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March 31, 1999
The Satara District Biscuit Sting
Quite suddenly, the man leaped off the string-cot we were sitting on and sprinted into the room at the back. He returned a few seconds later, holding something in his hand. Watch this, he said. He flung whatever it was on the floor in front of me. It landed with a splat, a small light-brown lump of what looked very much like vomit. I peered at it, then up at him. He was grinning at my involuntarily wrinkled nose, my inquiring brow.
It's just a bit of biscuit, he said. He had wet a biscuit and crumbled it into a soggy paste in his fingers. Then he had thrown some of the paste on the floor. This is how they operate, he told me. One of them will sit next to you in a bus or some other crowded place, do this swift little biscuit operation, tap you on the shoulder and point disgustedly at the little lump on the floor. "Look what you've done," he says loud enough to cause heads to turn, "how dirty you are!" In those few seconds, while you gaze at the "dirt," try to puzzle out how you could possibly have been responsible for it, the Pardhi pickpocket slices into your bag and helps himself to what's inside. Or he spirits the bag away altogether.
This is such a common trick, the man said, that some Pardhis even call themselves Biscuit.
That rang a loud bell. In the village of Rajale (Satara District, Maharashtra) just the previous day, I had met a 35-year-old Pardhi man called Biscuit. The name made me smile, made me mildly curious. I didn't know then that it may have had its genesis in the smooth biscuit manoeuvre that I would see demonstrated in less than 24 hours.
Pardhis are just one of India's denotified tribes. Listed as criminal by the British in the 1871 Criminal Tribes Act, they were denotified in 1952. Even so, they are still called criminal. In particular, that is the view the law routinely takes. In fact, said a sub-inspector in the Phaltan police station, it is "their culture" to be criminal. His constables solemnly nodded their agreement. The "police patil" -- a panchayat appointee who helps settle village disputes -- of nearby Sastevadi town put it this way: "It is the habit of Pardhis to endanger their lives in thieving."
Is this typical, I wondered as I listened to these men. Are there different shades to the way the police views Pardhis?
Sure enough, in the several hours I spent with Parit, he astonished me with how much he knew. And through those hours, I was conscious of a curious sentiment in him. Nearly every police officer or constable I had spoken to had been contemptuous of Pardhis: the comments in the Phaltan police station were only representative. But Parit was different. Yes, he had crossed the paths of many Pardhi criminals, brought several to justice. Yes, he rattled off the names in several Pardhi "tolis": family-centred gangs who committed burglaries in the district. Yet he did not seem coloured by any of that. He spoke of the Pardhis he had encountered in his career with a certain respect, an unusual understanding.
Unusual, because of the way Pardhis are ordinarily treated. Even more unusual, because this treatment has such a long history.
The way society and the police views ex-criminal tribes today has its roots in colonial times, in the very concept of policing in India as a British colony. To the British, India must have seemed a hair-raisingly anarchic and volatile society, one that presented problems of law and order entirely different from those on the home island. 19th century England's rather more settled society meant that the police there had begun focussing on protecting private property; but in India, simply keeping public order was work enough and became the prime goal of the police. Crime, thus, was defined in terms of how difficult it was for the police to bring India's large, dispersed populations under the rule of law.
India was also magnitudes vaster than England. For the police to establish their hold over this huge area was a nearly intractable task. There was strife and conflict everywhere, tensions of a kind the English had never known at home. There was little hope that they would be able to contain all of it, all over India. Consciously or not, the strategy that evolved was to concentrate the limited resources and efforts of the police on selected, visible, targets. This was the only way to give an appearance of being an effective guarantor of public peace. In his Imperial Power and Popular Politics: Class, Resistance and the State in India 1850-1950, Rajnarayan Chandavarkar explains: "The police necessarily had to rely upon a general consensus about which groups in society were especially prone to criminal activity and might constitute, therefore, the proper objects of policing. ... By enacting this principle of selection, the colonial state was able to create criminal tribes and castes."
In this model of policing in colonial India, criminal tribes were just a convenient target, a scapegoat. By acting against them, the state could keep up at least a pretence of enforcing law and order around the country, even if much other crime happened and was left unpunished. As Chandavarkar writes: "While in reality crime went largely unreported and unrecorded, police reports and memoirs ... described in painstaking detail crimes of savage brutality or extraordinary guile and cunning or those which reflected exotic customs and elaborate rituals. Of course, this was particularly the case with ... the criminal tribes and castes, whose supposed criminality was represented as an inheritance and a profession, inextricably connected to their lineage and genealogy."
And yet the truth, says Chandavarkar, was really that "... the criminal tribes were scarcely, by the late 19th century, a potent threat to social order."
In those lurid police records was born a certain view of certain tribes that made it easy to call them criminal. This view, this use that was made of them if you like, has persisted. In his 1932 book The Underworld of India Lt Gen Sir George MacMunn calls such tribes "absolutely the scum, the flotsam and jetsam of Indian life, of no more regard than the beasts of the field." Add to that florid description the Phaltan sub-inspector's succinct pronouncement, circa 1999: that crime is no more than "their culture."
When they are so easily seen through this dark lens, it's no wonder that the police still thinks these tribes are inherently prone to crime. That they are still first to be rounded up when crimes happen. Just by way of recent example, the sub-inspector told me he had arrested two Pardhis -- a Shera Narayan Bhosle and his accomplice -- only days earlier. After what he described with a wave of the hand as some "degree-vagairah" (loosely translated: "third degree") they had confessed, he said, to three or four dacoities in the area.
"Degree-vagairah" notwithstanding, the truth still is that while there are indeed Pardhi criminals, they hardly constitute "a potent threat to social order." That particular description applies better to wealthy, powerful, politicians and other criminals, men who get away with enormous swindles, with stoking murderous riots. Meanwhile, Pardhis live in miserable huts, always on the outskirts of villages, in constant dread of being rounded up by the police.
Every single Pardhi I have met -- several dozen, by now -- has spoken of that dread.
And this is precisely why Parit is such an unusual policeman: because he clearly did not share the widespread prejudices about Pardhis.
I don't mean to imply he looked the other way when they did commit crimes; after all, he earned his reputation by his pursuit of Pardhi criminals. Entirely on his own, Parit had tracked down several gangs of Pardhi robbers, worked out the way they committed crimes. From looking at footprints near a crime site, he could tell which particular gang was responsible and who from that gang had actually been there. Through years of study, by tramping hundreds of kilometres all over the district, he learned their numbers, their beats, their habits. He was reputed, I was told, to be so fit even into his fifties that no Pardhi -- known to be fleet themselves -- would try outrunning him.
But with all that, Parit also recognised why some Pardhis are still neck-deep in crime. He knew what was needed to change that: education, jobs, a measure of respect. Perhaps because he gave them respect, Parit had remarkable success in arresting and reforming members of Pardhi gangs in Satara. Several now lead lives no different from anyone else in the area.
Parit's son Chenne, himself a constable in Lonand, offered another reason Pardhis would not run from Parit: they had developed a definite respect for him. "They knew," Chenne said with quiet pride, "that my father would treat them as humans."
Not, I reflected, as the "absolutely the scum, the flotsam and jetsam of Indian life."
Photograph: Dilip D'Souza
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 Media Fellowship for 1998-99.
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