REPORTS & ESSAYS
In Conversation with Hasina Nat
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Hasina Nat belongs to one of the most marginalised communities: the Nat community, whose traditional occupation is “begging”. She speaks of the dilemmas and the contradictions of our caste-ridden society where the life of a woman and that of the most marginalised is another hell. Hers is a story for us to understand as what ails the society, and how layers of castes rob each other of respect and dignity. Nats are considered to be nomads, and villagers do not accept them easily; they are looked down upon. Interestingly, they follow both Islamic and Hindu traditions. This interview reveals the issues of caste and gender discriminations prevalent in our society at all levels. At present, Hasina Nat lives in Kushinagar district.
Vidya Bhushan Rawat in conversation with Hasina Nat:
What is the meaning of the song you just sang?
I am helpless and I beg for a living. I eat what I get from begging, if I don’t beg I get no food. And if I return empty handed, my father beats me.
Hasina Nat is from the Nat community, which is a very underprivileged tribe that has to struggle a lot to survive. Hasinaji is fighting for her rights within and outside her community, and she has struggled a lot all through her life. Today we are going to talk to Hasinaji about human rights on natural resources and land resources, and we will see what is the standpoint of women regarding these issues.
Hasinaji please tell us what are the problems you are facing at present?
Our first problem is we can’t own land either in cities or villages. Other people won’t let us have land, so we can’t settle down anywhere and we have to keep moving. All we want is to live like other people in a society, but people won’t let us build our own houses. I have been living in Kushinagar district for a long time but they won’t let us have land to even sit down.
How many people of your family are living together there?
I live with my parents, my in-laws, and other relatives; we all live in the same place.
How many people in total?
20-25 people. I live a little separately from others. We earn a living in whatever way we can, sometimes we work as daily labor or we beg. People build temporary houses when they come to a new place, but they can do so only if they have land. The same way, we go to places hoping to settle down, but separately from my in-laws. We live in each new place for about a year and then as soon as the next year approaches, people come and complain that only noble people live here, and if they let us live here we will settle permanently, and they can’t let that happen. This way we are forced to leave wherever we go. We are always being pushed away and we have been wandering like this for about 15 years. All this time, to survive, I have been begging and doing odd jobs. I saved some money and bought 2 kattha (measure of land) plot. In addition to that 2 kattha we took half a katthaa more which was previously barren land, and we have been living on that. Now they are saying that we have to live on that 2 kattha and let go the half kattha as I don’t have any right over a barren piece of land.
So you bought 2 kattha land and within that 2 kattha there is barren land as well?
Yes, half kattha of that was barren land. We live in such bad condition that if we leave the house unattended even for a short time, it falls down and we have to come back and reconstruct it. Sometimes I fear that the roof may fall on us and we may die. So we thought to make a proper house which won’t fall down so easily and which also be will safe for our kids. We started constructing our house and people came and started protesting – they even felled a wall. That wall took us 3 days to build, and we had to pay Rs3000 for labor cost. They told us we can try to build, but they won’t let us build our house. Then they took the half kattha barren land from us, and now we are living on the rest of the land. We have nothing else to do, nobody supports us.
Did you build your house on that barren land before?
Only a temporary house.
They even pulled that down?
Does everybody in your family own land like you?
No, the others are living wherever possible.
Nobody has a permanent house?
You have been wandering for 15 years from village to village?
Yes. For almost 20 years.
Don’t you think you should get some government assistance?
We get nothing. We don’t even have a ration card.
Do they invite you when there is any celebration in the village?
Yes they do. But they won’t let us have our own houses as we are beggars.
In their opinion you don’t have the right to own a house as a beggar?
We don’t even have the right to settle down in a barren piece of land.
This is because you have the title of “beggar” attached to your name, but you also do tattoos?
How much do you earn from that?
Sometime 50 rupees, sometimes 10 rupees, sometimes even 100 rupees.
Do you know that tattooing in cities is very expensive?
But here it is not, for a big one we get 100 rupees or 50 rupees.
How much do you earn in a day?
Sometime I earn 100 rupees, sometimes I get nothing.
How far do you go to beg in a day? How many villages?
Till wherever I can walk. Sometimes I even walk to the city.
You have to return at night, and still you walk so far?
Yes, I walk till where I can and then I come back.
Does your daughter work too? What does she do?
She begs like me. After every 2-3 days when she is hungry, and there is no money left at home, and when there is nobody to borrow from, she goes out to beg.
What is your name? (Question to the child)
Do you want to study? (Question to the child)
Yes I want to study.
Why does your father hit you? (Question to the child)
If I don’t go to beg he beats me.
Don’t you feel bad to beg? (Question to the child)
If I don’t father will beat me.
Would you want to study if given a chance? (Question to the child)
If you are admitted to a school will there be any problem? (Question to the child)
No problem, but my father will beat me.
Why will her father beat her?
