150 Years of Solitude — and a Funeral in Gujarat to End it
Nothing about the Chharas of Ahmedabad screams solitude. In fact they are as noisy and colourful and unsubtle as anyone can possibly be. But these are surreal times. You could say that what happened these last five days in a tiny congested swamp in the northern and industrial part of Ahmedabad was surrealist fiction. Only, it did actually happen.
Who are the Chharas?
Chharanagar is a ghetto. Grey tenements, stinking of garbage and shit are packed together so tightly, that every fight in every house is heard in every other. And together, the dank smell and noise from the gullies leave a sourness in the air that is impossible to call ‘solitary’. And yet, they are the most excluded people you will meet in Ahmedabad. They carry with them the shadow of nearly a hundred and fifty years of state oppression and social exclusion.
The Chharas were a nomadic tribe until their ability to move was curtailed entirely by a racist and repressive law, enacted by the British colonisers in 1871. Smarting from the Great Revolt of 1857, the British wanted to account for every subject in their dominion. You could say it was a very early version of a state registry. The Chharas’ movement across state boundaries made the British very nervous. So they enacted the Criminal Tribes Act, according to which thirteen million people across 127 communities were deemed as habitual criminals .
The Chharas were one of them, and for being born in the tribe, they were outlaws. With no recourse to justice and the law turned against them at birth, the community gradually took to a life of crime. Many became gamblers and liquor traders. After India became independent, the criminal tribes act was eventually abolished, but the stigma remained.
A Life of Persecution
The police has regularly carried out combing operations in Chharanagar against an entrenched liquour mafia in a state where drinking is prohibited. The Chharas point out that it’s a cloak-and-daggers game. Some cops are on the till, taking bribes to keep quiet about the gambling and drinking. And then raids are carried out as a counter-balance. The police say this is a den of vice and, whether or not habitual or not, the law is the law.
This is what the police came in to Chharanagar for on 26 July — to weed out the hooch sellers. A fight erupted, and a drunk man they were trying to arrest, allegedly beat up a cop. The incensed policeman called for reinforcements that were duly sent. By this time, the drunk man had disappeared. And two versions exist for what happened next.
The cops claim that a mob of angry Chharas began to attack them, so they picked up 29 of the offenders for mob violence and atrocities against the police. The Chharas say no such thing happened. Before they knew it, cops had allegedly entered their homes, arbitrarily picking up Chharas that had not gathered as a mob, and had nothing to do with the liquor mafia. Among the group were members of a Gandhian theatre group called Budhan, and three lawyers. These were people who had spent a lifetime away from crime, and on social reform — with three decades of work on changing the identity of Chharas in the eyes of the Chharas themselves — and the wider world.
After being beaten up by the cops, Dakxin Chhara, a mentor and Budhan theatre director, decided to confer with his friends, and use their most effective weapon to steal the thunder from the police — drama. But not just any drama. Drama injected with the values they had been honing at Budhan — Gandhian values.
What emerged was a scene from the Bollywood version of Gandhi, styled after the film Munnabhai MBBS.
On 29 July, the normal cacophony of Chharanagar gave way to an eerie silence. Thousands of Chharas filed out of their grimy tenements and gathered in an open square. To perform the besna — a funeral ritual they said was essential, because as Dakxin put it, “law and order had died.”
On the floor, a sea of colourfully dressed women in saris and jeans, white hair and black, wailed or performed marshi, like they do when a relative passes away. Loud, flat-toned wailing in unison. The outpouring was immense. The horizon was packed with people as far as the eye could see. On rooftops and balconies, in every gully, and onto the main square. There were little children as well, dressed in their finest, carrying banners like the adults.
“I am a Chhara. I am not a criminal.”
One poster even had Einstein on it, with his tongue sticking out. The text in Gujarati said, “In the eyes of God we are all equally intelligent and equally stupid.” No one was sure who really said that, but it sure looked great next to the picture of a man reputed to be the most intelligent, but wearing his goofiest face.
After the besna, a section of the silent protesters made their way to the Sardarnagar police station. They were armed with red roses. One of Budhan theatre’s youngest practitioners – a 23-year-old man called Kaushal, came up with the rose idea. As the roses were handed to bewildered policemen, a line was delivered with dramatic flair:
As protests go and Gandhian ones at that, this may not seem unusual. But for the Chharas, it was a first. Many described how they had gotten used to combing operations in the area by the police, always in search of the liquor mafia. They had gotten used to the wrong people being picked up, as what the police had often described as “collateral damage.” They had internalised a century and a half of self-loathing, and resigned themselves to this fate.
Outside the Rule-Book, But Inside the Law
Until this one time, when for no particular reason and also every possible reason, they decided they would not take this anymore. Their lawyer met a senior police official and pleaded rationally with them. Please pick up the right people. One Chhara is not equal to another. We are not all criminals. We can even help you identify the guilty party if you work with us and not against us.
It was a completely unexpected script. The Commissioner of police, A K Singh took some of what the Chharas said, on board. He said to this reporter with refreshing candour, “If we can’t be self-critical, we have no business enforcing law and order. I have instituted an inquiry into the incident. If some of our men were out of line, then action will be taken against them. And we will also look at the charges framed against the 29 Chharas that are under arrest.”
In court, where the bail application was being heard on 31 July, Dakxin Chhara said it looked like the lawyer arguing the government’s case was willing to concede that some of the more serious charges against the 29 Chharas be dropped, since they may not have a strong enough basis. The admission was enough to make the Chharas believe it was the roses and silence that worked. The unexpectedness of it all.
In a colony labelled by most Ahmedabadians as the’ badlands’, from a people where the only expected reaction to anything is violence, and in a place where noise is the 24-hour currency, the Chharas had tossed out all the rules. And in a curious way, done a very Chhara thing — worked outside the rule-book, but inside the law. So the law-enforcers were forced for the very first time ever, to bend.
 13 million in 1947, at the time of Independence.
(Revati Laul is a Delhi-based journalist and film-maker, and the author of ‘The Anatomy of Hate’, forthcoming from Context /Westland in November 2018. Read more about the Chharas in this book. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)