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Transforming her tribe

  • Mahila Bai Pardhi, the first woman from her community to give up the traditional occupation of hunting, is encouraging Pardhi children to do the same
  • The community was classified as hereditary criminals by the now repealed Criminal Tribes Act, 1871. Today, the Pardhis still contend with stigma.

Mahila Bai at the Bahelia Chhatraavaas Bhavan in Panna
Mahila Bai at the Bahelia Chhatraavaas Bhavan in Panna (Photo: Ravindra Vishwakarma/Mint)

A harsh sun beats down on a dusty road—desolate even around 10am, except for groups of cows snoozing in the middle—in Kunjvan, Panna district, Madha Pradesh. They are as yet undisturbed by honking motorbikes and autorickshaws, which will soon start speeding through. The silence is broken, however, by the squeals of children in Bahelia Chhatraavaas Bhavan, who are getting ready to go to school.

Just a few metres from the wrought-iron gate of this chhatraavaas, or girls’ hostel, Mahila Bai Pardhi, 36, sits matronly and sanguine, in a bright purple sari on a cot outside her one-room quarter, where she lives with her husband Bottle Pardhi, 40, and four children. She has gone through the morning’s routine—having woken up at 3.30am—of readying the 65 young schoolgirls from the Pardhi community. She helps them bathe and dress, oils and combs their hair, ensures they are fed and encourages them to revise their lessons before classes begin. And now she is taking a breather in the shade.

This may seem like mundane rigmarole, but what Mahila Bai has achieved is no ordinary feat. The girls she has just sent to school are the first generation of Pardhis in Panna to receive an education.

Jungle-jungle ghoomi aur bachchon ko le kar aayi (I roamed the forests to bring them here)," says Mahila Bai. “Some children’s fathers were in jail, some parents were very hesitant, but I explained to them that our future lies in their hands."

It is, in fact, owing to her efforts over the last 10 years that the community, branded criminal by a colonial-era law, has begun shifting from the traditional occupation of hunting and may be able to look forward to a future free of discrimination, routine harassment and ostracization.

This initiative, however, was born out of an entirely different concern. Between 2004-08, it was discovered that tigers had become locally extinct in Rajasthan’s Sariska and Madhya Pradesh’s Panna national parks, primarily due to poaching. The Pardhi community came under scrutiny, and in 2007, many of its members were caught in Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat for tiger and lion hunting.

“When I came into service, the Pardhis were being caught, beaten and sent to jail and kept there for two-three years," says Gola Krishnamoorthy, who was field director of the Panna Tiger Reserve from 2007-09. “A special investigation team would come from Gujarat as well and the forest department here would round up the Pardhis and hand them over to the team."

This is what eventually prompted Krishnamoorthy, in association with the government’s Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) programme, World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Last Wilderness Foundation (LWF), to initiate the process of rehabilitating and educating children from the tribe. But it would have been impossible without the support of the community, particularly Mahila Bai.

Today, K.S. Badhauria, the present field director of Panna Tiger Reserve, says the number of tigers in the park has grown to 59. And consequently, Mahila Bai has also made a significant contribution to the tiger conservation efforts in Panna’s forests.

While she sees this as a significant achievement, her focus is on the community and students. “Jaise duniya mein bade log hain waise hum bhi bade log banenge bachchon ko padha ke. (we will also become successful like others in the world if we educate our children)," she says.

In the primary school next to the girls’ hostel, close to 55 of the 139 students are Pardhis. With a day to go for their holidays, they are reading their textbooks and singing nursery rhymes. Young Juhi Chawla Pardhi, Mohini Pardhi and Pallavi Pardhi recite a poem they have learnt recently about three elephants caught in a spider web.

Outside, Mahila Bai breaks into a song of her own—a folk tune that sets the context for the history of her community.

“Undera baa be undera baa

Jamun mein jhopdi bandhti thi

Kewar kulhata khelti thi"

(We would roam from forest to forest, set up shanties under ‘jamun’ trees, and in and around those we would laugh and play)."

A screenshot from the promo of ‘Birth 1871—History, The State And The Arts Of Denotified Tribes of India’.
A screenshot from the promo of ‘Birth 1871—History, The State And The Arts Of Denotified Tribes of India’.

