Some 200 ethnic communities in India came to be ‘notified’ once the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871 characterised them as ‘addicted to the systematic commission of non-bailable offences’. Strengthened in 1911 and 1924, the Act engendered a regime of passes for individuals and entire communities, who were also deported to penal settlements, penned into ghettos, fingerprinted, separated from their children and handed over to religious proselytisers. The combination of racism, caste prejudice and eugenics that informed colonial policy endures today, and no centralised archive or dedicated museum exists to collate the records of this collective persecution.
In 1952 came the denotification of the ‘criminal’ tribes, but, as the editors Dakxin Bajrange and Henry Schwarz note, state governments were quick to pass habitual offenders acts and restore the notion of hereditary criminality to the law books. Art and civil activism have shown a way forward amid the hostility of both state and society. Vimukta bears witness to this momentum with a range of texts – from oral testimony to plays, excerpts from a novel, and written autobiography – works in English and in translation from Hindi, Marathi, Gujarati and Bhantu.
The following excerpt is taken from Kalpana Gagdekhar’s ‘Confessions of a Chhara Actress’, translated from the Bhantu by Roxy Gagdekhar. The Chharas inhabit an underserved and lawless inner-city ghetto of Ahmedabad, where Kalpana describes the foundation of Budhan, a theatre company named after Budhan Sabar, murdered by the police in February 1998.
On 31 August 1998, Ganesh Devy, Mahashweta Devi, whom we called Amma, and some other intellectuals cameto Chharanagar for the first time, to visit me at home. Some Chhara youth, including Dakxin Bajrange and Roxy Gagdhekar, were also present. We mostly discussed how we could develop the Chhara community. Since we were the ones who had invited them, Dr Devy and Amma asked us what they could do for us. ‘We want books to read,’ I said. They were taken aback. Immediately, they resolved to setup a library in Chharanagar. Seeing our enthusiasm and potential to make a change in the community, they suggested we make a street play, a bhawai as we called it, on the life of Budhan Sabar and his death in police custody. On the day we performed the play, we saw positive media coverage of Chharanagar for the first time, as opposed to the usual pieces about thievery and liquor brewing.
Our first meeting was informal but it led to the formation of the National Convention on Denotified and Nomadic Tribes, which held its first conference at Bhopal’s Indira Gandhi National Museum of Man in December 1999. There we decided to celebrate 31 August as Vimukta Diwas, or Liberation Day for DNTs. All this led to the establishment of a national and international movement for all DNT communities. Devy and Amma have always inspired and motivated us to work for the development of future generations. Their efforts resulted in the creation of a National Commission for Denotified, Nomadic and Semi-Nomadic Tribes under the ministry of social justice and empowerment. We have been working for the community without rest ever since.
I had never imagined that I would have a career in the theatre and the arts. After our first performance of Budhanat Ahmedabad’s renowned Darpana Academy, we received immense praise from the audience. People came to me after the performance, gave me warm hugs and congratulated me. I felt good in my soul! Many reputed newspapers interviewed me. I felt proud of what I had accomplished. Before, I was ashy and introverted person, I didn’t interact much with other people. But my theatre and acting career unwrapped me. I began exploring things I would have otherwise avoided. I became confident when talking to other people. I discovered who I really was.
Ahmedabad is divided into two parts, east and west. Chharanagar is located in the eastern part of the city. I was always afraid to go west because the people there were more educated and well-dressed, and they saw us as‘born criminals’. For them I was a thief, a Chhara. The first performance of Budhan was in western Ahmedabad. Many intellectuals came to watch our show. To them it was the first time a Chhara ‘gang’ had entered the western part of the city for a good cause. After the success of this performance, we began getting invitations from all over the country to come and perform.
We have now performed in Delhi, Bhopal, Pune, Kolkata, Kochi and many other parts of India. Budhan Theatre has also helped us build international contacts, and interacting with them helps us change our perceived identity. We have met several influential people, from academics like Henry Schwarz and Kerim Friedman, to filmmakers like Shashwati Talukdar. Our members have travelled internationally and as we travel across the country and around the world, we are exposed to different people, with whom we can exchange our experiences.
For five years we gave repeat performances of the same play, Budhan, while simultaneously building our library and our networks, running many after-school and weekend programmes in literacy, homework assistance and theatre workshops in the library. This helped us expand our knowledge about world theatre. We also produced and performed a famous play by Badal Sircar called Bhoma (likeBudhan, the title refers to an ordinary rural peasant who embodied poverty and injustice). When we were performing Bhoma at a local university, Dhirubhai Ambani Indian Institute of Culture and Technology in Gandhinagar on 10 October 2003, Dr Devy named our group ‘Budhan Theatre’.That was an historic day for us.
One incident along this journey describes how my passion for theatre has changed my life. I was running late for a performance in Saputara once. I was also in the last trimester of my pregnancy. Somehow, with the help of Dakxin’s youngest sister, who was performing with us, I walked a distance that normally takes an hour to cover in less than half an hour and reached the venue. Once we were there, the security forces recognized us as Chharas and refused to let us enter. Dr Devy, a well-known personality at the event,berated them. He said that if his troupe was not allowed to participate, he would not participate either. He then declared that we would perform on the streets in protest, to shame the people who had barred us from entering. Next thing you know, we were performing in Saputara before an enormous crowd. That incident cemented my commitment to street theatre and my belief in the power of people’s expression.
These are some of the small ways through which we made our voices heard and showcased our skills to those in power. Budhan Theatre has led my husband, Roxy, to take up a career as a journalist with BB C News. It has taught all of us to identify the discrimination against our communities and has given us the tools to counter it. If Budhan Theatre had not existed, then my husband and I would not have achieved so much in our careers.
We have not limited ourselves to bringing about change only in our community. Dakxin Bajrange and I have fought for other DNT communities residing in Ahmedabad, such as the Dabgar, Raj Bhoi and Vaghari communities. These are former nomads who have been camping in the city for many decades, on what used to be their ancestral migration routes. There are at least 227 families who are struggling to get housing and livelihood in eastern Ahmedabad, where the DNT communities reside. Towards this end, we have filed a case against the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation. Dakxin took charge of filing the documents, and he filed hundreds of applications under the Right to Information Act. I on the other hand have been educating them through theatre, providing them insight about how they can fight for their survival and justice. This fight has stretched on for years.It was only recently that the Supreme Court allotted some plots for houses, giving several DNT families a place to live.
The judgement was historic in the present phase of the DNT struggle because before this the Supreme Court simply did not know that DNT communities existed. Now they officially recognize the existence of DNTs and their oppression. This incident was a major victory not only forDNT communities residing in the Maninagar settlement but also for all DNTs across the country. The Supreme Court has actually given them brick houses! Living in pucca houses has been the dream of every family in Maninagar that has lived under plastic sheeting for the last forty years.