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The Widow’s Home in Chharanagar

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Mayank and Arpita

Introduction

Chhara tribe was notified under the Criminal Tribes Act, 1871 as “born criminals”. In 1952, the tribe was denotified, but they still carry the stigma of criminality. Chhara tribe is also known as Kanjarbhat (Maharashtra) and Kanjar (Rajasthan). In Gujarat, the members of tribe reside in an area known as Chharanagar in Ahmedabad. Chharanagar is one of the most infamous places in Ahmedabad known for its thieves and brewers of illicit alcohol. However, similar to other parts of Ahmedabad, the literacy level in Chharanagar is considerably high. But, due to historical stigma of criminality, the Chharas continue to face discrimination in acquiring white collared jobs. Chharanagar is also home to large number of single woman households. Every tenth family in Chharanagar is headed by a single woman.

This paper involves study of one family of Chharanagar, on the basis of short movie A Widow’s Home, comprising of mother and her two daughters (all widows). The movie explores the situation of single woman within the tribe involved in illicit brewing of alcohol. This paper deals with the following aspects: How the community is still facing consequences of criminal tag even after almost 70 years of independence; How the women create system of support within the community; How are these women able to negotiate with the state, particularly police in a state where liquor is banned; The nature of atrocities being faced by these women vis-à-vis the state and the community. Additionally, the paper also explores the historical journey of de-notified tribes, particularly Chharas, from being dignified folk artists to being stigmatized as criminals. This paper, thus, is an attempt to look critically at a de-notified tribe from the perspective of the tribe’s women and the challenges they face to survive within the unjust social structures and the state.

Framework

Presence of any specific social value in a society is in itself an evidence that there would be a diametrically opposite value in existence. It essentially means that every society has both positive as well as negative social values, wherein relevance of one over another is inversely proportional in nature. The positive or negative qualities of values are highly subjective. The goal of a society should be to reach a state of equilibrium, where both the values are accommodating each other and are yet allowing the conflicts based on the subjective reality. The modern society in contemporary times is in process of evolving and introspecting its value system essentially in the light of those who are in disagreement to the current system.

It is believed that value system, norms and moralities are the social concepts which are dependent on masses. These go on to determine and guide each part of their lifecycle. What we ignore is the process through which these concepts are constructed. Modern societies are home to divergent moral values. It is difficult to identify the dominant moral values among them. Over period of time the divergent moral values create incoherence in dichotomy and result is creation of complex ideas. These complex ideas leave space for interpretations which are detrimental to the interests of weak and marginalized. Moral values play role at level of individual as well as social. Social values get reflected in laws, social structures, and institutions. Deviance from them is considered unacceptable and the value judgment made on their basis is the core problem faced by the marginalized groups.

Across world, women, marginalized communities like blacks in the USA, Dalits and Tribal in India, religious minorities in most parts of the world, nomads and gypsies, LGBT etc. face the brunt of this onslaught of moral value system. They have limited space to determine or intervene in the process of formation of moral values and thus do not gain any space on their own. Over period of time, the space is provided to them in the name of modernization, thereby bringing them within the confines of flawed system of moral values.

Nomadic Tribes are known for their “restlessness and constant movement” (Radhakrishna 2000). They represent social groups which were never part of the civilization process and state’s notion of modernity and progress. Nomadic/Itinerant community represent lifestyle and value system which were often contradictory and conflicting with the nature and value system of sedentary communities. The relationship between the nomadic tribes and sedentary communities are often not just problematic but often compound in mutual antagonism.

Nomadic communities represent nation within the nation state. The imposition of restriction on the lines of sedentary communities across the world have brought them in conflict with the others. With the onset of Industrial Revolution, and the idea of private property becoming reified, the nomads as non-sedentary group of people were started being viewed as particularly dangerous having the potential to usurp established order (Rana 2011). This led to further marginalization of nomadic tribes. Their generational occupations have been restricted and in some cases completely denied. Enactment of new laws ends up further denying them space. Example of this is the case of Yerukulas of Madras Presidency who were traders of grain and salt, with the coming of rail and road network, their trade became completely redundant (Radhakrishna 2000). Further, Forest Law passed in 1880 prevented them from collecting forest produce like bamboo and leave which they used for making baskets and brooms. Similar example is that of Sapera (Snake Charmers) community in India who have been severely impacted by passing of Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. Initially, the ban was aimed at curbing export of snakes and snake skin. But, later on, the animal rights activists forced the governments to extend the ban on snake charmers also severely impacting their source of livelihood.

