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September 23, 1999


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E-Mail this column to a friend Dilip D'Souza

Respect, but only on paper

For nearly half-an-hour, Giranwalla Lalla Bhosle searched through a number of papers in a pink plastic bag. There was something he wanted to show me, he said. I sat next to him, at times talking to the others in the hut, at times looking at papers Giranwalla would hand me, at times just watching this 65-year-old man as he searched. He never did find whatever it was he was looking for, but then I didn't know how he would have. He could not read.

So in that half-hour, he handed me: Prescriptions. Receipts for money contributed to one or another organisation. Bills for medicines and other sundries. A letter that had arrived by book-post from a district office in Satara: "We have forwarded your letter to the Tahsildar of Phaltan, please approach him." A ration card. Somebody's address. Newspaper clippings about the death in police custody of Pinya Hari Kale, a Pardhi from Baramati.

Papers of every description, in multifarious colours, carefully folded and stuffed into this large pink bag. Some were dated 20 or more years ago; many were clearly of no use whatever. But they were all there. As far as I could tell, Giranwalla had preserved every single bit of paper that had ever entered his life. To what purpose, I could not immediately fathom. I could only marvel at his method, his lifelong certainty that each of those scraps of paper would one day prove useful. So as he searched, I watched.

In meeting Pardhis and members of other Denotified and Nomadic Tribes, I have been intrigued by this obsession with paper. So many have shared the need to squirrel it away, to hold on to old bills and letters, even if they have no idea what's written on them. There's a running contrast between the steady desire to keep these scraps and the uncertainty of DNT lives: the harassment by the police, the tenuous hold they have on home and land. It is almost as though they see the papers as an anchor, as a symbol of certainty and permanence that's otherwise hard to come by. Something possibly greater than that, even.

Most DNTs must still carry the albatross the British gave them by branding them criminal. In the months that I have been pursuing this project to write about their condition, I have yet to visit one DNT settlement that has not had tales to tell about harassment from the police; or abuse from fellow villagers; or drives by municipalities that demolish their huts.

In Baroda, a group of Bajanias told me about being pushed off the land they had occupied for decades, their homes giving way to mushrooming multi-storeyed buildings for Baroda's growing middle-class. In Santrampur, Gujarat, a few Vagharis showed me their huts, beyond the town limits, and spoke of how they must move steadily outwards as the town expands. In Akkarbaid, West Bengal, I met a young Kheria Sabar widow called Shyamoli, trying to pick up the pieces of her life after her husband was killed in police custody last year. In Songaon, Maharashtra, a few Pardhi families try to cultivate the land they were given some years ago, but speak bitterly of constant police harassment: some of it even comes their way courtesy Pardhis from the next village over.

Clearly, life in these little communities is degrees harder and more unpredictable than anything I am used to. Hardly an insightful comment, I will admit. But the extent to which certainty is uncertain is startling. Almost nothing is given, nothing can be taken for granted. Where you live and how long you live there is subject to the whims of municipalities, as also to the residential dreams of those far above you on the economic ladder. If you set out for the market riding behind your husband on his cycle, as Shyamoli did one afternoon, you could return home alone because the police have stopped you both and taken him in on suspicion. You could even find yourself permanently alone, as she did, because the police have proceeded to batter your husband to death.

These things happen. They do because of that albatross the British hung on your ancestors' necks: criminal is what you are and will always be. So your fellow citizens speak of you with fear and derision. You live, always, well outside the village. The police suspect you in every crime that's committed in the district. Schools don't like your children attending. In the press, the name of your tribe nearly always appears with words like "dreaded" and "criminal" firmly attached.

Labels like those contour, circumscribe, your life. And in that life, perhaps there is a rationale to squirreling away paper. Perhaps it is evidence of some kind of acceptance, some respect, from those around you. Whether just a letter, or a leaflet handed out at a rally, the sheer ordinariness of it says that you are really no different from anyone else. After all, one invoice from the nearby pharmacy is as good as another, whether it is a DNT or someone else who buys the stuff. Indeed, I even recognised the medicine named on an old bill Giranwalla handed me -- I once had to take the same drug.

Is it too far-fetched to see a connection between Giranwalla's bag of paper and a sense of some worth, even some humanity? Called criminal from the day he was born, at least his papers testify that he is really like every other Indian -- above all, they testify that to him. They affirm a certain normalcy that little else in his life gives him reason to hope for.

And yet, these speculations about respect, normalcy, worth -- these might be no more than my own impressions and theories. Two other experiences with Pardhis and papers suggested that.

In Phaltan, not far from Giranwalla's home village of Rajale, I spoke to a Pardhi youth called Vasant Zabzab Pawar. He had papers too. The first one he handed me, very proudly, was his March 1997 SSC marksheet. His scores ranged from 4/150 in Mathematics to 45/150 in Science. Naturally, he had failed; though his proud smile indicated he either did not know or did not care. Whichever it was, he was more interested in my reaction to the second paper he showed me.

This was a certificate in a green and gold frame, presented to Vasant by the Phaltan Panchayat Samiti in 1994. It certified his "brilliant success": that Vasant Zabzab Pawar had run first in the Yashwantrao Chavan High School marathon that year. I congratulated him and his smile grew wider.

But then Vasant's face suddenly clouded over. "I have all these papers," he said. "But they are of no use to me at all. Can you help me get a job?"

Next to him, Hivraj Pawar pushed forward a sheet of paper for me to read. Before I did, he explained what it contained, or what he thought it contained. Apparently the police had slapped a false case of robbery on his wife Shevantabai and his daughter Rohini. Hivraj and Shevantabai paid a Phaltan lawyer to write a letter explaining this situation. He wanted to show it to Maharashtra's Deputy Chief Minister Gopinath Munde, who was to visit the district, in the hope of getting some help. The paper was the letter he said the lawyer had given him.

In an untidy scrawl, complete with a 50 paise court fee stamp, this is what the letter said.

XIth Court. Before the Honourable Judicial Magistrate. Subject: Application for issue of non-bailable warrant.


The applicant most humbly submits as under. That this Hon'ble Court is pleased to issue summons against accused, but the accused are avoiding to attend this Hon'ble Court. Their presence cannot be secured unless non-bailable warrant is issued against him.

Hence prayer that non-bailable warrant be kindly issued against all the accused.

Applicant (Shevantabai Hivraj Pawar)

Baffled, I turned to Hivraj. What was this? Who were these accused? What were they accused of? He didn't know what I was talking about. He insisted, again, that this letter was what the lawyer had given him to explain the false case against his wife. If that was so, there was only one possible explanation. Aware that Hivraj and wife could not read, the lawyer had scribbled some irrelevant nonsense on a sheet of paper, attached an official looking stamp, pocketed his money and sent them on their way.

So what had happened when Munde came visiting? Hivraj actually managed to show his paper to him. "He told me," said Hivraj, "that there was too much of a crowd here. He asked me to bring it to Bombay to show it to him again." That was just what Hivraj was about to do. He was off to the big city soon. He would carry the same sheet of paper with him.

Puzzled and somewhat despondent, I got up to leave. "Wait a minute!" shouted Vasant. "Give me your address." He handed me a crumpled bus ticket. I wrote my address on it and gave it back. It vanished into a large plastic bag, stuffed in there with his SSC marksheet and his marathon certificate.

This article is part of the project Dilip D'Souza is pursuing to study India's Denotified and Nomadic Tribes on a National Foundation for India Fellowship for 1998-99.

Dilip D'Souza

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