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The Nowhere Women A deep dive into the plight of women, especially widows from the Wadar community

10, Dec 2017 | Sushmita

The Wadar community, that has traditionally engaged in digging and excavation related work, was originally a nomadic tribe till they began to settle on the peripheries of large cities like Mumbai. Of late, the Nomadic and De notified tribe (NT-DNT) has been marginalised and faces multiple challenges. When viewed from the intersectional lens, the woes of the Wadar women are magnified. Here is a glimpse into their life and culture and an attempt at making the discourse around their identity more nuanced.

 

“They mistook me for a call girl,” recalls 31 year old Kemal, describing the umpteenth time she was turned down when she went looking for a job. A widow and a single mother, Kemal who juggles odd jobs to make ends meet, has faced allegations and insinuations of being a sex worker from not just potential employers, but also her neighbours, for years now. A man knocked late night on her door asking her if she would sleep with him for money. In another incident, after a few months of working as a domestic help, she was sexually assaulted by a 66 year old man!

Kemal belongs to the Wadar community and lives in Mukti Nagar, in the eastern Mumbai suburb of Chembur. The narrow bylane where she lives is practically lost in a particularly chaotic part of the city where a railway station, a busy traffic intersection and a slew of hardware stores exist cheek by jowl, even as people jostle for space within their homes and out on the streets. Kemal’s neighbourhood comprises poorly ventilated small one or two room tenements. There are open drains just in front of the houses and as one goes further inside, even these drains disappear and the water is almost everywhere.

Un-perturbed by the squalor, Kemal matter of factly continues her story, “In our ‘Samaaj’ they get people married at a very early age. My mother was nine years of age when she got married and my father was eighteen then. Can you imagine? I feel that they got married while they were still in cradle (laughs). Even I got married at fifteen and my sisters at fourteen!” At the time of her wedding, her in laws did not know that she was from the Wadar community. “They were South Indians. When they came to know my caste, they said, your caste is not proper”, she laments. “My husband was abusive to our child. He frequently returned home drunk and hit our child, asking her to talk to him. What will a two month old child say,” she exclaims angrily. Kemal’s husband died in the summer of 2006.

But Kemal’s plight is not hers alone. There are many women from the Wadar community living a life of penury on the fringes of Mumbai city. The Wadar community has a disproportionately large proportion of widows.

What is Killing the Wadar men?

Alcoholism is highly prevalent in the community. This is due to the reason that they are engaged into hard and back breaking manual labour of either digging or quarrying throughout the day. Many of them suffer from lung, heart diseases and asthma. Few cases of cancer were also reported. Because of these hazards and diseases, the men of the community die early. It is common to find widows as young as twenty years of age to older women of eighty years of age.

Daaru toh Chhoda nahi, Duniya Chhod diya

These words that Kemal stoically uses to summarise her husband’s battle with alcoholism, giving voice to the anguish of several Wadar widows.

But the marginalisation of Wadar women is more complex as it is an interplay of exclusion, tradition, lack of education and being customarily sequestered within the four walls of the house until they were forced to interact with the outside world. Being in an urban space where the notion of space itself is contested increases their vulnerability manifolds. Though the city has a liberating potential in terms of freedom from old customs, one sees newer forms of vulnerability and marginalization.

Of the twelve women that I spoke with as part of an exploratory study on the lives of the Wadar women, none had finished even tenth standard. Suddenly they find themselves in a situation of working outside home, children to take care of, household expenses to be managed by own income. To understand the plight of Wadar women, we try to delve a little into the history and figure that how does this nomadic community become sedentary and one of the most vulnerable in the city spaces such as Mumbai?

A Life of Nowhere Existence*: Brief Historical Journey of Wadars

The Nomadic tribes were an integral part of the rural life. They would move from one village to another and entertain people. But with the advent of colonial rule they were seen as a threat to the settled life. The British rulers found it difficult to keep track of them.

