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Creators, Not ‘Criminals’: Children of Denotified Kuravar Tribe Speak Through Art

Today – August 31, 2021 – is the 69th year of India’s Denotified Tribes observing their Liberation Day. But the stigmatisation of Tamil Nadu’s Kuravars as ‘criminal’ and the police atrocities against them continue unabated. Now, a community art school is taking Kuravar children on a journey to reclaim their identity. 

This article honours the memory of I. Pandiyan, of the Witness for Justice programme in Tamil Nadu, who not only defended members of the marginalised Kuravar community as an advocate but also helped build a potent idea of resistance through art among the younger generation. Tragically, he passed away last month.   

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On a sweltering summer night in 1991, the life of 11-year-old Nagappan from Manojpetti village in Tamil Nadu’s Thanjavur district, changed forever. 

That night, Nagappan along with his parents and two siblings, was waiting at an empty bus stop. They were on their way to a wedding. A police jeep pulled up, the policemen pushed the entire family into the vehicle and took them to a police station close by. 

They mercilessly beat up Nagappan’s father, Kaliappan (53 at the time), wanting him to confess to a crime of theft. Kaliappan refused because he knew nothing about the crime. 

Then, the young, school-going Nagappan, a promising student, was tortured until his father agreed to sign the false confession. The boy was also falsely accused of theft. “He was kept illegally in police custody, tortured and released a few weeks later,” said his relative Thambi.

Over the last three decades, Nagappan’s life has been hollowed out by the burden of 35 criminal cases, illegal detentions for months at a time, and constant hounding and torture by the Tamil Nadu police (using the brutal Raattinam method of keeping a person hanging upside down). The 42-year-old has spent four years, nine months and two days in jail for crimes he did not commit.

This repeated persecution was brought on by Nagappan’s identity. He belongs to the de-notified Kuravar tribe (DNT) of Tamil Nadu (also known as the Kuravan tribe) – one of many tribes “notified” as a “criminal tribe” by the colonial state, and de-notified in independent India.

However, denotification has barely led to a mainstream recognition of Kuravar people as equal citizens. The violent stigmatisation and targeting of the tribe by the criminal justice system, in particular the police, has continued for over a century now.  

As the National Commission for Scheduled castes (NCSC) noted in its 2016 report, Report on Police Atrocities against Kuravan Community, every Kuravar individual runs the risk of being booked in an average of five criminal cases in his or her  lifetime.

Between 2002 and 2014, Nagappan was booked by the Tamil Nadu Police in 33 criminal cases of theft and robbery. Acquitted in nine false cases, he has been awaiting trial in eight others for over 18 years. 

It was only when his case was highlighted by the NCSC report that he was released from custody and awarded a compensation of Rs. 45,000 and a motorcycle by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC). 

But, despite the NCSC report’s observation that 18 years of undue police harassment had cost him his livelihood and mental peace, he was arrested in February 2021 on yet another theft charge, and released on bail last month. 

Captain Durai, a Kuravar community elder and retired Port Trust employee, remarked, “The police arrested him to send out a clear message – the deliverance of justice insults them, and no one, not even the NCSC can interfere in their ‘functioning’. Without exception, they want to make the ‘criminal’ tag stick on innocent Kuravar people.”

The rot within the police

The NCSC report provides details of many cases of the rights of Kuravars being violated with impunity – Palaniyammal, arrested on false charges of theft and drug peddling charges, was tortured by the police until she lost the child in her womb; Ananthi, arrested on a single theft charge, was sexually assaulted by policemen who poured chilli powder on her private parts while penetrating her with a lathi.

Elderly Kuravar women in Madurai speak about their problems. Photo: Sukanya Roy

Kuravar children are not spared either. Manigandan (13), from Virudhunagar district, detained on an alleged theft charge, was kept locked up in a lodge, where the police tortured him by pulling out his nails, one by one, with a cutting blade. Manigandan was forced to drop out from school as a result of this abuse. The criminal case filed against him stopped him from studying further. 

Pandiyan, Executive Director of the Witness for Justice programme, run by the People’s Organisation for People’s Education, spent the last eight years  tenaciously fighting false cases against Kuravars in his capacity as an advocate. According to him, the NCSC report’s estimate of the average number of cases that a Kuravar individual runs the risk of being booked for was “a modest estimate”. 

