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The Qalander tribe have traditionally been a madaari community of bear dancers. After the Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972, they were promised rehabilitation but live in penury, the women most affected.
As a kid, most of us must have seen madaris who would make any animal dance on their terms. Though no longer on the streets, madaris still brings back sweet memories from our childhood. However, the plight of madaris strikes a great contrast from the memories that we have attached to them. The madari community is currently one of the most vulnerable communities in India, and the most vulnerable among them are women and young girls.
One such madari community is that of the Qalander- a tribe of Indian Muslims who have, for generations, made their living by bear dancing and selling their hair and nails (also known as the Madari). They poached sloth bear cubs and taught them to dance. The Qalanders believe that this practice began with a Sufi man named Boo Ali Shah Qalander, who gave their “forefathers” one bear to begin performing with. Since then, it is believed that bear dancing has been the main source of their income.
Their only source of income- the bears was, however, taken away from them under the Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972. Under this law, the government established bear rescue facilities throughout the country, where the animals were to turn over. Since then, the community has been living in acute poverty, and appalling levels of basic facilities, and the most vulnerable among them are women. Though the government had promised them compensation, and the community was guaranteed to avail of a rehabilitation plan, however, these plans have not been implemented.
Furthermore, pleas were made, claims Azad Khan- the Pradhan (head) of the Qalander community of Haryana’s Ballabhgarh, to give jobs to the community members in the forest department. “But here we are without a job and proper houses. We do not know what happened to the cases we have filed. We still have the documents. The photos. But no income. Our women and children do not have a life with dignity,” he says while showing the documents.
A member from Qalander Tribe showing his affidavit with an attested photo of him with a bear. This was created as proof during the case. Photo Credits: Moin Shah
The community is classified as the Other Backward Caste or the (OBC) by the government and lives in great poverty, without access to the basic necessities. Pradhan’s wife, who wishes to remain unnamed, mentions that their basti lacks any toilet facilities. While the ambitious Swachh Bharat Mission- Grameen claims to have built over 100 million household toilets in rural India over the last six years, the plight of Qalander basti of Ballabhgarh tells another story.
“Young girls must go out in the open. We do not want this to happen, but what else can we do?” says Pradhan’s wife annoyed.
A member of the Qalander Community with his legal documents used during the case, surrounded by the women residents. Photo Credits: Moin Shah
We still live in a country where women are not allowed to step outside of their houses after sundown but are left with no choice but to go out in the open to use washrooms. We still live in a country where women are put on a pedestal and are considered goddesses and at the same time are disproportionately affected by a lack of safe and accessible water. They are not only primarily responsible for arranging water for household chores but for maintaining menstrual hygiene in addition. Lack of accessibility often puts their health, mental and physical body at risk. They are prone to diseases, infections, and at times, harassment.
“We do not have a permanent water supply here. A tanker only comes once in the morning, and we all rush there to get our buckets filled,” says Pradhan’s wife. When asked what happens in case the filled buckets are not enough, she replies, “then we do not have any other option. We either ask for water from someone else or wait for the next day for the tanker to come.”
Akhtari, one of the female residents of Ballabhgarh’s Qalander basti also shares the struggles women have to go through due to the lack of proper water supply facilities. “The tanker has no fixed timing. Somedays it comes, other days it does not. We just have to be prepared to cook for our families in any case, akhir khana to khana hi padega na (at least one has to eat).”
“Many have come and made big promises. But no one fulfilled it. Not even one hand pump,” Khan says sighing. Women in the community are forced to work at a young age. They either work as house help or as scrap collectors. Many are often married off at a young age too because the families are unable to provide for the basic needs of a girl once she hits puberty.
Kalandar Colony is another settlement of the Qalander community on the outskirts of Delhi, near Dilshad Garden. There also, the condition is the same. The basti is a cluster of more than 1800 houses. Furthermore, the basti is located close to the city’s oldest landfill. The colony is also near a dumpside, which works as a catalyst making women vulnerable to health problems and the lack of proper water and sanitation facilities. Though a Water Kiosk has been set up, allowing the habitants 20 liters of safe drinking water per day. However, this is not enough, as it does not include the water used for bathing, sanitation, and other purposes, which are also essential. There too, the women remain the most vulnerable among all.
Entrance of Kalandar Colony, Dilshad Garden. The board reads: Cluster Kalandar Colony. Photo Credit: Ishita Roy
Asfia, a female resident of Kalandar Colony however has a different narrative to tell. She shares that despite the installation of the Kiosk, there is no regulation for its usage. “Every time there is an election, we are promised different things. But it is never fulfilled. We receive no help,” she continues, “during the pandemic, we were to receive ration, which was never delivered. We (the women) stood in long queues for the basic things that we deserve.”
Asfia here points out a very minute, yet important detail about women standing in queues for ration, which of course added to their never-ending list of chores.
A report by Counterview confirms that there was indeed mismanagement of handing out rations to the habitants of Kalandar Colony. Further, the report mentioned instances of men being beaten by the police on instances of stepping out during the lockdown, which may have been the reason why the women took up an added responsibility of ration collection.
Qalander women seen gathered on the footpath right outside the Kalandar Colony which is located near a dumpside. Photo Credit: Ishita Roy
Dumpside right next to the Kalandar Colony. Photo Credit: Ishita Roy
Many women of Kalandar Colony are also forced to work as house helps in the nearby residential areas. “We do not want our girls to go to someone else’s house and work for them. But again, what choice do we have left?” says one of the community members. It was also revealed that most young girls who work as househelps get to fulfill their basic needs at the mercy of their employers. Often, there have been cases where someone donates sanitary pads to girls who work there. There are many stories like such where these women had to rely on their employers to help them earn a dignified life.
Though the Wildlife SOS has launched the Tribal Rehabilitation Programme, which aimed to provide the women of the Qalander community with adequate training and financial help so they can choose an alternative source of income. This way, they will not only be financially independent, but this independence will also allow them to afford a better and safer life. However, this initiative is yet to reach the women of Ballabhgarh’s Qalander community, among many others.
Photo from when the Qalanders had a flourished business of performing with animals. Photo Credit: Moin Shah
Though there are many tribes in India that are marginalised, however, when it comes to the Qalander tribe, they come at the lowest of the lows. Not only is the tribe marginalised and categorised as denotified, it is also a Muslim tribe, which makes the situation more unfriendly towards them due to the current political scenario. Way before these acts were implemented, the Qalanders were also actually licensed by the government to carry out their profession. They had performed at many official events and enjoyed certain privileges too. All of this was suddenly taken away from them, including their right to live with dignity. The entire tribe was suddenly stripped of their rights, hopes, and dreams, consequently, leaving the women most vulnerable.
The Right to Livelihood is given to us by the constitution. In this case, the court interpreted that on parity of reasoning business in animal species on the verge of extinction being dangerous and pernicious is, therefore, not covered by Article 19(1)(g)- to practice any profession or to carry on any occupation, trade, or business. This decision has left the community with no alternative source of income. The skills that they learned from their forefathers were declared ‘illegal,’ which made it even more difficult for them to start anything new. The inability to earn has further taken away from them the opportunity to hope for a brighter and safer future for the community’s women and children.
The government, while framing the policies, did not consider a planned program for the rehabilitation of those whose livelihoods are dependent on animals. Developing such policies quite literally calls their very existence into question and in the case of Qalander community, it is the women who fell victim to it.
Header image source: YouTube/ The Bear Dance
Ishita is based in Delhi and is a student of History and Journalism. She covers stories on law, gender and heritage.
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