Convicted at Birth, Liberated on Stage
“The day a person in India is able to run his house through theatre, the country will change.” — Dakxin Chhara
Dakxin Chhara, an award-winning filmmaker, playwright, director and activist, shares the story of Budhan Theatre—a group by the tribal Chhara community of Ahmedabad. He also enlightens us about the history of the Denotified Tribes (DNTs) of India in an interactive session of ‘Mumbai Local by Junoon’, a theatre and arts organisation in Mumbai.
Dakxin is a well-educated man with a degree from the University of Leeds and is involved in one of the most respectable professions in the world, theatre, but his life is still far from the dignity and respect that it should have only because of one thing—his community. Born into Gujarat’s Chhara community, Dakxin has lived through situations of violence, injustice and discrimination. Often at the hands of his community’s designated protectors—the law and the police. Dakxin shows a news clip and narrates the incident from 26 July last year, “Chhara Nagar is literally situated in a hole, like a declined surface, and the police station is situated outside the hole at
an elevation so that they can keep an eye on us. A Charra couple was sitting on a bench and a subinspector passed lewd remarks about the women. The incident led to a fight between the man and the inspector. The inspector later made up a false case in front of his seniors and initiated a general raid on the area in the night. The police came inside and beat everyone, including me, my wife, my mother-in-law and even vandalised my car.” But Dakxin doesn’t blame the police for the atrocities that he had to bare but instead blames the system. “When they are in the police academy, they are taught that more than 200 tribes are ‘criminals by birth’. The law is called Criminal Tribes Act, 1871, and was formed by the British in India. The law was similar to the Habitual Criminal Act in 1969 in Britain which discriminated against the black skinned people in the country. According to the law, people who didn’t have any home and were constantly on the move were captured and accumulated in large settlements. One of the reasons for this act was to control the section of population that didn’t come in the tax net of the country as they could levy tax only on people who had a fixed land and establishment. It was also very easy to declare a community as a criminal tribe by just sending out a letter to a judge and by clearing a few easy criteria. “Due to this, the number of such tribes increased to around 200, who were used by the British
as cheap labour. The tunnels that you find on your way to Pune from Mumbai were built by these communities,” he reveals. India gained independence in 1947 but the DNTs were not given independence until 31st August 1952 when this law was repealed. The first Prime Minister of India, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, is stated to have given these tribal communities ‘Vishesh Mukti’ but no welfare policies were provided. When the tribes were released from their settlements, they didn’t have any constitutional safeguards because everyone had forgotten them. The document of repeal reads, ‘Criminal Tribes Act is a blot on the constitution of India, and we are in favour to repeal the act, but it should be replaced by the Habitual Offender Act.’ Dakxin explains, “The Habitual Offender Act is a state legislative act and is still prevalent in every state. According to this law, if you have committed crimes thrice then you are declared a habitual offender. In 2008, the Chairperson of the National Human Rights Commission, Justice Venkateshwar, ordered all the states to repeal the Habitual Offender Act immediately but none of the states have done so.” The population of these tribes is around 60 million today and they are still facing the issues of criminality. Dakxin claims that though the name of the law changed, the judiciary still functions in the same way as it did under the Criminal Tribes Act. He startles us by quoting the ‘Bombay Beggary Act’, which says, “‘If a person, individually or in a group, is performing, singing or dancing on the streets, they should be considered as beggars. The constable has the power to arrest the person or group and send them to the beggars’ home.’ In the beggars’ home, in the name of rehabilitation, people are made to work for 18 hours and most of these people are folk artistes. This definition needs to change.” The reason Dakxin emphasises on changing this definition is because theatre, as an art form, is his way to address the system.
