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December 9, 1998


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Lazy, Shiftless, Thieving: But People

In my notes, I find I have described her like this: "An elegant yet resigned face, with a gentle smile." She sat in front of me one sunny morning, this resigned lady, quietly telling me a story that made my skin crawl.

When Limbu Jayaram Bhosle was pregnant some years ago, her husband went to the local zamindar's orchard to try to steal a few pomegranates for her. He had plucked them off the trees when the zamindar's men caught sight of him. They chased him. They threw stones at him. He fell. They went on stoning him. Tears ran down those elegant cheeks as Limbu told me of the end of her husband: "Finally, they took a big stone and threw it onto his head. His brains fell out. They crushed his head the way we crush onions to eat."

In a kind of detached way, perhaps we all know that gross injustices happen in our country; that our poor, our lower castes, our tribals, are too often victims of inhuman behaviour. Here, meeting my first ever Pardhi tribals, detachment turned swiftly to flesh and blood. Here, where pomegranates are paid for in spilled brains, I knew for the first time what it is to be born a criminal.

For Jayaram Bhosle's real crime was not that he stole pomegranates from the zamindar. No, it came several years before that. When he was born. Pardhis are one of the approximately 150 tribes that the British notified as "criminal" in the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871. With that Act, just being born into one of those tribes, just existing, made you a criminal. It is over 125 years since that Act was passed; it is nearly half a century since independent India repealed it in 1952 and "denotified" these tribes. The years have made very little difference. In fact, as I am finding with everything I am learning about denotified tribes, very little has made any difference -- even if the Act has been repealed. Pardhis, like the rest of the 150 tribes, are still seen as criminal. Treated that way. Beaten that way. Killed that way.

The crime, really, is in the way society looks at denotified tribes (DNTs).

After a good deal of reading on the subject in frail century-old journals, I like to pretend I know that crime well. Yet I am regularly surprised by the language that has been used to describe them, the things that have happened to them. There's a view of DNTs that just will not die.

In Volume XII of the Bombay Presidency Gazette (1880), I find these remarks about Pardhis: "They are still fond of hunting and poaching and have not got rid of their turn for thieving. ... The Phase Pardhi [a sub-tribe] is nearly always ragged and dirty, walking with a sneaking gait."

A "thieving" people who walk "with a sneaking gait."

Volume XX (1884) calls Phase (fa-say) Pardhis a "low, unsettled tribe ... a strong, hot-tempered and cruel people" who are "under the eye of the police and are a depressed people." And in their monumental "Tribes and Castes of the Central Provinces of India" (1916), Russell and Hira Lal refer to Pardhis as a "low caste" that "generally [has] criminal tendencies."

A "depressed people," a "hot-tempered and cruel people," that has "criminal tendencies."

Volume XVIII, Part III (1885) refers to another such tribe, the Ramoshis. I read that Ramoshis are "avoiding the habitations of the more civilised orders of society and engaging in plunder." I learn about a man called Pilaji Jadhavrao who, in 1730, was appointed sarnaik, a kind of overseer, of Ramoshis near Poona. "It is said that he killed many of them with his own sword," the fading words say, "and his brother Sambhaji was presented with a sword and permitted to put five Ramoshis to death every day."

A man who is "permitted" to slaughter five men a day.

It preceded these particular Gazettes, but the 1871 Criminal Tribes Act was a product of the climate, the attitudes, the paragraphs above allude to. I think: that was then. Surely, in the very late 20th Century, we look on such tribes differently? Surely we would think that the strange notion of pronouncing that an entire tribe is prone to crime, of actually listing 150 such tribes, is at best an anachronism? Surely, the damning attitudes towards them are a thing of the past? Surely. But no.

The Telegraph of July 31, 1998 carries a report which says: "Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Digvijay Singh today expressed concern over a series of recent robberies in MP by Pardhi tribals, identified as having criminal antecedents. These tribes [sic], listed as criminal ethnic groups, have defied the efforts of the government to rehabilitate them. The CM said state projects to provide these people with education did not have any impact on their criminal instincts."