De-notified Tribes in India are communities (or tribes) which were notified as being ‘Born Criminal’ by the British Government under series of laws starting with the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871 (CTA). CTA considered ‘crime’ as hereditary profession of a tribe and slapped the brand of being ‘born criminal’ on the entire population of that particular tribe. Traditionally, nomad communities in India were a group of communities who travel from place to place for their livelihood. They had variety of occupations like salt traders, fortune-tellers, conjurers, Ayurveda healers, jugglers, acrobats, story tellers, snake charmers, animal doctors, tattooists, grindstone makers, basket-makers, entertainers, and dancers. Among these tribes there is example of Banjaras who were packers and transporters of the Mughal army. There are historical evidence which show the constructive role played by these communities in Indian society, which is contrary to the general belief about them.

Despite being out of clutches of Caste System, nomadic tribes occupy the lowest position in the social hierarchy of India society. It is stated, “In the lowest strata of Indian society, there were three classes of men who were as much depressed as any other classes, the aboriginals, the criminals and wandering tribes. These people were sunk in ignorance, despised and persecuted”.1

The status of nomads in society is quite complex as despite playing important role they were placed in lowest strata. The tag of “born criminal” made a deep impact on their position in society. They were confined to fenced settlements thereby impacting their movement. This robbed them of their traditional occupations and efforts were made to make them sedentary (Radhakrishna 2000). They were allowed limited access to outside world and for limited period of time. In this effort were made to make them accept the social values and norms of sedentary communities. Post-independence, Criminal Tribes Act of 1952 de-notified the tribal communities. Thereafter, these tribes are known as De-notified tribes or DNTs. Few years later, though Habitual Offenders Act, 1959 was brought in which has been used by police and state to target the DNTs. This act further consolidated the marginalization of the so-called “born criminals” and pushed them to vulnerability, discrimination and exploitation.

The image of DNTs has been created in such a way that it impacts their position and interaction within society. There is limited information or studies done to understand the position of women in these communities. However, advancement in feminist studies across discipline provide framework to understand the position of women in these communities. Multiple studies show that exploitation of women in society is layered. Thus, the position of women becomes quite vulnerable if they are located in marginalized communities like Dalits, Tribal or DNT community. Feminist movement has over period incorporated Dalit feminism into mainstream but for the DNT women this space is still a bit far off. Their unique historical stigma and socially and economically disadvantaged location can be seen from the perspective of Intersectionality.

Crenshew in her Work De-marginalizing the intersection of Race and Sex- A Black Feminist Critique of Anti-Discrimination Doctrine, used the concept of intersectionality to denote the various ways in which race and gender interact to shape multiple dimension of women’s experience in employment. Crenshaw argues that Black women are discriminated against in ways that often do not fit neatly within the legal categories of either “racism” or “sexism”—but as a combination of both racism and sexism. The present legal system she argued has generally defined sexism as confronted by all women (including white) and racism as faced by all Black and other people of color. This framework make black women legally invisible in the ambit of law. Thus in a way she challenged the legal system. She argues that Black women are frequently absent from analyses of either gender oppression or racism, since the former focuses primarily on the experiences of white women and the later on Black men. She seeks to challenge both feminist and anti-racist theory and practice that neglect to “accurately reflect the interaction of race and gender,” arguing that “because the inter-sectional experience is greater than the sum of racism and sexism, any analysis that does not take intersectionality into account cannot sufficiently address the particular manner in which Black women are subordinated.” Crenshaw argues that a key aspect of intersectionality lies in its recognition that multiple oppressions are not each suffered separately but rather as a single, synthesized experience.2 In the Indian context, it has been seen that in the multi-layered and complex social structure there are women who are `more’ vulnerable than others (Nigam 2014).

Women of Chharanagar: Story of Widow’s Home

De-notified communities are mainly patriarchal (Gandhi 1992). Thus, the portrayal of a household of three widows in the short film The Widow’s Home was quite unique. They chose not to re-marry by choice. This further enhanced curiosity in their case to further understand the inner dynamics of Chhara community. Chhara community is involved in large scale brewing of illicit liquor. According to some informal sources, 70% of the residents of Chharanagar are involved in this trade. This has been generational occupation of the Chharas in post-independence India.

Traditionally, Chharas were entertainers who travelled from place to place to earn their livelihood through street performances. Women were active participants in these performances. Dadi, an 80 year old grandmother interviewed in the short film Acting Like A Thief , proudly presented the past occupation of singing and dancing “with pots on our heads and swords in our hands” (Schwarz 2010). Chharas, according to Devi (1972), are probably the only gypsies who are accomplished solo dancers. Devi (1972) has further illustrated that Chhara women dance vivaciously to an eight beat rhythm with the accent on the off beat and a cross rhythm of six beats as a variation. In this Chhara men seated in large circle accompany the dance with song, drums and cymbals. She mentions that natural grace and verve of the Chharas, who dance for their own pleasure, are rare qualities that even a trained dancer may not possess. This speaks volumes about the dancing and livelihood tradition of the Chhara community.