After the mutiny of 1985, a number of steps were taken by the British Administration to retain law and order. Enactment of the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871 was one of them. This act emphatically stated, “You exist, thus you are criminal”! This was based on a fallacious understanding of Indian society which was to equate caste with profession. Hence the common belief held was that certain communities were professionally and generationally prone to a life of crime. In their zeal to enumerate the people of this country into tribes and castes for ease of governance, crime was equated to caste, occupation and religion! The Criminal tribes act was repealed in 1952 and hence the tribes came to be known as De-Notified Tribes. Even though in legal parlance, they were de notified, the stigma remained and flourished with agencies of state like Police and media which portrayed a certain image of the tribes. They were listed under the Habitual Offenders Act. Many communities like Pardhis are still accused and arrested based on this stigma.

In India, today there are 313 nomadic and 198 de-notified tribes. Meena Radhakrishnan, in her book, “Dishonoured by History, Branded by Law” describes how a nomadic lifestyle is no more suitable for them and hence many of the tribes and communities are trying to settle at the fringes of cities. Wherever they go, they are looked down with suspicion and mistrust. Because of the kind of livelihood they pursued in the past they remain fragmented and scattered across the length and breadth of the country. Hence, there is no singular point of political or social mobilization where they could come to demand for their rights. They constitute a minority which does not have any political relevance for parties banking on big vote banks, despite the fact that their total population is 150 million.

Out of these as many as 15 million are in Maharashtra itself.

 

A List of NT-DNTs in the original schedule

 

 Denotified-Tribes 1. Berad, 2. Bestar, 3. Bhatma, 4. Kaikadi, 5. Kankarbhat, 6. Katabu, 7. Lamani, 8. Phase-Pardhi, 9. Raj-Pardhi, 10. Rajput-Bhatma, 11. Ramoshi, 12. Vadar, 13. Waghari and 14. Chhapparbandh

 Nomadic-Tribes 1. Bawa, 2. Beldar, 3. Bharadi, 4. Bhute, 5. Chalwadi, 6. Chitrakathi, 7. Garudi, 8. Ghisadi, 9. Golla, 10. Gondhali, 11. Gopal, 12. Helwe, 13. Joshi, 14. Kasi-Kapadi, 15. Kolhati, 16. Mairal, 17. Masan-Jogi, 18. Nandi-Wale, 19. Pangul, 20. Raval, 21. Shikalgar, 22. Thakar, 23. Vaidu, 24. Vasudeo.

 

 

The Wadar community is settled in the fringe areas of Maharashtra. According to Dr. Ambedkar Research and training Institute, Pune, (1991) the estimated population of Wadars in Mahrashtra is 4.35 lakhs.

Diggers On The Move

Traditionally, the Wadars pursued three different kinds of occupations. The ‘Mati’ Wadars were engaged in digging up the soil, transporting it, levelling up the ground. While the next sub caste ‘Jate’ Wadars traditional occupation was to grind stones. They moved around and occupied places in fairs, outside temples. The villagers came to them to get utensils and repairs. They considered themselves higher than the ‘Mati’ Wadars. The third category namely ‘Gadi’ Wadars involved itself with stone quarrying, loading and unloading the same on the vehicles and hence the use of the word ‘Gadi’ meaning vehicle. They were also involved in digging wells and small scale cultivation. It is not surprising then that deriving from their traditional occupations they are now engaged in construction work in the urban settings.

The Colonial rulers branded them as Criminals because of their traditional profession. The act of digging and earth cutting made the Colonial rulers feel threatened. They were perceived to be digging out important minerals and resources. This led to their branding in taxonomic precision along with other castes and tribes. Any kind of extraction or digging required the permission of the collector. However, this kind of disciplining was not usual for the Wadars. Very often, they would not take permissions while digging.

Traditionally, they engaged in multitude of manual and informal work like digging soil, filling soil, breaking stones, making sculptures out of stones whilst their forefather followed a nomadic lifestyle, wherein they worked in one field or another. They stayed on the fields of a landowner for eight days or so, where they helped in laying boundaries around the fields, or helping build drainage systems, harvest the crops etc. In exchange of this, they did not take any money but some food grains which would help them survive for almost a week or more for the entire family. This ‘movement’ was precisely what made the Colonial rulers wary of their identity. Hence, forget ownership of land, their very identity was branded and stigmatised.

