To not notice a beggar on the street is an essential survival tactic for most respectable Indians. So, what happens when one is compelled, for whatever reason, to actually look at a beggar, and then, not only look but also think with a degree of rigour and scruple about what one is looking at? What is opened in such unlikely situations is usually called a can of worms. The legal, economic, historical, ethical and political implications of a beggar’s existence — not to mention the cultural and, indeed, sentimental or metaphysical — is a great deal to ponder, and act upon. But this is almost what a ‘union’ of 42 visually challenged beggars has been demanding from the locals in Bengal’s Murshidabad district, publicly agitating for not only a minimum begging rate, but also reserved seats and the right to beg in buses. It is alarming, though, to see this unionization being controlled by the labour union affiliated to the Congress. This takes the situation away from real social transformation towards another kind of opportunism and possibly exploitation.
Layers of archaic, oppressive and wishful thinking come together in the Vagrancy Acts of the different Indian states, variously amended in a few cases, but left largely in their original form of criminalizing any sort of itinerant behaviour that is not tied to a means of obviously labouring livelihood. The law in Bengal, going back to the early Forties, asks for the special treatment of lepers and lunatics. But the ten homes for vagrants in Bengal keep their inmates in conditions that are worse than sub-human — sub-zoological would be a better description. Colonial anxieties about vagrancy, idleness, charity, reform and punishment (largely determined by Western Christianity) merge, in India, with pre-colonial, indigenous attitudes to begging and the wayfaring life in Hindu, Islamic and Buddhist traditions of thought, on the one hand, and more contemporary fears of organized crime and unhygiene, on the other, to create a web of reactions or non-reactions to begging. Very often, as with the visually challenged beggars in Murshidabad, ‘vagrancy’ overlaps with ‘disability’, or ‘juvenile justice’, to create further legal and attitudinal muddles. Shakespeare’s mad king, Lear, saw a naked, apparently homeless creature he had met in a storm on the heath as “unaccommodated man”. Modern India is yet to accommodate such men, women and children in its idea of the human.