Chharanagar is an urban settlement in Ahmedabad, dating back to the 19th century. Back then, the British decided to solve their law and order problems and consolidate their hold over the Indian countryside by enacting the Criminal Tribes Act in 1871. This and subsequent Acts gave colonial administrators sweeping powers to declare certain "tribes, gangs, or classes" as addicted to the systematic commission of non-bailable offences. Once a tribe became 'notified' as criminal, all its members were required to register with the local magistrate. Anyone failing to register would be charged with a crime under the Indian Penal Code. Further, the Act forcibly moved the notified tribes to permanent reformatory settlements - like Chharanagar - that acted as virtual prisons for the tribes, and sources of cheap labor to fuel the booming cities of the colonial era.

In an enlightened moment soon after Independence, India's new administrators repealed the Criminal Tribes Act on August 30, 1952 and liberated - i.e. 'de-notified' - the tribal communities. Thus many such de-notified communities now celebrate August 30th as their second Independence Day. But unfortunately, the government concurrently enacted a series of Habitual Offenders Acts. These Acts asked police authorities to investigate a suspect's criminal tendencies and whether his occupation is conducive to settled way of life. Police forces around the country used these laws liberally to persecute the De-notified and Nomadic Tribes (DNTs). Tribals were regularly subject to public humiliation, beatings and custodial deaths.

This official validation of behaviour towards DNTs mirrored and reinforced the prejudices of the public at large - the criminal label was enough to close the doors to regular employment, and DNT communities remained socially and economically far behind most other Indian communities.

In the late 1990s, the government moved to abolish the Habitual Offenders Acts. The judiciary reviewed the custodial death cases of Budhan Sabar in West Bengal and Pinya Hari Kale in Maharashtra. In landmark judgments, the judges found the police guilty, punished responsible police officers, and awarded compensation to survivors. What was the impact of these landmark decisions? Shouldn't this have been the turning point in the lives of DNTs, providing them with the same equality and respect from society that we take for granted? Did the decisions change the attitude of police and the administration? Has social change occurred in these communities and is the change visible?

This official validation of behaviour towards DNTs mirrored and reinforced the prejudices of the public at large - the criminal label was enough to close the doors to regular employment.
 •  Bhasha
 •  Year of birth - 1871
 •  Do I know Mahashweta?
The Chharas are a denotified tribe settled by the British on the northern outskirts of Ahmedabad. They speak Bhamta and count the Sansi and Bajania tribes in northern India as their linguistic cousins. So strong is prejudice against the Chharas that when the eminent writers and tribal activists Mahasweta Devi and G. N. Devy from the De-notified and Nomadic Tribes Rights Action Group (DNT-RAG) wanted to visit Chharanagar in 1998, no one would take them inside. When they eventually did enter, they found a group of young men and women producing plays on DNT issues and related social reform. Along with this group, DNT-RAG set up a library with revolutionary and cultural literature.

From this collaboration emerged the script of Budhan, based on the in-custody murder of Budhan Sabar in Purulia in West Bengal. A group of young Chhara men and women performed the play to electric effect at the first national conference of DNT-RAG. Last year, the performers crystallised their efforts as the Budhan Theatre Group.

The theatre group has become the nexus for a movement to change attitudes both within Chharanagar and outside it. The group is led by Dakshin Bajrange and Roxy Gagdekar, two determined and very articulate young men from within the Chhara community. All 15 members of the group participate in three major activities – library maintenance, community sensitization and theatre performance. The one-room library in Chharanagar has about 500 books and documents on literature, art, history and sociology. Daily Gujarati newspapers and a computer are also available. School and college students from Chharanagar regularly use the library as a place to meet, study and tutor one another. Recently, the students have also assigned tasks among themselves to increase sensitivity among the community. For instance, one 16 year old coordinates meetings between Chhara parents and municipal school teachers accustomed to thinking of them as criminals.

Chharas are not born criminals, they are born performers. This is the thesis with which Dakshin directs the theatre group. He explains how bands of Chharas would wordlessly assign roles and develop a plan to distract a merchant in the marketplace and relieve him of his bag. But such talent and energy should be channeled for positive purposes, not to continue the cycle of crime and prejudice. "In each play we try to express a social problem and highlight our situation", says Dakshin. This explains the choice of plays such as Budhan, Pinya Hari Kale (based on the Kale murder case) and Encounter. When communal riots rocked Ahmedabad in 2002, the group produced a play called Mazhab Nahi Sikhata Aapas Me Bair Rakhna, to emphasize the values of tolerance and respect.