On the Margins of the City

Since the nature of their livelihood was such that wherever they found work they settled, it was not difficult for them to settle on the peripheries of the city, contributing substantially in the development of the city suburbs. As per a study conducted by this author, the Wadars are settled in four major areas in Mumbai namely Jai Ambe Nagar (Near Indian Oil Nagar), Mukti Nagar (near Govandi Station), Panjrapol (Near Chembur) and Koparkharna (Vashi Naka). Apart from these four areas, the Wadars are also settled in large numbers in Lal Dongar. They migrated from Andhra Pradesh and parts of Karnataka and finally settled in Maharashtra. The people settled in Vashi, Mukti Nagar and Panjrapol have been in Mumbai city for a longer while now. Many of them migrated from the drought affected regions of Karnataka and Andhra to Pune, Nashik and Mumbai in search of livelihood.

These places were mostly jungles and very sparsely populated. They did not have to face resistance from any institutions of state around that time, as land prices were still low and these areas were not lucrative properties. As they settled down, they helped in the development of important centres which later became the economic centres of suburbs of Mumbai and Navi Mumbai namely the Bhabha Atomic Research Center in Chembur, Chemical Plant in Mandala, Anushakti Nagar, Nausheel Company on Thane-Badlapur road. It was not difficult for them to find manual labour work, which was their inter-generational skill as well. They helped in laying lines for railways etc. But as the mechanisation increased, slowly their options for livelihood became scarcer and scarcer. Since these centres also did not need them anymore and needed their own premises, they started throwing them out from the very spaces they had helped creating.

Community members located in various areas faced issues of housing, rehabilitation, water, electricity, health, education and basic necessities of survival in varying degrees depending on the location. However, the major concern was the difficulty in accessing caste certificates, in the absence of which, they can’t access social security benefits.

Marriage in the Wadar community

Marriages are an important method of enquiry into a culture. Marriage is not simply a cultural act or institution but an economic and political one. In fact, the decisions of an individual or society itself to follow the institution of marriage is very much a political one. Marriage is a significant event in an individual’s life. The assimilation and acceptance into normative societies many a times depends on this custom. Many a societies actively propagate the customs of marriages to carry forward the uniqueness and salient features of the society. Some do it as part of an economic exchange while others as part of political agenda of the dominant culture or even their own culture. Marriages shape entire identities for women, if she is good or bad, if she has a sense of culture, if she values her traditions, if she is virtuous or lecherous. Whether a woman is normal or psychotic is also determined many a times by marriages and hence become an interesting point of study or discussion.

In the course of my interactions marriage was a significant point of discussion as the lives of women would be shaped by either the concerns and worries of marriage or the events surrounding or following it. In traditional societies, the identity of the woman has come to be associated with the identity of the man and hence marriage becomes a significant departure from one’s own life towards the others’.

“When I got married, we took tree leaves and made a temple by ourselves out of those tree barks and leaves. In that all the customs of Haldi used to take place. This was how our parents got us married. These days they set up mandap, hall etc. These are new trends. Earlier they used to bring in tree leaves from mango, Babool, Papaya, Jamun”, recalls 60 year old Yellubai who lives in Panjrapol in Mumbai’s eastern suburbs.

Also, that probably people like Yellubai are the weakening links of the Wadar community from their historic past and from nomadism itself. While there is still time for the villages to adopt the dominant themes of marriage, the urban areas play a role in somewhat homogenizing the traditions, here the economic aspect play a role more than the cultural. Some women also emphasised on having a ‘Marathi Shaadi’, indicating the fast Sanskritization that these communities are going through.

While the elderly women talk strongly about the specific customs and how Wadar folk songs were a customary part of the weddings, the relatively younger ones like Suman talk about their weddings comparable to Maharashtrian ones. Old to young, this pattern was common. This is indicative of the fact how cherished their sense of culture is to them and how hard they were trying to hold onto in the city space where nature of relationships is fast changing. They are trying to assimilate the complexities of city, of time, money and space while still trying to hold onto the basic essence of the customs. There is a strange sense of derangement of the prosperity and a memory of good times. The city has been harsh on them and yet they save, they plan and manage to perform the wedding in the most elaborate way that is possible.

