Since we launched Savage Minds in 2005 the only time there were ads on this site was the short time last year between when we moved to WordPress.com for hosting and when we paid to turn them off. We apologize for that. The fact is that most of us use ad-blocking software so we didn’t notice the ads until they were pointed out to us and then we promptly got rid of them. We don’t intend to put ads here, and — even though we all put in a lot of work (and money) behind the scenes to keep the site going — we aren’t asking for your support…
OK, enough with the “we.” Although this is a group site and we make all major decisions (including posting this request) together, this is very personal for me. For the past three months I’ve been working non-stop behind the scenes to move to a new server, restore the archives, and redesign the site. If you paid a professional to do this kind of work it would cost at least $2,000, and maybe as much as four times that. I did it because I care about this site. If you also value this site and the work that goes into it, I’d like to ask you to support an organization that is very important to me: Budhan Theatre.
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.
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: Continue reading
Browsing through BoingBoing today I noticed a reference to the Archives d’Anthropologie Criminelle. Looking around I discovered that the entire contents of the journal l’Anthropologie Criminelle from 1886 to 1914 have been scanned and made available online. Here is a direct link to the archives.
My French isn’t very good, but I have an interest in this topic as part of the pre-history for British colonial ethnography in South Asia. If you know anything about this journal, or its founder, Alexandre Lacassagne, please share in the comments.
I’ve been trying to make some sense of the recent violence which have left at least 36 people dead in the Indian state of Rajasthan. It is indirectly related to my research in the neighboring state of Gujarat since the Gujjar protesters are one of India’s estimated sixty million Denotified Tribes (DNTs), although that fact is left out of most news stories.
I have not been able to figure out the reason for the silence on this topic. One possibility is that it is simply too complicated for newspapers to explain the category of DNTs – a category which is not well known by most Indians. Another is that the Gujjars are themselves resistant to being thought of as DNTs. The “Gurjar’s Community Online” website refers to the Gujjars as upper caste Kshatriyas, which they may have been in Rajasthan, although many Gujjars are Muslims and Sikhs as well. In fact, it seems they specifically rejected a move by the Rajasthan government to have them listed as DNTs.
The question of categorization lies at the heart of the current conflict. The Gujjars are agitating to have their official status changed from “Other Backward Classes” (OBC) to “Scheduled Tribe” (ST). These are two broad categories in India’s complex system of “reservations.” As the BBC explains:
The subtitle of Mike Dash’s best selling book Thug, “the true story of India’s murderous cult,” has a sad irony to it, considering that it takes as its main source the documents and testimony collected by William Sleeman and the Thuggee and Dacoity Department of the East India Company. [See update below.] To get a sense about the reliability of these documents it is worthwhile taking a look at how they were collected.
Parama Roy does just that in the chapter on thuggees in her book Indian Traffic:
The lack of independent witnesses, the unavailability in many cases of both bodies and booty—the sheer paucity of positivist evidence, in other words—could only be resolved in one way. The most important criminal conspiracy of the century (of all time, some of the authors claimed) could be adequately engaged only by a new conception of law. … Since the law as currently defined made the complicity of individuals in particular crimes almost impossible to establish, specific criminal acts were no longer punishable as such. Instead, it was … enough to be a thug, without actually being convicted of a specific act of thuggee, to be liable to the exorbitant measures of the Thuggee and Dacoity Department. … It permitted the arrest of entire families, including women and children, as legitimate means of entrapping active (male) thugs; since thuggee was supposed to be a family affair anyway, transmitted in the genes and passed on from father to son, wives and children were also fit targets for the colonial state’s punitive and corrective measures. The act admitted the testimony of approvers [convicts who confessed in exchange for a pardon] in lieu of the testimony of independent witnesses (which had been disallowed under Islamic law), a move which created a remarkable mechanics of truth production and conviction.
… All those identified as thugs by approvers’ testimony were automatically guilty, even if no specific crimes could be proved against them and even if there was no (other) evidence of their ever having associated with other thugs.
