The nomad and the state

October 02, 2022

Modernity and rapid urbanisation have reduced the space for the mobility of the pakhiwasa people

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met pakhiwasa people for the first time in 2015 when my professor took us to meet them near the Ring Road in Lahore. He wanted us to meet the people who, according to him, existed beyond the political and moral compulsions of the mainstream society. The pakhiwasa people of the Punjab are nomads, distinguished by their colourful-patched tents.

They live a semi-sedentary life. They stay at a place for a while and then move on. They don’t leave anything behind except a few remnants of a makeshift stove or some pegs that had held down their tents. Modernity and rapid urbanisation have reduced the space for them. Historically, the pakhiwasa have lived a subsistence life. They required fertile fields and green pastures for their cattle but due to increased urbanisation such land is rapidly disappearing from major cities in the Punjab. As a result, they have become slum-dwellers. These days they mostly live in their colourful tents over giant garbage heaps on the outskirts of the city. Sometimes we see them at traffic stops, begging for alms.

The pakhiwasa’s integration into the mainstream civic structures cannot come without a heavy price. The modern state apparatus requires documentation of all its citizens.

It is difficult for the modern state to monitor people who roam around undocumented and unregistered. The first attempt to bring the pakhiwasa under the control of the modern state was during colonial rule. The British introduced laws like the Criminal Tribes Act (1871), Gentoo Code (1776), Anglo-Mohammedan Law (1860), and the first census of India (1872). Most of these instruments introduced hetero-normativity, criminalised identities and fixed social categories. The pakhiwasa in the Punjab were rounded up by the colonial police, subjected to interrogations and incarcerated for resistance.

After the departure of the British, the pakhiwasa are still dealing with the consequences of the colonial ways of governance. The state refuses to issue them identification cards for lacking a permanent address. As a result, they cannot even access basic health facilities. A pakhiwasa showed me an injured leg and told me how he had been refused treatment at a hospital because he didn’t have an identification card.

The first attempt to bring the pakhiwasa under the control of the modern state was during the colonial rule. The British introduced laws such as Criminal Tribes Act (1871), Gentoo Code (1776),Anglo-Mohammedan Law (1860) and the first census of India (1872).

The lack of documentation also means that they cannot access education and their children cannot go to schools. Even though a few projects are under way for the development of the pakhiwasa people, there has been no substantial progress. A few schools were set up for their children and the government forced a few of them to settle down by building them homes. But forced settlement necessarily involves abuse of power. Most of the nomadic children therefore are out of school and refused healthcare.

The criminalisation of the pakhiwasa has led to ostracism. They are seen as hereditary criminals and are often at the mercy of the powerful. They continue to be the victims of the arbitrary power of the state and are frequently questioned, bullied and arrested. It is no surprise that they are often found living on the outskirts of the city.

How does a nomad fit in the modern state’s mechanisms? How does the modern state, which operates through written documentation, including permanent residence addresses, deal with people whose mode of life is oral and mobile? It is hard for the state as well as the pakhiwasa to reconcile until the state takes some serious measures to negotiate with the pakhiwasa people. It is imperative that the pakhiwasa get political representation as an indigenous people and the colonial practices are reversed. The state needs to take the pakhiwasa people on board about the decisions related to their community.

Forced settlement of the nomadic people should be stopped forthwith and an effort should be made to help them adapt to the necessities of the modern world. They should be allowed to develop their own curricula, preserving their culture and heritage and respecting their way of life. The state should issue them health cards to allow them access to public hospitals.

The pakhiwasa have roamed these lands for thousands of years. They have their identity, heritage and cultural legacy. They are crucial to the cultural diversity of the region as they embody a way of life that has become increasingly endangered. It is imperative for the state to allow them to exist and thrive without infringing on their freedoms.

The author can be reached at She tweets at MariamDogar2

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