In 1998, the Budhan Theatre was founded by Prof Ganesh Devy, a renowned activist, known for the creation of People’s Linguistic Survey of India and the Adivasi Academy, and Padmashri Mahasweta Devi, a sociopolitical activist and writer. A number of young Chharas, including Dakxin, became a part of this theatre group. The name ‘Budhan’ was kept in memory of Budhan Sabar, a tribal handicrafts maker from West Bengal’s Kheria-sabar community, who was picked up by the police and beaten to death in custody in 1998. The incident led to tremendous uprising and revolts by the tribal communities throughout India. Budhan was the first drama done by the group. “Before this, there was no medium to express our anger, frustration, or good and bad things about us. Through the play Budhan, we kept our emotions in front of the world,” Dakxin remembers. The plays of Budhan Theatre were received well by everyone not just in tribal communities, but also by the police, lawyers and even the common folk. As their popularity grew, various individuals and organisations started calling them to perform, like the Ahmedabad Civil society, Mallika Sarabhai, etc. The plays are all
based on the atrocities and discrimination faced by the tribal communities throughout India. It is a total of 48 plays, which have been performed more than 1,500 times around the country, and recently a team even performed for the first time in the US. Dakxin explains the impact in his own words, “When you express yourself through melodrama which we do a lot in our plays, an intellectual and emotional bridge builds between the actors and the spectators. This makes the viewer think about us and causes sensitisation in them. Theatre as an art is the combination of expression and sensitisation. This is very important, and drama has not been much employed in the country in this particular way. After this comes the stage of ‘development’ which happens in two forms—one, in future if you meet someone from the DNT, you’d try to understand them, and second, when you put your words out creatively, it starts getting written about and reaches the society. In the case of Budhan Theatre, we have been written about worldwide and primarily it is written in the lines of ‘How a community’s expression causes its development.’ That’s the process—expression, sensitisation and then acceptance. That’s what Budhan Theatre did.” It’s the popularity of Budhan Theatre that led to the establishment of Denotified & Nomadic Tribes National Commission which does political mobilisation, political lobbying and policy making for the DNTs. Dakxin narrates the story behind the formation, “On Mahasweta Devi’s birthday on 14th January in 2006, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh invited us to Delhi. Manmohanji told Mahasweta Devi that he wanted to give her a gift on her birthday. She asked for a National Commission to study the problems of the DNTs. He agreed to it and said that he would. While leaving, Mahasweta Devi turned to Manmohan Singh and said these exact words, “Politicians ke tarike se mat bolo. Tumhe dena padega, nahi toh mein tumhari haalat kharab kar dungi.” (Don’t talk to me like a politician.
You will have to give it, or else, I will make your life miserable). On 29th January, the commission was announced in the centre and in this meeting when Mahasweta Devi told him about Budhan theatre, Manmohan Singhji said, ‘I know about this theatre.’ So, the theatre that was going on in the lanes of chhara nagar reached the PM of the country. Isn’t that development?” Dakxin himself played a pivotal role in the development of Budhan theatre as he got the Ford Foundation fellowship to study theatre in the University of leeds in 2010. “University of leeds had a very good course, which is development studies combined with theatre. I came across intimate theatre in england, especially in london. Behind most of the bars, you will find a small space where 15-20 people can sit in l-shape and in the rest of the space, artistes perform theatre. the intimacy between the actors and spectator brings a huge change to the whole experience. I still cannot forget some of the performances I saw there. It was such an enriching experience that when I came back, I immediately started doing intimate theatre in Budhan,” Dakxin says. Budhan theatre is not just limited to the chhara community, but also has members from many other communities, like Dalits and Muslims. a major hurdle in setting up and continuing a theatre production in India is money. When asked, Dakxin says, “I believe that the day a person in India is able to run his house through theatre, the country will change. the change would have come already. economy is the biggest hurdle in socio-political theatre. If you do theatre, there’ll be expenses but since there is no funding, you’d have to put money from your own pocket. How long can you do that? So, what if you do the kind of theatre in which no funds or minimal money is required? You use your body and voice and do theatre with symbolism because at the end of the day, people are not watching the costume and makeup, but the actor. We in Budhan theatre didn’t let money come into the picture.” Budhan theatre has just 20-25 active members but they are training around 300-350 people inside and outside of the chhara community who are working in the field of theatre alongside their regular work. Dakxin is hopeful that whichever government comes to power in the upcoming election will give reservation to the Dnts as they have been struggling since the time of independence and there has been no change in that.