Millions of Indians who were branded habitual offenders by law continue to die in custody
Members of the Budhan Theater perform a street play. (Photo courtesy budhantheatre.org)
Not every custodial torture and murder triggers a human rights movement that awakens the victim communities, especially when they happen to be the most vulnerable in a country like India.
But that is what happened in the case of Budhan Sabar, a 28-year-old member of the Kheria Sabar, an ex-criminal tribe in West Bengal’s Purulia district.
The criminalization of communities like the Kheria Sabar is credited by historians to the British colonial era when a large number of nomadic and artisan communities were declared ‘born criminal’ through the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871.
The Kheria Sabar is one among many communities that were notified as criminal tribes. Following India’s independence this injustice was sought to be corrected by a ‘denotification,’ which gave them a new name, denotified tribes (DNTs), but little else in the name of dignity, liberty, and justice enshrined in the Indian Constitution.
Budhan Sabar was tortured to death in police custody on Feb. 17, 1998, and he certainly was not the first and last victim of a state atrocity in the country.
Even today, data provided by India’s Federal Ministry of Home Affairs in Parliament last month, revealed that the number of deaths in police custody across the country has gone up nearly 60 percent over the last three years and 75 percent over the last two years.
"Many men, even women and minors, from the DNTs though continue to be picked up and tortured by the Indian police"
The number of such custodial deaths had declined over three successive years from 146 in 2017-18 to 136 in 2018-19, then to 112 in 2019-20, and further to 100 in 2020-21. But it rose sharply to 175 in 2021-22.
This official data paints a bleak picture of the state of affairs across the country. But then came the news on Feb. 20. A district court in Purulia had sentenced Ashok Roy, an official in charge of the police station where Budhan Sabar was killed, to 13 years of imprisonment.
Justice was finally done, even if nearly 25 years late, and Budhan Sabar’s poor family and community people expressed their satisfaction. The conviction of a police officer has certainly rekindled hope in the community after such a long wait for justice.
Many men, even women and minors, from the DNTs though continue to be picked up and tortured by the Indian police for suspected petty crimes like robberies and chain snatching, etc. because they were stamped as ‘habitual criminals’ by the British.
Budhan Sabar too was picked up by the local police of Purulia as a ‘suspect’ for allegedly looting a bus — some eight months after the crime was committed. However, the police could never prove his crime in court.
For three days he was tortured inside a lockup, where he was kept without food and water until he “confessed” the crime he never committed. Then the police announced he had committed suicide.
Budhan Sabar was, like his fellow tribespeople in Akarbaid village, a poor craftsman, an artist who would weave beautiful baskets from date palms.
His death would’ve gone unheard like so many others, then as also today, but for the intervention by West Bengal’s legendary social activist and celebrated writer, Late Mahasweta Devi, and well-known linguist and cultural activist, Professor Ganesh Devy.
Devy happened to be in Midnapur University the day he heard about Budhan Sabar’s death. He joined forces with Mahasweta Devi who approached the court demanding a second post-mortem. Her plea was granted and it was confirmed that it was indeed a case of custodial murder, not a suicide as the police wanted the family and community members to believe.
The chief justice of Calcutta High Court in the state directed the Central Forensic Science Laboratory to investigate the matter and submit a report, based on which the investigation was handed over to a federal investigation agency. Charges were laid in 2003 and the trial commenced until justice was done last month.
"The tragic death of Budhan Sabar became a rallying point — inspiring and awakening the communities across the nation"
Prashant Rakshit, a social activist and a key witness in the case who continues to work for the welfare of the Kheria Sabar community, acknowledged the role of Mahasweta Devi and Professor Ganesh Devy, who went on to form the DNTs Rights Action Group (DNT-RAG) to mobilize the suffering communities across the country.
The tragic death of Budhan Sabar became a rallying point — inspiring and awakening the communities across the nation, whether it was the Chharas in Gujarat, or Pardhis in Maharashtra — as per a government report, a total of 1,262 communities are identified as denotified, nomadic and semi-nomadic communities across the country.
Professor Ganesh Devy, who is a former teacher of English literature, continues to work for the communities. He started a magazine, named Budhan, and began collecting and publishing data, information, and stories of the DNTs until the National Human Rights Commission took notice.
In Gujarat’s principal city, Ahmedabad, he motivated a group of young Chharas to launch a street theater movement, also named Budhan, which continues to be active and stages the tragic story of Budhan Sabar.
The Indian government finally woke up to the woes of its lesser citizens and set up the National DNT Commission in 2006, which produced a report, leading to greater awareness of their rights and efforts to end the stigma attached to them.
The current government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi appointed a new commission and produced its own report, which is still gathering the dust.
Professor Ganesh Devy is hopeful; the latest judgment in the Budhan Sabar case will lead to reviving concern and action from the federal government.
Ahmedabad-based DNT activist and filmmaker, Dakxinkumar Bajrange, says: “Members of our communities still do not own land in India. We are literary footpath dwellers.”
He is the writer and director of the play on Budhan Sabar and feels satisfied now that he could keep the memories of the case alive through street and theater performances.
Calcutta-based lawyer, Advocate Pradip Roy, who served as the amicus curie in the case for the high court, feels although delayed, the court judgment holds a lesson for India’s rogue police officers. “They will be more cautious, and as a result, we expect fewer atrocities,” he says.
Certainly, there is renewed hope for members of the DNT communities, by some estimates 25 million people. Even in death, Budhan Sabar’s martyrdom will continue to inspire them to fight for justice.
*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.
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