Md. Mozammel Hossain: Around 65,000 gypsies living in the district hardly enjoy any basic human rights. The people of this community are one of the most deprived ones in the country.
The Bengali term for gypsy is ‘Bede’ or ‘Baidda’ who are mainly popular as snake charmers and shamans. They roam around the country on boat to sell different indigenous medicines and amulets among people. Boats are their permanent abode where they pass their entire life.
But, recently changes have been noticed in their life since some of them have started to mingle with modern life through changing their traditional profession. As a result, their lifestyle has experienced a big leap from their traditional social system to the modern system.
Meanwhile, those who are still engaged in their ancestral profession are fighting for survival.
According to sources concerned, around 60 to 65 thousand gypsies, who are living across Louhajang, Sreenagar, Sirajdikhan, Tongibari and Sadar upazilas of the district, are deprived of basic human rights. Though they are Muslims by religion and voters at their respective areas, they are passing their days amid hardship.
According to Banglapedia, the gypsies came to Dhaka in 1638 with the King of Arakan Bollal Raja and later converted to Islam. They first started to live in former Bikrampur now Munshiganj district since then and later spread to other parts of Bangladesh and India.
Still a major part of the gypsies remained in Munshiganj. In the 80s, many gypsies were found to live on floating boats across the district.
The original title of the gypsies is ‘Montong’. The term ‘Bede’ or ‘Baidda’ is a defamatory term given by local people. They are renegade portion of the ‘Montong’ indigenous tribe. They are very brave and able in martial arts and hunting. Their body complexion and stature is like the Bangalees.
According to field sources, they have their own language called ‘Thet’ or ‘Ther’. While speaking with their fellow tribesmen, they use the language but while conversing with the Bangalees, they use the local Bengali language. Their language has similarity with the Arakan language.
While coping with the modern changes in the society, the gypsies have realised that their traditional profession is no longer liked by the people. As a result, they started to leave their lives on boats and now formed gypsy villages in different areas.
At present, there are two gypsy villages- Goali Mandra and Mouchha Mandra in Haldia union of Louhajang upazila where they are enjoying and practicing their civic rights and privileges.
One Md Ebadul Islam and another Jahanara Begum have been elected as member and woman member in No. 4 ward of the union.
Besides, there are gypsy localities at Kanaksar Battala and Kurmarbhog Kharia areas in the upazila.
In Louhajang upazila only, there are 18 to 20 thousand gypsies, and of them, more than seven thousand are voters.
Besides, at least 60 to 65 thousand gypsies are randomly living at the Kalidas River of Munshiganj Sadar, Bagerhat of Munshirhat, beside the Ichhamoti River at Kamalaghat (Rikabi Bazar) under Mirkadim Municipality, at Mokam Khola and Dhamaron beside the Tongibari-Hasail canal in Tongibari upazila, Godown ghat beside the Ichhamoti River in Sirajdikhan upazila, Padmahem Dham Battala and Shekharnagar at Kangsapura, and Khalpar in Sreenagar upazila.
Meanwhile, for lack of water in canals and filling of some canals by land grabbers, most of the gypsies have changed their location and gone to new places.
Munshiganj district which is adjacent to Dhaka is experiencing rapid urbanisation. New establishments and structures are being set up on new lands. As a result, the spaces for the gypsies are shrinking, giving rise to crisis of their accommodation.
Now, most of the gypsies have discarded their traditional profession and switched to other professions. But, some are reportedly getting involved in different crimes including drug peddling.
Gypsies of Goali Mandra and Mouchha Mandra areas in Louhajang upazila said, people rebuke them, saying that their profession is bad and ask them to become civilised through education.
Snake charmer Md Nur Ahad of Goali Mandra said, he displays snake charming in different haats and bazaars of Bangladesh. Earlier, people trusted the snake charmers but now they are not doing so, he added.
Member of No. 4 ward under Haldia union Ebadul Islam said, the gypsies have no permanent abode. Now, people do not believe in shamanism and miracles, he added.
Gypsies living on dinghies on the Kalidas River near Munshiganj town said, if the government helps them, they could live peacefully on mainland.
The gypsies on the Ichhamoti riverbank at Kamalaghat in Mirkadim Municipality said, though the government assured them of financial help, they are yet to get such.
Deputy Commissioner (DC) Shaila Farzana said, “Many gypsies have changed their profession and are getting food and social security. The number of their school-going children is less since the girls are married at early age. As most of them are illiterate, they cannot be employed in any job. But, in our development programmes, they can work as labourers.”
Meanwhile, in a recent meeting titled “Government programmes to improve gypsies’ lives” on Goali Mandra ground, Planning Minister AHM Mostofa Kamal assured the gypsies of necessary help to develop their life.