Akhilesh is not his real name. Even his surname is not his family’s. As a matter of fact, he wants to hide his roots in the Kanjar community, once outlawed by the British as a ‘criminal tribe’.
The tribe was decriminalised after Independence but 67 years later the 2.50-lakh strong Kanjar community of Madhya Pradesh has found that breaking free from the shackles of social stigma is easier said than done.
The Kanjars want education, jobs and an end to what they call police harassment but their unsavoury past and continuing criminal activity of a section of the tribe is making the transition difficult for the entire population.
“Even landlords won’t allow us to stay if they come to know that we are Kanjars…so many of us are using surnames of other communities,” Akhilesh told HT.
He is among a few youngsters from the community who are pursuing higher studies in different colleges in Indore, the state’s economic hub.
For this closely-knit conservative tribe – spread over Dewas, Shajapur and Ratlam districts -- change has been slow to come by.
It was only in the eighties that the first among the Kanjars of Madhya Pradesh started going to school and even now there are only a handful of graduates and very few are gainfully employed.
There are no doctors or engineers from the tribe though all the children are now going to school. However, officials admit that dropout rate is high especially among the girls.
In Ukhedia village of Jaora tehsil, a small Kanjar habitation in Ratlam district, the youth dreams of simple pleasures of life – cricket, a secure job and end to the social stigma, though not necessarily in that order.
Many like Sandeep Chouhan, 20, who is pursuing a bachelor’s degree and aspires to land a government job, hoped that the government will come up with schemes for the tribe.
“We expect (Prime Minister Narendra) Modi to do something that will give more jobs for the youth,” he said.
Some like Dasharath Hada and eight others from the same village were lucky enough to land a job in a well-known pharmaceutical company in Ratlam but lost it recently due to downsizing by the company.
The Kanjars now want that their community be recognised as a nomadic tribe and given reservation.
“The other communities are far ahead in education and we cannot compete with them,” said Rajkumar, a class 12 student.
But what really annoys the community is the continuing police “harassment” -- whenever there is a crime nearby the needle of suspicion points to them.
“This is always the case. Even if we are not involved the police will come, poke around our houses, humiliate us if we resist and then go away,” said Sandeep.
Another youth Anil Hada said that the “police are aware about the bad pennies but they brand everyone as criminals”.
But the police’s suspicion of the tribe is rooted in the Kanjars’ criminal past. Over the years, many of the community have been involved in various criminal activities, not only in Madhya Pradesh but all over the country.
Not surprisingly, police from almost all major cities have come searching for criminal elements among the Kanjars in Madhya Pradesh. Even now some of the Kanjars are into criminal activity, especially stealing from trucks, known as “truck cutting” in Kanjar parlance.
Another reason why Kanjars fall foul of the law is their practice of brewing country liquor. In Panth Piploda, another Kanjar habitation in Ratlam district, many of the houses have the necessary equipment for brewing country liquor outside their houses. But a slow subterranean movement against liquor is also gaining ground.
Many of the Kanjars in Panth Piploda have become followers of a religious movement and have given up liquor and non-vegetarian food, tribe elders said.
However, even government officials admit that the tribe is emerging from its dark past. “The number of incidents (involving Kanjars) has come down in the last few years when compared to previous years,” said V Madhukumar, inspector general of police, Ujjain range.
Police said that in 2003 and 2004, many Kanjars surrendered in Ratlam and Dewas districts. Krishna Sisodiya of Kanjar Sudhar Samiti, who was instrumental in motivating the Kanjars to surrender, said that “the tribe wants to give up their life of crime and lead a normal life”.
He, however, added that the tribe needs the “support of the administration…otherwise all the good work that has been done will collapse.”