Because he is an alcoholic.
How much do you earn by begging? (Question to the child)
I don’t get money from begging; I get rice.
How much rice do you get in a day? (Question to the child)
1 kg – 2kg is enough for a day.
Why will any parent want their child to go out and beg?
It doesn’t feel good to send her out to beg.
Then why don’t you argue with your husband? What does your husband do?
He does nothing. Sometime he goes out to graze cattle for other villagers and earns little money, which he then spends on drinking. Sometimes he beats us and takes our money to buy alcohol.
He must be earning a good amount of money by grazing cattle?
No he doesn’t.
Apart from that he doesn’t do anything?
Didn’t you ever demand land from the government?
Yes we did.
Nothing, we went to Ludhwari for 7 days once, and we went to Gwalior, which is 360kms from there. We walked all the way there to meet with the Parisad leader, but nothing changed for us.
There must be people who don’t want to beg?
Even I don’t want to beg.
People who want to get into some other profession, do they get to do other work then?
No, they don’t. They don’t get any other work.
There is more money in other jobs?
But people don’t let us work. If it was possible I could have sent my husband to work instead of drinking.
Do you live separately from other villagers?
Yes, if the village is on one side, we live on the other.
Are you treated differently in the village because of you caste, for example, are you treated like untouchables?
People don’t let us touch them and they won’t touch us, they won’t sit with us, they won’t even let us sit on a chair. They tell us we come from the Nat community so how can we sit on a “khatiya” (rope bed)! How can we sit on a chair!
You got your own land and you were forced to move. Who told you to move?
People that own land for “village community use” – they told us to move.
But that is government land, how can they own government land?
They first encroached the land by putting up temporary houses, and they demanded ownership.
Which caste are most people in your village from?
Mostly there are Brahmins and some Muslims.
Who encroached the most amount of land?
Do they also treat you as untouchables?
But why? You are also Muslims.
Yes we are, but they don’t consider us Muslims because we do tattoos and celebrate different festivals. We are on neither side. When we go to a Hindu house to beg for food we are considered as Hindus and when we go to a Muslim house we become Muslims.
If you go to a Muslim community to beg wearing a sindoor don’t they say anything?
Yes they do. They criticize us. They say that I have a Muslim name so how is it that I am wearing sindoor? I say, “What can we do we have to live”. The Muslims won’t let us be a part of the community, they won’t even let us pray.
This is a big problem if nobody accepts you.
No, nobody accepts us.
So when you go to a new village, don’t people of the same religion give jobs to your children?
Nobody gives us jobs.
If nobody accepts you how will you send you children to school? How many children do you have?
I had 7 children, but one died.
My son was about 10 years old and a 30 year old man sexually assaulted him. One day my son returned home, and he was bleeding. I asked what happened but he wouldn’t say anything. I asked other people who were grazing cattle with him at that time about what had happened. They said a man offered my son one rupee to do some work and my son went with him. My son was sexually assaulted for one rupee. This happened 4 years ago and my son was only 9 at the time. The man didn’t even pay that one rupee. I took my son to the hospital but they told us to go to another hospital because they couldn’t treat assault victims there. We went to the district hospital but couldn’t explain what happened. That night I came back and drank. Then I went to the person’s house who raped my son to demand answers: why did he do this to my son!? He was from a powerful family.
From which community was this person?
He was a Yadav. We went to the pundit to ask for justice thinking that he is educated, and maybe he can do something. But he said “we are letting you live in our village so you can’t tell this to anybody. Here, take Rs 150 for your son’s treatment.” I said my son is bleeding how can I treat my son with 150 rupees. He then started to verbally abuse me and threw me out.
I was scared so I came back home. I took my son back to the doctor on the third day because the bleeding wouldn’t stop. The doctor told me not to be scared and that I should go to the district medical unit and report at a police station. When I complained the police came immediately but by then the man had fled, and his father was arrested. Then the pundits came to me and started threatening me. At that time I didn’t even have my land. They said they wouldn’t let us live there anymore, so we moved to my mother’s house. The pundits came after me to my mother’s house in cars. We were scared but we thought what could they do, at the most they will beat us so we went out to meet them. The pundit then held our hand and said, see we are higher caste educated people and we’re touching you, so now you will have to listen to us and return our child if you want to live in our village. Everybody was watching us. We thought if we want to live in Kushinagar we will have to listen to these people. I then got into their car and went with them to the police station. There the police officers advised me not to take back my complaint because the criminal could be put to jail for a lifetime, and if I get scared and take my complaint back he will not be punished. They told me not to be pressured by anybody and that I should do what I want to do. I knew the police was with us, but I was still scared.
What did you settle for?
That this shouldn’t happen to us again.
Then what happened to your son?
He died after 6-8 months.
And during this time the problem continued? He wasn’t cured?
No, he wasn’t.
Were you offered any help?
Nothing, but during the settlement the pundit who took us to the police station gave me 3500 rupees.
