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Who Are The Criminals?

By Dilip D'souza

01 June, 2003

That morning, the most curious moment came when a woman thrust a piece of paper into my hand. It was a letter. Some kind of appeal for help addressed to the Chief Minister in a nearly illegible brand of Marathi, her thumbprint at the bottom. I could identify a few words here and there, but that's all. My Marathi is not the world's best, but even I could tell that this letter would be opaque to most people. I couldn't see how the CM, assuming he even got the letter, would feel otherwise.

Still, what was really baffling about the sheet of paper was not its illegibility, but the large and very official two-rupees "court fee" stamp stuck on it. Why was it there? It certainly did not need one; this was no official court document. I could only surmise that the lady had assumed, or more likely had been told, that the stamp was required for letters as weighty as this one. I could see it, some sly scoundrel advising her: "You've written to a Very, Very Important Man! You must put this Very Very Important Looking Stamp on it! You only have to pay me Rs. 100 for it!"

So when I finished scanning the letter, I looked up and asked why she had stuck the stamp there. To my surprise, she was beaming hugely at me. No answer. She took back the letter delicately, pushed into the crowd. And I was startled by how suddenly sad I felt. Here was a woman with some complaint that she felt strongly enough about to write to the CM. Ignorant about these matters, she thought this court fee stamp would make him take her letter more seriously. Yet in showing it to me, she didn't care that I could not read it, that I was puzzled by the stamp. It was enough that I had looked at it, paid some attention to it. This man from the faraway big city has seen my letter! And my stamp! Must be OK!

The lady and I had met on the platform of a temple in Phaltan, a dusty town in Maharashtra's Satara District. Here with five other journalists, I was surrounded by a noisy, colourful, argumentative, and yes, even smelly gathering of tribals: Phase Pardhis. I looked around me. A man waved a sheet of paper, imploring me to look at it. A woman opened a large plastic bag, out of which tumbled a collection of broken bits of plastic and metal, none identifiable but all colourful. Another woman jostled my elbow and wanted to know when I was going to finish with the family in front of me and listen to her complaints. The woman with the court fee stamp sat on a step some distance away, patiently waiting to show the letter to one of my colleagues. A man got up and shouted for quiet, only to be shouted down by several nearby women.

My colleagues were scattered through the crowd, scribbling furiously as various Pardhis related their tales. A seething, quivering, uproarious sight. Everyone clamoured to tell their stories. In the telling alone, they found catharsis, some hope. And despite the uproar, despite the grandmother starting on her narrative before me, my thoughts went off on their own for a few moments.

Phase Pardhis are one of India's so-called denotified tribes. They should be called that, except that they are more usually termed a criminal tribe. This is a legacy traceable to the British. In their 1871 Criminal Tribes Act, they listed (thus "notified") over 150 such tribes across the country as criminal. As of 1871, if you were born to a member of such a tribe, you were automatically defined as criminal. As T.V. Stephens, a British official of the time, said while introducing the Bill that became the Act: "People from time immemorial have been pursuing the caste system defined job-positions: weaving, carpentry and such were hereditary jobs. So there must have been hereditary criminals also who pursued their forefathers' profession." There "must have been". Therefore, there were. There are. Nice and smooth.

In 1952, independent India repealed the Act, thus denotifying these tribes. Unfortunately, Act or repealed Act, Stephens' patronising legacy endures. Both the authorities and society in general continue to think of them as criminal. They are accused of petty crimes, rounded up and beaten by the police, driven from their homes, assaulted by fellow villagers. And it was one such assault that had brought us to meet these Pardhis in Phaltan.

I turned back to the family I was with. Tears in her eyes, bending over repeatedly to touch my feet with her forehead despite my gentle "no's, the grandmother, Limbu Jayaram Bhosle, told an appalling story. When she was pregnant some years ago, her husband went to the local zamindar's orchard to try to steal a few pomegranates for her: a pregnant woman's yearnings, don't we know. He plucked them off the trees. The zamindar's men caught sight of him. They chased him. They threw stones at him. He fell. They stoned some more. Limbu's elegant cheeks grew wet as she told me of the end of her husband: "Finally, they took a big stone and threw it onto his head. His brains fell out. They crushed his head the way we crush onions to eat." That was, of course, then. Whenever. Limbu herself wasn't sure. Some years ago, she said after consulting her family.

But days before we arrived in Phaltan, their neighbours in the village of Vitthalwadi, where they lived, assaulted the Bhosle family. Why? They accused the Bhosles of stealing potatoes; worse, of eating meat near a temple.

For these crimes, a gang of friendly neighbourly marauders burned down the Bhosle hut, flailing at the family with swords as they did so. The marks of this flailing were scattered across the Bhosle family like so many bits of perverse jewellery. Limbu's son, Salya Bhosle, carried a deep gash on his head. His wife Chhaya had a scar over her eyebrow. Their teenager son, Dhanaji, had a thumb nearly sliced off. Pooja, their daughter, also had a gash on her head.

In a photograph she showed us, taken the day of the assault, the blood from her wound flooded her cheek like some overflowing estuary.

The police took a full 10 days to file a complaint against the Bhosle's attackers; and that, only after a well-known tribal activist intervened.

As one of my colleagues wrote in her report on these events, a Phaltan police officer told her that with "some exceptions, most Pardhis are lazy, shiftless people". Whether that's reason — even if true — to deny them justice is a question unanswered.

I got up, stretched my legs and moved off through the crowd. Spoke to more "lazy, shiftless people".

To several in a row, oddly enough, about sex. A mother was fighting a false case slapped on her by a local advocate because she resisted his advances.

More than one Pardhi told me that the police watch closely for marriages in the community. Then they arrest the new husbands; to release them, they demand sex from the brides.

Sulochana Shinde told of how policemen often grab Pardhi women's breasts in front of their husbands, purely to humiliate both.

Lazy shiftless disgusting criminals: but their women can be fondled, molested and raped.

The man who had been waving a sheet of paper at me as I spoke to Limbu suddenly appeared, sat me down. He had quietly slipped away earlier, and I thought he had got fed-up waiting. But here he was.

One more letter to the Chief Minister. But being typewritten, his was infinitely more readable than the one that had the court stamp. All too readable.

"The police," Bharat Kale wrote after a long catalogue of wrongdoing, "have heaped injustices on us. They beat us whenever they want. Our children cannot go to school. My request to you is to make the injustices done to me go faraway."

How do you — how does a Chief Minister — react to a "request" to dispatch injustices "far away"?

This series of articles has been brought out by the Press Institute of India as a sequel to the Manual of Reporting on Human Rights in India brought out by the Press Institute with the support of the British Council and the Thomson Foundation of Britain.