horses in the Rasana village of Kathua and after a week, her corpse is found in the nearby forest. She was raped and killed as part of a ploy to evict her tribe from the village, the Crime Branch’s charge sheet suggests. Meanwhile, the girl’s corpse had to be buried some eight kilometres away from the same village because the land where she had been raped and murdered refused to house her corpse. Or, more precisely, because lands do not speak, people who speak for it—the Rasana Hindus, in this case — decided that the girl had no right to the land.
The girl was of the Muslim nomadic community, the Bakarwals, who seasonally migrate to and from the high Kashmir plains in search of pastures for their livestock. Their relationship to land is not the same as that of the sedentary populations but the girl’s family did claim to have purchased a plot in Rasana to bury their dead. The sedentary Hindu villagers, however, produced papers to contend the family’s rights and insist on the illegality of the burial-in-progress. Thus, a girl who had been subjected to protracted sexual violence and brutality in life couldn’t break free from communal dispute over land even in death.
This detail remained peripheral to the collective outrage over the Kathua rape, even prior to the splintering of this outrage following the Prime Minister-led Union Cabinet’s stop-gap solution of approving an ordinance to impose death penalty on those convicted of raping girls aged 12 years or less. With attention shifting to the merits and de-merits of death penalty, the particulars of the Kathua incident — that a nomad girl was raped because the sedentary villagers wanted her tribe out of their way—recedes in public memory. At this point, it is easy to succumb to polarization, as one side holds the current right-wing government — BJP — accountable for the escalation of violence against women and minorities; and another, digs out “proofs” to exculpate the alleged culprits, arguing that the Jammu and Kashmir police’s Crime Branch is framing the accused in order to slander “our religion.”
However, the Kathua rape and murder brings to fore much more than a religious community’s aggression and a political coalition’s complicity in religious strong-arming tactics. Kathua reinforces the extent to which upper caste or upper class sedentary populations of major religions in South Asia (yes, across India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka), stigmatise and oppress nomad tribes, such as, the Bakarwals, Chharas, Chungars, Bediyas, and Pardhis, and how this longstanding hostility culminates in violence against women. After all, the 8-year old’s rape and murder has to do not only with her being born a girl in a violently misogynist society, but also with her being a Muslim and a nomad in the Hindu-majority and sedentary community of Rasana.
No land is hers because she is a charmer and thief
In Kamila Shamsie’s novel Kartography (2002), an heir to a feudal family in 1970s Pakistan must reconcile the demands of a nomad tribe with those of the other villagers. Shamsie writes, “the nomad tribe had made this dune part of their migratory patterns. And now some of them wanted to build mud huts and settle, but the villagers and the farm hands considered them untouchables. To tell them that Islam had no concept of untouchables would have been futile, Asif insisted. So instead he had chosen compromise: the nomads could stay as long as they drank water from their own wells and did not mix with the villagers.” This is a fictional representation of a longstanding ethnic rift, resulting in the segregated co-existence of nomad and sedentary communities in contemporary South Asia.
While tension between the sedentary people and the nomads may have preceded the British invasion and colonial settlement in the Indian subcontinent, criminalization of nomads in legal terms is British legacy. Obsessed with categorization and classification, the British implemented Criminal Tribes Act in 1871 to register nomadic and aboriginal tribes with hereditary “criminal” tendencies. Orientalist scholars of the period traced the origins of the European Romanis to the South Asian nomads and established that an affinity for felony ran in their blood. David MacRitchie’s Accounts of the Gypsies in India (1886) translates one such treatise by the Dutch orientalist, Michael Jan de Goeje, and supplements it with a lengthy appendix where MacRitchie quotes the observations of Babu Rajendralala Mitra “a gentleman of Indian birth and descent” about the “Bediyas,” a nomadic tribe. Mitra in his influential paper, “The Gipsies of Bengal” (1836), wrote that Bediyas are “‘a nation of thieves,’ and…like the Thugs, ‘worship the goddess Kali’.” MacRitchie footnotes “Thugs” to present additional evidence connecting nomads with thugs, concluding, “It may be noted that ‘at least 500 Bediyas are annually convicted of theft, dacoity…’.”
