The following story appeared in the Indian Newspaper, DNA as part of an initiative to raise awareness about the plight of India’s Denotified Tribes (DNTs). This community is also the subject of our new film, Please Don’t Beat Me, Sir! You can see the trailer for our film here.
Restoring human dignity through arts
Of late, members of Chhara community are sensitising people about themselves
Political power changes the identities of people overnight. It brands communities as desirable or undesirable through law. It makes hell of a life of a community branded as undesirable. The British rule in India wanted to prevent 1857 like people’s risings. It decided to break the network of the natives, itinerants that was behind the rising of the Indian masses.
The British rule notified in 1871 that certain nomadic tribes were ‘criminal’ tribes and they needed to be controlled for the security of the civic people. Sansis or Chharas were one of the ‘criminal’ tribes. Since then, the Chharas, along with other such tribes, have been on the run. They have been kept in settlements. Chhara children were kept away from their parents. Chharas had to work hard for the British rulers. They had to go back to the settlement before evening. This all happened in Chharanagar in Ahmedabad during the last century. They were denotified from the list of ‘criminal tribes’. They live in different parts of the country like Delhi, Bhopal, Mumbai, Bhavnagar, Rajkot, and Ahmedabad. Their total population in Gujarat is about 15,000.
The stigma of criminality has not daunted them. Many Chharas have been tortured in police custody and few have even died in the police custody. Even today in cities like Delhi, Mumbai and Ahmedabad they are suspected for any crime held in the neighbouring areas. The police and the society still believe that no community other than Chhara can be behind any crime. If we go to understand the community the facts are different.
In 1998, Chhara children and youth started a library. They have a theatre named after a denotified and nomadic tribe member Budhan Sabar. They write plays on contemporary themes. They have produced more than 20 plays, performed in various parts of the country. They have sensitised the judiciary, police, educational and political audiences. This is in itself an immense achievement. Two Chhara youth have been selected for NSD courses. We know of painters like Mansingh Chhara and many senior advocates as well as journalists are from the Chhara community. There are many youths and children who are active in restoring human dignity to their tribe through the medium of theatre and film. They are a politically aware and socially sensitive group. Their latest theatre production in Hindi is based on ‘An Accidental Death of an Anarchist’ of Dario Fo. The production has a serious message for police-controlled Gujarat, the current regime and the literary community.
How can one overcome the injustice perpetrated by history? How can one come out of the abyss of forced ‘criminality’? Chhara youth and children show us the way to human dignity via art. Bravo! Friends.
(Kanji Patel, a professor of English literature at Arts College in Lunavada, was a member of the Technical Advisory Group to the Commission for Denotified, Nomadic and Semi-Nomadic Tribe. A writer, he organises cultural mela DNTs every Shivratri in Lunavada.)