NEW DELHI — Wearing orange dresses with matching turbans, a group of folk musicians play tunes on their pungi, also known as been, a traditional flute made from gourd fruit.
The audience at Surajkund Craft Fair on the outskirts of the Indian capital is enthralled. Many break into dance. But the musicians themselves don't look very enthusiastic. "This is not what we want to do; it's been thrust upon us," says Badri Nath, 75, who heads the troupe. "But since our original work has been banned, this is all we can do. Whether we are happy or not doesn't matter."
Badri and his companions are snake charmers. For generations, they made their living performing with snakes on streets and in villages across India.
But snake charming is no longer legal, and Badri says they're no longer able to make ends meet.
We have not only lost our livelihood, we have been cut off from our roots.
"Snakes and snake charmers have been together from time immemorial. It's the only thing we and our ancestors have known, and we lived on it for centuries," Badri explained. "Now it has been taken away from us. We have not only lost our livelihood, we have been cut off from our roots. These performances here can sustain a few us for a few days. But what happens after that? And what about the rest of the community?"
Snake charming was banned under the Wildlife Protection Act amendment in 1991. The law prohibits catching, owning and performing with snakes.
Initially, the government did not enforce the ban, and snake charmers continued. But as animal rights activists pressured the authorities to clamp down on snake charmers, their numbers declined. Kartik Satyanarayan, from the conservation group Wildlife SOS, says the tradition is abusive.
"They basically dehydrate them; they stick them in a box and forget about them, use them whenever they want to perform or beg for some money from people, and once the job is done they just throw the snake away because they don't care," says Satyanarayan.
"And the snake then sometimes dies; it takes some weeks of starvation to die because the fangs have been removed, the venom glands have been removed, they can't really hunt and fend for themselves anymore," he said.
Some snake charmers refuse to give up the tradition — Photo: Jon Hurd
But snake charmers strongly deny charges of animal cruelty.
The ban affected an estimated 800,000 snake charmers in India. Many moved into other occupations like rickshaw pulling, street vending, construction, or agricultural labor. But according to the snake charmers' union, the overwhelming majority remains jobless.
Some refuse to give up the tradition. Snake charmers in yellow dhoti kurta and turbans performed recently on a Delhi street. They arranged a couple of wicker baskets in front of them and started playing the been. As soon as people gathered, one of them opened his baskets and three snakes rose waving their heads, looking like they were dancing to the music of his been. He then moved closer to the audience, showing them the reptiles and explaining the differences between the species. But when a policeman arrived, the snake charmer quickly escaped.
The charmer's brother, Birju Nath, says they're used to playing this game of hide and seek with police and forest officials.
"They arrest us and take away our snakes. But if we stop doing this, what else is there for us? We have no business or land to fall back on. Without this we will simply starve to death," Birju said.
The younger generation shows no interest in continuing the legacy, a development welcomed by Satyanarayan from Wildlife SOS. "Life moves on," he says. "Our lives have changed culturally. Why should the poor snake charmer continue to live a life of poverty, and disadvantage himself and his family, just because some other people like to see that and like to call it tradition?"
Back at the craft fair, the snake charmers are playing a Sufi song — or Qawwali, as the audience sways to the music.
With the snakes being sent back to their natural habitat, the snake charmers are pinning their hopes on their instruments.
"There are so many musical instruments out there but the been stands out," says Vikrambir Nath, a member of the troupe.
"It belongs exclusively to us and it is completely homemade. We make it from gourd and bamboo. It represents us as a community and our unique way of life, and it is part of India's cultural heritage. It needs to be protected and that would require state patronage and promotion." He says that unless the government invests in preserving the history and music of the snake charmers, within a few decades the centuries-old practice will disappear without a trace.
Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.
"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.
Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.
But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.
The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."
Criticism of any 'royal project'
The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.
Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.
In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.
Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release
Freedom of speech at stake
"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."
The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.
The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.
Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.
Shift to social media
While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.
The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.
Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".
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