November 20, 2005

Passbook entries

There is an interesting sequence of entries in a bank passbook I once saw in Purulia District, West Bengal. Shyamoli Sabar, a young woman from the hamlet of Akkarbaid, has an account in the Mallabhum Gramin Bank in nearby Rajnowagarh. She started it on June 17, 1994, depositing Rs 40. Six months later, she made her second deposit: ten rupees. Over the next four years, she deposited such amounts as one rupee, three rupees, ten rupees. Only once did she manage to put in as much as Rs 50.

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.


Abi said...

Thanks, Dilip, for writing about one of the 'denotified tribes', and giving the background behind Kerim and Shashwati's short film.

TTG: Among the many incentives, how about this one: simply letting the real criminal off. You go through the charade of picking up some poor bloke for questioning. This bloke belongs to a 'criminal' tribe and he 'commits suicide' while in custody. Guilt proven. Case closed.

Mridula said...

Gory beyond belief.

thalassa_mikra said...

This is just terrible, but at least there was some recognition that there was travesty of justice. I do not understand how the police officers can be let off with such light punishments.

In the name of addressing questions of class, a lot of other issues have been completely marginalized. The status of Bengal's tribal populations is one of them.

Dilip D'Souza said...

TTG, Abi offered you an answer. Let me expand on that.

The police are under constant pressure to produce results. In Budhan's case, there was a bus robbery (Roy's case 37/97) in which the passengers were robbed of watches and money. Such victims demand action, and the police feel that pressure. So they often take the easy way out: pick up some random person, beat a confession out of him and proclaim that they have solved the case. Even better if that person happens to be from a tribe everyone thinks is "criminal" -- then you can simply say, as police officials say to this day, that hey, what's to be done, these people have a propensity to commit crime.

This thinking goes back a long time; it helps explain why the British institutionalised the whole idea of criminal tribes in the first place.

The idea is not that unusual, not just something that happens in far off Purulia. A man who used to be Bombay's police Commissioner once told me that whenever there was a theft in some Bombay flat, the owner would tell the cops, just take our servants to the police station and beat them up.

Such phrases as "questioned the prisoner", "encounter deaths", "custody deaths" -- these tell the story of what really happens with investigations by the police, most of the time.

Mikra, light punishments yes, but that's the norm. It is extremely difficult to get a policeman punished, among other things because you have to apply for government sanction to do it. In Budhan's case, I don't know what happened afterwards. I should find out.

Anonymous said...

" just take our servants to the police station and beat them up" - absolutely. I had written about my maid who is a Bangladeshi immigrant. and her husband (along with other such immigrants) get picked up for questioning whenever there is a theft around the area. and we have been warned not to employ them and so on. and recently he has been sent to jail for being an illegal immigrant where he rots waiting for trail which may take years to come thru.

Dilip, have you actually seen the short film? I had written to you about it long ago.

Dilip D'Souza said...

Charu, so you had, and I'm sorry, I thought I had replied. You were the first to alert me to it.

I haven't seen the film, but I've ordered a DVD of it and it should arrive in a few weeks. I hope to go to Chharanagar for a few days when Kerim and Shashwati are there for their followup shooting, let's see.

Roxy Gagdekar said...

budhantheatre(Roxy)-Thank you dilip for helping to raise the voice of DNTs. People like you could definetely be helpful for a positive Change among the DNTs of India. I may inform you that kerim and Shaswati are in Chharanagr now busy with their shooting on Budhan theatre. We would be glad to welcome you in Chharanagar. They(kerim and Shaswati)are working very hard on this project.

Dilip D'Souza said...

Roxy, good to hear from you. Can you send me a phone number -- email me at ddd AT rediff DOT co DOT in. Would like to look into coming there, possibly early Jan.