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Who are they?
The Pasi are engaged in settled cultivation in Uttar Pradesh but work in a variety of jobs in other states. This people group can be found in 52 districts of the country as a whole, primarily in Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal, Orissa, Maharashtra, Haryana and Punjab. They are also known as Tarmali in Uttar Pradesh, and as Chomar and Khajuria in Orissa.
There are many versions regarding their origin. According to one legend, the Brahmin saint Parshuram was practicing austerities in the jungle when he heard the cries of many cows mooing in fear. He ran to them and found a group of men trying to slaughter the cows. He tried to intervene but was overpowered by the man and his friends. Parshuram shaped five men out of kusha grass and infused them to life through the drops of his perspiration to help him. Therefore the name, derived from pasina, Hindi for sweat.
The colonial anthropologists Rose (1919) and Ibbetson (1916) claim that the name Pasi is derived from the Hindi word pasa, meaning ‘noose’, with the help of which they climb the tall toddy palm tree. G.S. Ghurye, an Indian sociologist, also asserts that Pasi means “a user of noose and is the name of an aboriginal caste living by catching wild birds, small game and tapping palms.” In fact, even today, the Byadha subgroup of Bihar still traps birds and animals.
During the British rule the Pasi were known as a criminal tribe who were thieves, looters and marauders. They were skilled in the use of bow and arrow and stick. There is an interesting story of how the Pasi of Bihar came to the Punjab region. When Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth and last Sikh Guru, was returning to Punjab from Patna, the capital of Bihar, he was told about a community of bandits called the Pasi. The Guru recruited them into his army and brought them to Punjab where as declared criminals, their attendance was required at the police station nearest to the place of residence.
In 1952, when the colonial Criminal Tribes Act, 1924, was repealed the parliament, the Pasi were declared a Scheduled Caste. This granted them the benefit of reserved quotas in government jobs, admissions to medical and engineering colleges, and other such schemes.
What Are Their Lives Like?
The Pasi pursue various occupations. In Uttar Pradesh they are engaged in settled cultivation; in Bihar, West Bengal and Orissa in toddy-tapping; and in Punjab they rear pigs. In Delhi they make leaf plates or work as laborers or in cloth mills and factories. The Pasi from Madhya Pradesh have left tapping dates and other palm to work as daily wage labor or have a trade. Those in Maharashtra, who are mostly landless, are engaged as skilled and unskilled laborers in mines or employed by small businesses, while a few are proficient in the art of carving, engraving on stones, weaving and pottery and creating gold jewelry.
The reservation policy of the government has also provided a number of government jobs for them at all levels. Petty trading, teaching, daily-wage labour, rickshaw pulling, animal husbandry, making and mending grindstones are some other common vocations.
The Pasi use both traditional and modern medicine. Their literacy rates are generally quite low, but are becoming increasingly aware of the need for formal education. They practice family planning, except in the poorer states of West Bengal and Bihar.
Their diet consists of mutton, chicken, fish and pork but they abstain from beef, being considered sacred. Wheat, rice and maize are their staple cereals. Lentils, beans and vegetables are also eaten. Fruit and milk are luxuries and not every family can afford them. Alcohol is consumed by the men who also use tobacco in various forms.
The Pasi usually marry only among their caste, although in states like Uttar Pradesh, where the Pasi have seven subgroups such as Raj Pasi and Mangta Pasi, marriage is even limited by subgroup. In the Delhi area the Pasi also have seven subgroups, but have, over the last two to three decades, begun to intermarry. Clan exogamy is, however, observed among all Pasi and marriages are settled by negotiation. Monogamy is the norm but polygamy is allowed in case of barrenness. In Bihar, sometimes a bridegroom is captured and marriage is held in a temple. Sindur (vermilion), bangles, bindi (dot in the middle of the forehead), nose stud and toe-rings are the symbols of marriage, which have to be given up if a woman becomes a widow. Dowry is given in both cash and goods, including household articles.
Divorce is permissible among the Pasi in a few states on grounds of adultery and cruelty, but is not allowed among those of Haryana. Widow or divorcee remarriage is permitted but is not very common. Such remarriages are solemnised at a simple ceremony called variously as bethana (making to sit) and gharona (bringing to the house).
Both nuclear and joint family types are common today. Property is divided equally among the sons and the eldest son succeeds as the head of the family. Although, daughters have the right to their share in paternal property according to Pasi law, they do not claim it in order to maintain cordial relations with their brothers after their parents’ death. Married women avoid male elders of the family, especially the husband’s father and elder brother. Pasi women have specified roles in household chores, social functions, rituals and religious activities. They also contribute to the family income by activities such as selling toddy in the local markets or weaving small baskets from palm leaves. Some women in cities earn a living by cleaning utensils and work as domestic helpers. In all aspects of family and social life they hold a secondary status to men. Very few women serve in government and private offices.
The Pasi have caste councils which hold varying degrees of power in different states. In Uttar Pradesh the council has absolute authority to settle divorce and judge social offences. In Delhi the council has lost its importance and such cases are decided by the courts. Recently, a Pasi Kalyan Sabhas (Welfare Council) has been formed for state and national level. The primary objective of these councils is to improve the economic strength and welfare of the community. Political leadership has also emerged at the regional and national level.
What Are Their Beliefs?
The Pasi are Hindu and worship all Hindu gods and goddesses. Families worship the deity of their choice. Each god has specific spheres of influence and are entreated upon or appeased according to the individual’s predicament. The Pasi of Haryana believes very strongly in Shakti (power) worship and revere Kali (goddess of destruction) and Durga (warrior goddess). Saint Parshuram is the community deity of the Maharashtra Pasi.
The Pasi believe in demons and go to witchdoctors for exorcism. In Orissa, a witchdoctor from other communities, called guniya, is consulted to be rid of evil spirits and cure diseases. Ancestor worship is prevalent among the Pasi. Brahmin priests are paid to conduct all birth, marriage and death rites.
What Are Their Needs?
Literacy and access to medical help and basic amenities like drinking water and sanitation. They still suffer the effects of the caste system which has left them despised and rejected. In 1949, the Pasi met at a regional level near Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh, and declared that they had descended from the high Rajput caste and were therefore entitled to wear the ‘sacred thread’ and conducted thread-wearing ceremonies. This only led to their exclusion. Subsequently, many denounced the sacred thread and returned to the dictates of the other castes.