In my last post I wrote about India’s Adivasis, or “Scheduled Tribes.” Accounting for over 85 million people, they account for the bulk of India’s indigenous population. There are 697 tribes “scheduled” or recognized as such by the central government. Some of these belong to a subcategory known as “Denotified and Nomadic Tribes” or DNTs. DNTs are not, however, simply a subcategory of Scheduled Tribes. Some are also listed as “Scheduled Castes,” which are lower castes eligible for certain benefits from the state, while others are listed in the catch-all category, “Other Backward Classes” or OBCs. Altogether they account for nearly 60 million, although I am unsure how many fall within each of the various categories. As I currently understand it, there are two major differences between DNTs and other Adivasis: First, DNTs are largely from landless, nomadic, peoples – although today some are settled (often in urban slums). Secondly, DNTs were subject to special persecution under both British Colonial rule and afterwards:

the British decided to solve their law and order problems and consolidate their hold over the Indian countryside by enacting the Criminal Tribes Act in 1871. This and subsequent Acts gave colonial administrators sweeping powers to declare certain “tribes, gangs, or classes” as addicted to the systematic commission of non-bailable offences. Once a tribe became ‘notified’ as criminal, all its members were required to register with the local magistrate. Anyone failing to register would be charged with a crime under the Indian Penal Code. Further, the Act forcibly moved the notified tribes to permanent reformatory settlements – like Chharanagar – that acted as virtual prisons for the tribes, and sources of cheap labor to fuel the booming cities of the colonial era.

In an enlightened moment soon after Independence, India’s new administrators repealed the Criminal Tribes Act on August 30, 1952 and liberated – i.e. ‘de-notified’ – the tribal communities. Thus many such de-notified communities now celebrate August 30th as their second Independence Day. But unfortunately, the government concurrently enacted a series of Habitual Offenders Acts. These Acts asked police authorities to investigate a suspect’s criminal tendencies and whether his occupation is conducive to settled way of life. Police forces around the country used these laws liberally to persecute the De-notified and Nomadic Tribes (DNTs). Tribals were regularly subject to public humiliation, beatings and custodial deaths.

This official validation of behaviour towards DNTs mirrored and reinforced the prejudices of the public at large – the criminal label was enough to close the doors to regular employment, and DNT communities remained socially and economically far behind most other Indian communities.

The government only abolished the Habitual Offenders Acts in the 1990s, and the culture of racism, and police brutality towards DNTs remains to this day. The literacy rate amongst the DNTs is even lower than that of the Adivasi population as a whole, which (as I discussed in my last post) is below 30%. Journalist Dilip D’Souza has chronicled the plight of the DNTs (see this list of some of his online articles, collected in his book Branded by Law), and in his article “Respect, but only on paper,” discusses what illiteracy means in practice:

Baffled, I turned to Hivraj. What was this? Who were these accused? What were they accused of? He didn’t know what I was talking about. He insisted, again, that this letter was what the lawyer had given him to explain the false case against his wife. If that was so, there was only one possible explanation. Aware that Hivraj and wife could not read, the lawyer had scribbled some irrelevant nonsense on a sheet of paper, attached an official looking stamp, pocketed his money and sent them on their way.

So what had happened when Munde came visiting? Hivraj actually managed to show his paper to him. “He told me,” said Hivraj, “that there was too much of a crowd here. He asked me to bring it to Bombay to show it to him again.” That was just what Hivraj was about to do. He was off to the big city soon. He would carry the same sheet of paper with him.

D’Souza describes how DNTs often carry their papers squirreled away in a large plastic bag:

Prescriptions. Receipts for money contributed to one or another organisation. Bills for medicines and other sundries. A letter that had arrived by book-post from a district office in Satara: “We have forwarded your letter to the Tahsildar of Phaltan, please approach him.” A ration card. Somebody’s address. Newspaper clippings about the death in police custody of Pinya Hari Kale, a Pardhi from Baramati.

Papers of every description, in multifarious colours, carefully folded and stuffed into this large pink bag. Some were dated 20 or more years ago; many were clearly of no use whatever. But they were all there. As far as I could tell, Giranwalla had preserved every single bit of paper that had ever entered his life. To what purpose, I could not immediately fathom. I could only marvel at his method, his lifelong certainty that each of those scraps of paper would one day prove useful.

The logic of this became clear to me after meeting with a photographer who was part of the DNT community known as Chharas “settled by the British on the northern outskirts of Ahmedabad.” A literate and well respected photographer, a man who was captain of the local cricket team, who had trained the chief of security of the former Prime Minister in Karate, and whose photographs had won national photography awards and had been published in national magazines – this man described how he had to carry receipts for all his camera equipment because when police saw a Chhara with so much expensive equipment they assumed he must have stolen it.

