Until 1998. On May 26th that year, the passbook shows a deposit of Rs 14,943. Then, on November 2nd, Rs 28,231.33. Four days later, Rs 56,042.
How did Shyamoli go from depositing single rupees to tens of thousands?
Simple. The police beat her husband Budhan to death.
And those amounts were the compensation the Calcutta High Court ordered the Government of West Bengal to give to Shyamoli.
Shyamoli and Budhan are Kheria Sabars, a "denotified" tribe the British once classified as criminal and who are still seen that way. That one sentence is really all you need to understand what happened to this young couple.
But let me explain a bit more. On February 10 1998, Budhan and Shyamoli got on his bicycle. ("We were going to my mamasasur's [mother-in-law's brother] house in Barabazar," Shyamoli told me outside her hut in Akkarbaid). On the way, they stopped for a paan. Ashoke Roy of the Barabazar Police Station came up and took Budhan away on his motorcycle.
Over the next few days, the police beat Budhan savagely. On February 17th, he was dead. The police claimed he had hung himself in his jail cell that evening with his gamchha, or thin towel.
In July, Justice Ruma Pal of the Calcutta High Court delivered a judgement that tore the police version of Budhan's death to shreds. She had already directed the State to pay Shyamoli "ad-interim relief" of Rs 15,000. She directed a further payment of Rs 85,000. She also ordered a CBI investigation into Budhan's death, departmental proceedings against Roy and other officers, and that Roy must be transferred out of Purulia District.
Some months later, I visited Rajnowagarh and read some of the affidavits police officers had submitted in this case. Consider some of what I found.
On page 3 of his affidavit, Biplab Dasgupta, Purulia's Jail Superintendent, says that he left the jail at 6:07 pm on February 17th, reached home at 6:20 pm and was told about Budhan's death. He writes: "I rushed back to the jail and at about 6:25 pm I entered the jail ... [and] found the said Budhan Sabar lying on the floor [dead]."
On page 10 of the same affidavit, Dasgupta says "I saw the body at 6:18 pm on 17.2.98."
A seven minute time difference: you think it's hardly worth picking on. An understandable error, a mere typo? Well, read on, as I did.
In paragraph 3 of his affidavit, Syed Liakat Hossein, the Sub-Divisional Officer in Purulia, says: "I proceeded on 17th February 1998 [to the Jail] at 7:30 pm to inquire into the alleged suicidal death of ... Budhan Sabar."
In paragraph 4 (the very next paragraph), Hossein says: "I entered into the District Jail ... at 7:15 pm on 17th February 1998."
A 15 minute difference, here. But there's Hossein's Annexure "A", which says: "I proceeded to the District Jail, Purulia at 8:30 pm on 17.2.98 to enquire [sic] into the alleged suicidal death of ... Budhan Sabar."
There you are: one affidavit, one supposed event, three different times.
Kumaresh Roy, jailer, has a statement that begins: "While I was working in the office on the evening of 14.2.98 ... [I was informed] that [Budhan] committed suicide in cell."
Clearly Kumaresh Roy did not care to get even the date right.
And Ashoke Roy? In paragraph 4 of his affidavit, he says he picked up Budhan "in connection with Barabazar Police Station Case no. 37/97 dated 15.9.97."
In paragraph 10, Ashoke Roy says: "[Budhan] disclosed startling facts in connection with ... case no. 37/97 dated 5.9.97."
There you are: one affidavit, two different dates for Case no. 37 of 1997.
Typos? One, perhaps. Two, possibly. But this string of inconsistency? And Justice Pal found more mistakes still. For example, she comments:
- The police records do not show that Budhan was carrying a gamchha. [It was found] to be new. ... Where did the gamchha come from? It is true that in the column headed private property received with the prisoner it has been written: full pant, G. shirt, Punjabi and gamchha. But the word gamchha appears to have been subsequently inserted."
That Budhan was murdered was bad enough. Yet we know well about deaths in police custody and it doesn't bother us much. But the string of mistakes and inventions the police made in presenting their case to the Calcutta High Court speaks of something else altogether: an entire attitude towards the Sabars. These officers really did not think anyone would take the death of a mere Sabar seriously, and so their efforts to cover up would never be scrutinized. So why even bother to get the details -- times, dates, facts -- consistent?
Budhan's death was tragic. This arrogance is simply galling.
All this, actually by way of an introduction.
Budhan's sad story was turned into a stunning street play, Budhan, that I first saw performed in Bhopal some years ago. It was directed by a talented and spirited young man called Daxin Bajrange. He and the equally-talented cast are all Chharas, another once-"criminal" tribe, from Chharanagar in Ahmedabad; their theatre group calls itself Budhan Theatre.
I have to admit that when I spent time with these people, I didn't give them my full attention. Part of me kept wondering: what does it say about us that we are willing to so stigmatize entire communities? Yes, even today, Chharas face discrimination and prejudice much like Purulia's Sabars, or Maharashtra's Pardhis, do.
This is why I am so glad there is a new effort to focus attention on the way they live. Shashwati Talukdar and Kerim Friedman have put together a short film about Budhan Theatre, Acting Like a Thief. This is a "preview" of a larger film project they call Hooch and Hamlet in Chharanagar.
They need funds to finish the longer film. Please contribute. Maybe we will eventually have fewer widows who have sudden enormous deposits to make in their bank accounts.
Tarun Jain's short blurb about this effort, here.
Sonia Faleiro's fine report on her recent trip to Chharanagar, here.