In MP’s Betul, Pardhi Tribe Lives Like Refugees in Its Homeland

The Pardhi community has been rendered homeless after a mob razed its village in 2007. 

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Chauthiya village being razed down by earthmoving machines in 2007. (Photo: <b>The Quint</b>)
In MP’s Betul, Pardhi Tribe Lives Like Refugees in Its Homeland

There have been days in the month of January when the temperature in Betul, a city in Madhya Pradesh, dropped to as low as 2.5 degrees.

For the rest of the populace it was time to get out the woolens. However, for a group of four hundred-odd Pardhis, a historically poor nomadic tribe that has largely existed on the fringes of society, there has not been any respite. Their only option has been to endure the biting cold that would make their teeth chatter. They neither have the woolens nor the quintessential rajais and shawls. And most of them just cannot afford them.

Even now the city continues to be in the grip of a cold wave. The dispossessed and displaced Pardhis have been living here as refugees in an abandoned bus depot for the past nine years, waiting for the elusive justice and long-promised new houses.

And because it has been almost impossible for them to secure proper jobs or set up even street businesses since they are homeless and stigmatised, many Pardhis have no other alternative than to beg on the streets.

On 11 September 2007, a mob led by local leaders  destroyed houses of people belonging to the Pardhi community in MP’s Chauthiya village. (Photo: Sunita Malpani/ <b>The Quint</b>)
On 11 September 2007, a mob led by local leaders destroyed houses of people belonging to the Pardhi community in MP’s Chauthiya village. (Photo: Sunita Malpani/ The Quint)

The Pardhis' Endless Legal Battle

Life wasn’t always this cruel. They had proper houses with legal pattas and their own village. That village no longer exists as it was destroyed by a mob about 9 years ago. Since then, these Pardhis have been fighting for their survival, camping on this open ground in Betul. A few days ago, they filed a writ petition in the High Court demanding an interim relief in the form of temporary houses, a school for their children, and even some quilts and winter wear such as shawls, sweaters and jackets. In the previous years, cold waves have claimed a few Pardhis. They don’t want to let that happen this time. Seeking justice has been a slow affair and a tough job.

The current court battle is strangely looped because it is about trying to get an order passed on an order that has already been passed but not complied with. The High Court had earlier ordered that the Pardhi families be given new houses and their children be provided with a school and basic civic amenities in a new area. But since the administration has so far failed to act on the court order, passes over three years ago, the Pardhis were forced to file an appeal seeking interim relief.

Although a piece of land has been earmarked for them, no houses have come up there and the plot is lying vacant. Besides the case for interim support, there is a ‘contempt of court order’ that is being fought in the High Court. The community had to file this petition since the district administration did not comply with the court’s order for rehabilitating them.

From Residents to Refugees

The fateful incident that transformed the Pardhis into refugees in Betul occurred on 11 September 2007. Two tractor-loads of hooligans belonging to the Kunabi and Kiral communities entered the Pardhi community’s Chauthiya village in Betul district and began razing the houses, setting them on fire, and looting valuables.

Elected representatives from political rivals, the BJP and the Congress, watchd the violence. Not only that, a few policemen too were present there as mute spectators. These facts are well noted in the report of the National Commission for Denotified, Nomadic and Semi-Nomadic Tribes (NCDNT) that investigated the incident.

The incident took place around 8 am when Sanjay Yadav, Block Congress President of Multai, and Raja Pawar, Zila Panchayat Member (BJP) from Multai, came with a few hundred of their supporters and started demolishing the Pardhi settlement and setting the houses on fire. As the mob swelled to thousands, by around 10 am, their activities also increased.
NCDNT Report

Connivance of the Police with Local Leaders

Clearly, the mob had come prepared and was clear in its intent of destroying this village. Strange as it may sound, a video recording of this incident does exist where the mob can be clearly seen breaking down the houses one after another, and indulging in arson and loot. The High Court in its August 2009 order has also accepted the video footage as prima facie evidence against a few political representatives.

A day before that fateful day, on the night of 10 September 2007, the police had asked the residents to vacate the village on the pretext of threat to their lives. The police didn’t even let the villagers collect their valuables. They were brought to the nearby Multai station on the night of 10 September 2007 by the police.

The open land in Betul district of Madhya Pradesh, where the Pardhi community has taken refuge after being evicted from Chauthiya village. (Photo: Sunita Malpani/ <b>The Quint</b>)
The open land in Betul district of Madhya Pradesh, where the Pardhi community has taken refuge after being evicted from Chauthiya village. (Photo: Sunita Malpani/ The Quint)

Allegations of Rape

In the backdrop of what unfolded between 10-11 September was another incident – the rape and death of a woman from a nearby village of the Kunabi community. There was an accusation that she was raped by some men who belonged to the Pardhi tribe.

As it turned out later, the two Pardhis who committed this crime didn’t even belong to the demolished Chauthiya village. In fact, the people from Chauthiya helped the police track the culprits. Two persons were arrested and later convicted for this crime. These facts too are noted in the NCDNT’s report.

“This incident was used as a cover and an excuse to attack the entire village,” says Anurag Modi, president of Samajwadi Jan Parishad (SJP), a political outfit fighting for the rights of the tribals in Betul district. Anurag was also the first one to file a PIL in the High Court against the state administration in the Chauthiya village demolition case.

Colonial Past Haunts Pardhi Community

There is a historical background to the atrocities metes out to the Pardhis. Between 1871 and 1924, the British labeled over 400 tribes in India as ‘criminal tribes’ through a legislation called the Criminal Tribes Act (CTA). The idea was to bring several tribes living on the fringes of the society and who were perceived to be rebellious by nature under their direct control.

The biggest trouble with this law, in an already casteist society, was that this ‘criminality’ was perceived to be a hereditary trait. This law was later revoked by the Indian government and many of these tribes officially became nomadic and denotified. The Pardhis are one such denotified tribe.

However this legacy of the British Raj continues to haunt the Pardhis even now. The perception of being a criminal tribe persists and many even think of it as a genetically inherited trait.

People belonging to the Pardhi community are forced to live as refugees in Betul district, as they wait for rehabilitation by the administration. (Photo: Sunita Malpani/ <b>The Quint</b>)
People belonging to the Pardhi community are forced to live as refugees in Betul district, as they wait for rehabilitation by the administration. (Photo: Sunita Malpani/ The Quint)

Long Wait for Justice

In the nine years that have gone by, there have already been several appeals, rallies, dharnas, and protests to set right the wrong done to the community. The National Human Rights Commission and the National Commission for Denotified, Nomadic and Semi-Nomadic Tribes (NCDNT) have brought out reports. And now there is a High Court order too in the matter.

All of these have favoured the Pardhis and have said that the demand for their immediate resettlement is justified. But nothing seems to move the government machinery into a concerted all-out effort to build houses for the community. Anurag Modi says, “Delays and excuses plague the whole process of rehabilitation. Clearly there is a lack of will.”

The Pardhis are known for their physical dexterity, and. innate knowledge of forests, herbs, roots, plants and animals. The end of winter is still at least 2-3 months months away. The men, women and children, rendered homeless, wait for an apathetic administration to treat them as human beings.

(The author is a documentary film maker and a screenplay writer. This is a personal blog and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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