Traditionally, the Pardhi community, which traces its roots to the Rajputs, worked for the maharajas and then the British as trackers or assistants to big game hunters. Eventually, the British outlawed them under the Criminal Tribes Act, 1871, which classified them, and about 150 other communities, as hereditary criminals. Though the Act was repealed on 31 August 1952 and the Pardhis came to be classified as a nomadic denotified tribe, the stigma lingers.

“The public perception about this nomadic tribe has not changed, and they continue to be stigmatized and live as outcasts, further aggravating their economic hardships," reads the Evaluation Of Impact Of Rehabilitation Of Pardhi Children In Panna District Of Madhya Pradesh With Reference To The Wildlife Conservation report, published by the State Forest Research Institute (SFRI), Jabalpur, in April 2018. “For Pardhis the criminal stigma is attached from birth, and by the age of 16, ‘Pardhis name (sic)’ is usually featured in criminal records as a potential suspect. The police use the Habitual Offenders Act (1952) to harass the community. Public pressure in villages often prevents the nomadic community from settling in (the) village," it adds.

Spread across Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and parts of Karnataka, they continue to live on the fringes. While The Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, and other environment legislation prohibited the tribe from entering protected forest areas, where it has lived for generations, they did little to rehabilitate the community. As a result of all this, the Pardhis still face harassment from society at large, and the police in particular, and are unable to access social welfare measures, owing to a liminal position in terms of their official tribal or caste status. As recently as 2017, Indarmal Bai Pardhi, 30, from Bhopal immolated herself, allegedly owing to police torture and extortion. Instances of detention, even sexual assault against Pardhi women and violent exclusion from villages, are not uncommon.

Mahila Bai with primary school students
Mahila Bai with primary school students (Photo: Ravindra Vishwakarma/Mint)


Mahila Bai was born in the forests of Sidhi, Madhya Pradesh. “My grandmother loved me, she would do maalish (massage) with oils squeezed out from sesame, garlic and bird’s feet," she recalls fondly. Along with her 10 siblings, Mahila Bai lived a nomadic childhood. Her mother would sell medicines made from wild herbs or trinkets in villages, and her father was a hunter. “We would make temporary homes in the jungle out of plastic tarp or leaves and eventually pack up and leave," she says. “It was hard, we wouldn’t get any food for days and would sometimes need to survive on the juice of sagona (beach almond) and gunja (rosary pea) leaves."

When they were 10, the siblings joined their father’s trade—laying traps and small explosives made with gunpowder to trap game, some of which was sold illegally. “I never liked it, it didn’t feel good to take the life of another animal, but we had to make a living," she says.

By the age of 13, Mahila Bai was married to Bottle. The custom in the community is atta-patta, or exchange, Bottle tells me as we sit in the forest—one set of siblings marries another, usually at an early age. He imitates the call of peacocks and partridges, a skill he says he learnt from his father to help them hunt. “We would hunt big cats for our livelihood and smaller animals—birds, wild boar and hare—for survival," he says.

Life in the forests was not easy. And lack of access to formal healthcare facilities led to high infant mortality. “After we got married, three of my children were born in the forest," Mahila Bai says. “My oldest son died as a result of an animal bite when my husband had gone to rescue my young daughter, who had been taken away by a large animal," she adds. But Mahila Bai and her family soldiered on, moving around the forest and doing what it took to feed their children and earn a livelihood.

A guided walk through the Panna forest
A guided walk through the Panna forest (Photo: Kedar Bhide)

It was around this time that plummeting tiger numbers led to security being tightened in Panna. And so, when Krishnamoorthy’s attempts to approach the community began, Mahila Bai was among the few who did not take to her heels. She was determined to change course for her children and community. “When Krishnamoorthy sir came, everyone ran away, but I didn’t," says Mahila Bai. “We had had enough of running from the authorities and the promise of educating our children and giving them a brighter future was appealing to me," she adds.

