By Mahasweta Devi
12 October, 2007
Ten persons were lynched last
month in Vaishali, Bihar. They belonged to the denotified “Nat”
community. I do not know how far the readers of this magazine are acquainted
with the denotified communities of India. I will try to write, in brief,
about what drew me to these people long ago in the 1970s. At the time,
I was interested in tribals and I knew that the Lodhas of Medinipur
were often engaged in theft and robbery at the behest of the rural middle-class.
The Lodhas (also known as Lubhdhaks, or hunters) were forest tribals.
Often the target of beatings, eviction and lynching, they were known
as “born criminals” — a label which gained legal sanction
during colonial rule when the British passed the abominable Criminal
Tribes Act in 1871. Under it, many nomadic communities ended up being
branded as criminals. There were three such tribes in West Bengal: the
Lodhas of Medinipur, the Kheria-Sabars of Purulia and the Dhekaros of
Birbhum. I have fought against the stigma that was attached to these
people for years now, but to little avail. West Bengal has been under
CPM-dominated Left Front rule for the last 30 years, but neither it
nor the Central government did anything to redress the grievances of
these so called “criminal tribes”, except to announce in
1952 that by no longer being notified as criminal tribes, they had become
In 1998, Budhan Sabar of
Purulia was brutally killed by the police. Up until that year, I did
not personally know about the all-India ex-criminal tribe situation.
When Dr GN Devy [who has worked extensively with tribals in Gujarat]
came to Medinipur Vidyasagar University with his friends to meet me,
I was too cut-up about this and other atrocities, and failed to understand
them. Then I went to Baroda at Devy’s request to give a talk on
tribals. I was speaking at the Verrier Elwyn Memorial Lecture, organised
each year by Bhasha, an organisation promoting tribal language, culture
In 1998, I was too involved
with Budhan’s death and the case we, on behalf of the Paschim
Banga Kheria Sabar Kalian Samiti, had filed in the Calcutta High Court.
My talk in Baroda was on the denotified tribals. I had asked the audience,
“Who will work not for tribals alone, but for our denotified tribals
as well?” That night Devy, Laxman Gaikwad (the Sahitya Akademi
award winner for his Uchalya), Gandhi scholar Tridip Suhrud (translator
of Chandulal Dalal’s biography of Harilal Gandhi), rural development
researcher Ajoy Dandekar and others including myself talked and talked.
Out of that animated discussion was born Budhan, the Denotified and
Nomadic Tribes Rights Action Group newsletter.
I do not now have the very
first issue of Budhan at hand, but in it we published a comprehensive
list of all the tribes. Among them are the Nats.
Did Bihar participate in
our later conventions? I can’t recall. But I know very well, from
my past experiences, how mob lynching takes place.
I also recall scores of instances
where Lodhas and Kherias from Purulia were forced to rob and plunder.
As it says in one of the articles written for Budhan, “…these
tribes are forced to engage in criminal activities by the police and
receivers of stolen goods”. Laxman Gaikwad, who belongs to the
Pardhi tribe, bears testimony to this. I know of it because I have been
working with the denotified tribes of West Bengal for the last 20 years.
Budhan itself was started in 1998. This is October 2007.
THE REPORTS that came from
Vaishali after the September lynchings said that 10 Nats had been beaten
to death by a mob because they were a band of thieves. How come no investigation
has been done so far into the killing of these 10 men? Where did these
Nats live? What was their profession? What explanation does the police
in Vaishali have to offer? How does the chief minister of Bihar explain
this mob lynching? Why did the Bihar Police not take any action? Are
the Nats born criminals? Does the Bihar administration know that we
have been fighting the cruel and unfair labelling of the denotified
tribes for years and have regularly reported each atrocity against them
to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC)? At our behest, the then
chairperson of the NHRC, Justice JS Verma, had invited the chief secretaries
from all states that had denotified tribes. But today there is no point
reminiscing about my past. Ultimately, on January 14, 2006, GN Devy,
Udaynarain Singh of Mysore and I went to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh
and gave him a letter, praying to have something concrete done for the
denotified tribes of India. That “something” was done. A
special commission was formed under Balkrishna Renke of Maharashtra.
He was to suggest what remedial steps should be taken to improve the
lives of the denotified tribes.
As far as I know, Renke is
still preparing his report.
The killing of the 10 Nats
in Bihar is to me the same as the killings of the Lodhas and the Sabars
in in West Bengal. Between 1977 and ’79, in the very first years
of CPM-led Left Front rule, about 37 Lodhas were butchered in Medinipur.
Many Kheri-Sabars continued to be killed for belonging to a “criminal
tribe” until the Budhan Sabar case of 1998.
All inquiries into all these
cases invariably conclude with the words: “Due to the inefficiency
of the police…”
And that will be the end
of the matter. Perhaps West Bengal will not see any more Lodhas and
Kheria-Sabars being killed, but in their daily lives, they will continue
to be humiliated for being born Lodhas and Kheria-Sabars. Only the other
day, a Lodha boy I know of, a graduate, got a job in a village school.
The school authorities deman - ded a bribe of Rs 1,70,000 from him.
The boy could not meet their demands. The school authorities came to
the class where he was teaching and called him a “born criminal”.
There are so many good laws made, but they are implemented so rarely.
Were the media, whether Hindi
or English, to search out stories about the Nats and other denotified
tribes of Bihar, this is what they would find: that the denotified tribes
of India are people who live below the poverty line, that starvation
is a regular fact of life for them, and that they are thus easy to recruit
for such members of society as wish to use them. Poverty, hunger, landlessness,
no education, no job prospects — these are everyday realities
for the Nats, just as they are for the majority of
Being branded a “denotified
tribe” makes these communities easy targets. Dalits, caste Hindus,
Muslims, everyone who feels like it can kill them. When will the state
government start doing something to ensure that the Nats do not have
to live in fear of being lynched any more?
is an eminent Indian writer. She works among tribals.
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