Born Vimukta

Vira mine, somebody hews your hill, re
Vira mine, somebody sucks your sea, re
Rivers and forests once mine, air my refuge, re
Gone now are my name and my village, re
Citizen of this country, I am Adivasi, re

“India is the only country in the world where a part of the population celebrates its independence twice over,” says Dakxin Bajrange. He refers to the second day of independence celebrated by Denotified Tribes (DNTs) across the country on 31 August. On this day in 1952, the communities that had been for so long called ‘Criminal Tribes’ were ‘denotified’ and the colonial-era Criminal Tribes Act was repealed. Dakxin belongs to the Chhara tribe that is settled in Gujarat’s Ahmedabad. He is a social activist, a film director and a playwright, and along with his comrades in Chharanagar he runs the Budhan Theatre—a community theatre run by DNT activists, actors and performers.

Dakxin is also the co-editor of Navayana’s latest title, Vimukta: Freedom Stories. Henry Schwarz, a professor of English at Georgetown University, and a long-term collaborator of Dakxin’s, is the other editor. Vimukta is a collection of disparate voices, united by the same demand—liberation. It is a first-of-its-kind compilation of personal testimonies, everyday struggles, plays, fictional pieces and case studies from the lives of DNT people.

The struggle began way back in the aftermath of the Revolt of 1857. Britain was the undisputed master of the subcontinent and it didn’t want any more mutinies on its hand. Its new subjects, however, were a multitudinous group difficult to legislate. Thus began the massive exercise of classifying and demarcating every group along the lines of the still powerful Brahmanical caste ideology. Sedentary life was seen as ‘normal’, and all behaviours, including criminality, were declared as hereditary. Thus was born the Criminal Tribes Act in 1871. A host of communities became suspect: including shepherds, itinerant musicians, dramatic performers and acrobats, minstrels, astrologers and genealogists, holy men, saints and philosophers, and a variety of legitimate tradespeople and carriers who brought skills and commodities from village to village. Now marked as Criminal Tribes, these groups were demonised, locked up in prison-like settlements, constantly surveilled and turned into a ready-made, cheap labour force.

After the independence, the Criminal Tribes Act was repealed. But it soon returned in the form of the Habitual Offenders Act. Denotified communities continue to languish in falsely constructed identities, they are brutalised by the justice system, are still seen as ‘born criminals’, and abused by a system that offers no hope. Having rechristened themselves as Vimukta jatis, they are reclaiming their dignity. This anthology bears testimony to their novel invocations of Vimukta struggle.

The song in the video trailer has been rendered by Anish Garange, Chetna Rathod and Vikas Bhogekar of Bhudhan Theatre.