Ram Gopal Nath began focusing on his studies at the age of eight when he sensed a decline in snake charming, the traditional occupation of his family. In this, he was unlike the other children of the saperas, or snake charmers, who accompanied their fathers to the jungle to learn to catch and remove snake’s venom.
“I could see the change around me,” Nath, now 29, said. “People’s interest to watch a snake sway to the tune of a pungi [a musical instrument] had been waning with the arrival of new forms of entertainment.”
The promulgation of the Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972, which proscribes the keeping of wild animals, hastened the decline of snake charming, particularly in urban areas. “Saperas were being caught for carrying snakes in the cities, which restricted our business to the rural areas,” Nath said.
Nath lost his father a few years after he decided to focus on studies, forcing him to start earning his livelihood and support his family of five while continuing his education. He completed his schooling and enrolled in a local college in the Bachelor of Arts programme.
After graduation, he tried to enrol in the Bachelor of Education course, which is mandatory for the job of school teacher, but the fee of Rs 1 lakh dissuaded him.
He is not the only one. Over 30 members of the community in his village couldn’t continue their studies, and have gone back to their traditional occupation of snake charming, while supplementing their income with manual labour, two members of the community told IndiaSpend.
“I was disheartened and wondered why our community, despite being socially and economically backward, is not considered for affirmative action by the government – similar to the country’s historically disadvantaged socio-economic groups such as Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes,” Nath said.
Twenty-eight communities of the Denotified Nomadic Tribes, Nomadic Tribes and Semi Nomadic Tribes in Uttar Pradesh are not listed in any of the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes or Socially and Educationally Backward Classes categories, according to the 2018 National Commission for Denotified Nomadic and Semi Nomadic Tribes report.
Denotified Nomadic Tribes, such as the saperas, have asked for inclusion in the Scheduled Castes or Scheduled Tribe categories, but their demand has been stymied due to the absence of data from a caste Census since 1931.
We have reached out to the Development and Welfare Board for Denotified Nomadic and Semi-Nomadic Communities in Delhi, and to Uttar Pradesh government officials for their comment on a caste census and on including missing communities of the Nomadic Tribes and Denotified Nomadic Tribes in the lists for affirmative action.
Those who practice snake charming belong to the Denotified Nomadic Tribes. The community turned towards education during the early years of this century to equip themselves with professional skills and compensate for a decline in their traditional profession, several community members say.
However, the new generation of saperas has grown sceptical about the benefits of being educated when their community is not officially recognised as socially backward.
“Sapera parents stop sending their children to school beyond class 8 as they know they won’t be able to compete with the general category students in the job market,” says Raghuvir Nath, 50, who lives in the same village as Ram Gopal Nath.
Census delay, population estimate
“The census – conducted by the Centre – could have provided crucial details about the communities’ socio-economic conditions, which would have helped the administration assign an appropriate category to them,” said BK Lodhi, ex-deputy secretary of the National Commission for Denotified, Nomadic and Semi-Nomadic Tribes.
“A lot of the DNT communities suffer untouchability as well, which is an essential condition for their inclusion into the SC category. However, a lack of socio-economic data of the communities has kept them in the non-reserved General category, hampering their social upliftment.”
The Uttar Pradesh government recognises the saperas in only three of its 75 districts, based on the community’s pre-Independence population estimation, according to Ramendra Kumar, the additional statistical officer at the SC and ST Research and Training Institute in Uttar Pradesh. Thus, only the saperas of Mathura, Saharanpur and Allahabad are eligible for caste certificates, which is an essential requirement to claim state benefits approved for DNT communities.
However, the community claims it is present in at least 20 districts, citing an internal survey conducted by the All India Nomadic Sapera Vikas Federation, an Uttar Pradesh-based non-profit organisation.
Another reason for the incorrect estimation of their numbers is that sections of the sapera community deliberately misidentify their caste, for fear of being caught by the police on the suspicion of being a criminal, a remnant of the pre-Independence Criminal Tribes Act.
“The DNT communities carried the scars of their past when they were branded ‘born criminals’ by the British, under the Criminal Tribes Act,” Lodhi pointed out. “An official government document of 1961 mentions that the communities hid their identities during state government surveys that were aimed at providing welfare schemes to them.”
State government officials say the community’s itinerant lifestyle also prevented their correct estimation. “They used to keep moving from one district to another, which made it difficult for the surveyors to identify their residency,” said Abdul Wahid, Additional Statistical Officer, SC and ST Research and Training Institute, Uttar Pradesh.
As high as 64% of the communities of Denotified Nomadic Tribes and 35% of Nomadic Tribes are not included in any of the three categories that facilitate reservation in education, political representation and government jobs in India.
India’s Constitution-maker BR Ambedkar classed “criminal caste” nomadic groups along with the untouchables and the tribals, outside the four caste-based hierarchical system, says Pradeep Ramavath, associate professor at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Guwahati.
Ambedkar acknowledged the definition of depressed classes – the previous term for the Scheduled Caste communities – as “impure” “on the basis of the status of untouchability and other historical stigmas that they have undergone, Ramavath added.
Ambedkar put the untouchables under the Scheduled Castes and the tribals in the Scheduled Tribes categories. However, he opined not to include the nomadic groups into these categories “as he felt that since the communities were not settled in one place, they could be misrepresented by other groups if given representation through reservation”.
Rama Shanker Singh, Academic Fellow at Ambedkar University, points out that nomads were not concerned about their non-inclusion in the Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe lists in the early decades of the country’s Independence as they were then not dependent on the state for livelihood.
However, changes in environmental laws, societal tastes and technologies over the last few decades have rendered their traditional professions increasingly irrelevant, forcing them to settle down and look for alternate professions.
“The nomads’ primary demand from the government is for a new category like SC/ST,” says Singh. “However, if that is not possible, they would prefer to be included in any of the three reserved categories.”
Meanwhile, the Anthropological Survey of India is conducting an ethnographic survey of 255 denotified nomadic tribes, nomadic and semi nomadic communities, including saperas, across the country. R Subramanium, Secretary to the Ministry of Social Justice, was quoted by the Times of India as saying that the survey would help the government find out where to place the communities among the three categories.
“269 nomadic tribes have no reservation,” Subramanium told a Parliamentary panel in April while discussing the ASI survey. “Where will we place them, whether among OBCs or SCs or STs? ... A big survey is on to give an opinion. It is progressing well.”
Balkrishna Renke, former chairperson of the National Commission for Denotified, Nomadic and Semi-Nomadic Tribes, underlined that the socio-economic condition of the DNTs is even lower than that of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, necessitating that the community’s share of reservation be ring-fenced within the three reserved categories. “DNTs should be sub-categorised within the larger SC/ST/SEBC categories so that a certain share in the larger reservation percentage is guaranteed to them.”
This article was first published on IndiaSpend, a data-driven and public-interest journalism non-profit.
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