Ground Zero Andhra Pradesh

The agony of Stuartpuram

Kareddulla Nageswara Rao (left) and Garika Prabhakara Rao (second from right) with friends, at a house at Stuartpuram.   | Photo Credit: Ch.Vijaya Bhaskar

A narrow cement road passing through the railway crossing on the Howrah-Chennai railway line leads to a village that, at first glance, appears no different from any other in the country.

Located 15 km from Bapatla on the Old Grand Trunk Road, Stuartpuram straddles the districts of Guntur and Prakasam in Andhra Pradesh. Visitors would be greeted by the sight of men and women working in the sun-baked fields growing rice and vegetables, youngsters flaunting their new motorbikes, and the elderly engaged in more sedentary pursuits.

The agony of Stuartpuram
 

The dusty road by the church leads to the home of Kareddulla Nageswara Rao. It’s a simple house, with a verandah, living room and a kitchen. Rao’s agility belies his 70 years. He was once a convict. Now, like most members of his community, he spends his time translating the Bible into his native Yerukula language.

The turn to crime and back

Nageswara Rao grew up in a broken family. After his father married a second time, his family attachments loosened further. He married his uncle’s daughter and began to work in the fields but the income was meagre.

“It was in the early ’70s that we started breaking into houses,” recalls Rao. “Over the next 15 years, crime became a part of life. I was charged with offences in Kalahasti, Hyderabad, Tirupathi and Visakhapatnam.”

Rao belongs to a generation of Yerukulas forced to take to crime to support their families. Farm work was available only for a few months. Lack of irrigation facilities meant that farming was largely dependent on the rains, which were infrequent, while the wells that supplied water to the crops often went dry.

But even after abandoning their old ways, Rao and others like him continued to bear the stigma. Despised by society and hounded by the police, they lived in constant fear of harassment and worse. “I gave up crime way back in 1984, after serving two jail terms. But the police would come to our home to probe crimes committed elsewhere. The needle of suspicion was always on us. Some burglary may have happened in Visakhapatnam or Rajahmundry [nearly 500 km and 300 km away], but we were always the first ones to be rounded up and questioned,” says Rao.

While serving a jail sentence along with her husband, Rao’s wife gave birth to a daughter in 1984. “We named her Gnana Jyothi,” Rao says. “I remember we had a baby shower function in the jail premises, where most guests were prison officials. That’s when I decided to change. Today my daughter works as a teacher. She supports us.”

In the past

The Yerukulas were originally traders of grain and salt who used to operate across the Madras Presidency. The men loaded their goods on donkeys and bullocks, and travelled with their families, supplying essential goods from the coast to far-flung areas in the interior.

When the British introduced road and railway transport in the 1850s, wagons replaced the donkeys, and the traders lost their traditional means of livelihood. These tribesmen were not only traders but also dealt in forest and agricultural produce.

But enclosures instituted by the British cut them off from common forest land and pastures. They used to make baskets, mats, brooms and brushes, but could no longer source the raw material. They were also acrobats, dancers, singers, and fortune-tellers, but the big crowds they attracted in public places made the colonial administration nervous.

The old antagonism and suspicion that landed communities have always harboured for itinerant gypsies combined with colonial prejudice to criminalise an entire community that had lived for centuries on the margins, playing a crucial role as a distribution chain for remote settlements. For the Yerukulas, it led to their being declared as a ‘criminal tribe’.

The book, Criminocurology; or The Indian Criminal, and What to do With Him: Being a Review of the Work of The Salvation Army Among the Prisoners, Habituals and Criminal Tribes of India, which was authored by Commissioner Frederick Booth Tucker of the Salvation Army and published in 1916, was instrumental in giving currency and respectability to the notion that the Yerukulas were criminals — a reputation that would continue to haunt them well into the 21st century.

Ragala Varun (left), who won a medal at an Australian Weightlifting championship, with his sister, Madhu Priya and father, Madhu, at Stuartpuram.

Ragala Varun (left), who won a medal at an Australian Weightlifting championship, with his sister, Madhu Priya and father, Madhu, at Stuartpuram.   | Photo Credit: Ch.Vijaya Bhaskar

 

The Salvation Army, a Protestant Christian charitable organisation, was an influential handmaiden of the empire, and the British looked to their expertise in ‘reforming’ these itinerant nomadic tribes by settling them in one place.