Over the months of September and October 2007, Mahila Bai took charge of the operation. She travelled across the forests in Panna, along with her husband and his brother Kheer Babu, convincing members of the community. “Without Mahila Bai’s help, the project could never work since the community would look upon us with suspicion—before she collaborated with us, they would repel the forest officers, abuse them, even bite and fight them," says Krishnamoorthy.

In the first year, close to 100 Pardhi children were taken to a residential bridge course camp in Panna to assess their capabilities and assign them to different classes. Efforts still continue over the phone, even WhatsApp, to encourage Pardhi parents across Madhya Pradesh to send their children to school.

Yeh nahi rehte toh hum bachche dene wale nahi the. Hum Sarkar ko dekh ke jugle mein bhag jate the (if it wasn’t for Mahila Bai we would never have sent our kids, we would see officers and run deep into the forest)," says Fatfatiya Bai Pardhi, who sent her children to school in 2007. “We were worried that they would arrest our children and we would never see them again."

In the last 12 years, the numbers have grown nearly tenfold. The SFRI report states that from 2007-17, 1,419 children from the community have been taken through the bridge course.

“The transition has been tremendous. Earlier, the hostels were up to class VIII, which resulted in many of the students dropping out. However, due to the extension till class XII, students have started taking a keen interest in studies and many of them want to pursue higher education as well," says Bhavna Menon of the LWF, which started working with the community in 2009—specifically, with the two Pardhi hostels earlier run by the Panna forest department in association with WWF. The organization has also engaged youth from the community in vocational training programmes and summer workshops.

As she gets up to prepare for the lunch break, Mahila Bai smiles mischievously. “When they were giving out notebooks for the children, even I took one," she says. She studied up to class V along with the first batch of students and even got a “marksheet" issued. “I learnt how to write my name on the first day itself," she declares, before heading off to rein in the children, who have already started playing in the field.

Still, there exists a polarity within promise.

Participants observe pug marks during training for Walk with the Pardhis
Participants observe pug marks during training for Walk with the Pardhis (Photo: Courtesy Last Wilderness Foundation)


A few kilometres away from the hostel in Kunjvan is the temporary Pardhi settlement in Gandhigram. It is a world apart from the one their children inhabit, eating three meals a day and spending their days playing kabaddi, singing nursery rhymes or studying in colourful classrooms with inspirational quotes such as “lagan har mushkil ko asaan bana deti hai (hard work makes difficult tasks achievable)".

On the road by the cluster of shanties and a few mud-and-cement homes where the parents of these children live, a group of Pardhi women assembles in the evening. Springy Bai Pardhi’s tarp has a flickering bulb that fails to illuminate the faces of these mothers, who are still waiting for respite. “Jo bhagwan ne dharti maa thapi thi toh sab ke liye thaapi thi. Yeh nahi ki ek hi aadmi ya sarkar ke liye thaapi thi (God has created land and opportunities for everyone, not just one man or the goverment)," screams Mathra Bai Pardhi, her voice piercing the darkness. “The lohars (blacksmiths) were given their trade, the sonars (goldsmiths) theirs and we were hunters. We swore in Orchha because of the government to give up our trade in exchange for land and alternative means of livelihood. We have received nothing."

In 2007, Krishnamoorthy had also initiated training programmes for parents who agreed to send their children to school. They were taught construction and the manufacture of cement poles, but due to “constraints and other preoccupations", the department could not market the poles that they made. “But that is the only solution, they should be given vocational training and hand-holding should be done for marketing of the products and then only they can sustain," he says.

In the absence of alternatives, parents still tend to pull their children out of school to get them married early and help earn a livelihood. It is this lack of opportunities, coupled with aggressive ostracization, which has prolonged their marginalization and landlessness. “Police as well as settled communities regularly treat Pardhis as criminals and cases of police persecution, atrocities are regularly in news," the SFRI report says.

The Pardhi women in Gandhigram confirm this. They tell me villagers nearby blame, and even beat them, for petty crime or the death of animals in nearby forests.

Seated next to Mathra Bai, Kunti Bai speaks out. “Hum log Pardhi hai toh chahe hum kare ya na kare, yeh log batate hai ke humne shikar kiya. Hum hi badnaam hote hain (Just because we are Pardhi, people from the nearby village accuse us of hunting, our name is sullied)," she says. “Then the police comes, and whether we do anything or not, if they know anyone’s name from the community, they just arrest them and take them away."

