Since mid-November 2017, the Pardhi basti in Gandhinagar, Bhopal has been in protest after a young Pardhi woman, Indermal Bai, lost her life because of relentless emotional and mental abuse by police officials. Indermal Bai is not a lone victim of harassment — physical, emotional, economic and sexual — and dehumanisation by the state apparatus. Her story resonates with the experience of several Pardhis residing in different pockets of Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat.
The Pardhis, meaning hunters, are a migratory tribe who were primarily hunters. Criminalised under the colonial Criminal Tribes Act, they were denotified tribals but excluded from the social fold for their refusal to allow caste structures and sanctions. They have always been at odds with the social fabric and are looked at as criminals by the legal system.
With the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972 prohibiting hunting of animals and the nationalisation of forests, the Pardhis were pushed into scrap collecting, hawking and other activities. In Bhopal, they settled in different localities, a journey involving many evictions and displacements, and are currently settled in Gandhi Nagar, Ehsaan Nagar, Kharond, Rajive Nagar and Baskhedi near Kola Road.
￼The otherness of Indermal Bai is complete, they refuse to even acknowledge her pain even as she burns alive.
Indermal Bai was a wastepicker and used to sell the make-up she would carry to fairs and markets. The youngest of ten children, she was doted upon by her eldest sister Geeta Bai, a woman who yields considerable authority within the Pardhi community. After her two children, Ashikana Bai, aged 13, and Ashikans Singh, aged 10, were born, Indermal Bai’s husband was hit by polio and paralysed. She then moved to her mother’s small shanty in Gond basti and continued to live as a single mother.
Police presence in the basti was regular. Therefore, Indermal Bai was not taken aback when a week before Diwali, police constables Sandeep, Gajaraj and ASI Rameshwar Yadav came to her house and demanded money from her. She told them that she did not have money and they left. Two days before Diwali, they visited her again and, this time, demanded Rs 20,000 from her. Indermal Bai, struggling to provide for her two children, was not in the position to raise such a sum.
After the festival, the demands turned into threats of false cases. A distraught Indermal Bai along with other troubled residents of the bastis in Gandhinagar, raised the matter of continuous police presence and harassment, including violence and extortion demands, in a jansunwai — a public hearing.
Jansunwais have been organised every Tuesday for the last five years by various government departments in Madhya Pradesh. On the one held on November 14, 2017, the residents submitted a letter to the collector, demanding that police personnel be disallowed from entering the basti without due cause and extorting money.
On November 17, 2017, Indermal Bai and Ashikana Bai were going about their morning chores. At 7am, the three unwelcome visitors yet again arrived and declared the Pardhi women had stolen a sack of scraps collected over Diwali, refusing to believe otherwise. They snatched away the sack and asked Indermal Bai to pay them money or else go to jail. At around 12 noon, the three police personnel returned, threatening her that they would report to the station-in-charge and lodge a complaint of theft against her if she did not yield.
Enraged and helpless, Indermal Bai and her daughter told the police that they were ready to accompany them, for a life in jail would be better than this life of constant harassment and torture, and started to walk towards the police station. Constables chased the mother-daughter duo away from the gate of the police station.
At around 2.30-3pm the same day, the three police personnel returned. Indermal Bai threatened to pour kerosene over herself and self-immolate if they did not leave her alone. When they refused to believe her, she doused herself in kerosene. Even at that moment the police continued to gaslight her, thinking she was making empty threats. Ashikana Bai snatched the matches and the lighter from her hands and went to throw them away, but when she came back, her mother was ablaze — screaming in agony even as the policemen sniggered, rejecting Indermal Bai’s trauma and calling her a drama queen.
Ashikana Bai contends that Gajraj, who was smoking a cigarette, threw the match or the cigarette on her mother. Along with her neighbours, Ashikana Bai rushed to put out the fire while the policemen watched, passing snide remarks. When she asked them to leave so that the women could remove Indermal Bai’s clothes from her burnt body, the three police personnel refused to leave. They then bullied autorickshaw drivers who were brought to ferry Indermal Bai to the hospital with threats of legal cases and drove them away.
They constantly remarked “Woh bas natak kar rahi hai”.
Pardhis, who have, for centuries, refused to integrate within the Hindu caste fold, form an unintelligible lot and have been socially marginalised, delegitimised and oppressed. A sick system of caste-patriarchy at its most fundamental dehumanises the Pardhi woman. It creates a bubble of violence in every Pardhi space it enters by first holding to ransom the lives of those it considers easy to oppress, and then denies the affect it creates altogether.
Sandeep, Gajraj and Rameshwar Yadav are not exceptional characters in a gruesome story; they are every elements of a system which dehumanises and delegitimises the experiences of the “others” like Indermal Bai. Intoxicated in power, these constables in the lower rung of the hierarchically rigid police order bullied a Pardhi woman until they broke her down into threatening suicide.
In their masculinity, they refused to believe her threats, effectively prodding her to prove her pronouncements, to deliver to her “empty threats”, to prove that she was not like the other Pardhi women — the drama queens. The otherness of Indermal Bai is complete, they refuse to even acknowledge her pain even as she burns alive.
Indermal Bai’s mistake was that she forgot that her life, that of a Pardhi woman, did not and would not matter to these constables and to the larger state apparatus. She forgot Tinti Bai, another young Pardhi woman who committed suicide after being accused of stealing petrol — she was beaten up, detained in the police station, and released after her kith and kin were abused, verbally and sexually.
A State Human Rights Commission (SHRC) judicial committee of enquiry was set up in January, 2008, presided by justice Dharmadhikari. The commission found several guilty and held that this incident is a part of the continuum of repeated and systemic harassment of an extremely vulnerable group. The report gathers dust and no action has been taken against those found guilty.
Indermal Bai breathed her last between November 19 and 20, 2017. Admitted on November 17 with 60 percent burns, her recovery escalated in the burn unit ward at Bhopal’s Hamidia Hospital. She gave her statements to the DIG (police headquarters), to the magistrate and also spoke to her family and well-wishers. Assistant superintendent of police, Sandeep Yadav — heading the investigation into the complaint (an FIR has not been filed) — has been quoted by the media as saying that Indermal Bai’s sari caught fire while she was burning the scraps.
Meanwhile, Geeta Bai, Dinu Bai, Ashikana Bai, along with the rest of the basti, rally in Bhopal demanding that an FIR be registered, running pillar to post, flocking police stations, and have now approached the Jabalpur High Court — pleading for adequate, impartial investigation. While they have no faith in the police, they refuse to allow the system to fail them altogether. The question remains: despite these efforts, will the system fail them?
It feels like a rhetorical question.