Balakrishna Renake fights for people who do not exist, at least not on paper. They do not own ration cards. They do not feature on voters’ lists. They do not get subsidized homes or other such sops from the government that regularly hands these out to the underprivileged. They, quite simply, do not exist.
They are the Nats, the Durgis, the Dewars, the Bhantus, the Pardhis, the Khanabadoshs, the Kalandars, the Gadia Lohars—almost unrecognizable names—who constitute the denotified, nomadic and semi-nomadic tribes of India. Denotified tribes are those declared criminal by the British in 1871. This law was repealed after independence but the stigma attached to these tribes remains.
“The government has not been able to do anything for them,” said Renake, 68, who has worked as an advocate for such tribes for almost four decades.
Now, a few months short of completing a two-year term as chairman of the government-appointed National Commission for Denotified, Nomadic & Semi-Nomadic Tribes, Renake has toured 14 states to prepare a list ofthese tribes. He is also suggesting ways to stop atrocities against them.
His most recent case is the lynching of 10 men last month in Bihar’s Dhelpurwa village for alleged theft. Renake volunteered to investigate and found that none of the men had a criminal record. They were members of the Kureri tribe of Bihar, which survives by collecting honey from beehives in forests and killing small birds.
“These people are not given the right to live, the right to exist,” said Renake.
Renake understands the plight of such people. He hails from a family of Gondhalis, a nomadic tribe that roams the states of Maharashtra, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh, singing songs for food. On one such visit, a local leader spotted Renake and requested his parents to leave the then seven-year-old boy behind so that he could be educated.
Renake spent the next few years running away from school to rejoin his parents, till a sports scholarship got him hooked to school. But theroad was not smooth, and after graduating in science and spending two years as a teacher in a private school, Renake found himself homeless again. This time, he made Mumbai’s famed Dadar station his home for six months.
Just as Renake did in his youth, hundreds of nomadic tribes roam around Indian cities. Children of the Nat tribe turn cartwheels and dance for money at traffic signals; members of the Bhat tribe specialize in puppet shows and have graduated to playing drums at marriages to suit urban tastes; the Gadia Lohars sell iron implements by the roadside.
Cities and villages of modern India are equally unwelcoming to nomads, although the country’s folk tradition draws substantially from their stories and music. Pop culture has used them to add colour to stories; Bollywood movies of the 1960s and 1970s including Caravan, which is often described as India’s first road movie, romanticized the Banjaras, a nomadic tribe.
Only a handful of Indians have cut through the haze of prejudice surrounding these people. Writer Mahasweta Devi is one and has written stories based on the exploitation of denotified tribes.
Renake respects the contribution of writers but he prefers action—something that results in a material improvement in the life of denotified tribes. He says he’d like to see tangible benefits such as the guarantee of livelihood for pastoral tribes so that they can settle down. To inspire state governments to give land to denotified tribes, Renake conducted a livelihood experiment in 2001 in Solapur, a semi-arid region in Maharashtra. Inspired by Japanese scientist Masanobu Fukuoka’s One Straw Revolution that looked at small-scale, high-yield farming with minimum inputs, he set out to extract the maximum yield from one-fourth of an acre to prove that poor communities can become self-sufficient with even small amounts of land.
The focus on tangible gains that can be won for forgotten people makes Renake unique, says a fellow activist. “Anna is a constructive thinker. He is not one to come out in the streets and shout slogans,” said Minar Pimple, who heads the United Nations’ Millennium Campaign in Asia and affectionately calls Renake elder brother, or Anna.
Pimple met Renake in 1992. As founder of a non-profit organization, Yuva, Pimple had successfully sued the Maharashtra government for custodial death of one and illegal detention of 20 Pardhis, a denotified tribe. It was then that Pimple came across Renake, who had been working for denotified tribes since the late 1960s and had organized a rally of 25,000 people from denotified and semi-nomadic tribes in Mumbai as early as 1972.
Renake’s entry into activism was sparked off by a report in 1966 which said the Maharashtra government had set aside funds to train the youth of these tribes for jobs as automobile drivers. He began to study these schemes, and talk to members of such tribes, only to realize that the money was not reaching its target. At the same time, the Dalit Panther Movement in Maharashtra made him realize the power of mobilizing and bringing a community together. Since then, Renake has been a tireless campaigner for denotified tribes, highlighting their problems, and urging governments to help them with everything from jobs to land to houses.
Through this period, including some stints in jail, Renake survived on the salary of his wife, Sharda, an officer at the Mumbai Port Trust. The two met and fell in love when he was working as a salesman while living at Dadar station.
Now, Renake is part of the very administration he has clashed with time and again, and he is aware that he is in a position to do a lot of good—provided the government listens to him.
He has a wish list ready: he wants the Planning Commission to set aside money for these tribes; he wants state governments to enact laws to stop the persecution of these people by the police or mainstream communities; and he wants land to ensure livelihood for them. More than any other thing, he wants a population census of these tribes. He says their number will touch 120 million—more than one-tenth of the country’s population. There’s more to this demand than there being strength in numbers—a census will be the ultimate recognition of the fact that denotified tribes actually exist.
Sixty in Sixty is a special series that we are running through 2007, the 60th anniversary of India’s independence. We will introduce you to sixty Indians—both here and abroad—who are not rich or famous. These are people who are making quiet, but important, contributions without seeking headlines, to help make India and, in some cases, the world a better place. We also welcome your suggestions on people whom you think should be profiled in this series. Please send your suggestions by email to firstname.lastname@example.org