The ambiguity about their legal and constitutional status has not helped. Over the years, Pardhis have been included and excluded from the list of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes, making access to welfare initiatives and affirmative action difficult. So while orders from the collector, Panna district, directed the release of caste certificates for nomadic tribes in 2018, applying for and getting these has been close to impossible for the Pardhis.

In spite of such odds, Sijaran Bai Pardhi, 23, and four others from the community have finished school and gone on to pursue higher education, competing in the general category. Encouragement from Mahila Bai and funding from the LWF is what keeps them going. “I want to do an MBA, then get a job. I am willing to take up anything—maybe even be a teacher," says Sijaran, a second-year computer student at Mahatma Gandhi College, Satna. “I will also make sure my children are educated so that they don’t have to go back to hunting."

Others like Rashnee Pardhi, 18, joined school in 2007 after her father was picked up by the police for hunting but dropped out after class IX. However, she is fighting on. Rashnee is one of 12 young Pardhis who have trained to be part of the Walk with the Pardhis initiative by Taj Safaris, the forest department and LWF, organized as a tour of the Panna forests.

“This is an experiential walk in the wilderness and utilizes the traditional skill sets and knowledge of the forest possessed by community members," says Menon of the LWF. “This initiative has not only given a source of income to the community but also leaves them feeling confident and accepted when they meet different kinds of people from all walks of life who appreciate them and their skills instead of being derogatory," she adds.


Back in the primary school, lunchtime is over and the children are back in their classrooms, scribbling away in their drawing books, or working diligently on addition and subtraction problems.

On a lone chair in the field outside sits Anil Kumar Khare, a teacher now retired from the school. He used to teach environment studies and English when the first batch of Pardhi children joined. “Initially it was very difficult for them—they had to leave their parents and since they grew up in the forests, they had no environment of education and no home," he says. Along with the alphabet, Khare and his colleagues would spend time teaching the children to dress properly and help students from Kunjvan and the Pardhi tribe adjust to the change. “We explained to them that these are also your brothers and sisters, and slowly they started to get along and study together."

Since there are still a few hours before school ends, Mahila Bai has time to continue showing me the work she set out to do over a decade ago. She takes me to the site of a new hostel being set up for the residential boarding course for Pardhi children.

As our shared auto rattles across Panna town to the new hostel, Mahila Bai says she has also urged her brother Anshu Pardhi to send his children, promising that she will find work for him there as a security guard. “I called relatives across the country in forests, asking them to send their children, especially from where my parents live in Maihar," she tells me. “I told them to trust me, that I will take care of their children and make sure they never go back to hunting."

When we reach, Anshu is already at the gate, with children running around, visibly excited to see the familiar face of Mahila Bai amidst the new hostel warden and other staff.

All 25 Pardhi children in the new batch cling to and play with her, and a sense of hope fills Mahila Bai. There is still work to be done in rehabilitating the Pardhis into the “mainstream", including a change in police attitudes, societal awareness and simplification of bureaucratic procedures, but Menon believes that with role models like Mahila Bai, this change will come.

“Mahila Bai has always come across as a very strong influence in her community. Dedicated to this cause, Mahila and her husband have been working for the past nine years, slowly and steadily changing the mindset of the community with regard to hunting, despite opposition from other members of the community and despite the temptation to return to poaching owing to the large sum of money it offers," she says.

Anshu and his children are perhaps proof of this. “I quit school in class VII to go back and roam the forests to take care of my parents who had no support," he says. “But I gave it all up when Mahila Bai said that we should consider the lives and future of our children."

As Mahila Bai sits the children down for a quick welcome talk, making jokes and singing songs, the effort is to keep them from missing an ever unfixed idea of home, and decry the fate their parents continue to be trapped in. “Your parents have lived a life of difficulty and suspicion, your future will be better. Tum sab naukri karoge, aage badhoge (You will all work, and move forward)," she says.

The duality of hope and despair across generations of Panna’s Pardhis has perhaps never been more aptly encapsulated.

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