April 25, 2010

It's the gait

Many years ago I won a one-year fellowship to do some writing on denotified (or ex-"criminal") tribes in this country. Big eye-opener in lots of ways, that year. It resulted in several articles, an award for my writing and eventually my first book, Branded by Law (Penguin India, 2001).

Apart from the travel I did to meet members of these tribes that year, I spent long hours in the Asiatic Library in Bombay, digging through old journals and books for material about the tribes. And I got plenty.

Today, it's gratifying to find that some of what I wrote (both that I found in those journals and that I wrote off the top of my head) gets quoted every now and then.

For example, there's last year's Section 377 judgement (PDF 400K), which on page 42 quotes my mention of something Jawaharlal Nehru said.

And there's the intriguing phrase I ran across in Volume XII of the 1880 Bombay Presidency Gazette. Of Phase Pardhis, one of these denotified tribes, the Gazette writer wrote that they are "nearly always ragged and dirty, walking with a sneaking gait."

Not a bad example of prejudice in the mind, I always thought, to accuse an entire community of "walking with a sneaking gait."

Anyway, since I first used it in one of my fellowship articles, in December 1998, that phrase seems to have caught the imagination of others too. For example, it's on a Wikipedia page. And a couple of days ago, it appeared in an article in the Economist (thanks, N and S, for the alerts).

I hope the Economist article helps put the spotlight on the burden of prejudice these people carry, still exemplified by that 130 year-old comment.

Finally, if I had the fellowship today instead of those years ago, I may not need to go hunting in the Asiatic Society. Maybe I could have simply done some digging on the Web.

Question: Would I have found a OCRed version of the 1880 Gazette online?

Answer: Yes. Do a search for "sneaking" to locate the phrase. Read some of what's on the page to understand why I might go to the Asiatic anyway. Pliis.

And you're right: I only wrote this post to pat myself on the back.


Anonymous said...

No doubt the Pardhis walk with their own particular gait as determined by their genetics, culture, nutrition, footwear etc. It's the observer who interprets this as inimical to his interests -- hence the "sneaking" characterisation. This is also a modern phenomena and hence the relevance of your post. Well done! If you feel those anonymous (sneaking) pats on the back, they are from me.

Suresh said...

Check out the following news report which appears on chennaionline.com:


The short news report from Betul (Madhya Pradesh) is pasted below. (Dilip, I suspect this will violate some copyright regulation or the other so please edit this comment as you see fit.)

Pardhi community members, most of them women and children, have threatened to commit suicide en masse due to their miserable plight after their houses were torched by a mob two years ago.

The nomadic tribe people have sought mercy killing permission from Madhya Pradesh Governor Rameshwar Thakur.

"The women and children of the community, living in relief camps have handed over a memorandum, addressed to the Governor and to the Sub-Divisional Magistrate Sanjeev Shrivastava, seeking permission for mercy killing," Sangeeta Pardhi, a community member said today.

The community members had staged a sit-in near Collector's office here yesterday.

The mob had in September, 2007 torched the houses of the Pardhi tribe suspecting that the nomadic tribe was behind the alleged rape and killing of a woman at Chouthia village in Multai tehsil.