AHMEDABAD: The noise of crashing and banging rattled the night air. Some people were vandalising the vehicles parked on the road. Then there was the long screech of the police siren.
“I saw policemen pelting stones, breaking vehicles and beating up any and everyone who came their way, including women, old and young,” alleges theatre activist Atish Indrekar.
The skirmish between the police and the Chhara community in Chharanagar last month saw 29 people including Indrekar, his relative Pravin Indrekar, a photojournalist with an English daily, “beaten up, humiliated and thrown behind bars”.
But the police said a sub-inspector was assaulted in Chharanagar, following which a raid was conducted and that led to violent clashes. The residents, however, have denied it.
Indrekar said: “The police arrived in a sudden swoop on the community and randomly beat up people.” The impunity of the police has to do with a toxic law from British India that classifies Chharas as criminal tribes.
The denotified tribes like Chhara, Devipujak, Sansi, Sandhi, Dafer have been living with the tag of criminals since the British days.
While they were put under the list of criminal tribes through Criminal Tribes Act of 1871, they were delisted in 1952. However, despite the legislative liberty granted to these denotified tribes, the law classifies them as habitual offenders to perpetuate the colonial prejudice.
Scattered all over the subcontinent, the nomadic and denotified tribes have rarely managed to register political presence. However, things are beginning to change.
“So far the issue of nomadic tribes and denotified tribes (NTDNT) was limited to academic discussions or social activism, but this generation has realised the importance of taking to street to assert their political rights,” said Dakxin Chhara, an eminent filmmaker from Chharanagar, who claims to be a “victim of police violence”. “And such incidents are only adding up to the anguish of the communities.”
“Unlike the Dalits and other marginalised communities, the DNTs never had the scope to represent themselves in the formation of the Constitution and thus have remained unrepresented in the national polity so far,” Dakxin observes. “The Habitual Offender Act has seen our people being locked up within our houses from sunset to sunrise by the police till as late as 1965, apart from living in fenced ghettos,” he adds.
The DNTs were first mobilised by eminent Bengali writer and social activist Mahashweta Devi in 1998 when she started working with these communities in Gujarat, giving birth to the Budhan Theatre, a powerful platform to voice the communities anguish.
Dakxin and his associates have already started mobilising the community on political lines and have organised at least five rallies across the state.
“We had held rallies in Lunawada, Navsari and some other areas in south and central Gujarat and each one of them have been attended by some 15,000 people,” he said, adding that demand for an act to protect the NTDNT from random police violence and for reservation is fast gaining momentum. “There is a large presence of DNTs across the districts of south and central Gujarat and there is also a sizable population in North Gujarat and en block that makes for some serious political muscle,” he observ ..
“On August 31, which we celebrate as Vimukti Divas or Denotification Day, we are organising a large gathering this time and it is about time to flex some political muscle for the sake of the generation to come.”
— With assistance by DP Bhattacharya