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Band-baaja & an identity bane

- Halalkhor community sees vote as power to protest colonial error

They bring music to other people’s celebrations. But come poll or wedding season, no one makes music in their lives. They are Ranchi’s band walas.

On Sunday, before Ranchi goes to polls this Thursday, band walas prepare for their peak season. “From Wednesday to mid-July, auspicious planetary positions mean marriages, our main earning season,” Bablu of Milan Band on Lake Road said when asked why they were busy rehearsing musical tracks. But he quickly added: “This Thursday is even more important. We have to vote.”

For Bablu and other band walas in the city, Lok Sabha 2014 promises to be a watershed election. Ask them why, and their deep-seated resentment towards all political parties spills out. “Kisi ne kabhi bhi kuch nahin kiya (No political party ever did anything),” said 55-year-old Nasir, associated with Jafar Band.

Ranchi’s band walas belong to 10,000-plus population of the Halalkhors, a Dalit Muslim community traditionally associated with sweeping and scavenging. But “discrimination” and “identity crisis” forced many to switch over to bands.

Hum to safaiwale he hain, par us kaam mein bhi hum logon ko sidhe sarkari naukri kahan milti hai? (We are traditional sweepers, but we never get direct government jobs as cleaners),” said Junaid (50), an instrumentalist.

Md Parvez, member of executive committee of Ranchi Muslim Halalkhor Panchayat, explained the reason behind the “injustice”.

“Our community is clustered around Mehtar Toli near Chhata Masjid on Lake Road. In 1908, during land and revenue survey settlement, our caste was entered as Muslim when it should have been religion. Now, we are referred to as Other Backward Castes (OBC). But, Halalkhors are equivalent to Hindu Harijans, who get Scheduled Caste (SC) status and privileges,” he said.

He added the confusion stemmed from a colonial bureaucratic mistake. “Our caste is Halalkhor and religion is Muslim. It’s simple. Par sahab logon ne Muslim ko jaati karar kaise de diya (How did the British tag our caste as Muslim),” said Parvez.

He added a representation of Ranchi band walas went to Bihar Rajya Sabha MP Ali Anwar Ansari with the demand to rectify this anomaly. “We met several ministers in the past, requesting direct entry to the government as safai karmchari or as musicians in the CISF, among others. But all we get is discrimination,” he added.

They have another grouse.

The trend of band walas started in the 1950s, with some of the city’s oldest names — Israel, Jabbar, Jamal and Gani — all being members of the Halalkhor community. Right now, clustered near Lake Road are some 60-odd band shops. All rented. “We pay a one-time pagdi of Rs 1.5 to Rs 2 lakh for a 6ft by 8ft space and pay between Rs 4,000 and Rs 6,000 a month for the year. We earn for six months,” said one.

Hum har bade neta ke namankan mein baja bajane gaye, par kisi ne palat ke nahi puchha ki humara kya taklif hai,” (We went to play the band at every big politician’s nomination filing day but no one asked us about our problems),” said Enamul.

His colleagues join him. “Haq mile, nahi to ek akhri button humara (Give us our rights or the last button Nota will be ours),” they chorus.