Saturday, June 11, 2011

Bawarias, Sekhsarias and wildlife crime in India

Bawarias, Sekhsarias and wildlife crime in India
by Pankaj Sekhsaria

Or...The story of how I became a wildlife criminal

‘nathistory-india’ is an internet based e-discussion group on issues of natural history of South Asia, particularly India. It is an extremely active e-group with a wide subscription that includes stalwarts in the field of wildlife conservation: lawyers, researchers, activists, journalists, and many others who are passionately concerned and devoted to the idea of wildlife conservation.
I have myself been a member of this group for quite a while and believe that I have indeed made some valuable contributions to the discussions and the deliberations over the years. Things had been going on well till recently, and this particular story is of how matters took a sudden and unexpected turn in early April 2011. It started with the posting by a member informing of the conviction of a woman from the ‘Bawaria’ community for illegal trade in tiger parts. This started a chain of responses that went on for about six weeks and in which I ended up playing a key, and needless to say, ‘self-destructive’ role.
The first responses to the initial post were tentative suggestions from others that the name of any particular community should be avoided, because, presumably this typecasts a community and brings along many attendant problems. Swift responses by stalwarts from the conservation community argued that there was nothing wrong in naming the community because it was mentioned in the court records and further implying that in any case the community had a well-known record and history of crime and poaching of wildlife.
This is roughly the point at which I stepped in with points related to the issues of identity, stereotyping, etc. I noted that this was not anymore a ‘criminal tribe’ as had been alluded too and history had to be kept in mind when we dealt with communities that were vulnerable and disadvantaged. One rejoiner chided me for trying to mix anthropology with legal issues and the other tried, a little patronizingly, to explain that some identity or the other had to be used. I had in the meanwhile taken my first step to doom, I think, by referring to one of the lawyers in the discussion as a ‘bania’ and to another forest officer mentioned as a ‘bania or whatever’. The die had been cast(e).
Then came a strong-willed journalist who went back into the history of caste occupations, arguing that communities like Bawarias had always hunted but were now poachers because the law had changed. It was a ‘neutral fact’ that they had not ‘come out of their generations-old ways of earning [a] livelihood’. He stated that the British were much more egalitarian than us and that “only those who felt these communities (the Bawarias) don't do what is attributed to them can say that mention of caste or community is wrong. I gathered he was referring to me as being wrong because I had been the only guy making this point in the discussion so far.
My response to the journalist was an even firmer one – I questioned the notion of neutrality and argued somewhat ingeniously that “it is when we are all looking from a single view point that there can be an agreed notion of neutrality.” And then I typed out what I thought were my master lines – “Many of us here see the Bawaria as a poacher/criminal community that needs reform and change. If I were a Bawaria I might look at you as an upper caste English-speaking journalist who has only contempt for me. If this were a forum of Bawarias that might then be a neutral fact.”
The point may have been well made but the consequences, as I almost found out very soon could have been absolutely disastrous.
It was late that night when a knock on my door aroused me from my deep slumber. I opened the door to get the shock of my life – standing right there were the following – the upper caste journalist, the bania lawyer and a man in khakhi with a gun in his hands and a turban on his head (I couldn’t recognize what community he was from!).

“Are you Pankaj Sekhsaria?” the lawyer asked.
“We have an arrest warrant for you.” he said waving a sheet of paper in front of my face.
“Do you recognize this?” He was now holding another sheet of paper with the print of an email which began as follows:

Subject: Re: Fw: Woman convicted for trade in tiger parts: Third conviction for the accused.
To: nathistory-india@Princeton.EDU
Date: 11 May 2011

There was no way I could say I didn’t recognize this. My email id was there right on top.
Now the journalist pointed to two lines that were highlighted in that email and read them aloud. These were the very same lines I have mentioned above as my master lines.
“Yes,” I responded, “but…”
I was not allowed to continue. It was the policeman this time.
“The Wildlife Crime Control Bureau’s internet crime wing has intercepted this email. It says you are a Bawaria and this is the warrant for your arrest for being involved in trading of wild animal parts.”
This was bizarre. I was not a Bawaria, and I was certainly not involved in wild animal trade. What was there to ‘intercept’ in this email anyway?
“I am not a Bawaria,” I tried to explain. “I’m Pankaj Sekhsaria. Sekhsaria,” I stressed, “not Bawaria. Sekhsaria.”
“Ah!” exclaimed the journalist, with the ‘eureka moment’ glint shining bright in his eyes. “I had always suspected this. See,” he turned to the policeman and the lawyer, “how beautifully they rhyme - Moghia, Bawaria, Sekhsaria they are all the same. I wonder how the British missed you.” He had turned his attention to me again – “surnames are all neutral facts that you carry from your history. You can’t be very different from these criminal tribes."
“They are not criminal and,” I tried to insist, “I am Sekhsaria and I am a bania. A bania.”
“Very good,” said the lawyer. “Very good. That explains it even better – poaching and also trade. Isn’t the bania a trader community? Sekhsaria, I see!”
“No, no,” I tried to argue, “you’re getting it wrong. That was only an email sent to make a point. I am very interested in saving wildlife and I don’t know any Bawaria, wildlife poacher or wildlife trader.”
“That’s enough,” said the policeman sternly. “Who asked you to make a point? You are Sekhsaria, you are a bania and you sent that email. That is all that we need to know.”
“Please, please,” I started groveling, “I am not a criminal. I’ve done nothing wrong. I don’t want to go to jail”. My forehead broke out in sweat and my hands started trembling. “This damned emailing,” I cursed loudly.
That’s when I realized someone was pulling my hair and bawling loudly. My little infant son had come to my rescue again. It was about the time in the middle of the night when he normally wakes up for his feed. I woke up with a start, prepared his bottle of milk and gratefully thrust the nipple into his mouth.
My nightmare went up in a whiff of steaming vapour.
I had been saved from becoming a wildlife criminal by the skin of my teeth!