Saturday, September 15, 2001
T H I S  A B O V E  A L L

A blot on the face of Mother India
Khushwant Singh

INDIA has a sizeable population of jungle-dwellers who live on the fruits of forests, animals and birds. Where forests were left alone, humans who lived there continue to do so to this day as their forefathers did, poor but happy with their primitive way of life. Where forests were cleared and the land turned to farming, these forest-dwellers took to a nomadic life, keeping themselves alive by taking vegetables grown on land cultivated by others and fruits from orchards to which they have no right. Petty thieving became their way of life. From small-scale pilferage they turned to thieving, robbery and murder. Since they were always on the move, no government could levy taxes on them. They became an unwanted nuisance and came to be despised as a sub-human species which deserved to be exterminated. In 1871 our British rulers declared 150 such wandering communities as Criminal Tribes, giving the police special powers to deal with them. The police did in the way best known to it; by blood-letting in the firm conviction that these tribes had bad blood in their veins and were born criminals. We treated them worse than we treated the lowest of our low castes. The Criminal Tribes Act was repealed, many commissions of inquiry suggested improvements in the living conditions of the new denotified criminal tribes but it has made very little difference in the attitude of the police and deep-rooted prejudice that most people have against them continues. Our treatment of these unfortunate people believed to number some 25 millions is a blot on the fair face of Mother India.

Leaving for the heavenly abode
September 8, 2001
Controlling the urge to backchat
September 1, 2001
A tale of modern India
August 25, 2001
Reflections on the brother-sister bond
August 18, 2001
A dacoit or a dasyu sundari?
August 11, 2001
A case for moderate drinking
August 4, 2001
A dangerous twist to a harmless practice
July 28, 2001
No escape from pain and sorrow
July 21, 2001
A penny for Jagjit Chohan
July 14, 2001
The importance of bathing
July 7, 2001
An astral encounter
June 30, 2001
Footloose with Ghalib
June 23, 2001
Sangam of religions
June 16, 2001
What makes a man great?
June 9, 2001
Malgudi no more
May 26, 2001
Call of the papeeha
May 19, 2001
Exporting erotica to France
May 12, 2001
Celebrating old age
May 5, 2001

Dilip D’Souza has written a highly readable book Branded by Law: Looking At India’s Denotified Tribes (Penguin). Based in Mumbai, most of it is about Pardhis of Maharashtra, some tribes of Gujarat and Sabars of Purulia (West Bengal).

I confess I hardly knew of the existence of these denotified criminal tribes till I read this book. D’Souza admits that neither did he till he stumbled on their existence. He writes: "It is one of those intriguing, maddening, and yet somehow fascinating things about India: however long you live here, however well you think you know what happens here, there is always something else. Some stone under which you have not looked, some practice you have never known, a community you have never heard of, an issue you have never grappled with. In close to forty years, the word ‘Pardhi’ had remained outside my consciousness, and I consider myself a relatively well-read, well-informed Indian. How many others are there in my country to whom Pardhis are entirely unknown?"

It is the duty of every educated Indian to involve himself in bettering the lot of our unfortunate brethren because our country will be judged by what we do to better their lot. D’Souza writes: "Ignore or agonise? Whichever option you go with, you’re up against a great power these people exert; they define India to the world. Now we may like to think we are a nuclear power, that we produce rockets and missiles and fancy cars and flavoured potato chips. But at the back of our minds we all know the truth: if the world notices us at all, it sees India first and always as a desperately poor nation. A nation whose continuing unwillingness to address the problems of its poor is perhaps its most striking feature. In fact, that enormous unwillingness even raises the question of whether we Indians are ourselves fully aware of the poor in India. Yes, perhaps we would rather they remained out of sight."