“When a girl leaves her house to marry someone, she is out-casted from the Samaj. It is the question of honour! But when a boy marries someone from outside the caste then to accept the girl in Wadar Samaj, her tongue is burnt with gold coin to purify her and accept her in the Samaj”, say the women. The women first denied the question of punishment, only to accept it later. They further expressed their helplessness, “If the boy says that he wants to marry someone, what can we even do? But if a girls runs away, she is gone forever, let her die!”

Experiences of Widowhood

The Wadar community has a disproportionately large proportion of widows given how it is common for the men folk to die in their thirties and forties due to their hazardous means of earning a livelihood. Most of them lost their husbands soon after they got married and had children. Their customs have been described in such a way that if a widow is childless she can remarry, if she has children, she cannot. “The woman can take care of others’ children but the man can’t,” says Suman from Jai Ambe Nagar. There is a certain fear about the new man, the women felt. They say that it is better to take responsibility alone as most men in this community drink, so it was difficult to rely on anyone. They clearly were apprehensive about the kind of parenting the child will receive if fathered by a second husband. Also, they felt that even after marriage they will have to go through similar hardships and struggles where the man is disloyal, beats the woman etc.

“Marriage is a burden. One man can have 4-5 wives, one to work, another for physical pleasure (Balm Malna), and a third one to sleep with in the night,” said another woman. These statements indicate that women were not happy in their marriages, and even decided to stay alone as a matter of choice. It gave them a time to reflect and question the institution of marriage and what it meant for them. However, fully aware of these implications, some like Archana from Panjrapol felt that marriage was crucial for a woman’s life.

Being a widow meant more difficult negotiations in places of work or outside world. It added a new dimension to the vulnerability they were facing and that was the mental exploitation from the in laws and sexual exploitation from outsiders.

Other nomadic communities such as Pardhis show more openness and support for widow remarriages and are more egalitarian despite being one of the most oppressed and hounded communities. This meant that even within the nomadic communities women of the Wadar community were more vulnerable as widow remarriages were stereotyped and seen with a sense of shame.

Despite this, the women are putting up a resolute struggle for their existence in cities like Mumbai. Most of them live a life of hard physical labour. All they are asking the state to do for them is to recognise their existence and make the process of availing their caste certificates easier. They want better education and health for their children. And a life of dignity for themselves!

*Nowhere Existence is the title of an article from EPW

Relevant Reads :

  1. In Most Indian States And UTs, You Can Be Arrested For ‘Looking Poor’
  2. Why India’s persecuted tribes are marking their alternative independence day
  3. Tribal Voices: The Bhasha Research and Publication Centre
  4. Mahasweta Devi: Living for Justice, Living Forever

Note: This article is an outcome of an exploratory research study I undertook as a part of fulfillment of my Master’s Degree at Tata Institute of Social Sciences. The study was titled “Women from the Wadar Community: A Study of NT/DNT struggles in Mumbai city”. I would like to thank Professor Pushpendra Kumar and Professor Mouleshri Vyas who encouraged me to pursue this study and TISS-TANDA project in facilitating the process.

** Some names have been changed to protect identities

Original Pictures by Sushmita

Feature Image Illustration by Amir Rizvi

This story was first published on Nov 16, 2017. It is being republished on International Day of Human Rights to reaffirm CJP’s commitment to fighting for the rights of women who belong to oppressed communities.

 

2 Comments

  1. Also, from this it is evident that these communities are marginalized not just in the traditional caste order but also within the order of modern developmentalist governmentaliy of the post colonial state, being denied firm sc/st status even.

  2. Very thought-provoking. Studies of gender among the most marginalized in the caste order are vital now. I think it is time that we have had a serious debate on Uma’s formulation, Brahmanical patriarchy. I have been thinking about it quite a bit. Comprehending the structuration of patriarchy among avarna caste communities is a daunting task.

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