One of colonialism’s harshest legacies was the branding of 10 crore nomadic and forest tribals as thieves and criminals. Sahitya Akademi award-winning writer Lakshman Maruti Gaikwad, whose books chronicle the pain and anguish suffered by his community, the Pardhis, continues the struggle against this injustice
Every time the police talks to the media about having caught a member of the “notorious Phase Pardhi gang of criminals,” and the press plays up the story, Sahitya Akademi award-winning writer Lakshman Maruti Gaikwad is filled with a terrible sense of déjà vu. For Gaikwad, who is a Pardhi and who wrote a seminal account of the anguish of his stigmatised community — Uchalya — in 1987, it is just another grim reminder of how his people are still branded as gunhegaars (criminals).
“As a little boy I saw and experienced the pain firsthand. We were landless. Like other young Pardhi boys my brothers survived by pilfering fruit or grain in the fields, or pick-pocketing. The police would enter our jhuggis without any warrants. If my brothers were not there my mother and I would be beaten mercilessly. My father, who was handicapped, wanted at least one son to be spared the stigma of being called a chor (thief). I was sent to school. My high school at Babulgaon is, incidentally, the same one at which Maharashtra Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh studied. Later I finished my education from Latur.”
Amongst the early influences on Gaikwad’s thinking, and subsequent writings, were works by Babasaheb Ambedkar and other social reformers from Maharashtra — Jyotiba Phule and Sahu. He also read Lenin and Marx and Gorky, whose Mother, in particular, left a deep impact on him.
His role as an activist began after seven Pardhis were killed in Latur in 1976. Gaikwad, who organised huge rallies, realised how colonialism’s harshest legacy was the way it had branded over 10 crore nomadic and forest tribals criminals, and how they still suffered in independent India.
Gaikwad elaborates on the socio-historical background. “Earlier, the nomadic and forest tribes that went around villages selling honey and forest produce were used by the British to establish trading links. With the advent of the railways, when they (the tribals) were no longer required, they began to be viewed with suspicion. In 1871, the British passed the Notification of Criminal Tribes and Castes Act by which many nomadic tribes were labelled “hereditary criminals”. The Act was an outcome of tribal revolts against the forced acquisition and seizure of adivasi lands and forests. Some of the dispossessed had drifted towards criminal activities, but by this Act entire communities were branded criminals — habitual rather than natural offenders.” They were required by law to report to the concerned authorities and were placed in various industrial and agricultural settlements near Solapur, Ahmedabad, Pune, Dharwar and Ambernath.
In 1952, the Government of India repealed the Act and the tribes were de-notified. Jawaharlal Nehru, in a grand symbolic gesture, cut the barbed wires of the settlement near Solapur, but as Gaikwad points out “ironically, the means of livelihood were also cut off”. He notes that in independent India the tribes are still deprived of land; even their traditional means of livelihood are being whittled away under the rapid onslaught of modern forces.
Gaikwad is sore that while market forces are actively encouraged, and the culture of drinking wine is being propagated, the Pardhis have no right to brew country liquor, which at least afforded them a meagre income. He has petitioned the government for the Pardhis’ right to brew the spirit.
His latest book Wakilya Pardhi, published in 2002, is a vivid portrayal of a people who lived in total harmony with nature until they were driven out of their forest homes. “At least the British never stopped us from cutting trees or hunting. Before Independence, the Pardhis could survive by eating the fruits and leaves of the forest or hunting small game like rabbits. But the depletion of forests and the new laws have made it impossible for forest tribes to survive. Ironically, these laws are meant to save the environment but it is the Pardhis who followed the dictum ‘live and let live’.
“Our culture has been debased. Pardhis used to worship trees. They never cut a fully-grown tree. When they hunted deer or rabbits they never killed a pregnant animal. Now we have no land, no rehabilitation measures, no education — there is 99% illiteracy and only 1% know how to read and write. There are no opportunities for the de-notified tribes to access any of the socio-economic development plans.
“We are still branded as pilferers, thieves, dreaded dacoits. Today there are societies for the rights of animals, and so much affection is showered even on dogs and cats. So why this antipathy towards my people? Till recently the police manuals, police academy and bureaucratic literature contained detailed sections on how Pardhis should be questioned and the kind of treatment to be given during interrogation — how they should be hung upside down and beaten.”
Both Gaikwad’s daughters are educated. Today one of them is a doctor and is married to an engineer. “But still we are known as a community of thieves,” says Gaikwad with a small laugh. “I can understand that the police must do their duty and catch the criminals. But why must they oppress and brand an entire community?”
His Uchalya, which he describes as the autobiography of a community, poignantly captures this plight. “In the book there is this one incident in which a woman who has given birth agrees to a tubectomy because she desperately needs money to buy food. During a routine search, she and her infant are taken to the police station because grain is found in the house. A Pardhi, in the eyes of the police, has no right to store grain or even to dress well. And by dragging an infant to the police station it is they who turn an innocent child into a criminal,” says Gaikwad.
It was against such repression and brutality that he joined hands with noted author Mahashweta Devi and writer Ganesh Devi to petition the Supreme Court in 1988. As leader of the Vimukta Bhatke Sangharsh, he is busy documenting the injustices perpetrated on his community, especially cases of police brutality. “Only two months ago, Shannu Kale of Shirdi was raped and killed by the police and her body dumped in a well. Why has this incident not caused outrage?”
Gaikwad says the current spate of robberies and attacks on policemen by Pardhis in Mumbai can be likened to the situation in Jammu and Kashmir where, during the militancy, an entire community was alienated because of military and police oppression and torture. He believes the solution lies in education and genuine empathy. Again he quotes an excerpt from Wakilya Pardhi: “In one of the concluding chapters, a Pardhi woman flees with her young son to a city after her family is killed. She lives on the streets and has to beg for a living. One day a Christian priest, in his compassion, wipes the nose of the young child Wakilya and decides to educate him. The mother begs him to change his name since a Pardhi’s name only invites pain. So the boy becomes Vakil Fernandes.
“This causes outrage in the neighbourhood and the people charge the priest with conversion. But the mother rushes out and yells, ‘Where was your religion when my house was burnt and I was branded an untouchable? Who bathed and educated my child?’”
The controversial ending brought some stinging criticism for Gaikwad, but he remains unbowed. His passion for justice has seen him chronicle the pain not just of his community but
also of child labourers in eateries and tea stalls, poor farmers and the urban dispossessed.
(Freny Manecksha is an independent writer based in Mumbai)
InfoChange News & Features, October 2005