Acting Like a Thief is a short film about Budhan Theatre of Chharanagar. Starting with playwright Dakxin Bajrange discussing his arrest , the film brings us inside the lives of a dedicated group of young actors and their families as they discuss what it means to be a “born criminal” and how theater changed their lives.
On May 11th, 2003 Dakxin Bajrange was arrested for allegedly assaulting Prahlad Chhara. The real reason? Performing plays critical of the police.
Says Paschim, Daxin’s brother, “My brother has been writing plays and performing them with his group DNT-NT Rights Action group, Chharanagar, since 1998. All his plays are against police atrocities on tribals and that is why I feel the police have implicated him without proper investigation. Prahlad Chhara was attacked by some other people from our community but Daxin got the blame.”
Besides his family, several noted playwrights and theatre personalities have come out in defence of Daxin. In a joint statement on Saturday, Dr G.N. Devy, an activist working in the tribal belt, Malayam writer and Jnanpith Award winner M.T. Vasudevan Nair, Bengali writer and recipient of Magsaysay and Jnanpith Awards Mahashweta Devi, noted painter Bhupen Khakkar, Malayalam poet and Secretary, Sahitya Akademi, K. Satchidanandan, and Kanji Patel, a Gujarati writer, expressed shock at Daxin’s arrest.
The statement says, “We are shocked to learn that a young and talented dramatist and theatre director like Daxin Bajrangee has been arrested by police on a very serious charge though he is innocent.”
The publicity soon got Daxin out of jail, but tension between the community and the police continue, even as efforts have been made to resolve these differences.
Budhan Theatre was founded on 31st August 1998 in commemoration of the day when India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, lifted the stigma of criminality from the settled tribes in 1952. A population of some 60 million of these “denotified tribes” can be found throughout India today. Since 1998, Budhan Theatre has performed street plays to raise awareness about the condition of such tribes. Their goal is to demonstrate that Chharas are not “born criminals,” they are humans with real emotions, capacities, and aspirations. Each of their productions has dramatized the events surrounding custodial deaths, abductions, beatings and torture of such tribes throughout the country. At present Budhan Theatre is reaching out to other similarly stigmatized communities and including their stories in its repertoire.
Nomadic and Denotified Tribes are well-versed culturally, but due to difficult living conditions they have lacked the opportunity to develop their cultural talent properly. According to theatrical director Dakxin Bajrange, himself a Chhara, these tribes have an innate and extraordinary talent for acting. While working with these tribes for many years he has found that their quality of facial expression, speech and gesture are unmatched by other communities. Traditional performers, their families have been acting for hundreds of years. Additionally, the youth now feel they are acting to change their lives, and in many real ways doing it to keep themselves alive. They are performing with what little they have — their bodies, their voices and their creative talent — to change their society so that they may have a future within it.
The so-called denotified tribes of India are among the lasting victims of British imperialism. Originally “notified” by the government as criminals in 1871, the DNTs should have enjoyed the freedom of independence that came to the rest of India’s people in 1947. Instead, they have languished as the most handicapped community in the nation, with health, literacy, and employment levels far below the average.
The British labeled them criminals because they pursued a nomadic way of life. The nomadic tribes traditionally carried important commodities such as salt and honey between the coasts and the inland forests. The British relied on these networks to establish their own trading relationships and to guide their armies through unknown regions. Indeed, these traders and transporters of goods were crucial informants for the new rulers, who benefited from tribal knowledge of flora and fauna, transportation and communication.
As railways and telegraphs were built in the 1850s such networks became redundant. The colonial authorities grew nervous about people who moved around, carrying intelligence they could not control directly. In the aftermath of the Revolt of 1857 these former allies were seen as potential enemies. In 1871, an Act was passed for “the notification of criminal tribes.” Hundreds of tribes that traditionally collected food from the forest became criminals with the stroke of a pen. When they could not be forcibly settled, they were sometimes shot on sight. Those who were settled were subjected to a pass system to control their movements and were rehabilitated through rigorous labor.
These criminal tribes were properly de-notified in 1952 after India’s independence. But they were reclassified as “habitual offenders” in 1959. The stigma of the criminal label still follows them to this day. Many laws and regulations in various states prohibit certain communities of people from traveling; others must still register at police stations in the districts they pass through. This close association with authority makes nomadic tribes especially liable to suspicion when crimes actually occur. The percentage of DNTs in custody and under investigation is greatly disproportionate to their population.
In 1952, five years after independence, the Criminal Tribes Act of 1911 was finally repealed. Released from the forced labor camp which had been their prison for the past forty years, the Chhara were resettled on the outskirts of Ahmedabad, in Chharanagar. Roughly three square miles, with a population of over twenty thousand, Chharanagar is primarily known for its home brewed liquor – illegal in the dry state of Gujarat.
The Chhara community were indigenous and nomadic people of the Punjab region who were “notified” and settled by order of the British colonial government in the 1930s. At that time they were confined in a colony called Chharanagar and rehabilitated through industrial and agricultural labor. After independence they were released from the settlement, but many chose to remain, having essentially no resources or other means of livelihood and no retraining in useful skills.
Due to their history of nomadism and forced sedentization, social stigmas have developed about the Chharas that place them at considerable disadvantage in competing for jobs and education. They have become scapegoats and usual suspects for police, who are able to use Chharas for illegal purposes, such as brewing country liquor under threat of compulsion. This places Chharas in constant uneasy relation to authority and has resulted in an extremely high rate of incarceration. Youth find it very difficult to acquire and retain employment. Yet Chharas are highly motivated to excel at education, and Chharanagar boasts an impressive number of professionals.
Shashwati Taulukdar is an independent filmmaker whose work ranges from documentary, narrative and experimental. Shashwati worked as an editor in the film and television industry, where she got her start as an assistant editor for a TV show by Michael Moore.
P. Kerim Friedman lives and teaches in Taiwan where he is an associate professor in the Department of Ethnic Relations and Cultures (within the College of Indigenous Studies), at National Dong Hwa University in Hualien. Trained in both linguistic and visual anthropology, he has worked extensively with indigenous Taiwanese and with India's Denotified and Nomadic Tribes (DNTs).