People of Chharanagar took out a massive rally on 29 July, 2018 to Kubernagar Police Chowky, giving roses to police, protesting against the police brutality unleashed on them, a couple of days ago. The slogans from the protest said, ‘you beat us with batons, in return we give you flowers’. (‘Aapane hame dande se maara, ham aapako ful dete hai‘.)
The rally was a mark of protest against the attack by the police on Chharanagar residents on the night of July 26. The residents say that the violence that happened as a result of an altercation that happened between two Chharanagar youths and a police officer.
For the Chharas, this is not surprising. Chharas fall under Denotified Tribes (DNTs) and were classified as a ‘criminal community’ by the British with their Criminal Tribes Act of 1871. Even though the act was repealed after India’s independence from the British, the State has continued the legacy of the discrimination left by the coloniser. Pratik Indrekar, a resident of Chharanagar who was beaten up and arrested by the police on 26th says, “People who live around us, just don’t accept us.” Not only did he sound exasperated, he was also indignant. “I am a journalist while my brother is a renowned advocate, But if we go out to rent a building, or to buy one, societies don’t rent or sell us houses or buildings because we are Chhara,” he said, while recounting the events from that night.
The relationship between the Chharas and illegal distillation of alcohol is an old one. When over two hundred police personnel came down heavily on the people of Chharanagar on the 26th of July 2018, the police version stated that it was a ‘raid’ for illegal alcohol. Yet, none of the people who were arrested that night, were involved in the business. In fact, most of them were theatre activists, artists and regular office goers.
Residents say that this was a deliberate attack because the police personnel knew those who were in the alcohol business. In fact, they maintain records that list the number and details of the small number of houses where people engage in this activity.
However, this doesn’t stem from a concern for law and order as one might think. The police maintains a register so that it is easy for them to demand a share (hafta) of the illegal distillation. Thus if a person makes Rs. 100 out of their business, Rs. 80 goes to the police officer who ‘protects’ them. Pratik says that the business still thrives because the police also reaps profit out of it and does not let the Chharas do other jobs.
Residents also say that a dispute over money that happened with a police officer by the name D. K. Mori on the night of 26th set off the attack. Mori, who has a history of violence, was in his private vehicle when he saw two residents were seated on a two wheeler outside their pan shop. They were counting the day’s collection when Mori asked them for ‘his share’. The duo refused to give him money. Mori, who was drunk, beat them up and they retaliated. This is when he left the place only to re-appear half an hour later with a battalion of 200 police personnel calling it a ‘raid’.
Abhi Indrekar, an independent filmmaker and cultural activist, said that the whole event seemed as if Mori was waiting for something like this to happen. When he returned with more force, there was just one woman among them and she was not even an officer, he said. In the ‘raid’, women were beaten up as well and that too by male police officers.
Even though the arrested people secured bail after 5 or 7 days, they have decided to fight against police brutality in the court of law. The victims also met Chief Minister Vijay Rupani. “Our main demand is that those five police officers (officers including Mori who led the attack) should be dismissed and charges on innocent people should be dropped immediately,” Abhi said. An inquiry has been initiated in this matter and the Deputy Commissioner of Police (DCP), Crime, Mr. Deepan Bhadran said in a meeting with the victims that he would look into the matter. However, the Charras’ demand that one representative from their community be inducted in the inquiry committee or a separate SIT be formed have not been accepted. Calls made to DCP Bhadran went unanswered. Vadnagar MLA Jignesh Mevani took to Twitter to condemn the attack on July 27, calling it a shame. He also met all the victims.
The protest on Wednesday saw the Chharas put forward all their demands including dropping of all charges on innocent people, a fair investigation, Rs.25000 crore package for socio-economic development of Chharas, inclusion of Nomadic Tribes (NTs), De-notified Tribes (DNTs) into the Prevention of SC and ST Atrocity Act, suspension of police officers who attacked innocent people and reservation among Other Backward Classes (OBCs) for NTs and DNTs.
Atish Indrekar, theatre activist from Budhan theatre, said that it was past midnight when he heard the sound of glass smashing. There were more than twenty police vehicles just outside his house and the police were throwing stones at houses. He also witnessed Dakxin Chhara, renowned theatre activist, being beaten up. The police also beat up Dakxin’s mother-in-law when he took shelter at her place.
Victims said that the police did not even let ambulances in during the violence. Calls made to the police control room reporting the violence were met with ‘we will look into it’ and no further action was taken. Atish’s bike was smashed by the police even as he told them, “I am an artist, not a thief.” This was seen reflected in the protest as well. Many placards stated the people’s professions to stressed the fact that the prejudice that Chharas were illegal liquor makers and thieves had to be broken. The campaign continued on social media as well.
Lawyers also held a protest by refusing to go to work at Ahmedabad Metropolitan Court and asked why their colleagues were arrested and charged with ‘rioting’. In addition to all this, Atish and the others were beaten up while they were in the police vehicle that took them to Sardarnagar police station. Upon reaching the station, he tried to file an FIR (First Information Report) against the police but they refused to do it.
The 20 people who were locked up in the station were given one bottle of water to drink. Atish said that he had to drink from the toilet because the police denied him water. Even though there was a body scanner, the police stripped the arrested people and examined them for weapons. “I am a theatre activist. I was arrested because I was documenting everything,” said Atish. If there was a tiff between two localites and the police, why was everyone being beaten up? he asked.
Even though the Act was repealed in 1952, Chharas are still considered criminals so much so that whenever a theft happens, police set off to Chharanagar and arrest people. Atish also asked how it was possible for the people who are engaged in theft or other such activities to stop doing it when the government was refusing to provide them jobs. “In spite of all of this, we do theatre. We even have a library,” he said.
Atish was one among the many who were charged with ‘loot’ (section 392). A total of 11 charges were slapped against the arrested that night. Among the communities that live around the area, the Dalits stand with the Chhara community in their fight for rights. “But, the Sindhis think we are thieves,” he said.
Pravin Indrekar, who is a photographer who works with the newspaper DNA, said that he was attacked when he was clicking photographs of the vehicles that the police had smashed. They later said that they were not aware that he was from the media. However, Pravin thinks that this assumption is highly improbable because everyone in the locality knew that he was in the media for the past fifteen years.
Pravin’s camera was broken and he also sustained a fracture in his left thumb and a crack below his elbow from the attack. His back was beaten black and blue with batons. He too was charged with loot.”We don’t know why these people nurture so much enmity against us. When our children get an education and grow up, the police don’t let them get ahead in life,” Pravin said. He explained that educated youngsters were regularly trapped by the police by charging false cases in a similar manner. “In spite of all this cruelty, when the police arrest someone who does illegal distillation or other crimes, others do not interfere because they know it is the police’s duty,” he said.
This kind of vengeful behaviour from the part of the police, however, is just one part of the discrimination the community faces. “When I tell people that my surname is Indrekar, they ask me, ‘So you are a Marathi?’ and I tell them, ‘No, I am a Chhara.’ “Then their attitude changes. The way they interact changes” Pravin said.