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How nomadic communities bear the brunt of fictional fear mongering

More and more nomads are being depicted as gangs that steal children and rob homes, a portrayal that coincided with attacks on such groups.

india Updated: Oct 09, 2018 07:39 IST
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Sangeeta Bhosale mourns the death of her family members, who were killed by a mob suspecting them of being child kidnappers, in Maharashtra.(Satish Bate/HT Photo)

The Tamil film, Theeran Adhigaram Ondru, opens with a police inspector picking up an old case file in Walajapet, a town in Tamil Nadu’s Vellore district. As he goes over photographs in it, phrases such as “criminal tribe” and “dacoit gang” stand out. From there on, the film offers a narrative demonising a hooded gang, which controls snakes with magical powers and goes after children and the elderly. In some scenes, the villain is shown to be brutal, wielding spears, crow bars and handcrafted pistols on its target. Released in November, 2017, the film’s Telugu version, Khakhee, had a good run in theatres.

Soon, the Seer Marabinar Nala Sangam, or the Denotified Tribes Welfare Association (DTWA), a small body in Madurai, submitted a complaint. On December 5, 2017, M Pasumpon, DTWA’s co-ordinator, filed a petition before the Madurai bench of the Madras high court, asking the court to remove references to the criminal tribes, the thugs of the 1830s, and all derogatory references to the Vettaikarans, a nomadic community.

They also asked that 50% of the revenue of the film be redirected towards the welfare of the denotified tribes. The cast and crew of the film issued an apology within a couple of weeks, and agreed to delete certain scenes but the damage was already done. By the time the film became a hit in December 2017 in the south, there were calls from fans to remake the film in Hindi with actor Salman Khan.

SR Prabhu, the film’s producer, said he was surprised at the allegation that the movie may have spawned attacks on nomads. While admitting he deleted scenes in response to protests by the nomadic community, he denied a direct link. “Those attacks came from spontaneous WhatsApp messages and had nothing to do with the film,” he said.

While the case may have been settled, the long-term repercussions are still being felt by the nomadic community. They filed a petition with the then Madurai District Collector (currently collector of Ramnad district), K Veeraraghav Rao, who had, during his tenure, been supportive of the nomads’ efforts for state recognition. However, they lacked the legal knowhow to follow up the matter in court for themselves. Since the film didn’t affect too many other people, it’s been long forgotten by most except the nomads themselves.

“We started to see the impact on the streets right away. We began to be treated with fear wherever we went. It has affected our livelihood,” says Rajangam Raj, founder of The Empowerment Centre of Nomads and Tribes (Tent) Society in Madurai.

The apology fell short, he says because the film fired the imagination of the people against nomads in various ways. It reinforced the belief in the magical powers of nomads, who made a living off fortune telling and snake charming.

It built a fear of the wanderer, as someone who could not be caught, located, or held accountable. Rather than seeing the mobility of the nomad as a struggle — it deprives them of the right to identity, land, settlement, education — it portrayed these lacks as choices made to escape the law and a voluntary engagement with crime.

While the Denotified Tribes in Tamil Nadu receive benefits, many nomadic tribes still remain unclassified and unlisted. At a conference in Mother Theresa Women’s University in Kodaikanal in 2017, Bhiku Ramji Idate, commissioner of the National Commission for the Nomadic, Semi Nomadic and Denotified Tribes, declared Tamil Nadu did not have denotified and nomadic tribes any longer, but rather three denotified communities.

Veeraraghav Rao did manage to help some members of the nomadic groups get houses and community certificates during his tenure, but since many groups are not on the official state lists, allotments and schemes are not made available to them.

Rajangam believes the omitting of several thousands of nomads is based on a lack of data and research as the nomadic communities have never been part of any census. He estimates five lakh nomadic tribesmen in Tamil Nadu across twenty nomadic communities. Similar numbers are estimated in Maharashtra and Gujarat.

The fictional fear mongering adds to the very real repercussions for the dislocated on the ground. From December onwards, more and more rumours of the nomads operating as a gang to steal children and rob homes began to circulate, say the nomads of Madurai. The rumours against child lifters were most prominent in the south. While the campaign began by building sentiments against nomads, who do not speak the local languages, it also affected the migrants.

In early February 2018, in Kozhikode, rumours began to swirl that all beggars were part of a mafia. Two women from a nomadic tribe travelling in an autorickshaw, in search of work, were stopped and beaten up in Seethamgoli near Kumbala. The incident was repeated in Alampadi. In February 2018, in Palakkad district, Kerala, an adivasi youth, Madhu Chindaki, was killed by a mob of young men who accused him of stealing valuables from a house and then clicked selfies with him before beating him to death.

In April, a 30-year old was killed in Parasurampatti in Gudiyatham town, Vellore. In May 2018, a 55-year-old woman on a pilgrimage was killed in Athimoor village, and, in the same month, another was killed in Telangana’s Jiyapalli.

K Eswara Rao, the DSP of Eluru in West Godavari district, Andhra Pradesh, was forced to call a press conference to ask people not to believe that the nomadic gangs would harvest the organs of children in May 2018. “No such incidents have taken place in Andhra Pradesh and in neighbouring states. I would request people not to believe such rumours,” he said. By June, the panic had spread north, to Chandangaon and Chawani in Aurangabad. Five members of the nomadic Nath Panthi Davari Gosavi community were lynched in Dhule district. In July, a man from Bihar was beaten up in Thiruvalluvar district.

While the Nath Panthis do speak Marathi, several of the nomadic communities in the region, such as the Lambadis, who wander from Maharashtra down to Tamil Nadu, also speak the languages of the bordering states, or even dialects which include words of Sanskrit and Gujarati or Rajasthani origin. The unfamiliarity with the nomadic tongue has been the primary point of identification of the other, stirring up the anti-nomadic sentiment and presenting them as outsiders.

The film, Theeran, capitalised on this dissimilarity to stir the them-versus- us sentiment and to portray the outsiders as villains and thugs. Across the country, from Madurai to Dhule, the nomadic tribes have stopped going out. They now risk starvation, with many reduced to a single meal a day, and indebtedness.

While the lynching of members of religious groups tends to garner some support from activists, the nomads find little protection. The chairman of the National Commission, Bhiku Ramji Idate, has repeatedly stated that the approximately 40,000 complaints made by various nomadic communities have been compiled but until actionable state panels are set up, the commission remains a toothless body.

CK Janu, tribal activist from Kerala’s Wayanad district, says this flagellation of adivasis as outsiders, also serves political ends. Adivasis need to be given land, a place to settle and jobs. They have reached a point where they have no food to eat left in the forests and are being displaced. So they are forced to leave their areas and wander to beg or to seek employment in other areas. Beating them up as outsiders happens because they are easy prey and it allows local thugs and politicians to build the image of protecting local interests, she says.

First Published: Oct 09, 2018 07:38 IST