The popular view in the colonial period is that nomads will resort to anything—thieving, knavery, kidnapping—“to pass an easy, idle life;” that they avoid hard labor; and put up huts in villages, pretending to settle there, only to evade being pursued by the police. Mitra’s observations about Bediyas was contested in the Journal of Anthropological Society of Bengal (1867) by Dr. Dutt on the grounds that “There were two classes called bediyas…The people of one class were not thieves, nor were they dirty in their habits, but they got their livelihood by juggling. The others, also called bediyas, were a class of rogues.” As is evident, Dutt’s defense of one group of Bediyas over another does not quite dismantle the stigmatized perception of them. These perceptions of the colonial era haunt the labels “Vimukta Jati” or “Denotified Tribes,” applied to many wandering communities in India. Though not listed as a denotified tribe, the Bakarwals being nomadic are also victims of such perceptions. As the Crime Branch’s charge sheet about the Kathua rape and murder says, “during investigation it transpired that a particular community had a general impression that the Bakarwals indulge in cow slaughter and drug trafficking and that their children were turning into drug addicts.”
In the orientalist accounts, women of nomadic tribes are said to be carrying “real or pretended charms” that cure the sick and administering “philters” to unite estranged lovers. There are also references to women’s tattooed bodies and MacRitchie, taking a cue from Mitra, describes Bediya women as having a “light, elastic, wiry make” with “considerable claims to beauty.” MacRitchie writes, “there is a sharpness in the features of their women which we see in no other aboriginal race in India. Like the gypsies of Europe, they are noted for the symmetry of their limbs; but their offensive habits, dirty clothing, and filthy professions, give them a repulsive appearance, which is heightened by the reputation they have of kidnapping children, and frequenting burial-grounds and places of cremation.” In other words, the women are characterized as magical, beautiful — even seductive – and repulsive at once. A catalog of her “filthy habits” undercuts the anthropologist’s libidinous gaze.
No land is hers, so she is of the street
That stigmatisation and violence against women of nomadic communities go hand-in-hand isn’t something that the South Asian public can claim to be oblivious of—in fact, it is so “mainstream” that it surfaces time and again in our popular culture as a matter of course.
The nomad woman of post-Independence Hindi cinema generally falls into two categories — the first is of the pouting and belly-dancing “Mehbooba Mehbooba” (Sholay) kind, who associates with goons. She conforms to the orientalist view of being sexually attractive but habitually, morally repulsive. She can also wander in and out of a story, dancing “Chaiyya Chaiyya” (Dil Se) or “Mehboob Mere” (Fiza), contributing to the filmic spectacle but not impacting the storyworld as such. The nomad woman as ‘item girl’ is, at her morally worst, the vamp, and at her best, a manifestation of the hero’s mood. She has no interior life of her own. She is a woman of the street and any wandering woman can be understood to be a variation of her — a “light, elastic, wiry” body, or a voluptuous one for that matter, awaiting pillage. Women venturing out of the house beware—haven’t we heard the moral police say? The second category of nomad woman is the Phagun (1958) kind: she is the female protagonist, a street entertainer who becomes the hero’s love interest. However, it is soon revealed that she is the orphaned or abandoned child of a “good” sedentary family who has only been brought up among nomads.
In Phagun (dir: Bibhuti Mitra), Bijon (Bharat Bhushan), the son of a feudal lord falls in love with a singing and dancing girl, Banani (Madhubala) without realizing that she belongs to the nomadic tribe of Banjaras squatting on his family’s estate, who he is about to evict. He has turned down their offer of labor in exchange for their right to stay on the land because their cattle destroy crops in the village. But, Banani enters his life, nimbly dancing to the tune of his flute. Banani’s Banjara father warns her that a Banjara woman romancing a man outside the community is fated to die. However, the story is narrated by Bijon’s servant who introduces it as a unique tale culminating in the marriage of a “Brahman” and a “Banjaraan,” before quickly adding that Banani was a Banjaraan only in the eyes of the world. Her biological father, Shiv Narayan, had abandoned her at birth on the advice of a religious guru. So, the audience knows from the outset that though Bijon-Banani appear to be transgressing ethnic lines, they are both children of landholding families. Similarly, we learn that the street performer Mala (Jaya Bachchan) in Zanjeer (1973), skilled at sharpening and wielding knives, is not from a nomadic tribe as such, but the orphaned child of a potentially respectable (sedentary) household. And much of the film is devoted to the shedding of her street credentials and training in domestic chores. In the later years, the various dancing girls and street performers played by actors such as Hema Malini, Sridevi, and Madhuri Dixit (as in Prem Granth) would mishmash cultural practices and vocations of nomad tribes with those of poverty-stricken rural migrants. Khalnayak (1993) merges the two commonplace tropes concerning nomad women in Hindi cinema when a cop (also an orphan)—Ganga (Madhuri Dixit)—pretends to belong to a singing-dancing (nautanki) tribe that travels from village to village in order to capture the felon, Ballu (Sanjay Dutt). She loses her reputation in the process, but is restored to respectability in the end, uniting with the brave hero, Ram (could there be a more devout name?).
