Hasina, 35 is mother of 4 daughters and 2 sons is leading a rally of over 500 people from her community at the district headquarter of Kushinagar for their rights. A charming woman she was the first one in recent time during our Humanise India yatra who could tell me correctly 'How many children do you have'. Normally, families never count their girl child and hence it was a very pleasant surprise when she told me first about her daughters and then about her sons. I was quite surprised seeing her in traditional 'sindoor' over her head and asked who is her Husband? 'Jamalu, she said. Do you know the names of your children and she started Pinky, Manoj, Madhuri, Arjun, Arti, Varsha and so on. Spectacular for me as at many places I found people failed to count how many children they have and more because names never matters for Nats.
Hasina is the leader of Nat community in Kushinagar. As our Yatra reached Kushinagar, more than 500 members of Nat community assembled at the district headquarter of Padrauna to demand for their basic rights including land to them as well as BPL cards and other. Nat community is one of the most marginalized communities in India. They fall under the category of 'scheduled castes' but the villages they live in have never accepted them. They are an absolutely landless community. Most of the people do not have access to natural resources. Nats were nomads and hence always moved here and there to 'entertain' people and that resulted in their having different identities.
Fulmati 35 lost her husband some years back. She has two daughters and sons each. They are Sadiq, Rehman, Vikrama and Gulli. She says that they have to get to live their life. They even try to rear goats and chickens but because of unavailability of land they cannot do so. They live in temporary shelters and have to send their children for begging otherwise it would be difficult for them to adjust to their meals. In the village, they are isolated and cannot be touched.
Problem with Nat community is that they have adopted traditions of all the religions particularly Hinduism and Islam. They never believed in particular names so a Mohammad can have children like Ram and Seema while Ram can have daughter such as Parveen and Sulatana. As far as the living style is concern, they follow both the traditions. Women sports sindoors and follow the traditions of Hindus but on any festivities they keep fasting on Navratra but also keep Rozas during Ramzans. It is not that 'begging' is the only 'profession'. The boys do work at brick kiln, catching snakes, selling dry woods etc but since they have been nomads, none of the villages ever accepted them as them as citizen of the village. Due to lack of their numbers, villagers too treat them in contempt so they do not get NREGA work, nor land and houses are allotted to them.
Village Ravindra Nagar has about 65 families from NAT community. In all their strength is over 450. The village has Muslims and Yadav as dominant members and NAT are not touchable. They are looked down upon as they have no resources. In the village list they do not match as they are neither considered Hindus nor Muslims. Due to openness, their women do not cover themselves with Purdah and hence considered as 'cheap'. Daily when they go to beg they have to face lot of comments for being 'beautiful'. In a region where women are supposed to cover from head to toe, Nat women go and do work of tattooing and hence become 'visible' to public and that make them and their young girls vulnerable to all those 'poachers' who do not consider them human beings. That is why the villagers keep a safe distance from them as they live nomadic life. The villagers get Indira Awas for poor people but not a single person from the NAT community has ever got this. They are bypassed and not even considered for the same.
Ravindranagar is about 35 kilometer from the district headquarter of Padrauna. The community is living in makeshift tents. Some of them have land papers but no access to it. They do not get any BPL card. The children do not go to school. It is a community which bears the brunt of isolation with in the Dalit movement too. Since they are nomads and once upon a time declared a notified tribe during the British regime when any theft and murder would take the police to these communities without any fault of them. Education in the community is almost nowhere. Children cannot go to school as their parents send them for begging which is risky.
'Sir, we are Mangta', says Hasina and many others. How we can get 'respect' when they look down upon us, she adds. Hasina, with the help of other friends have formed a community organization for the NATs and now she has been elected as Vice President of ' Uttar-Prades Land Alliance' in its recent convention in Lucknow. How she feels now, I ask. 'It is a great feeling. I don't deserve to be here. I am not educated. How can I speak in front of so many people? Having come from the community it is difficult to make our feeling public but I can assure you that I will organise people and fight for our right.' Don't say you are Manta as this country itself is 'Mangta'. Brahmins do survive on alms so were the Bikkhus and none called them Mangta. This country seeks international support and never called mangta, so for the self-respect of your movement, it is important leave this 'Mangta' term aside, I tell them. It is time for a self- respect movement in the community.
It is tragic that young children are put for 'begging' and hence it is hoped that women like Hasina will place more emphasis on education of young children. The group was in Lucknow to participate for the first time in a state level conference and the impact were visible. A participant got a call from her husband,' where have you gone? You are becoming a politician now.' And the woman replied.' I am a woman and proud of it. I have equal right and will fight for it.'
Meena says that due to illiteracy and superstition we only live in 'deras' in the orchards. We never thought of ourselves and begged for our living. Today, people do not give us anything. It is more dangerous as they play with the 'self-respect' of young girls. There is a problem for us to send the older people for begging. No village considers us its citizen hence it is difficult for us to survive. Government must do something for us.
There are more problems particularly in death. They are not allowed to either cremate or burry their dead. Hindus and Muslims are united in denying them their legitimate rights. Despite the known fact that you won't find a community which follows the tradition of both Hindus and Muslims, it is shocking that they are not even allowed to perform their last rites according to tradition. It become more difficult for them because they are not consider village person.
One of the major quality works that community does is 'Godna' or what we called tattooing. It is a very old form of art in the tradition and they have kept it alive but they do not get more than Rs 150 in any day during the festivities and marriage season. That is the only occasion when they can touch people otherwise not. Nat community is very warms hearted and colorful. They live on their own conditions and religion was not really an important issue for them. They may be named as 'Mangta' i.e. beggar, but the fact is that they have transcended the boundary lines of religion. It also shows that religious boundaries are so narrow that people are ready to kill each other just in the name of identity. Nat samaj can give lesson of secularism to all those who claim secular values came to India from outside. It is not for the reason that Habib's father was Babu Ram while his son is Newton. Can we find any other sect or community in the world where a community has taken good values from all religions and names never mattered for them? Marriages are done both the ways. Some of them are tilted to Islam while others towards Hinduism but there have been no animosity but only warmth. Perhaps, in this caste-ist world where 'identities' matter so much that Nats are unable to be accepted because of their 'secular' values. They may not know the meaning of 'secularism', but they have given all of us values of life. It is shameful that those who can be lessons for others do not find time and space in our books of sociology and history. Nats are symbol of secular plural values even when they are termed as beggars. It is time, so-called civil society listen to them and take their message of love and affection. Government would do well to take care of their pains and agonies and give them a dignified life. Nats have woken up now as their battle for dignity and self-respect has just begun. Let us all make it a success.
Vidya Bhushan Rawat
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