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Bania Arrested for Spying

January 18, 2003

Startled at the title of this column? Bear with me.

On December 21, 2000, three people were murdered in their flat on Hughes Road, south Bombay. The Times of India reported it this way:

In the middle of the Crime Prevention Week being observed by the Mumbai Police, Dolly Avari, 93, her son, Rusi, 71, and daughter-in-law, Roshan, 70, were brutally murdered in their 2,500 sq ft flat at Wadia House, Kharegat Colony on Hughes road on Thursday night.

That's right, during "Crime Prevention Week" of December 2000.

Roshan Avari's body was found lying near the door to the flat: the police surmised that she heard the bell, answered the door and was attacked. Her husband and his mother were lying dead in their beds, probably attacked while they were asleep. All three had been hit on the head with a rod. Missing from the flat was jewellery worth Rs 60,000 and Rs 40,000 in cash.

Over the last few years, several older Bombay residents have been murdered in their flats. In one week of February 1999, for example, there were three such: Vijaya Parmar, Mehroo Jussawalla and Maki Master. So as horrible as it was, the murder of the Avari family was just one more such crime, and there have been several others since. Together, they have got a lot of people worrying about older people who live alone.

So you'll be happy to know that the police have solved the Avari murders and arrested the culprits.

It wasn't easy. Joint Commissioner of Police S Vagal explained to the press that "though robbery appeared to be the immediate motive for the crime, the assailants had left no clues behind, making it extremely difficult to crack the case" (Mid-Day, January 14, 2003). Deputy Commissioner Pradip Sawant said his team "spent a few hundred hours" in painstaking investigations over the intervening two years (The Indian Express, January 15).

The result? The police arrested Rangnath Pawar, Bhima Kale and Sukhdeo Kale on January 14. According to The Indian Express, they are "wanted in two other murders in Chiplun, besides having other cases registered against them in Raigad district."

The murderers have been arrested. The stolen jewellery and cash have not been recovered. I know nothing more about this case than what I've set out above. Why then do I tell you about it here?

Because I want you to think about how these arrests were proclaimed by the police and then reported in the press. Tell me how you would react if the newspaper headline for the arrests had read like this: "Syrian Christians caught for triple murder at Hughes Road." Or if a sentence in the report read like this: "The accused hailed from the Dawoodi Bohra community." Or if the report said that "investigations revealed that a group of Brahmins could be involved"; but in frustration at the "slow progress" of the investigations, "a police constable was made to pose as a Brahmin while other members of the squad tracked the group"; that this "ploy worked" and led to the arrest of three Brahmins.

Really, please give it a thought. How would you react?

Me, I'd find this kind of reporting crazy. No serious police officer would say things like that at a press conference, no reporter would write copy like that. So absurd would it seem that I'd be convinced this was some kind of April Fool's joke.

But it's no joke, of course. That's precisely how the police and the press did indeed refer to these investigations and arrests. Except it wasn't "Syrian Christians" or "Dawoodi Bohras" or "Brahmins." It was "Pardhis." Yes, The Indian Express headline was "Pardhis caught for triple murder at Hughes Road." Mid-Day did indeed tell us that the accused "hailed from Pardhi nomadic tribe." And the Express did explain that "investigations revealed that a group of Phase Pardhis could be involved ... frustrated by the slow progress, a police constable was made to pose as a Pardhi while other members of the squad tracked the group."

And yes, "the ploy worked." Said the Express.

Why do you think it strikes most of us as absurd to write this way about Brahmins or Bohras, but perfectly acceptable to do so about Pardhis?

Pardhis, whom I have written about here before, are a "denotified tribe." Defined in the 1871 Criminal Tribes Act as criminal, some 150 such tribes across India were "denotified" when the Act was repealed after Independence, in 1952. That repeal happened because newly-independent India couldn't stomach the notion that a whole community could simply be called criminal; the notion that simply belonging to such a community defined you as criminal. Jawaharlal Nehru himself once said:

"The monstrous provisions of the Criminal Tribes Act constitute a negation of civil liberty. No tribe [can] be classed [sic] as criminal as such and the whole principle [is] out of consonance with all civilised principles."

Going along with the repeal was a felt responsibility to lift these people up and out from the prejudice and consequent misery that were the constants in their lives. For example, the Government of Bombay appointed a committee "to go into the question of rehabilitation of members of tribes, till recently designated Criminal Tribes under the Criminal Tribes Act... in the conditions resulting from the repeal of that Act and to suggest ways and means of their uplift."

Fine sentiments, finer intentions, all. But as with so many things, they remained largely on paper. Spend time meeting members of any denotified tribe today -- Sansis in the Punjab, Pardhis in Maharashtra, Vagharis in Gujarat, Lodhas in West Bengal and many more -- and you are struck, above all, by the way people view them. They live as outcasts, in hovels that are invariably well outside villages, scrounging to earn a few rupees. Their kids are taunted in schools, if allowed to attend at all. Few people are willing to offer them jobs. All this applies even today, half a century after that Act was repealed.

And yes, a fraction of them are criminals. But no larger a fraction than applies to the rest of us. Yet the police routinely rounds up members of such tribes whenever there is a crime to be solved: assumed to be criminals, they are the easiest way for the police to show they are tackling crime. And given several such cases where the police were shown to have done wrong (see my article Accused of Being Accursed for one example), there's reason for suspicion every time they do parade their Pardhi suspects. (How does a constable "pose" as a Pardhi anyway, besides get away with it?)

Still: because the police operates like this, because of the legacy of an Act that defined them criminal, we are willing to go along with labelling entire sets of people criminal, even today. We are willing to believe they must be criminal merely by being born Pardhi, or Sabar, or Yerukula.

Willing, to the extent that nobody does a double take at a headline that reads "Pardhis caught for triple murder."

But I bet you did a double take when you read my title.

Dilip D'Souza

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Number of User Comments: 66


dilip..i understand ur sentiment abt branding a whole tribe as criminals..but cant b ignored is that there r a lot of pardhis who do indulge ...

Posted by cora

Sub: It is not acceptable..

I am normally no fan of Mr. D'Souza's, but if this incident (of the headline) is true, it is a gross shame. It is a ...

Posted by Bholenath

Sub: First good article by Dilip

Normally I do not take Dilip D'Souza's articles seriously, but this is one real good article that he has contributed. I hope the media and ...

Posted by Siva

Sub: Shock Treatment...

Excelent article from D'Souza and also very good title...i was shocked ...WHAT !!! "bania arrested for spying"...then i was ashamed of being shocked...because i was ...

Posted by Vamsee

Sub: D'Souza's Column

Dilip D'Souza is practicing what he is apparantly preaching against. D'Souza is a Christian. Why didn't he use for his column the title 'Christian Arrested ...

Posted by Rajendra K. Gupta


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