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Those Fellows Again!

By Dilip D'Souza
September 02, 2005 11:21 IST
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There are times when you feel, I've written like this before. And with what I want to write about here, so I have. And yet, it bears repeating. It bears repeating.

So here we go. What would you make of a headline that reads: 'Police brass meets on Saraswats'?

OK, you want context. A robbery happens in a suburban housing colony. A gang of about 15 men is involved, and they made clever use of wires to pick locks to enter the colony. When the police arrive to stop the robbery, the gang assaults the cops and flees over the wall.

Two cops are left with serious injuries. Police officers call a press conference to say that this is a known gang of Saraswats that has committed several crimes, that the use of wires is their modus operandi. All this is reported in newspapers.

A day later, top police officers convene a meeting to discuss what to do about this gang. One officer tells the press: 'This community has a history of attacking our men in the past.'

This meeting and that quote also get duly reported in the newspapers, under this headline: 'Police brass meets on Saraswats: Top officers brainstorm on dacoities.' Another paper has it this way: 'It's the Saraswats again,' with a small blurb saying the Bombay Presidency Gazette describes Saraswats as 'violent, hot-tempered and cruel.'

What do you think?

Note that I'm not arguing for softness toward the gang. Find them and punish them for their crimes, please. I'm just saying, how would you react to such headlines and descriptions? How would you react to the fact that Saraswats -- the entire community -- have been branded as… well, as they have been branded by all this?

Well, if you're a Saraswat -- or even if you're not -- and your bile is rising as you read this, you're right to be annoyed. How can an entire community be labelled this way, even if all 15 in that gang were indeed Saraswats? What is the meaning of picking a line from a Gazette that is likely a century old, if not to merely perpetuate this stereotype?

So if you are thinking those things, calm down. The truth is, I made it all up. (Well, largely, as you will see). There is no gang of Saraswats going around terrorising the suburbs, and there are no newspaper accounts on these lines that mention them.

So why did I make it up?

Because in reality, there have been these headlines: 'It's the Pardhis again' (Hindustan Times, August 31), and 'Police brass meets on Pardhis' (Indian Express, August 30). Referring to Pardhis, the HT did indeed point out in a blurb that the 'Bombay President [sic] Gazette' described them as 'violent, hot-tempered and cruel'; and the Indian Express did in fact quote an officer saying 'This community has a history of attacking our men in the past.'

All this, because over the last three days, there have been robberies in the suburbs by 'a gang of robbers, all believed to be members of the… Pardhi community' (Hindustan Times, Aug 31). During one robbery, on Sunday, the gang did attack the cops who tried to catch them, leaving two men badly injured.

So is your bile rising? If not, why not?

And if so, why? Because the robbers attacked the cops, perhaps? Fine, and it should. But is your bile rising for the same reasons as it might have had this been about Saraswats? Do you wonder how an entire community can be labelled this way, even if everyone in that gang was indeed a Pardhi? Do you wonder why HT would pick out that line from a Gazette that is likely a century old, if not merely to perpetuate this stereotype?

Why is it OK to do these things with Pardhis, but offensive to do it with pretty much any other community? Think of it again: 'It's the Jews again,' or 'It's the Bengalis again,' or 'It's the lower-class again': you would object to each of those. Yet say 'It's the Pardhis again,' and that seems to be OK. Why?

Quickly: Pardhis are one of India's 150-odd 'denotified tribes.' They are called that because the British actually listed ('notified') the tribes in an 1871 legislation called the Criminal Tribes Act. This effectively put down in law the absurd notion that if you were born in one of those tribes, you were a criminal. The Bombay Presidency Gazettes -- and those of other Presidencies as well, as also all kinds of other writings by British officers -- are full of vivid descriptions of Pardhi perfidy.

In 1952, five-year-old India repealed that Criminal Tribes Act, thus 'denotifying' these people. The idea was that it was a colonial travesty to define them as criminal; that the stigma had turned these people into outcastes; that this brand new country, full of ideals and aspirations, could not in conscience simply brand millions of its citizens criminal.

Yet in 2005 -- as through much of the intervening half-century -- the stigma continues. They are still seen as criminal, and they are still treated that way.

Yes, it's true that there are some Pardhis who are criminals. Just as it is true, I'm sure, that there are some Saraswats and some Jews and some Tamilians who are criminals. But why do we damn all Pardhis because of the crimes of some? And when we do, what do we do to those Pardhis? (What would your life be like, if people assumed on sight that you were criminal?)

To me, this is the fundamental question the situation of Pardhis raises. Can a society so damn an entire section of itself? The answer, sadly to me, seems to be 'Yes.' Yet what does that answer say about that section? What does it say about that society?

Some months ago, a friend from rural Maharashtra came to town for a visit and dropped in one afternoon. He brought me a couple of books as a present. As friends do who meet after a long time, we had a good time, catching up on various things. I told him about the daughter we were expecting at the time. He told me about his family; his niece, about to enter school; his job as a greatly respected schoolteacher in his village.

A schoolteacher, yes. Those Pardhis again.


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Dilip D'Souza