Booth Tucker’s book offers a glimpse into the intellectual discourse on crime around the time the Yerukulas became an ‘Indian criminal tribe’. He classified India’s ‘criminal tribesmen’ into categories such as ‘the incorrigible’, ‘the hereditary’, ‘the habitual’, ‘the ordinary’, and so on: “The hereditary criminal represents a state of crime practically unknown elsewhere. It might be called a state of war rather than a state of crime. On one side are ranged the police officers of Indian empire backed by the Army, and on the other side a compact phalanx of trained warriors, including men, women and children and often marshalled and led by women chieftains. They meet power with cunning and force with fraud. The hereditary child criminal is the saddest aspect in the state of crime.”

Rise of the reformatory settlements

In the early 20th century, the British began setting up small experimental colonies in the coastal areas of the Madras Presidency, where suspects were detained. But despite these experiments, the crime rate did not abate.

Feeling weighed down by the burden of restraining the ‘criminal tribes in South India’, around 1913, Harold Stuart, the then Home Member of the Madras Government, approached the Salvation Army to help settle these wandering tribesmen in industrial and agricultural colonies, and wean them away from crime. And thus was born Stuartpuram, named after Stuart.

It became a model colony of sorts where the British government and the Salvation Army pursued their experiments in ‘criminocurology’, or ‘curing’ a criminal people of their criminal tendencies.

In an essay titled ‘Colonial Construction of a Criminal Tribe: Yerukulas of Madras Presidency’, sociologist and post-colonial researcher Meena Radhakrishna has documented the colonial prejudices and administrative anxieties that resulted in an itinerant people getting branded as a criminal tribe. These prejudices and anxieties were further buttressed by the interests of the Indian landlord community and the upper castes, who not only shared similar misconceptions, but saw in the criminalised Yerukulas a cheap and captive source of farm labour. The colonial government and the landed elite together wove a persuasive narrative that culminated in the Criminal Tribes Act, 1911, which empowered the administration to set up colonies where the so-called criminal tribes would be reformed.

The first settlement in Madras Presidency was opened at the Old Railway Colony in Seethanagaram, near Vijayawada, in 1913. Charles Mackenzie, an American missionary who later took the Indian name of Anandham, was appointed Superintendent and given the liberty to visit jails, talk with the men, and select the first settlers for the colony.

The second settlement was established in the same year in Stuartpuram, which was originally called Bethapudi. Around 2,000 acres of land, including 1,500 acres of swamp, was put at the disposal of the Salvation Army by the British government.

The development of the colony was not easy. Men and women were trained in farming, draining the land, plantation of gardens, and construction of buildings. Two schools were established. Around 6,000 Yerukulas began to live there, and over time, the settlement grew, sustained by the women and men turning into wage workers at the Indian Leaf Tobacco Company (ILTD), which had been operating in Guntur since 1908.

No more a wandering people

Interestingly, Radhakrishna points out that the official sources of the British administration “acknowledge the lack of any real basis for branding the [Yerukula] community a criminal one”. She notes that “in the annual crime figures of Madras Presidency, their proportion in the criminal population was always lower than their proportion in the total population.”

The net outcome of these colonial measures was a forced transformation of the Yerukula way of life – from an itinerant community with an independent life and a rich oral tradition, to a settled one dependant on wage labour, and with no knowledge of their past history other than the one thrust upon them by the British and the Salvation Army.

“I believe that most of the community members who were forcibly settled in Stuartpuram were never criminals in the first place. So the reformation part somehow does not apply. These people were not criminals when they were declared to be legally so by the British government. They were victims of intense prejudice because they had a nomadic or gypsy lifestyle which was considered to be criminal. There were significant cultural differences between the way these people lived and the ‘moral’ code shared by the British, the Salvation Army and the surrounding mainstream villagers,” says Radhakrishna.

In course of time, it was found that even the ‘reformed’ men in Stuartpuram were returning to their original ways. “A kind of cumulative community mentality set in among the people who were housed in the same colony for several years. While the intention of the missionaries can never be questioned, we felt that the people were never really empowered, as they were not given any rights over the land they tilled,” says Sundar Kompalli, Director of Nastika Kendram.

Commissioner Frederick Booth Tucker’s book offers a glimpse into the intellectual discourse on crime around the time the Yerukulas became an ‘Indian criminal tribe’. Picture shows
his statue in the compound of the Salvation Army church at Stuartpuram.

Commissioner Frederick Booth Tucker’s book offers a glimpse into the intellectual discourse on crime around the time the Yerukulas became an ‘Indian criminal tribe’. Picture shows his statue in the compound of the Salvation Army church at Stuartpuram.   | Photo Credit: Ch.Vijaya Bhaskar

 

Today, the Yerukulas’ own self-perception is dominated by the narrative drilled into them by the missionaries and merciless colonial police. Their nomadic past as salt and grain traders is all but wiped out from their collective memory. Their recently acquired identity as a people with an ancestry of crime who outwitted the police and struck fear in the hearts of the common man is strangely comforting, if not empowering, in a present where discrimination and marginality persists. It is this borrowed myth of criminal daredevilry that present-day descendants of the Yerukulas believe in and live by.

