Are The Criminals?
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
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
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
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