This is a guest post by ANUJA AGRAWAL
‘Criminal sets self ablaze outside police station’, says a small news item in a local edition of a leading newspaper. The report suggests that a 22- year- old ‘criminal’ set himself ablaze outside a police station in Nanded district, Maharashtra, after some members of his family were arrested. It claims that the young man was a known ‘property offender’ with three cases against him and goes on to describe how the police had been assaulted by his family members when they had gone to investigate a case filed against him by a local trader. Why a ‘hardened’ criminal should have committed suicide outside the police station would elude the readers if they pondered over the content of this news item. But by now most of us would have moved to the next ‘story’
But in such cases, it appears that the mainstream media reporting will only skim the surface. In this particular case we have only received the police version of the story. But this is not even the half-truth as this particular instance is a suicide which was a response to the violence of the police against a very deprived social group. But this has not been reported in any manner despite the fact that the victim gave a dying declaration to this effect and a CID inquiry is already underway. It is indeed appalling that even the most widely-circulating mainstream newspapers report cases of such importance, those which should be discussed in public with full seriousness and concern, in an utterly one-sided fashion.
Members of Sangharsh Wahini, a Nagpur-based collective of activists working for betterment of nomadic and denotified tribes, have been investigating this case.They have arrived at a different version of the story. It is highly significant that Sanjay Dhotre, the so-called ‘criminal’ in this case, belonged to the Wadar community which is one among scores of the so-called ‘denotified’ tribes in India. There are no proven criminal cases against him although like many members of the so-called ‘criminal tribes’, he has been implicated in several. Sanjay was a student of Final year of BA in Open University and had lost his father only two months ago. He did wage labour to support his family of six sisters and a mother. It was an unseemly fight which his family had picked up with a local trader while shopping for the wedding of his fifth sister that triggered the events which culminated in his suicide outside the Kinwat police station in Nanded. The mainstream media does not consider any of this relevant and indeed makes no effort at verifying any of the ‘facts’ handed out by the police.
Of all the underlying facts the one which seems of prime importance is that Sanjay belonged to a denotified community. It is this which seems to allow the police and the media to nonchalantly brand an otherwise hardworking young man as a known ‘criminal’. The stigma of criminality which was institutionalized via the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871 continues to haunt a large number of impoverished and marginalized sections of our society. Even though the Act (along with its subsequent reincarnations) was repealed in 1952, the denotified communities have continued to bear the brunt of suspicion and stereotypes which have persisted. Moreover the Habitual Offenders Act took the place of the Criminal tribes act and continues to impact the lives of denotified communities in ways very similar to its colonial predecessor.
It is well known to those who have been politically engaged with denotified communities in many parts of India that they are routinely targeted for any acts of crime which are committed in the regions in which they reside. Often the police actions against the members of the community are far in excess of the alleged crime, usually petty thefts. The cases of Budhan Sabar from Purulia is West Bengal, Pinya Hari Kale of Satara in Maharashtra are well known examples of police excess against members of denotified communities. Bhikabhai Bajania’s killing in Gujarat is an example of how police refuses to come to the rescue of these people when they are under attack from upper castes and dominant groups.
In Sanjay’s case as well the trigger was the arguments which his family had with a shoe shop owner on 25 May following which the police unleashed terror on not just Sanjay and his family but many more of their poor relatives and neighbours. As reported by the Sangharsh Wahini team, Sanjay’s family was visited by police on the 31 May in his absence and it was claimed that he had committed a theft in the shop owner’s house. A hot argument ensued and the police started beating up the family members including the women. Perhaps the matter would have not taken a much worse turn but for the fact that some of those present took pictures of the police beating the Wadar women. This really enraged the police who now felt it necessary to retaliate with added vigour.
Thus in the middle of the night on June 1 a large team of some forty police men (with only two police women) raided Ganganagar which is populated by a number of denotified and nomadic tribes such as Wadar, Bhoi, Masanjogi, etc. Many pregnant women were beaten, children frightened, and about forty men and women were taken to the police station after many hours of mayhem. This is a clear indicator that even small signs of assertion by the weak (taking a picture with a mobile phone, a new weapon of the weak) can be met with excessive violence.
The midnight operation created enough of a furore in Nanded for a number of news channels to be present next afternoon when Sanjay went to the police station where at least ten members of his family were being detained. After a heated but futile argument with the policemen, Sanjay poured on himself petrol which he had been carrying and set himself ablaze in full public view. This suicide was thus an act signaling extreme desperation and helplessness. Clearly the story does not begin or end here and how this young life could have been saved from this horrible end remains a question to be answered.
This is but one among the scores of stories about the perils of being born into a stigmatized community in India. It is unfortunate that the only cases which become well known are those in which there is such a gory end although the trends in mainstream media reporting suggest that they might also be buried under headings such as ‘Criminal sets himself ablaze….’. The total social and political apathy towards the members of this group is what allows cases such as the death of Sanjay Dhotre to remain an insignificant event. One wonders how many more people have to die before we sit up and take notice of these horrendous atrocities which a most marginalized section of our society continues to face.
Anuja Agrawal is Associate Professor at the Department of Sociology, Delhi School of Economics, Delhi University.