“In my own experience, each person has at least 15 cases slapped on them. The easy way to solve any unsolved crime is to arrest a Kuravar,” he said. 

The lawyer explained that the modus operandi of the police is astonishingly simple. FIRs are printed without the accused’s name. The Kuravar name is included in the chargesheet, with the police saying it came up during the investigation. 

The mere presence of a Kuravar individual in the vicinity of the crime is proof enough for arrest. Even their absence from the crime scene is not a deterrent, as the police conducts midnight raids to arbitrarily arrest Kuravar men from their houses. 

“At night we sleep in a forest, two or three kilometres away from our house, because the police have frequently entered our home and arrested us under the cover of darkness. For 13 whole years I have been doing this, along with the other men in my family. We can’t sleep in our own house”, said 25-year-old Muthu, who hails from the same village as Nagappan (Manojpetti in Thanjavur district).

Mostly, “the police arrest them just because they are Kuravars. They are seen as hardened criminals,” Pandiyan said. Reportedly, such targeted arrests are said to play an important role in “advancing” the careers of Tamil Nadu police personnel, fetching them rewards and promotions. 

From self-reliance to criminalisation-at-birth 

It was not always like this. The Kuravar tribe once lived a life of prosperity and self-reliance, finding mention as early as in Sangam literature (300 BCE – 300 CE)

Sociologist Meena Radhakrishna’s work, Dishonoured by History: Criminal tribes and British Colonial Policy, mentions that the Kuravar tribe’s origins can be traced to Andhra Pradesh. Traditionally engaged in the trade of salt and coriander, they were exceptionally skilled in making bamboo baskets, brooms and mats. 

A nomadic tribe that travelled across Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, the Kuravars bartered salt for foodgrains and pulses, thereby serving as a link between coastal tribes and sedentary communities in villages. 

According to Pandiyan, “Kuravar women would also be called upon to conduct ear-piercing ceremonies of caste-Hindu women. Their skills were respected and required.” 

The Criminal Tribes Act (CTA) was formulated in 1871 by the colonial government to police “any tribe, gang or class of persons” who were “addicted to the systematic commission of non-bailable offences”. Around 198 tribes and castes in British India were identified and placed under the ambit of this law, and termed “criminal tribes”. 

This Act was extended to the Madras Presidency in 1911, where it listed 48 tribes, including the Kuravars. Their nomadism connoted a morally unprincipled lifestyle to the colonial rulers – a “deviance” they sought to penalise through law. 

The CTA gave sweeping powers to local government officials in dealing with the “criminal tribes”. A register of each individual was maintained, their movements were curbed and they had to routinely present themselves at the police station. Their houses were searched randomly and arrests were made in case liquor or knives or playing cards were found. The State even exercised the discretion to shift entire families to “reformatory” settlements, or take a child away from their “criminal” parents.

Delhi-based lawyer Disha Wadekar, who has handled several cases for persons from DNT communities, pointed out, “The Act was a one-of-a-kind law in the world, since it could criminalise someone at birth. A person was arrested not after following due process, but simply on the basis of precedent and suspicion.” 

Post-independence: liberation in letter but not in spirit

The CTA was repealed on August 31, 1952, and the “criminal tribes” were de-notified. The day is marked by Denotified Tribes and Communities (DNT-DNC) as Vimukta Jati Diwas (Liberated People’s Day). According to the Renke Commission (2008) report, as many as 15 crore Indians belong to Nomadic, Semi-Nomadic and Denotified Tribes.

However, the repeal of the CTA was followed by the enactment of the Habitual Offender’s Act (HOA) in 1952 itself. Tamil Nadu’s HOA, called the Restriction of Habitual Offenders Act (1948), is a replica in spirit of the earlier CTA, although, in letter, it shifts the burden of criminality to individuals. 

To the question “who might these individuals be,” Pandiyan replied, “Obviously, it would be a person who already has a history-sheet (a list of offences registered against a person) compiled under the CTA, meaning individuals from DNT-DNC groups. The HOA criminalises the same people under a new garb.” 