In post-independence era, the Chharas were confined to an area Chharanagar. Their movement out of the camp was restricted. Devi (1972) recounts that after the dance performance by the Chhara group she was asked to write a note addressed to the police officer explaining that she had detained the group for a dance performance as there was strict orders that they had to be in their camp by sundown. The mainstream family values imposed on the nomadic tribes and restriction on their movement have severely impacted their cultural heritage. As Radhakrishna (2000) points in case of Yerukulas of Madras Presidency that women were not normally prepared for wage work in the settlement camps, ideally they were to be trained in feminine virtues and were expected to sew, embroider for their families.

The Chharas are now largely known for their alcohol breweries and criminal tag. Chharas brewed alcohol for their own consumption, but when Chharas realized that this is giving them income they started doing this as full time occupation (Katakam 2009). Most of the breweries in Chharanagar are managed by women. This is interesting in the background that Gujarat is a dry state for many years. According to Alkaben Chhara (mother) in the short movie The Widow’s Home, they don’t know any other work and they will continue with this work. They learnt brewing from their parents and this has been going on for generations. They are not apologetic about the work they do. This critically questions the moral value judgment which we embark on individuals without learning about their complexities. It also questions the notion of feminists who campaign for prohibition. This creates a moral complexity between source of livelihood and perceived social benefit.

On the question of help or intervention of the state, Alkaben clearly questions the planning as they are offered training in stitching at age of fifty plus. This is more complex as she has cataract problem. Other option for them is to do work as construction labourer which they are not in position to do. When asked about fear of police, Dadi in the short film Acting Like A Thief states confidently that they will take money and will go away. Women in Chharanagar get arrested and harassed, they pay monthly bribe (hafta) and keep the home fires burning (Katakam 2009).

On personal front the stand of the family is conflicting with social norm of society considering they chose not to re-marry following death of their husbands. They have continued to take care of their family on their own. They chose to be dependent on themselves and to continue working. Most families in Chharanagar face similar dilemma as lots of men die each year due to alcohol consumption (Katakam 2009). Katakam (2009) gives example of Nargis Chhara, an expert in brewing country liquor whose main source of income is the sale of seven or eight bottles of country brew a day, who typical of a Chhara home is the head of her family, as many of the men are dead, and provides for 15 people by brewing and selling alcohol. According to her she has been in jail at least twice and faces constant harassment by local policemen who make her appear in court at least twice a week. Yet, she does not give up. “What else can I do?” she asked. “Nobody will employ my family members or me. We have to live. If this gives us an income then this is what we will do.”

The visuals of the short film The Widow’s Home showcase the shanty spacing of the Chharanagar and how the breweries work in the area. The locations and the way women manage the illegal activity is really amazing considering the constant fear of police. The focus of the women is to manage family as most of the men are alcoholic and die early because of it. Post 1980s, the families of Chharanagar have been trying to come out of their existing image. But their past is big hindrance. Despite high literacy rate, residents of Chharanagar find it difficult to get jobs. The breweries act as source of income in this background.

References

Crenshaw, Kimberle (1991), “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color”, Stanford Law Review, Vol 43, No. 1241, (Jul 1991), pp 1241-1299.

Devi, Ragini (1972), Dance Dialects of India, Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, Delhi.

Gandhi, Malli (2013), “Challenges of livelihood, dignity and development of denotified communities”, Eastern Anthropologist, 66(1), pp 121-144.

Katakam, Anupama (2009), “Chharas and their breweries”, Fronline, 26(16), Aug 1-14.

Nigam, Shalu (2014), “From The Margins: Revisiting The Concept Of `Marginalized Women’”, http://www.countercurrents.org/nigam030914.htm (accessed on 3.1.2017)

Radhakrishna, Meena (2000), “Colonial Construction of a ‘Criminal Tribe’: Yerukulas of Madras Presidency”, Economic and Political Weekly, July 15.

Rana, Subir (2011), “Nomadism, Ambulation and the ‘Empire’: Contextualising the Criminal Tribes Act XXVII of 1871”, Transcience, 2(2), pp 1-22. 

Schwarz, Henry (2010), Constructing the Criminal Tribe in Colonial India: Acting Like a Thief, Wiley-Blackwell, West Sussex.

Media Resources

Short Film “The Widow’s Home” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q785d-djoJE)

Short Film “Acting Like A Thief” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vpbL1UfxnzI&t=6s)

1 From Government of Madras, Home Department, GO No.1675, dated 2.12.1919 referred in Gandhi (1992).

2Crenshaw, Kimberle (1991), “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence 

    against Women of Color”, Stanford Law Review, Vol 43, No. 1241, (Jul 1991), pp 1241-1299. 
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