Released the same year as Phagun, Madhumati (dir: Bimal Roy) shares several narrative conventions with it. In Madhumati an aboriginal (not nomadic) woman becomes the male protagonist’s love interest and falls victim to an old feud between the timber estate’s Raja, who is the hero’s employer, and the aboriginal villagers for control over land. The titular character (Vyjayanthimala) dies while trying to escape the Raja’s lechery. Her love with the hero is consummated in a subsequent birth when she is sans any tribal lineage.
A Bengali folk tale made into blockbuster films in both Bangladesh and the regional film industry in Bengal, Beder Meye Josna, also presents a version of the narrative where a girl from an upper caste family is raised by a lower caste nomadic tribe (Bediyan). The Bangladeshi production (1989) mixes elements of the local Islamic culture with the caste-based politics underlying the story. The girl, Josna, takes up the Bede’s vocation of snake charming and healing, which brings her in touch with a prince. Romance ensues to which the prince’s father objects on the grounds that a Bede girl will tarnish the sanctity of the palace. Even in Shamsie’s Kartography, legends float of the communal opposition to a nomad girl and a village boy’s romance—in that legend, the nomad girl dies of pneumonia and the romance remains unconsummated. In Beder Meye Josna, however, the prince’s father orders a minister to burn down the “Bede busty” and throw Josna’s community out of the kingdom to prevent the prince from marrying her. In the end, when the royal patriarch has a change of heart, the nomad woman, Josna, is also revealed to be the abandoned daughter of his own brother-in-law.
A noteworthy aspect of Phagun and Beder Meye Josna is that though they conclude on the re-assuring note that the alliance between the male and the female protagonists will not taint the ethnic “bloodlines” (because, after all, they are kin), they also present the nomadic lifestyle and vocation as related to cultural upbringing rather than a matter of hereditary inclination. And in that sense, at least, these move past the orientalist approach to nomads in terms of racist evolutionary theories. Also, though tortured, evicted, and stigmatized over part of the story for not being a “respectable” woman tied to the hearth, the nomads in these South Asian films are not as menacing as the colonial era narratives had presented them to be. In fact, in the Bengali blockbuster, the “Bediyan” guardians of Josna are invited to stay in the palace at the end of the film.
Where does the nomad woman go from here?
Women from nomadic communities and denotified tribes not only struggle against the social stigma attached to their lifestyle but also the lack of protection from law-enforcing institutions. And this isn’t an issue that has suddenly cropped up under a right-wing government, though the right-wing regime might have aggravated the existing problems by giving credence to bizarre narratives of religious and ethnic superiority every now and then and escalating jingoistic rhetoric about “land.”
In recent years, organizations, such as the Nomad Film Trust and the National Alliance Group for Denotified and Nomadic Tribes, have sought to counter the simplistic representations and stigmatization of nomads in the South Asian culture. “Acting Like a Thief” (dir: Kerim Friedman and Shashwati Talukdar), a documentary about the Chhara community, opens with a dramatic representation of Budhan Sabar’s arrest by the police and his wife, Shyamali’s pleas to release her husband. Budhan Sabar of the Kheria Sabar tribe was killed in police custody in Purulia in 1998. In the dramatic performance, the woman playing Shyamali is called a “thief’s whore” by the police and pushed over. Following the performance, members of the Chhara tribe recount their experiences of being pursued by the police, tortured and electrocuted, held responsible for any crimes around their settlement. But the contradictory aspects of the Chhara tribe’s identity are most aptly captured in the moment when an elderly woman, grandmother of playwright Dakxin Bajrange, simultaneously boasts of her talent for dancing with swords and pots and her father’s talent for theft. When quizzed whether she considers her tribe to be “chor jaati” (tribe of thieves) or “kalakar jati” (tribe of artists), she first responds, “kalakar,” but after a pause she adds “chor,” and asks, “Do you understand?” Theft, as she points out, requires dexterity and is a resort for people who find few opportunities for honing other skills that could result in employment.
The stigma and abuse suffered by nomad women (and men) is a complex, longstanding issue of which the Kathua incident is a gruesome reminder. This abuse is so integral to our culture, so central to the region’s religious and casteist social systems, that the ruling government’s meting out of death penalty or even the election of a different political party at the national level will not quickly fix it. However, opining that communal, ethnic, and religious politics played no part in the Kathua rape, that the particulars of the incident are of little consequence because rape has no religion or community is troublesome. Such a stance prevents us from confronting the inequities that are deep-seated in our religions and cultures; and we go on believing that all we need to put an end to rape is a noose or a flaming arrow.
Torsa Ghosal is the author of a novel, Open Couplets (Yoda Press, 2017), and a teacher of contemporary literature and experimental writing at California State University, Sacramento.