Tired and exhausted after a memorable sojourn in Lansdowne, we reached Kotdwara more than a couple of hours before the train’s scheduled departure. We had watched a sunrise, a sunset and a wonderful ‘moonrise’ all in a day. The sight of the rising moon from behind the mountains was pretty unique for all of us. I was relaxing on a bench in the station, enjoying the pleasant breeze when Rahul called me outside to eat an omelet. I was a bit hungry and bored as well, wondering what to do for another hour. Hari and I finished eating the omelets we ordered pretty quickly. Another omelet was on offer for Rahul who joined us as we finished our omelets. Raghav and Hari soon left after that. Two girls, shabbily dressed, unkempt hair, approached us and asked Rahul for ‘anda’. Rahul, being a samaritan that he is, gave them whatever was remaining in his plate. As they were eating the anda, we inquired about their names, where do they live. I felt to ask the usual question, ‘School kyon nahi jaate?’, which I realized was meaningless. They lived near the station, didn’t have a proper shelter. They asked, “Aur chahiye,” as Rahul emptied his purse and asked the vendor to make two more omelets, which they took and left immediately.
We were about to leave when a young man came and told us that what we did was good. Even he on a daily basis gave them 10-20 rupees or something to eat. Rahul then asked how does he know these kids. The man told us that their parents are Kanjars, they don’t do anything other than drinking, and the mother is probably into prostitution; they ate bones of dead animals and even humans. We were shocked to here this and we could sense the casteist tone in the language. The man was a taxi driver who lived in Kotdwara and often ferried between Dehradun and Lansdowne. Rahul then asked him his name. He didn’t reply for a few seconds and then came near us and slowly uttered his name, “Mohammad“. We were taken aback by this. Why did he take so long? Why did he whisper? We told him, ” Are bhaiyaa, aisa kya hai. Dharam-jaat mai vagaire hum vishwaas nahi rakhte, aap bhi mat rakho.” He told us that he was drunk and Muslims do not drink. I told him it’s no big deal to drink. We asked him not to drink and drive which is risking not just his life but passengers’ lives as well. Mohammad married early at the age of 17, falling in love with the girl who was just fifteen when she married him. He has three kids, all of them go to school and he has been married for seventeen years! We were both sad and happy hearing his tale. We took his number, introduced ourselves, where we came from and told him if we come back we’ll surely call him.
We went back to station, the train still had not arrived. We both were disturbed by whatever happened. Neither of us knew what the word Kanjar exactly meant but we knew it was casteist. We googled it to realize indeed it was. We came to know how a British act branded the whole Kanjar tribe as criminal under Criminal Tribes Act. A day before that I was reading Amita Baviskar’s book, ‘In the belly of the river’, where she described how colonialists viewed the tribals. They regarded those who lived in villages and cities civilized enough but the tribals were ‘uncivilized’ for them and they found it difficult to control them. Kanjar over a period of time became a curse word in North India and Pakistan. We both felt sad, how Indian society could not accommodate these tribals. No wonder they were regarded as Rakshasas in mythology, dark-skinned, bone-eating people who did nothing in life. They were savage, rakshasas.
The irony was that a Muslim was talking about Kanjars and both could not see how they both are oppressed. Oppressed over the years by the very society they live in. A large population of Muslims in India live in ghettos and live under poverty. Tribals have faced exclusion since centuries and they continue to face exclusion. Some of the reserved seats often go empty in premier institutions of the country. The question which we often don’t ask is how many of them even get through primary schools. What must they be facing studying in a school, when generations before them did not even have access to these facilities.
The train arrived and we left Kotdwara, with the wonderful memories in Lansdowne and that one conversation in Kotdwara. It left an impact on us. It did.