With the appointment of Nicholas Dirks as the new chancellor of UC Berkeley, I thought it would be a good opportunity to talk about something I’ve been meaning to write about for a while, something that comes up whenever we show our film, Please Don’t Beat Me, Sir!. During post-film discussions, people often ask about why it is that when the actors (the members of Budhan Theatre, who, along with their families, are the subjects of our film) introduce themselves they use “Chhara” as a surname: “Dakxin Chhara,” “Sandeep Chhara,” “Kalpana Chhara,” etc. We explain that this is not their real last name, but more of an affirmation of their formerly stigmatized identity. Having been labeled by the British as a “Criminal Tribe” in 1933, the members of Budhan Theatre now proudly declare that they are “born actors” not “born criminals.” But this naturally leads to the next question: are the Chharas are a “caste”? This is where Nick Dirks comes in, because to answer it requires understanding a little bit about the history of caste in India.
One of Dirks’ most important books is Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India in which he argues that India’s contemporary caste system was largely a colonial invention. This isn’t to say that there wasn’t something called caste before colonialism, just that caste in its present form was shaped by the colonial process. Nor was this shaping of caste purely a top-down matter, but something that happened through a process that heavily involved the Indian people themselves. Both the Brahmins who worked closely with the British to encode the caste system in the new bureaucracy, as well as the ordinary people, many of whom organized politically to ensure that their caste status was listed favorably in the census. While the “invented” nature of caste is still a matter of considerable academic debate, much of the debate is over how extensive and how formalized caste was in pre-colonial India. Most scholars accept Dirks’ argument that caste was profoundly altered as a result of the colonial encounter. (Well, OK, maybe some of his detractors wouldn’t use the word “profound”…)
Where this connects with the history of “Criminal Tribes” (now known as “Denotified and Nomadic Tribes” or DNTs) is with the following account from his book:
In southern India there was a small Tamil kingdom known as Pudukkottai. The kings of Pudukkottai during the Thondaiman dynasty were from a group known as “Kallars.” The Kallars came to power by aiding the East India Company in the Polygar Wars which ended in 1801. According to Dirks, the Kallars were described as criminals in early Tamil literature. They also came to be listed as a “Criminal Tribe” under the Criminal Tribes Act. But in Pudukkottai they came to be listed as a “royal caste” as a result of their role in helping the British. For Dirks, the fact that the Kallar where low-status elsewhere in the South, but considered kings in Pudukkottai illustrates “the extent to which the political fortunes of particular groups were crucial in shaping both the nature of their own social formation and the ways in which they were situated within a larger set of social relations.”
In the 1920s the British started putting “Criminal Tribes” into labor camps under the pretense of “reforming” them. The program was started by the Salvation Army, but the camp that the Chhara were put in was run by the Bombay Presidency. The Chhara, like others placed in the camps, had been nomads before being placed in the camps, and their time in the camps seems to have successfully erased most of their memories of their earlier, nomadic, lifestyle. As a result, it is very hard to get a straight answer about who the Chhara were before they were in the camps. We handle this in the film with a montage of multiple, conflicting, oral narratives. On the one hand, we interview an old man who says that the Chhara were members of the Kshatriyas (warrior) caste. Many DNTs make similar claims. But we also interview journalist and DNT activist Roxy Gagdekar who argues that Chharas were never part of the caste system. He says they were animists who worshipped earth, sun, water, and wind spirits in the form of stone deities they carried with them. Roxy’s family still has such stones in their family alter. Modern day Chhara have an eclectic set of practices which include the worship of Sufi saints and Hindu gods, although lately some members of the community have renounced all but the Hindu gods as a result of influence from Hindu fundamentalist groups.
So, if the Chhara are not a “caste,” how did they come to be seen as “born criminals”? To understand this I recommend reading this Slate article which was posted on Halloween, about the link between Dracula and the science of eugenics:
When Bram Stoker wrote the novel Dracula in 1897, people were in a panic about crime. They had difficulty understanding why—in an era blessed with prosperous empires, flourishing arts and sciences, and a burgeoning consumer culture—crime rates were rising throughout Europe and the United States. For answers they turned to science, itself one of the glories of the Victorian age.
One popular theory, devised by the Italian psychologist Cesare Lombroso, was that criminals were born that way. Lombroso spent his career searching for the roots of criminal behavior, interviewing and examining thousands of living criminals and dissecting the brains of thousands who had been executed. One gloomy day in December 1871, he found what he was looking for. He was conducting an autopsy of the notorious robber Giuseppe Villella when he noticed an unusual malformation: a small hollow at the base of the skull under which was an enlarged portion of the spinal cord. He had never seen this before in human beings, only lower animals and certain “inferior races.”
… All this led Lombroso to suggest the existence of a kind of a subspecies of human, which he called “Criminal Man." Possessed of congenitally criminal brains, these creatures roamed the modern world like savages misplaced in time, lacking any sense of civilized morality. “Theoretical ethics passes over these diseased brains as oil does over marble, without penetrating it,” wrote Lombroso.
Of course, it isn’t quite that simple. I would argue that, like fingerprinting, the colonial experience shaped what was happening in Europe as well. After all, the Criminal Tribes Act was passed in 1871, the same year as Lombroso’s “discovery.” One could also trace these beliefs to earlier concerns about the new urban poor, as outlined in Foucault and elsewhere. But the main point is that the concept of a “Criminal Tribe” was very much a colonial invention, based on the modern science of eugenics, and not something easily blamed on the Indian caste system. This is true even if the Chhara are in many ways treated like an undesirable caste in India today.
Please Don’t Beat Me, Sir! will be playing at the International Film Festival of India in Goa at the end of this month. For reviews of the film (including an in-depth review from General Anthropology), see here. If you are interested in buying a copy of the film, or would like a review copy, see here.
For more information about DNTs, see the Savage Minds DNT category archives.