An advisory group set up by the NHRC in 1998 had strongly recommended repealing the HOA, but its misuse continues. Apart from this Act, DNC-DNTs are also charged under the Forest Act, Beggary Act, Arms Act, and Goonda Act, among others.  

The perpetuation of the branding of Kuravars as criminals from birth by the State’s institutional machinery in colonial and post-independence India has vitiated the mindset of the police and wider society with regards to them. It has provided implicit sanction to, and normalised custodial violence and other kinds of police atrocities against Kuravars. 

In 2020, a WhatsApp message was circulated in Tamil Nadu, openly branding Kuravars as thieves and asking the public to be on guard. The message was accompanied by a photograph of a police official of the rank of Deputy Superintendent of Police.  

The WhatsApp message from the police department that went viral on social media (photographs covered to protect identity).

Pandiyan mentioned that he “took the matter up with the concerned official who said that he had dictated a message to caution the public to be on guard against thieves generally, not Kuravars specifically.” Somewhere down the line, the message was distorted. 

The British project of persecuting “criminal” tribes also relied heavily on the indoctrination of DNT-DNC children with propaganda against their own community. 

In her book Radhakrishna mentions some poems that were taught by The Salvation Army to children from “criminal tribes” relocated to the Stuartpuram settlement camp. ‘The Crim [criminal] as we Find Him in the Telegu (sic) Country,’ goes thus: 

Come listen to me for a moment or more,

For I am a ‘crim’, yes, I am a ‘crim’;

There are records against me, yes, more than a score,

I belong to the criminal kind.

I live by plundering other men’s goods, (…)

My home is in the jungle way off in the woods (…)

I watch out for travellers ‘long lonely bye roads (…)

And many a ‘hold up’ I’ve done on the road,

That’s the life of the criminal kind. 

Pandiyan, who had seen a generation of adult Kuravars weighed down by false cases, was driven by one concern: to protect pre-teen and teen Kuravar children from being drawn into this vicious cycle of being targeted by the police. 

Also read: For the Kuravars of Tamil Nadu, Custodial Violence is a Way of Life. And Death

Members of Witness for Justice felt the need for an initiative that had the potential to transform the degraded image of Kuravar children in the eyes of the local police and caste-Hindu society. That was how the idea of a community art school for Kuravar children was born.

Creating an alternative pedagogical universe for Kuravar children 

The Children’s Resource Centre (CRC) emerged as a platform in January 2021 to enable Kuravar children to express themselves and to amplify their voices of resistance through art and creative expression. At present there are two centres in Madurai district and five in Thanjavur.

“The CRC is not a school per se; it is more of a collaborative space. Earlier we used to run it under a tree or in someone’s courtyard, but recently the local government helped us build a brick structure,” Pandiyan said. 

He talked about the activities at the centres: “Our facilitators, who are currently enrolled in college, encourage the children to draw and paint, make origami toys, take photographs, and enact plays. This is apart from helping them with reading and writing, basic math and science. They also discuss the news and other local issues.”

A group of Kuravar children excitedly display their origami creations at the children’s resource centre. Photo: Sukanya Roy

The facilitators are first-generation learners, mostly young women from the Kuravar community itself. Pandiyan believed that they would serve as role models for the children. “All of them have had a particularly adverse childhood, seen their parents in and out of jail, and yet sustained their education. The children can relate fully to them,” he said.

Hema (19), a facilitator, narrated her story: “My father suffered police torture. I had to drop out of school due to the humiliation and financial burden. My mother consumed poison and killed herself. She even gave some to me, but by God’s grace I am alive.” Being a facilitator has enabled her to provide the children with emotional and moral support – something she lacked while growing up, she added.

Formal education has proved severely alienating for Kuravar children. They are unable to attend online classes as they cannot afford smartphones and laptops. Even when school was offline, they were routinely humiliated and taunted by their peers for being “criminal”. 

Talking about her experience of school, Brammahstab (19), a facilitator at one of the CRCs in Thanjavur, said “I used to feel traumatised attending school. The teachers would say I could never get ahead in life because I am Kuravar. My upper-caste classmates would jeer at me.”

She has painful memories of the police often coming to school to “pick up” the children of Kuravar adults who had been taken into custody, further embarrassing them in front of others.