The group's latest effort, Bhoma by Badal Sircar, was unveiled in Baroda at Bhasha Publication and Research Centre on August 14. Sircar's original script contrasted urban and rural life in India and focused on the indifference to rural poverty of the urban middle class. The title character, a poor villager, symbolized all struggling human beings, especially those who are oppressed. But the Budhan group modified the script.

In the Chhara version, a settlement of Sansis is bulldozed by the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation, resulting in the death of two children. There is a common refrain throughout the play - Bulldozer bhai bulldozer, corporation bulldozer. The play speaks plainly about other common fears of the community; in one episode, a woman from the Kabutara community refused to recognize her husband's dead body and perform the last rites for fear that her community would be linked to the incident, and innocent family members would be arrested and beaten. The play struck the audience in their guts. It was not an imaginary perception of suffering, it is based on the lived, traumatic experience of the people of Chharanagar.

Events later that evening brought us much closer to that experience. As the play ended, Dakshin announced that in Maninagar in Ahmedabad, the Sansis, a DNT community of rope-makers and map-sellers, had been attacked by people from an adjacent neighborhood. Though three young people were hurt, the police refused to file an FIR. G N Devy responded immediately, promising to visit the police station the next morning. Om Damani, with whom I was travelling, was moved enough to decide that we would go to Chharanagar that same night and pursue the matter. We left for Ahmedabad with twelve others from the theatre group.

In the jeep along the way, Om engaged the younger Chharas about their aspirations. Remarkably, quite a few aspired to become police officers. They also recounted how Budhan Theater had changed their lives. One said that six years earlier, when he was in class eight, he could barely speak a complete sentence. Today he felt confident discussing social issues with anybody. Others made similar remarks about the confidence that the theater has brought to their lives. They recounted the progress of their friends. Dakshin's brother Uttar took up Electronics Engineering at MS University in Baroda. Another group alumnus, Alok Chhara, has enrolled at the National School of Drama in Delhi. Everyone said that despite their difficulties, they would not leave the theater. And they would continue to take pride in their identity as Chharas.

Close to midnight, we reached Maninagar and held an impromptu meeting with the community. The incident had begun with some men harassing two Sansi girls. The Sansis do no have proper houses, and are therefore easy targets for the scorn of people passing by. Confrontation following the harassment led to a fight, and a young man’s collarbone was smashed with a sword. The next night, stones were thrown from the top of a bridge overlooking Maninagar, and some residents who slept out in the open were hurt. The police, however, demanded that the Sansis produce the offenders themselves before they would file the FIR. Roxy, who works for Gujarat Samachar, called the station to determine the facts but was brushed off.

During our meeting in Maninagar, we learned that community elders were not too enthusiastic about filing the FIR. They did not want to escalate the confrontation with a stronger adversary, especially since there seemed to be some chance of reconciliation. Moreover, they speculated that some people from other side too were hit on the head during the fight, so they would have reason to file an FIR as well. If that happened, they would in all probability be brought in for questioning or even arrested by an already unsympathetic police force. They thought the matter could be better resolved by reaching an agreement.

Dakshin and Roxy reiterated that filing an FIR might dissuade future attacks, but left the decision to the Sansis. Though we brainstormed the situation late into the night, they did not pursue the matter any further.

The contrasting conversations that night keep playing in my head. The people of Maninagar and most other DNTs accept the injustices that pervade their lives. The young men and women from Budhan theatre do not. They speak out through theatre, but also stand first in the daily fights for self-respect.

When DNTs denied opportunity for education and employment turn to petty theft and illicit brewing to sustain themselves, instead of passing judgement on them we should reflect on the values and sensibilities of the rest of the society. Our experience with the theatre group showed us how hard it is to break the vicious cycle of prejudice and crime. And yet, 15 young men and women thrive in the cocoon of Budhan Theatre and beyond it. They recognize the importance of constructive work and demonstrate positive leadership that shatters the stereotype of a "criminal". By defining themselves before society labels them, they are truly liberated.