In describing the subject of our film, Please Don’t Beat Me, Sir! we often tell people that the situation of India’s Denotified Tribes (DNTs) is very similar to the kind of profiling that happens against African Americans or Muslim Americans. Recent examples from the states include Oscar-winning actor Forest Whitaker getting stopped and frisked leaving a Morningside Heights deli, and the “Stop and Frisk” program of the NY City Police Department (NYPD) which was recently ruled unconstitutional, as well as the news that the NYPD was “engaged in a massive surveillance operation on the city’s Muslim community.”
In fact, it turns out it is exactly the same. Indian papers recently broke the story that police officers in Ahmedabad have “prepared a dossier on 207 men and women” in the Chhara community – the very community where we shot our film.
Here’s more from that story:
Are Ahmedabad police profiling Chhara community? So it seems as they have prepared a dossier specific to the community that has long been demonised as “criminals”. This, despite the fact that the community members have worked hard to correct the image by producing a number of professionals and artistes.
… Manoj Tamaeche, a senior advocate from the community, said that the way police targeted a single community is condemnable.
“Chharas are always been victimized due a negative mindset of the police and the administration. The community is on the path of social and economical development and the youth are into higher education in a big way. Such discrimination is not acceptable.”
What is particularly disturbing is that the police are continuing 19th century practices of identifying so-called “Criminal Tribes” by their modus operandi:
The dossier says that community members indulge in seven types of crime: chain-snatching, stealing by diverting the attention of the victim, looting people coming out of banks, theft in buses and trains, burglary, illegal liquor trade and stealing from the dickey of two-wheelers. … They often put a tattoo on their hand or they can be identified by the mark of wounds on their body.
This language is indistinguishable from 19th and early 20th century “police ethnographies” collected by the British Colonial Authorities. I wrote a blog post in 2007 describing how these ethnographies were like “bird watching guides, identifying common habits and markings which will help you spot a criminal among the crowds.” Reading these texts in the British Library I became aware of how absurd they were:
Some of the information was gathered from the confessions of convicts, but much of it seems to have been the result of embellishments and variations of previous works (“remixing” might be a polite way of describing it). A fair amount has been written about such colonial practices, but it wasn’t until I immersed myself in descriptions of which tribe ate jackal meat and which did not and which community’s women were faithful to their men (with each book contradicting the previous one) that I became aware of the true absurdity of this literature.
At film screenings it is not unusual for someone in the audience to point out that there *is* criminal activity going on in the community. True. Just as there is criminal activity going on in every community. Does that mean that every citizen of every community with criminal activity should relinquish their rights? It has been frequently pointed out that the percentage of African Americans in jail does not represent the percentage of crimes committed by African Americans, and that profiling Muslim terrorists has diverted important resources away from the threat posed by “patriot groups” and other domestic terrorists in the States. But talking about such issues statistically never really brings the point home.
This week Roxy Gagdekar, a leading journalist in Gujarat who is one of the “stars” of our film, has an editorial about the police dossier, which I think does a great job of making the point. I’ve excerpted some key passages below:
Do Gujarat police and chief minister Narendra Modi have the courage to profile the Patels, Shahs, Vaghelas and Jadejas [other, more powerful, ethnic groups in Gujarat]? Has the government ever issued a ‘fatwa’ against these communities? But, in case of Chharas it not only profiles the community but also stigmatises it as ‘Chhara gangs’.
As mentioned in a ‘confidential report’ prepared by Ahmedabad police, there is no denying that there are about 207 people accused of petty crimes and brewing illicit liquor among Chharas in the city; but for the acts of a few, how can the government stigmatise the entire community of over thousands in Gujarat?
There are many human rights organisations which protest when a Muslim, Dalit or anyone from a marginalised community is denied a house in the ‘mainstream’ area, but why is there a painful silence, when a Chhara is denied a house in a mainstream locality? This writer was forced to sell off his legally owned house in Ghatlodia area of the city, only because of the community identity that he got from his parents.
…This writer fails to understand whether he and thousands of other Chharas like him are free citizens of a free country. When the constitution gives us the right to equality and freedom, how can the state government invoke a highly discriminatory step against a section of the society and also get away with it? Every instance of the police using the term Chhara Gang decreases the chance of securing a job by a member of the community. The message of the booklet prepared by the police is clear – to keep Chharas as criminals and to let them be identified as criminals. What else would the explanation be for the regressive step?
When a community is forced to stay in ghettos, labelled as criminals, denied all the fundamental rights granted to the citizens of this great country, and are forced to stay uneducated, what do the cops and the government expect from them?
So what do Chharas do? They are lawyers, government pleaders, doctors, journalists, call centre executives, teachers at educational institutions, working with Hindi and Gujarat film industries, film-makers, rickshaw drivers, food-joint owners and petty workers. Imagine you kid being punished for theft in a school by the class teacher, only because he is your son or daughter? Chhara parents are often seen in schools struggling to prove that they are not criminals. What do students do to evade this discrimination – they stop going to schools.
…A Chhara girl, who holds MA and BEd degrees, was asked during an interview for a job whether she was carrying a knife. That was her last interview! People who have been involved in making liquor or petty crimes have no option but to continue. Except a few lucky ones like this writer, whose parents managed to give him exposure along with good education, thousands of others continue to be denied just that, even today.