Branded by Law is not all about wretchedness because D’Souza also sees the comic aspect of the lives of people he writes about. Here is an instance of outlandish names some Pardhis have: "Pistolya, Rifleya, Bandukya (from banduk-gun), Policeya, Torchya. (‘-ya’, as anyone who has grown up around Marathi-speaking kids knows, is a common Marathi suffix to form diminutives or nicknames.) Around Satara district, you can hear tales of a reformed Pardhi criminal named European, now farming a small plot of land. Britishya was another once-known criminal. Perhaps these last two came from some association with some long-forgotten British official in the area.

"There was more. As Parit rattled off the names in the Pardhi criminal gangs he told me about, I caught several other strange ones. Maybe Khudkhushya Sonya Bhosle had something to do with a suicide (khudkhushi: suicide)? What was Phuljhendya’s connection with yellow flowers? Was Dongarshya named for a hill (dongar: hill)? What about Khatpatya, was he known as a struggler of sorts? Did Chitar Bhagoji Kale set traps for chitars, little brown birds? And surely Sarpanchya could not have been a real sarpanch, a village head? No, surely not."

Another Pardhi name is Lafangya (good for nothing) which does well for one yet- to-be-denotified criminal tribe: politicians.

Mango mania

The mango season is over. It was as good as the best we’ve experienced over the years. Right from April to the end of the monsoon it’s been a succession of the pick of the season. Fortunately, I am on the gift-list of a few benevolent people who are aware of my love for this fruit. It starts with a crate of Alphonsos sent by Saryu Doshi. This product of the Ratnagiri coastline has hogged the export market. I like them well enough for their looks and texture, but I fancy products of western Uttar Pradesh more. Here again I know a few growers and owners of orchards. There is the six-foot-four-inch-tall Pathan, Abid Saeed Khan, who has a large orchard in Bugrasi village, near Saharanpur. He is also very large-hearted. He sends me different varieties : Dussehri, Chausa, Langda and Ratol. So does Sarla Ban who has an orchard close to Moradabad. There are also Parveen Talha and Ammar Rizvi who grow them near Lucknow. Then there is Captain Raghubir Singh who grows them in his farm in Terai. So there is not a day during the season that I do not have a mango feast: one for breakfast, one with lunch, one in the afternoon. By August-end I have more mango juice in my veins than blood. So much mango does no one any good, particularly one prone to diabetes. I have boils erupting on different parts of my body, including a painful carbuncle on the left side of my bottom. It erupts every year and hurts me when I sit. I don’t know what other ailments come with over-indulgence in mangoes but I am hooked to them and wait impatiently for the next season.

Another addiction I have is dates. Humayun Zaidi and some other friends living in Muscat and Dubai bring a few packets for me whenever they come to Delhi. Believe it or not, there are dozens of varieties of dates varying in size and taste, all delicious. Why is it our own dates are so poor by comparison? Once in Australia, I was taken to a date-research project near Alice Springs in the heart of the desert. There I saw palm trees not higher than six feet bearing long-tapering dates tastier than any from West Asia. We have a vast desert in Rajasthan ideally suited to growing dates. Don’t we have date-research projects in any of our agricultural universties?

Phoolan’s dying statement

You call me a cold-blooded murderer

You paint me as a whore

You accuse me of amassing wealth

In your Iexicon, I am uncouth vengeful dacoit and much more.

I know, you resent my political ascendancy

I know, for you I am a butt of ridicule

I know, you are all men of decency

Full of righteous indignation, honour and honesty.

I know, your blood boils (doesn’t it?) when women are gangraped

I know, you feel like setting the world on fire

When the criminals have escaped

I know, when minor girls are bought and sold

Beaten blue and black for not being sexually bold

You are hurt in your heart so deep

That you forego your dinner and vow not to sleep

Isn’t it?

The mother of all diseases and the enemy of decency

I know, you’re uprooting poverty from this country,

Caste hierarchy, exploitation and cruelty.

And therefore found me guilty,

I know, why I have been murdered openly.

(Courtesy: Kuldip Salil, Delhi)