Last night, sitting in Roxy Gagdekar’s house in Chharanagar, I asked him a question that I have been asked at nearly every screening of Acting Like a Thief: namely, how are people able to identify Chharas?
Beyond the historic injustices Denotified Tribes (DNTs) faced during the British Colonial period, Chharas (and other DNTs) continue to suffer from ethnic discrimination. Stigmatized as thieves, it is difficult for them to get legitimate jobs in mainstream society. As a last resort, they turn to criminal activity. It is a vicious circle from which only a few are able to escape.
But how do people know they are Chhara? They don’t look noticeably different from the rest of the population, and even if they did, they could easily be from a neighboring state. They speak their own language (Bhantu), but they can speak Gujarati as well as anyone else.
The answer, it turns out, couldn’t be simpler: they ask.
As Roxy put it, the third question when you apply for a job, after “What is your name?” and “Where are you from?”, is “What is your caste?” Technically Chharas are outside of the caste system, but that doesn’t help. They have to answer the question. Even if there are laws against discrimination on the basis of caste, there don’t seem to be any laws against asking such questions. Roxy says it would be even worse for a Chhara if they lied and were found out.
Recently, a courier service opened up near Chharanagar. With a recommendation from a high level government official, several Chhara went and applied for the job. They were turned down. The owner of the local franchise said he would rather close shop than hire a Chhara. Not that he’s racist, you understand, but his couriers handle lots of money and precious items. His clients wouldn’t trust him if he employed Chharas…