Pardhis have "criminal antecedents," are "listed as [a] criminal ethnic group," and nothing the state does seems able to change "their criminal instincts."

In The Asian Age of September 7, 1998, I read: "Criminal tribesmen from Central India and the Deccan have entered Punjab in a big way... The arrest of 48 Pardhis, a criminal tribe of Madhya Pradesh, though a creditable operation, has hardly served to improve the situation." Later in the report, I read about how villagers lynched three policemen, suspecting them to be Pardhis.

"Criminal tribesmen" are arrested in a "creditable operation." However, their presence drives villagers to such a frenzy that they lynch three men, if mistakenly, on mere suspicion.

In 1730, a man was given a sword and "permitted" to kill five Ramoshis a day. In 1998, men are lynched on the suspicion of being Pardhis; the arrest of 48 Pardhis is called a "creditable operation;" the lie that Pardhis are "listed as [a] criminal ethnic group" forms part of a report in a widely read newspaper. What, really, has changed in 268 years?

Now I don't mean to imply that such tribes are entirely innocent of committing crimes -- they are not as the rest of India is not. But there is a context, a reason, that deserves consideration. Take what Stephen Fuchs writes in "The Aboriginal Tribes of India:" "[A] number of [such tribes] are passionately nomadic, and since foodgathering and hunting in the jungle, in the traditional manner, is often impossible, they have switched over to the rather dangerous, but still exciting life of 'foraging' in the fields, villages and towns... This has gained them a bad reputation and in the British times some of them were branded as 'criminal castes' and held under close police supervision. Since Independence this stigma has been taken from them, but the watch over them by the police has not much relaxed... They are forced by the prevailing adverse circumstances to practise subsistence thieving."

So with that context, here is what I am struggling to find out, struggling to come to terms with: What does it mean to brand an entire people criminal? As I meet more DNTs, read about them, I find myself returning to grapple with that question. I want to know: How does the "criminal" label affect the way they must live? The way a country treats them? If the lives of DNTs are forever bounded by societal prejudices, how will they ever lift themselves out of poverty and deprivation? Out of the crimes some commit?

Do we really want them to lift themselves?

What does calling whole sections of a society criminal do to that society?

One more excerpt, if I may. In the Gazetteer of India, Volume IV (Administration and Public Welfare), published in 1978 by the ministry of education and social welfare, I find these words: "The major problem to be tackled in the case of Denotified Communities is one of changing their basic attitude to the rest of society."

In its way, the patronising tone of that sentence is not substantially different from simply calling tribes criminal and being done with it -- which the British did in 1871. There are questions, I'm sure, about the basic attitude of the rest of society towards DNTs.

And maybe it is time to ask such questions.

Much more has happened to Limbu Jayaram Bhosle since her husband's murder. In April this year, the villagers of Vithalwadi in Satara District, Maharashtra, where her family lived, accused them of stealing potatoes and onions. For this, they burned the Bhosle's little hut to the ground. They attacked the family with sticks and swords. In that assault, her brother, Saliya, got a nasty head wound. His 14-year-old son, Dhanaji, had his thumb nearly sliced off. His daughter, Pooja, had the right side of her head cracked open; in a photograph she had with her, her cheek is stained by a river of blood.

When the Bhosles tried to file a case against their attackers at the Lonad police station, the police refused to oblige. For ten days, they refused. They registered the complaint only after the activist Laxman Gaikwad asked Deputy Chief Minister Gopinath Munde to intervene. Explaining this lethargy, a police officer told reporters: "[With] some exceptions, most Pardhis [are] lazy, shiftless people."

"We steal a few ears of wheat, we are called criminal," some other Pardhis said to me after I spoke to Limbu Bhosle. "What do you have to say about Harshad Mehta, who stole crores of rupees but is free and a respected man today?"

I had nothing to say. But I did wonder, recalling Volume XVIII, Part III (1885) of the Bombay Presidency Gazette, just who "the more civilised orders of society" are, just who is truly "engaging in plunder."

This article is part of a project Dilip D'Souza is pursuing to study India's DNTs, for which he has been awarded a National Foundation for India Media Fellowship for 1998-99.

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