The woman who has done the most for India’s DNT population. A woman many DNTs affectionately refer to as “mother” is the Bengali writer and activist, Mahasweta Devi. Our involvement with the DNT community grew out of a film Shashwati made about Mahasweta Devi. Together with G.N. Devy and Laxman Gaikwad, Devi helped found The Denotified and Nomadic Tribes-Rights Action Group (DNT-RAG). It grew largely out of a single court case surrounding the murder, in police custody, of Budhan Sabar, a member of the Kheria Sabar DNT community in West Bengal:

On February 10, 1998, he and Shyamoli got on his bicycle. “We were going to Barabazar, to my mamasasur’s [mother-in-law’s brother] house,” Shyamoli told me when we met outside her hut in Akkarbaid. On the way, they stopped for a paan. Ashoke Roy, Officer-in-Charge of the Barabazar Police Station, came up to them at the little shop and took Budhan away on his motorcycle. Roy would later claim, in an affidavit he submitted to the Calcutta High Court, that Budhan’s name came up “in course of my investigation in connection with Barabazar Police Station Case no. 37/97 dated 15.9.97.” That’s why he arrested Budhan.

Over the next few days, the police beat him savagely. On the morning of the 13th, Budhan accompanied a police party that raided Akkarbaid in search of supposedly stolen goods that he had supposedly told Roy about. None were found, but a few villagers spoke to Budhan as he sat in the police jeep. He told them of the nonstop torture and the pain he was suffering. On February 17th, he was dead. The police claimed he had hung himself in his jail cell that evening with his “gamchha”, or thin towel.

In July, Justice Ruma Pal of the Calcutta High Court delivered a judgement that tore this police version of Budhan’s death to shreds. She had already directed the State to pay Shyamoli “ad-interim relief” of Rs 15,000; in this judgement she directed a further payment of Rs 85,000. She also ordered a CBI investigation into Budhan’s death, departmental proceedings against Roy and other officers, and that Roy must be transferred out of Purulia District.

This remarkable judgment by the High Court was largely the work of Mahasweta Devi, who filed the appeal on the victims behalf. It was at the time they were first meeting and forming DNT-RAG that the organizers first went to Chharanagar (the Chhara community outside of Ahmedabad where I met the photographer). Shashwati and I were there to work on a documentary film (on which Lalit Vachani had already done considerable work) about a theatre troupe which was created as a direct result of that first meeting. Some of the more politically aware youth among the Chhara community wrote a play about the case of Budhan:

A group of young Chhara men and women performed the play to electric effect at the first national conference of DNT-RAG. Last year, the performers crystallised their efforts as the Budhan Theatre Group.

The theatre group has become the nexus for a movement to change attitudes both within Chharanagar and outside it. The group is led by Dakshin Bajrange and Roxy Gagdekar, two determined and very articulate young men from within the Chhara community. All 15 members of the group participate in three major activities – library maintenance, community sensitization and theatre performance. The one-room library in Chharanagar has about 500 books and documents on literature, art, history and sociology. Daily Gujarati newspapers and a computer are also available. School and college students from Chharanagar regularly use the library as a place to meet, study and tutor one another. Recently, the students have also assigned tasks among themselves to increase sensitivity among the community. For instance, one 16 year old coordinates meetings between Chhara parents and municipal school teachers accustomed to thinking of them as criminals.

Chharas are not born criminals, they are born performers. This is the thesis with which Dakshin directs the theatre group. He explains how bands of Chharas would wordlessly assign roles and develop a plan to distract a merchant in the marketplace and relieve him of his bag. But such talent and energy should be channeled for positive purposes, not to continue the cycle of crime and prejudice. “In each play we try to express a social problem and highlight our situation”, says Dakshin. This explains the choice of plays such as Budhan, Pinya Hari Kale (based on the Kale murder case) and Encounter. When communal riots rocked Ahmedabad in 2002, the group produced a play called Mazhab Nahi Sikhata Aapas Me Bair Rakhna, to emphasize the values of tolerance and respect.

In May of 2003 Dakshin was arrested under trumped up charges, although enough of an outcry ensued that he was eventually released. When we visited the efforts of the group were focused on the next generation as they worked with the younger members of the community. There are, however, some signs of change. Even if local police attitudes have not significantly changed, the Chief of Police for Gujarat is working with the community and a charity he founded helps fund the library set up initially by DNT-RAG, and his daughter comes and teaches local children how to make candles. The challenges are, however, still immense. Gujarat is a dry state and the Chharas often make money by brewing illegal liquor. For this they must pay the police bribes. When a family tries to clean up its act, they must continue to pay police bribes, thus making it difficult to change their criminal status. Another problem is the encroachment of the RSS, a fascist Hindu nationalist movement which actively seeks recruits amongst the youngest members of the community. One reason for engaging the children in theatre is to keep them out of the hands of the RSS. And the sad thing is that the DNTs of Chharanagar are actually better off than many DNT communities. Many have received schooling, and some of them have managed to have professional careers as lawyers, journalists, photographers, etc. Hopefully their story can help raise awareness about the plight of the DNTs in general.

The documentary on the community and the theatre troupe will take a lot more work. If you want to provide support please use the donate button on Shashwati’s web site.

UPDATE: The Budhan Theatre of Charranagar now has its own web site! And Dilip D’Souza has a blog, where he has been writing about the aftermath of the tsunami.