How to spot a Chhara

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…

5 thoughts on “How to spot a Chhara

  1. Asking for one’s caste is pretty deeply etched in the administrative system in India. Gosh, caste is even mentioned in the most common forms of identification: ration cards and school-leaving certificates (the driver’s license and the passport do not mention the caste, though).

    The logic behind asking someone to reveal his/her caste is to help the underprivileged (the scheduled castes, scheduled tribes, and the so-called ‘other’ backward communities), for whom there is an affirmative action program in pretty much all public sector institutions: schools, colleges, public sector companies, and of course, the government.

    However, in the private sector, it is a disaster for the lower castes, as your post shows.

    There has been a short-lived debate about job reservation (as the affirmative action program is called in India) in the private sector. It was squelched in a hurry. The issue of reservation in private colleges went all the way up to the Supreme Court, and was shot down. In the absence of an affirmative action program, there is no rationale whatsoever to demand to know one’s caste; but the practice in the private sector has not been made illegal.

  2. How difficult would it be for an Indian to give no caste as an answer? Knowing that caste is just a cultural stamp placed on people (by others or themselves), it would be realtively easy and harmless to consider yourself belonging to no caste at all, especially when there is no legal obligation or necessity to be part of one or to provide one.

  3. RMl, It’s not possible in India to get a job or anything without disclosing one’s caste. To not disclose a caste(especially for a chhara or any DNT) is even more dangerous. Because these tribes are said to be notorious for criminal activities. Almost in all type of meetings, Every third question with anyone in India is about the Caste. 1)what is your name 2)Where do you stay or What do you do (or anything related to personal information) 3)What is your caste?
    So if a person refuses to give answer regarding his caste, His or her that specific work( or interview or anything else) would not be completed.

  4. How would that work if a person was a Christian or a Muslim? Are they treated like a caste of their own or do people try to trace their ancestry (to determine what caste they are “supposed to be”.)

  5. Chharas are not traditionally a “caste” either. A former nomadic tribe they are outside the caste system. Roxy’s point is that you have to answer this question in some way, not that you have to fit yourself within the caste system. Explaining why you don’t have a caste is often worse than being from what they call here a “Backward Caste.”

    Saying you are a Muslim won’t get you off the hook. Roxy has commented to me that he thinks Chharas are better off than some of the poor Muslim communities. In fact, the neighborhood where Chharanagar is located, Naroda, saw some of the most horrifying anti-Muslim violence during the communial riots that rocked Gujarat in 2002. There has also been violence against Christains in Gujarat.

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