They live amongst us but no one knows of their existence.
I made my way through vendors and street food sellers at a bus station in Phagwara, Punjab, while waiting to meet Lalit Saklani, a 41 year-old woman who spent her life as a social worker teaching underprivileged children.
Within a few minutes she showed up smiling and immediately ushered me down several busy lanes towards the home of the north Indian nomads. Alienated from the city with a brick wall, I entered a different world. The well maintained urban roads lead to a dirt path. The region was called Pehchaan Nagar. A sense of gloominess prevailed as smoke poured out of chimneys from small huts, leaving a smell of parathas lingering in the air. Dark skinned women, donning tribal paint on their forehead and chin, walked by, staring at me.
Saklani introduced them as the Kuch Band or Gihara tribe. The narrow lanes were full of tiny dark huts which were nearly empty, apart from one or two light rope bedsteads or charpois and a large trunk consisting of their belongings. Most of them had kitchens out in the open. The road was full of dirt and potholes filled with rain water accompanied by mosquitoes hovering above. The region which was once a graveyard, is considered extremely unsafe because it’s covered with bushes and snakes.
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Saklani pointed towards their temple. There was a big peepal tree decorated with flowers, a red shawl and a makeshift palanquin, on which pictures of gods and goddesses lay. Turns out the Gihara tribe is spread across northern India, including Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan and the National Capital region. According to Saklani, it is a denotified community in Punjab and Haryana, as both state governments do not accept their existence. "They say there are no tribes, whereas my research reveals a population of approximately 70,000 in Punjab alone. Besides, there are many more tribes like them whose existence is not recognized by the government".
From where I was standing, there were about 70 to 80 residents in the vicinity. Children giggled, running and chasing one another. Some of the residents peeped out from their huts to stare at me as I watched a few mothers feed the children, while the grandparents smoked hookah. Saklani claims their community formed during the times of Maharana Pratap. “These people used to assist kings and his army men with menial tasks like setting up their tents, taking care of their belongings, cooking. They are basically nomads, if the need arises, they will pack up and leave.” However, the Gihara tribe I met with, had been living in Phagwara for over 19 years. Apparently, the British labelled them criminals and when the Indian government was formed, they continued to have no provision for inclusion of the tribe.
Saklani was keen to show me how she educated the children of the tribe. We entered a makeshift school she had made for them. It was a dilapidated one room building, full of students of varied age groups roaring, “Good morning didiiiii!” in unison. A white board on the wall displayed a weekly time table written in Punjabi. Next to the board, a huge sack was covered with study material. Adjacent to the sack was a tall iron shelf covered with loose sheets and books that were placed next to a window, which happened to be the primary source of light in the small room. There was also a makeshift kitchen in the corner next to a cabinet.
"We have divided the children according to their age and learning abilities. At present we have eight students for class 12, twelve students in class 10 and the younger ones are organized into classes depending on their capability," quipped Saklani enthusiastically, as she showed me around. She had divided pupils into groups named Shaheed Bhagat Singh, Gaddar and very young children were grouped under the name ‘Chillar’. She eased her work to a certain extent by organizing a mentor system in place, where the older students teach the younger ones. Each student is assigned a small group who they attend to during free time or in her absence.
What amazed me was how proactive Saklani was when it came to every individual in the tribe. It is through her efforts that almost every child in the tribe has their birth registered, otherwise it becomes an issue with the National Open School board. In 1999, along with her teaching partner Jaspal, she set up Apna Sapna Pustakalya, a school which educates the children according to their individual needs in different batches. They also try to enroll them in the nearest government or charity run schools. Saklani’s persistent efforts made the Gihara families realize the importance of education and how much difference it can make in one’s life.
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School for all ages
As a result, today every child in the community has access to free education. Jaspal played a key role in setting up the school. It all began when he was outside a cycle repair shop in the late ‘90’s. He saw two teenage Gihara tribe boys struggling with words as they held a newspaper. The boys wanted to learn. The idea took birth with the name ‘Apna Sapna Vidyalaya’. After meeting Saklani who had already begun work with the tribe, they decided to establish a full-fledged school for the children. This also meant it was essential to fulfill the norms as mandated under the Right to Education Act, which they could not do due to a shortage of funds. There was no proper infrastructure, playground or basic necessities in place to ensure formalities were cleared.
And so classes began in their homes. The duo dealt with varied challenges from difficult neighbours who tried to scare them away under the charges of land possession, to many of the tribes children being slow at learning and sometimes taking days to learn just one alphabet. However, there was a marked difference between the Gihara tribes children and the literate children in urban Indian homes. The Gihari tribes children never chased scores or aimed to beat others with a higher percentage. They were utilising education in their lives as a basic amenity to live. They absorbed concepts to implement them in their daily lives. For instance, in order to explain to them how a courthouse functioned, Saklani and Jaspal took them to a district court. And when the kids became obsessed with eating kulfis, they were taken to a low quality ice cream production factory and shown the process in which it was created. This worked to put them off bingeing on unsafe street food.
They plan trips to museums, hill stations and local zoos. From struggling to understand vowels, words, single alphabets and numbers, to eventually mastering the basics through associations made with Bollywood films and games like cricket, they have come a long way. The proof was apparent when I saw them beating Saklani at a game of chess. The duo claim the children’s brains are often a perfect combination of logical reasoning and creative thinking.
Today, Saklani and Jaspal have enrolled every child of the community under the National Open School, which follows a syllabus similar to NCERT. Unfortunately though, by the time the children are 16 or 17 they are married or have babies.
So while the Gihara tribes children have slowly begun embracing urban civilisation, they still remain slightly disconnected yet in sync with the outside world. And so the circle of life continues.
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By Jincy Chacko
Photographs by Jincy Chacko