In a survey held in the year 1973, there were 250 Yerukulas with criminal cases against them. ‘Tiger’ Nageswara Rao was one of them. He had earned notoriety for his ability to evade the police, even in custody. He got the moniker of ‘Tiger’ after managing to escape from a Chennai jail. The ‘Tiger’ was eventually shot dead by the police in 1987. A portrait of him hangs at the main door of his house in Stuartpuram.

The Tiger’s brother, Garika Prabhakara Rao, masterminded a bank robbery at Banaganapalle mandal in Kurnool district in 1974. It was the biggest bank heist of time, with the loot being ₹35 lakh.

Now stricken with paralysis, Prabhakara Rao sits in his modest two-room house, reflecting on his past exploits. “Everything changed after the Banaganapalle bank robbery case,” he says. “We were a ten-member gang. We broke the locks of a back door around midnight, despite the fact that a police station faced the bank on the front. We broke the safe, carried it to a graveyard, and helped ourselves to 14 kg of gold and ₹50,000 in cash. Before we could share the loot amongst us, policemen surrounded our village. We decided to surrender through Lavanam.”

Lavanam is the son of Gora, who in the 1970s founded the Vijayawada-based Nastika Kendram. Along with his wife Hemalatha, he worked in the colony to reform the people through an approach he called ‘Samskar’, which differed from the ways of the Salvation Army.

Facilitating the surrender of Prabhakara Rao before the Guntur Superintendent of Police was one of Lavanam’s first achievements. What followed was an affirmative social action programme that sought active intervention from the state.

The Andhra Pradesh government in 1976 issued orders declaring that Stuartpuram was no longer a reformatory for criminals but a free colony. It was merged with Bethapudi village. Land ownership rights were provided to the inhabitants. When Jalagam Vengala Rao was Chief Minister, the people were given pattas in 150 acres under Romperu Drain. Successive Collectors, including P.S. Krishnan, Ratan P. Watal (who is now NITI Aayog’s principal adviser), S.R. Sankaran and many others showed special interest in the development of the colony.

Turning the corner

After these interventions, in the baseline survey conducted by Nastika Kendram in 2002, the number of men in police records came down to just 12. Men and women began to seek higher education.

Devara Subba Rao, former chairperson of the Tribal Cooperative Finance Corporation, says that he was the first in his family to get into Group-1 services, and as an executive director of Scheduled Tribes Corporation, took up several developmental works in the colony.

Devara Vasu, joint secretary, AP Tribal Welfare Residential Educational Society, and Ch. Koteswara Rao, a retired Director General of Police (DGP), are among the other civil servants from the village. “It is only through social reformation by missionaries that I was able to come up in life. I now live in a beautiful house in Banjara Hills, next to the residence of a movie star. I never thought I would come so far,’’ says Subba Rao.

But as the years rolled by, state interventions began to dwindle. Now, few government officers visit the village. The A.P. government undertakes development work through the Tribal Welfare Department. But the department’s total outlay for Guntur district for 2016 was just ₹25.30 lakh. Only two schemes of financial support were sanctioned for Bapatla mandal. A Tribal Welfare Residential School still operates, with a strength of 60 students. The reluctance of bankers to lend to anyone in Stuartpuram is another stumbling block in the development of the community, pointing to the disturbing persistence of an old prejudice.

The next generation

A recent accomplishment that has brought joy to the people of Stuartpuram came from the world of sport. Ragala Venkat Rahul and Varun, aged 20 and 19, won gold at the recent Australian Weightlifting Championship. Representing the new hopes of a new generation, the champions from Stuartpuram are determined to make it big in life.

“I used to train Rahul from the age of one, by making him to lift small weights,” says his father Madhu. “When he passed class three in the village school, I enrolled him at Hakimpet Sports School near Hyderabad. Since then, my sons have been winning medals in various championships.” Mr. Madhu now dreams of nurturing his sons into world champions.

To make this dream come true, he will need all the help he can get. The A.P. government had announced cash award of ₹15 lakh and ₹10 lakh to Rahul and Varun and promised to grant them some land too. But there has been no action from the Sports Authority of Andhra Pradesh.

Social activist Lavanam says that a study in 2014 revealed that no major crime involving the Yerukala tribe had been registered during the last 40 years. He urged the police not to link any organised crime to Stuartpuram. That is a message that not just the police but society at large would do well to heed.

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Printable version | Oct 28, 2020 2:27:45 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/andhra-pradesh/the-agony-of-stuartpuram/article20799245.ece

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