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Hated, Humiliated, Butchered

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 denotified.

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 and literature.

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
India’s people.

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?

Mahasweta Devi is an eminent Indian writer. She works among tribals.



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