India is a diverse country of varied heritage where Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and Christians live in peace and harmony; this is an oft heard refrain. But did it ever occur to us that in this country there are other identities that are not Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and Christians? Tribal groups, low castes and host of other subalterns do not fit the broad categorization mentioned above. They are so isolated from us socially and politically that one never has any idea about their existence and their miserable plight. Crushed by grinding poverty and the caste system, their voice barely reaches our cities – big and small – where all the power is concentrated.
The Branded: Uchalya is the eye-opening autobiography of Laxman Gaikwad, translated from the original Marathi by P A Kolharkar. Gaikwad belongs to the community of Uchalya/Pathruts, a tribe notified by the British Raj as criminal under the Criminal Tribes’ Act, first passed in 1871 (but now denotified). They generally engage in odd jobs that are seasonally available. Due to crushing poverty and the stigma of belonging to a ‘criminal’ community, the tribesmen of Laxman Gaikwad has no choice but to resort to stealing or theft. Gaikwad tells the story of his early life along with the people and the significant others who surrounded and shaped him. Gaikwad prefers his book to be read from a sociological perspective rather than a literary one.
Gaikwad’s community involved themselves in pick-pocketing because the caste-ridden hierarchy had rejected this group and consigned them to live as animals. Every novitiate ‘thief’ is initiated into the art of stealing. Since a gang member should not reveal his accomplices to the police, a novice is deliberately subjected to severe beatings that make them ‘immune’ to police torture. Gaikwad gives a terrifying picture of such an initiation. The Bharat blade used to cut the pockets is always worshipped like a deity before a thieving expedition because it provided them their livelihood.
Gaikwad gives a crude and at times graphic description of the pitiable condition that he and his extended family had to endure, the difficulties his family faced to get proper meals and how they were beaten, harassed and hounded and their women molested (generally on false pretense) by the police. Such a description in coarse and crude language of the atrocities caused by the system in which these groups are forced to live would not go down well with people who are used to the luxury of shiny cars and air-conditioned buildings or who are just born in an upper caste family.
The Pathruts never usually school their wards. So when Gaikwad finds himself in a school because his father believes strongly in education, they both have to face adverse reaction from the family and their community. One thing that struck me about Gaikwad’s schooling experience is that the ‘ideal’ is far removed from (his) ‘reality’. Consider this, “When I used to open the text-book for Marathi, on the first page, I used to see: ‘India is my country…proud of its rich and varied heritage.’ I used to wonder why if all this were true, we were beaten with false allegation of theft…I often wonder why if Bharat is our country, we are discriminated against, why our race is branded and treated as a thieves’ community.”
While in school, Gaikwad is attracted to bhajans and kirtans and excels in performing them. Participating in these religious functions, the effects of Sanskritization start affecting his mind. “I began to say that eating crabs, fish, pigs every day was a sin. I began to observe Fridays and Saturdays in Shravan month as fasting days,” he says.
In due course of time, Gaikwad moves to the nearby city of Latur for employment in a textile mill. The urban organization of society, to a certain extent, does not support the rigid patterns of discrimination of the rural areas. Gaikwad says that he, “…remembered the days when I was spurned and even shouted at: ‘Lakshya! Pathruta!’ But here in Latur I was addressed as Laxman Gaikwad and that too by Maratha [upper caste] boys…What was I once, I thought, look at the respect I am getting now!”
In the textile mill, Gaikwad starts speaking on behalf of his colleagues for better working conditions and wages. As he was used to public speaking right from his school days, he stands up and publicly denounces the mistreatment by the factory management. He gets ‘noticed’ and becomes politically active. All this while, his family is living a hand-to-mouth existence. Money is always short but his idealism to work for the betterment of the oppressed never wavers. Their financial and housing situation is so bad even in Latur that when his father dies he writes, “…his eyes are covered with ants. I brushed away the ants with my hand and closed his eyes.”
Due to his protests against the factory management (or capitalists) Gaikwad loses his job and has to do many odd jobs wherever he can find them. But when any news reaches his ears about any tribal being harassed (as by now he is an established leader who helps people), he immediately pays a visit and tries to bring about justice and remedy the situation.
Towards the end of his story, Gaikwad is approached by the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) to contest the Lok Sabha seat. BSP promises him funds and other necessities for campaigning. But the money never pours in. Still, with his loyal supporters Gaikwad hits the campaign trail but there is no food for his campaigners and money to pay the pending bills. Eventually, he decides to lend his support to the Congress candidate. Dejected, he says, “I had learnt my lesson. In this country it is not enough to possess good workers and volunteers to win elections; you must also possess wealth, social prestige and the quality of having been born in one of the higher castes.”
The overall translation of the book lives up to a fairly good standard. But on some occasions it falls prey to literal translation. The numerous typos in the book could have been corrected considering that this is the third reprint that I read.After reading the last line of this engrossing book, I could not help but ask this question: Who stole what? A hapless tribal a pocket or a dominant class/caste the right from a human being to live in dignity?
Name: The Branded: Uchalya
By: Laxman Gaikwad
Translated from the Marathi by: P A Kolharkar
First published: 1998; 2009 (third reprint)
Publisher: Sahitya Akademi
ISBN: 81-260-0486-XWeb: www.sahitya-akademi.gov.in
(A version of this article appeared on Gomantak Times, dt: June 14, 2011)