On Profiling in India and the US

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.

Read the full editorial.

5 thoughts on “On Profiling in India and the US

  1. As a person who has actually been on the receiving end of racial profiling and police brutality, intentionally and as an act of revenge (and ongoing retaliation by professors), for speaking up about antiblack racism and public email bullying which professors from a certain department do not want discussed here (especially when it means acknowledging that the bullying was carried on by one or more of their (dissertation) advisees), I find the non-response to this post interesting, to say the least: especially as it is not unrelated to recent discussions on this blog about affect (and animalization, state terror, racial(ized) violence), to the most recent Round the Web round-up (specifically, the item on black women’s natural hair and TSA pat-downs, and the desire to control the bodies of those designated (unacceptable) racial Others), the Adam Fish-Orin Starn interview on golf/race/anthropology, and Chris Kelty’s recent post on the leisure class (yes, Stuart Hall, race is indeed the modality through which class is lived, and neither an Oscar, nor Ivy League degree (right, Henry Louis Gates, Jr.?), nor conspicuous consumption will keep some people from always already being seen as lower-class, uneducated, ghetto criminals–or gorillas to be ‘spoken for’, or “frightening” “loud/argumentative” “very dark-skinned South Africans” on whom the campus police should be called if one (i.e. anthropology department staff, at the written behest of two if the country’s top archaeologists, who are also the department chair and *equity adviser* at the time) “feel threatened” by a small–but “very dark-skinned”!!!–woman “carrying a baby in a tummy pack”.

    The linkages you are making are quite important, Kerim.

    I just wonder why more people, anthropologists–especially given the AAA’s official race statements–aren’t speaking out. Why no outcry against stop-and-frisk by the anthropology departments of Columbia, NYU, and the New School, in unison, for example? Or AAA making this an issue to speak out in opposition to, publicly?

    As with the non-response to your post, I find it all very interesting.

  2. Thanks for your comments. Have you seen this?

    “Fernando Montero, an anthropologist at the University of Pennsylvania and a plaintiff in the lawsuit who said he had been stopped nine times while conducting research in North Philadelphia”


    This is also interesting: “Taking DNA from persons arrested due to such unfair practices introduces a new chilling possibility. Unlike other forensic databases, as Helen Wallace of GeneWatch UK has noted, the DNA profiles of a person’s relatives may be inferred statistically. In a racially biased justice system, this essentially results in the police surveillance of an entire race.”


  3. I had not heard about the Fernando Montero case. I wish I could say I am surprised by this. Sadly, I am not. Reading about his experience made me feel so sad for him, and all the other people being subjected to this kind of abusive state-sponsored dehumanization.

    Where is the anthropological empathy (of which Rex has written on this very site), such that the reaction is action and outrage, instead of collective silence and the ‘who cares because I don’t have to worry about racial profiling’ apathy?

    As for the UK article on DNA databases: yes, I raised this (in writing) as one of the very reasons anthropologists should not be supporting racial profiling tactics–especially as an act of revenge to advance one’s anthropology career, or to come on this site as a professor speaking for your department to lie and say all is well in your department and you have no hostile (racial) climate issues. My pointing out what you point out above, including the personal pain and suffering such racial profiling and stereotyping cause–resulted in me being further racially stereotyped, profiled, and retaliated against, including by professors writing racist email directives stating that I am a Black Troublemaker who needs to be silenced by any means necessary, no matter how racist and unethical, and who deserves to be smeared as a violent ghetto criminal and “mentally ill woman” so as to discredit and defame me. Lance Armstrong would be duly impressed with the revenge tactics used against me for speaking up, including making legitimate points about DNA databases.

    Many people have seen the disgusting retaliatory racist emails written about me, actively encouraging the use of profiling tactics to get revenge on me and silence me. People can confirm that I’m telling the truth, but the stakes of such confirmation are high. After all, we should remember what David Graeber said in his 2006 Charlie Rose interview: the academy is a hierarchy in which one is expected to cower to the higher-ups or else. And when the those higher-ups are also, as one person said about why she wouldn’t speak up, “the big names in anthropology”, you won’t getting many people speaking up. Especially when you are also working against the aversive racism and implicit biases anthropologists themselves have, and the ways in which even when they tell themselves they believe and are motivated by the opposite, they too don’t see black women as (equally) valuable.

    The ongoing collective anthropological silence on racial profiling is just very sad: especially for a discipline with an *official* race statement, which is precisely *not* supposed to judge people on the color of their (“very dark-skinned”) skin.

  4. Kerim, I think this is a case every anthropologist living and working in the US, or raised in the US, should be aware of, both in relation to what you have written above about profiling, and the correspondening post on anthropological ethics (and why apathy should not be the response to using racial profiling and racial terrorism as revenge for speaking out against a department’s documented public email bullying and ‘white public space’ issues):

    I would like to think anthropologists could be more committed to both empathy and racial justice than the likes of Antonin Scalia. Maybe? (To say nothing of a commitment to anthropological ethics… )

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