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India, This Side

The tale of two villages

Print edition : Aug 04, 2022 T+T-

The tale of two villages

Budhan Theatre team performing in Kerala.

Budhan Theatre team performing in Kerala. | Photo Credit: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Sleemanabad in Madhya Pradesh and Akarbad in West Bengal share an unlikely link.

How so often has the immortal opening of Charles Dickens’ The Tale of Two Cities been quoted: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the season of Light, and it was the season of Darkness?” Paris and London of the French Revolution era provided him the context for his novel.

What comes closest to Dickens’ novel in the Indian context is a tale of two villages. One is Sleemanabad in Madhya Pradesh. The other is Akarbad in West Bengal. The plot goes back to the times of Dickens’ novel, which was published in 1859, but in our story it extends over a century and a half. Sleemanabad in the Katni district of Madhya Pradesh is named after William Sleeman (1788-1856), who arrived in India at the age of 21 and worked in the East India company government during the tenure of William Bentinck and Lord Dalhousie. His lifetime obsession was with the “Thughees”, so much so that he became famous as Thuggee Sleeman. He believed that many communities in north and central India lived by looting and thieving and that even the women and children in those communities conspired. He compiled elaborate registers of armed clashes involving individuals and their communities. Among several books he wrote based on his belief, one was about the ‘language’ that such ‘criminals’ use, Ramaseeana, or a Vocabulary of a Peculiar Language used by the Thugs. The annexation of Oudh in 1856, due to the imagined ‘miss-governance by the local royals’, owed a lot to the reports that Sleeman had been writing. Sleeman died on February 10, 1856, just three days before Oudh was annexed.

Street play Budhan Bolta Hai at Chharanagar in Ahmedabad.
Street play Budhan Bolta Hai at Chharanagar in Ahmedabad. | Photo Credit: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

It was on February 10, a hundred and forty-two years later, in 1998, that Budhan Sabar of Akarbad village in Purulia district of West Bengal was arrested by Inspector Ashok Roy of the Barabazar police station. Budhan, in his early 20s, and his wife Shyamoli were going from their village to Barabazar to meet an elderly relative. Not having enough money to pay the bus fare for the journey, they were travelling on a cycle. As they stopped by a paan shop, the police picked up Budhan, placed him in the lock-up, and tortured him to get him to confess to a theft he had not committed. Three days later he died, his body hanging from the ceiling fan in the lock-up with a ‘gamchha’—a multipurpose piece of cloth—used for the ‘suicide’. Custodial deaths, sadly, are no news in India; sympathy for custodial death victims is rare. Yet, the Budhan Sabar episode made quite a splash.

Although located in West Bengal, Akarbad is no Naxalbari; and the DNTs or denotified tribes—such as the Sabars are—are no Adivasis. Yet, what the Budhan Sabar case caused was closely linked with the destinies of nearly 12 crore persons in the country.

First, about Budhan’s death. When the case was heard in the Calcutta High Court, Justice Ruma Paul observed, “The police records do not show that Budhan was carrying a gamchha at any time. [It was found] to be new.... Where did the gamchha come from? It is true that in the column headed ‘private property received with the prisoner’ it has been written: ‘full pant, G. shirt, Punjabi (underwear) and gamchha.’ But the word ‘gamchha’ appears to have been subsequently inserted.” The judgment led to the punishment of the police officer and some monetary compensation for Shyamoli. But the story did not end there.

Budhan Theatre performing Accidental Death of an Anarchist.
Budhan Theatre performing Accidental Death of an Anarchist. | Photo Credit: JAY BRAHMBHATT

The case for properly investigating Budhan’s custodial death under suspicious circumstances was filed by the Bangla writer Mahasweta Devi. In a 2007 article in Tehelka, she wrote: In 1998, Budhan Sabar of Purulia was brutally killed by the police. Up until that year, I did not personally know about the all-India ex-criminal tribe situation. When Dr G.N. Devy [who has worked extensively with tribals in Gujarat] came to Medinipur Vidyasagar University with his friends to meet me, I was too cut-up about this and other atrocities, and failed to understand them. Then I went to Baroda at Devy’s request to give a talk on tribals. I was speaking at the Verrier Elwyn Memorial Lecture, organised each year by Bhasha, an organisation promoting tribal language, culture and literature. In 1998, I was too involved with Budhan’s death and the case we, on behalf of the Paschim Banga Kheria Sabar Kalian Samiti, had filed in the Calcutta High Court. My talk in Baroda was on the denotified tribals. I had asked the audience, “Who will work not for tribals alone, but for our denotified tribals as well?” That night Devy, Laxman Gaikwad (the Sahitya Akademi award winner for his Marathi novel Uchalya), Gandhi scholar Tridip Suhrud (translator of Chandulal Dalal’s biography of Harilal Gandhi), rural development researcher Ajoy Dandekar and others including myself talked and talked. Out of that animated discussion was born Budhan, the Denotified and Nomadic Tribes Rights Action Group.” For short, we called it the DNT-RAG.

William Sleeman.
William Sleeman.

Sleeman was at the root of the problem. The list of communities that he had compiled during the 1840s was subsequently used by the colonial government when the first Criminal Tribes Act (CT Act) was passed in 1871. The communities brought under it were placed under constant watch. Reformatory detention camps were euphemistically called ‘settlements’. The people in the settlements were put to unpaid labour on government projects of constructing roads, bridges and dams. Thousands died very young due to the harsh living conditions.

Generations passed, the CT Act was revised several times, bringing more communities within its scope. Society at large started looking at the branded communities as ‘born criminals’. After Independence, the CT Act was revoked, but in its place was slapped the Habitual Offenders Act. The suspicion about the former CTs continued. Whenever members of these communities were identified, they were mob-lynched, hated, and constantly harassed by the police. Budhan, who died in Purulia district in 1998 in police custody, belonged to the Khedia Sabar community. The Khedia Sabar is one of 190 communities that were ‘denotified’. Most of the branded communities were previously nomadic in habit, being itinerant entertainers or door-step vendors of sundry services and commodities, and after the denotification of the CT Act, they came to be known as the DNTs.

Daunting task

The Rights Action Group we created in 1998 had a daunting task to perform, which was to challenge and change an old social stereotype. Change of attitude is most difficult when it is founded on an irrational view. It was really difficult to tell the police, judges, ministers and media persons we talked to that Sleeman’s ‘criminals’ were in reality mere hapless fakirs, wandering social drop-outs, entertainers, or mere peddlers of goods. But Budhan’s death sparked many ideas. A DNT art mela was created on the border of Rajasthan and Gujarat. The Budhan Theatre came up in Ahmedabad. Many young activists in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Maharashtra started sending their claims to the NHRC for custodial death compensation. And through hundreds of community consultations and protest meetings, a nationwide movement took shape. After a decade of constant struggle, it led to the creation of the first National Commission for the DNTS, in 2007. Sadly, the commission did not deliver what was expected of it. From Sleemanabad to Akarbad, in the 75th year of Independence, the DNTs continue to languish in denial of dignity.

Ganesh Devy is a thinker, cultural activist, and institution builder best known for the People’s Linguistic Survey of India and the Adivasi Academy in Tejgadh, Gujarat.