And Yadav, didn’t he offer anything?
Not even a rupee. They took him away after he was released from the police station and the pundit gave us only 3500 rupees. I tried to treat my son with that money, but he died after some time.
So how many children do you have now?
4 sons, and 2 daughters.
Was he the eldest?
No she is the eldest, others are younger than her.
What was your husband’s role in all this?
What will he do, he is deaf in one ear and a drunkard.
In your community do people often drink?
Do the women drink as well?
How long do you think the children of your community will have to beg?
The problem has increased in present times. Earlier people had big gardens and orchards, and my people used to go and settle there and nobody bothered us. Nowadays people don’t have big orchards. We can’t even live under a tree or on the roadside.
Where do you get married?
We marry within our caste.
Suppose somebody is from Kushinagar will she/he marry in Kushinagar or go somewhere else?
No they have to go to another place.
You can’t marry in the same village?
You still don’t have your own house.
The people won’t let us build our house.
Did you ever vote? Do you have an ID card?
How long have you been staying in your present village?
For over 20 years.
Do you have a ration card?
No, nobody asks us.
And the others from your community, don’t they have a ration card?
Some do and some don’t.
Didn’t you ever think of getting together and unite to fight for your rights?
We tried many times. I have so many documents to show, but nothing changes. We have fought so much for our land rights, but we don’t get anything. Nobody pays any attention to us.
You speak so well, you are strong, and you fought so much, don’t you think if you had studied even a little you could have done better?
I still want to study.
If I arrange for your and your daughters’ education would you be able to fight for your community’s problems?
Yes of course.
What is your immediate problem? Is your house problem settled or not? Do you still get threats?
Yes, I do. I let go of the barren land that I took, and I am now staying on my own land but I still can’t build my house.
Was that barren land attached to somebody else’s land?
That land is attached to a pond. Every person who owns the pond encroaches the surrounding area.
So other people can encroach land entitled for village community use but you can’t?
Yes, others think they can take whatever land they want, that it’s their birthright, but we can’t.
How much empty land that has previously been allotted for the village community been encroached upon by people from other communities?
All the surrounding areas are taken by Khuswahins.
Do they treat you as untouchables too?
Yes. They discriminate us and ridicule us for being lower caste.
They don’t even invite you?
Yes, sometimes during marriages. But they don’t invite everybody, only the community heads.
Has it ever happened that you went to a marriage and other guests objected because of your caste?
Yes, they don’t let us sit with others.
This story of Hasina struggle reveals that the caste system in our society discriminates Dalits, and more so against females. Hasinaji’s fight is both within her house and outside. We hope who ever watches this video for the sake of humanity, will think about these problems for the progress of our society, and will try helping communities like this, so that they can move forward. Only then will there be peace in our country and villages, and people can live happily together. Even if one person is treated badly in our society, it is a systemic failure, and there can never be peace.
Just 2 months ago, it was really cold, and my husband and I were sleeping. It was almost 9 o’ clock at night. A “babu’s” (powerful person of a village) son who is not a good man barged into our house and grabbed me. If somebody grabs anybody’s wife in front of the husband, how will the husband feel! My husband pulled me back and told me to run away. There were 2 people – one came inside and the other was standing outside. I was so scared for my life and of being raped, and I have small children to look after as well. I then took my children and ran away. We hid all night behind bushes, shivering in the cold, while the two men beat my husband. His whole body was bruised and his forehead cracked open. They even destroyed our house and threw away our beds.
Didn’t you complain to the police?
Yes we did, but they bribed the police so the police didn’t listen to us. Then we went to the women’s police station, and they said that I should appeal to the SP (Superintendent of Police). We did, but still nothing happened.
In the village where you live you are mistreated because you are a woman and because of your tribe. Is there nothing you can do?
We are mistreated but there is nothing we can do. We asked for help from the police, we went to the women’s police, we even went to superintendent’s office but nobody helped us.
Doesn’t any political party representative or leader offer any help?
Nobody comes to us. Only Ramadharji helps us. He is the one who wrote all the police applications which I took to the police station, but the police didn’t take any action and forced us to leave.
Why don’t you and others of your community fight together?
We can’t, our people are weak and poor, and our enemies strong. W e are helpless.
The economic situation and the caste divisions in our society don’t let people come together for their own protection. For this reason, some people look down upon women and feel no shame in taking advantage of underprivileged women. Further, because of administrative inadequacy women feels unprotected. This is the present situation of rural Indian villages where caste division, and caste discrimination is still predominant. The laws of the central government are still ineffective in villages where there is still caste-based discrimination. There is nothing more shameful.
Hasina Nat is from the Nat community, an oppressed tribe in India, which struggles to survive. The Nat peoples are forcibly removed from their homes, which pushes them into a nomadic and precarious life. Hasina, as we have seen, fights each day for her rights.
Published with minor edits.
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