Of course, the British where themselves a little worried about the quality of such evidence:
Orientalist critique can sometimes seem like an intellectual game of “gotcha,” but for India’s Denotified and Nomadic Tribes (DNTs), orientalist colonial policies, and the regimes of knowledge upon which they were built, are a very real burden which informs nearly every aspect of their daily life. The stigma of criminality that prevents, for example, someone with a masters degree in English literature from finding a job as a schoolteacher, or makes it imperative for a professional photographer to carry his camera receipts with him so he can prove he bought his own camera, or makes DNTs afraid to talk in their own language when traveling by train, are a direct result of colonial practices.
When doing research last summer in the British colonial archives I read numerous colonial ethnographies of the so-called “Criminal Tribes” (as DNTs were then known). Many were written by policemen, and the information in them was written for the express purpose of identifying such criminals. Gunthorpe’s 1882. Notes on Criminal Tribes Residing in, or Frequenting the Bombay Presidency, Berar and the Central Provinces, Lemarchand’s 1915, A Guide to Criminal Tribes, and, also from 1915, Naidu’s The History of Railway Thieves : With Illustrations & Hints on Detection are all in many ways the same book with slight variations. They freely stole from each other and the style was essentially the same. Numerous other such guides were circulated among the various colonial agencies.
They are like bird watching guides, identifying common habits and markings which will help you spot a criminal among the crowds. From Lemarchand:
One of the most difficult issues we have had to confront in making a film about the Chharas is that of thievery. It is a fact that a sizable minority of the community still make their living from petty theft. Understandably, they are reluctant to talk about this on camera. It is important, however, in talking about the theater (the subject of our film), because the Chharas themselves see a link between their skill at acting and their skill at thieving. It is also historically important, since the Chharas (or, more precisely, the Sansis who speak the same language) were the first group to be labeled as “Criminal Tribes” after the passing of the Criminal Tribes Act in 1871.
It was in the course of searching for some more information about the topic that I came across Vinay Lal’s review of Rai Bahadur M. Pauparao Naidu’s 1915 book: The History of Railway Thieves, with Illustrations and Hints on Detection. Lal’s article discusses the role of colonial anthropology in creating the category of “criminal tribes”, but since I am already well aware of this story, my attention was caught by his tangential account of the origins of fingerprinting in colonial India:
Naidu’s matter-of-fact references to fingerprinting scarcely reveal the manner in which fingerprinting came to be developed and the extraordinary role of the Indian police in enabling its use as the most reliable method for the detection of criminals the world over. It is just shortly after the Rebellion of 1857-58 that William Herschel, Magistrate at Jungipoor on the upper reaches of the Hooghly, realized its uses as a method of identification. … Herschel then left for England, but in India fingerprinting had another proponent, Edward Henry, who in 1891 was appointed Inspector-General of Police for the Lower Provinces, Bengal. Henry first experimented with the anthropometric system, but was not satisfied with the accuracy of the measurements. In a report submitted to the Government of Bengal in 1896, Henry detailed the experiments he had conducted with fingerprints, which he observed were not only inexpensive to obtain, but also a surer means of detecting and confirming the identity of any given person. Henry is then said, with the aid of a team of Indian assistants, to have developed a system of classification under which 1,024 primary positions were identified, which when considered along with secondary and tertiary subdivisions, made fingerprinting a fool-proof form of fixing identity.
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.
Since I became involved with India’s Denotified Tribes, or DNTs, I’ve been trying to encourage anthropologists to study them. There is have been some good writings about DNTs, but the literature is still relatively sparse. Almost all of it is historical, with very little in the way of contemporary ethnography.
So I’m proud to announce the release of Acting Like a Thief! A short documentary film I shot and co-produced with Shashwati, who did an amazing job editing it.
We are releasing the film as a free BitTorrent download for all those tech-savvy people (the less tech-savvy can get a DVD for a $50 donation
to our next project). I hope that this short piece will help raise awareness about DNTs and maybe even encourage some grad students who are still thinking about what they might like to research for their dissertation. If you think you might like to do such research, please contact me
and I can help arrange some introductions.