Untouchability is also a common experience for Kuravar students. Sanjitha (12), who goes to the same CRC in Thanjavur, told me excitedly, “I shared a paintbrush with Priyadarshini during the workshop. This has never happened before! Now she is my friend.” 

Priyadarshini was a girl from an “upper caste” who would typically not smile at or talk to Kuravar children, like most Savarna children. “In the workshops, we invite children from all castes to create art together. They share a paintbrush, sit next to each other and eat from one plate” said Pandiyan. 

To pique the interest of Savarna children and facilitate interaction across caste boundaries, CRCs include activities not offered by formal schools. “In their childish excitement, Savarna children forget to worry about their hands brushing against Kuravar children while figuring out how to use a DSLR camera,” he remarked.

Kumutha, a social justice advocate coordinating the CRCs, stated that the drop-out rate in formal schooling is very high amongst Kuravar children: “When the parents are kept in custody for months together, they are forced to stay at home to look after their younger siblings, which puts an end to their studies.” Often, severe police torture renders the adults disabled, and children start earning for the family, working as child labour or migrant labour.

Sometimes, parents have to take drastic decisions to ensure that their children get a formal education. When Muthu from Manojpetti village wanted to pursue his Bachelor’s degree in botany several years ago, his father decided to send him away so that he could do that – just so he could escape being picked up by the police on false charges. He was illegally detained for the first time when he was 12, although no case was filed against him. 

Art as a tool to reclaim community identity

The emotive paintings created by the children in a recent workshop held by the Children’s Resource Centre. (Right) A child excitedly shows off his hand print made on a plaster of paris base. Photo: Sukanya Roy

Witness for Justice plans to exhibit the children’s artworks to sensitise people in local positions of power towards their struggles. “We want to invite the Panchayat Sarpanch, schoolteachers, members of the District Child Protection Unit (DCPO), Social Welfare Department officials, as well as the local press,” Pandiyan said. 

Chokammal, a child counsellor who was associated with the project for some time in 2021 stressed that an alternate pedagogy focused on art and culture is crucial to the Kuravar children’s emotional development. 

“I observed that most of the children were too “mature” for their age. The severe trauma of being socially shunned and humiliated, as well as fending for their families, has made them grow up before their time. Art can help them process these difficult emotions and not repress them,” she explained.

Pandiyan pointed to the overwhelming use of three colours in the children’s paintings – khaki, red and black.  When he asked the children about it, they said that the khaki shade stood for the police uniform, red symbolised blood, and black was a sign of gloom.

In the words of Dakxin Chhara, an award-winning filmmaker from the Denotified Chhara tribe of Gujarat, even though the content of an artwork may be “depressing”, the artist feels hopeful, having shared his or her vision with the world. 

Filmmaker Dakxin Chhara. Photo courtesy of his blog.

Chhara’s own life is testimony to the struggle against State violence on DNTs. In 2018, around 300 policemen barged into the homes of tribals in Chharanagar and perpetrated mass assault. 

“No one can speak for you, only you can. I strongly believe that if I hadn’t found art as my guiding light, I too would be rotting in prison,” he stressed. Through art, Chhara could escape not only the literal bars of jail, but the shackles of social stigma as well. As the Artistic Director at Budhan Theatre, a community theatre group that has been training actors from the Chhara community, he is taking the cause of DNT liberation forward. The same sense of hope animates the CRC project as well.

The smiles say it all: children stand with the plaster of paris moulds they have made of each other’s faces. The activity has a symbolic meaning as well: in “taking off the masks, they are rejecting the mainstream “masking” of their true personas. Photos: Sukanya Roy

State apathy towards Kuravars pervades law and policy

However, the committed social activists who initiated the CRC programme know what they are up against, for the deeply lacerating collective experience of being criminalised and violated has passed down from one generation of Kuravars  to the next, and is imprinted on their memories and bodies.

Indian criminal law has sorely failed to recognise the specific nature of crimes committed against DNT-DNC groups. The Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Prevention of Atrocities Act, 1989, does not redress the unique nature of their rights violations. A separate atrocity act specifically for DNT-DNCs is needed.

Wadekar threw light on this issue: “Atrocities against SCs are committed with a very specific awareness of caste location, by non-state groups or individual citizens. But the DNTs are targeted by the State and the police, entire political systems.  It’s not about one person or ten people.”

