In the wake of the revolt of 1857, a slew of tough measures followed, and those who did not “conform to acceptable patterns of behaviour” were tagged “criminal”. The Criminal Tribes Act of 1871 defined some 200 ethnic communities as “addicted to systematic commission of non-bailable offences.” The Act, as Dakxin Bajrange and Henry Schwarz, editors of Vimukta: Freedom Stories , write in the introduction, intended to “civilise” large populations of mostly nomadic tribes by counting, containing, and eventually settling them in fixed abodes.
From the margins
Bajrange and Schwarz have gathered accounts of people labelled “criminals” and their reaction to such historical depictions. Independence may have led to their de-criminalisation, but it was “more in name than in deed.” Denotified as criminals in 1952, they were quickly rebranded as the Denotified and Nomadic Tribes, and their lack of political representation has meant that it has been left to civil rights activists to fight their battle for a better life and access to education, housing and health care.
There’s a moving excerpt from Bajrange’s autobiography, Budhan Speaks ( Budhan Bolta Hai ). He writes about growing up in Chharanagar in Ahmedabad, outside the shadow of mainstream society, where, caught in a vicious cycle of poverty and unemployment, most members are engaged in “theft or brewing liquor.” But just like Bajrange got out of it by becoming a theatre artist, filmmaker and writer, he provides a glimmer of hope when he says that now all children go to school.
Violence, however, is always lurking, and prison stints too, often on false charges. Once when he goes with two friends to a fair to click pictures of a temple, Bajrange gets beaten up on suspicion of being a thief — “we will break your limbs,” a common refrain. Literary critic G.N. Devy, writer and activist Mahasweta Devi, and novelist and politician Laxman Gaikwad set up an Action Group after the murder of Budhan Sabar in 1998. Devy once asked Bajrange to make a film on the Madaris who were being harassed by the Forest department and an animal rights NGO. Fight for Survival was based on a real-life incident — an NGO had members of the snake-charming Madari community arrested and locked up in dog cages.
The big struggle
Kushal Butange, all of 18, asks ‘who am I?, recalling how his mother and uncle were worried when he wanted to become a filmmaker, as it is a “career for big people”. His mother began selling liquor when money was tight after his father, an advocate, fell ill. He organises a weekly film screening at the Chharanagar library, promising to “keep fighting for the constitutional rights that have been guaranteed to the denotified tribes” and trying to “rectify” lives of the community.
Activist Subba Rao Mali Rao writes the harrowing story of a couple, one belonging to the Mondi Bada tribe, traditional gatherers of honey with great climbing skills, and the other to the Dasari, collectors of hair, and how the move from the forest to the city meant living in terrible poverty and the “scourge of criminality”. Bhimrao Jadhav of Solapur cannot forget the moment ‘criminal’ tribes were denotified and set free, and yet the struggle continues because society is yet to shed its prejudices, making it imperative for such stories to be recounted.
Vimukta: Freedom Stories ; Edited by Dakxin Bajrange and Henry Schwarz, Navanaya, ₹350.