She pointed out that just as Savarna communities can easily ask for police protection against individuals, so can Dalits and Adivasis with the PoA Act, at least theoretically. “But what happens when the State itself is the perpetrator? What law will DNT-DNC people turn to? How do they ask for protection from the “protector,” the police?” she asked.

Another facet of the betrayal of the State post-independence has been the failure to provide Kuravars with correct documentation which is crucial for availing the benefits of social welfare schemes.

M. Jegannathan, founder president of the National Kurinjiar Social Justice Peravai (NKSP), an organisation fighting for the political rights of Kuravars, sketched out the existing scenario. “Kuravars fall under different categories in Tamil Nadu itself. Malai Kuravars are counted as ST, Gandarvakottai Kuravars as DNC, and Nari Kuravars as SC! Moreover, an SC Kuravar from Madurai may fall under the DNC category in Thanjavur,” he said.

The aforementioned 2008 Renke Commission report had also written about the pervasive problem of wrong or non-classification of several hundred DNC-DNT groups: “(…) different generations of [the] same community have been issued different community certificates, for example in Tamil Nadu, (…) the grandfather was holding a certificate of SC community while the father was given ST certificate and the son had a certificate of Denotified Community.”

In 2015, the Idate Commission was set up to rectify this problem, but was denied sufficient funds by the Union Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment to conduct a pan-India field survey. The report had to rely mainly on secondary data to present its findings.

The NKSP is fighting for the consolidation of all 27 sub-groups of Kuravars into Scheduled Tribe (ST) status so that the Kuravars can avail education opportunities and jobs smoothly, as well as get significant benefits in budgetary allocations. An analysis of the Union government’s annual budgets of the past five years has highlighted a continuous under-utilisation of funds reserved exclusively for DNC-DNT welfare. 

Jegannathan also mentioned that when a Kuravar person is convicted under their first false case, the police usually confiscate their identity proofs and refuse to return it. 

It is a concern voiced by Wadekar as well, “In the protests against the CAA-NRC, people were talking about the threat to Muslims, SCs, and rightfully so. But the narrative about DNC-DNTs was absent! In their case, too, the State is refusing to see 15% of its population as citizens.”

A group of Kuravars in Manojpetti village standing with activists from Witness for Justice in Thanjavur. Photo: Sukanya Roy

Forced nomadism in today’s times

The present-day nomadism of DNC-DNTs is mostly not voluntary. “People casually say, ‘Oh! I’m a gypsy, a nomad!’ They are not aware of the pain and persecution this term brings with itself,” Wadekar remarked.

The neoliberal economy has made the generational knowledge and skills of DNC-DNTs redundant, ousted them from their own lands, and forced them to migrate in search of work to places where they have no community support. 

The people seen selling roses at traffic signals in big cities are actually Pardhis, the young girls performing tricks on ropes in big and small towns are Nats, the women working as construction labour are mostly Banjaras, said Wadekar. 

“Inspite of their unique histories and skills, caste-Hindu society sees them as beggars or thieves. Seven decades after Independence, this country is still not theirs,” she added.

Countering historical amnesia

The erasure of the rich histories of Denotified tribes continues, as the colonial masters have been replaced by the pillars of caste society. 

That is why, Dakxin Chhara articulated, “there is a political aspiration implicit in our art – that of countering historical amnesia.” In fact, Budhan theatre was formed to honour the memory of Budhan Sabar, a member of the De-Notified Sabar Tribe in West Bengal, who was murdered by the Police in 1998. 

“In 2021, we still perform in Budhan’s name to assert that a history in which our ancient tribes are invisibilised and criminalised, cannot be the collective history of India,” the filmmaker asserted. 

That is what lends gravity to the Kuravar children’s tryst with art. Their artworks courageously express not just the struggles of their own lives but also of their ancestors. They compel you to ‘see’ them and their subjectivities, rendered invisible by the violence of the State’s institutional mechanisms. 

Their voices are slowly filtering out the raging silence of the past as they, quite literally, create history in the present.

Sukanya Roy is a freelance journalist based out of New Delhi. She tweets at @_aynakus_.