Notified criminals, Chhara youth see law as an escape from inequity
"Being born in the Chhara community (a denotified tribe) is being branded 'criminal' for life. And you grow up watching only atrocities and verbal abuse by the police," says Manoj Tamanche.
Tamanche is a lawyer and resides in Chharanagar area of Ahmedabad. "I've seen so many random detentions and arrests by the police, without any reason that at an early age, I decided to study law and fight for justice," he says.
And Tamanche surely isn't the only one. Distressed by unnecessary police detentions and harassment, many youngsters from his community, are trying to become lawyers. As per estimates, there are already over 200 lawyers among the population of 20,000 residing in Chharanagar, the community's largest ghetto in the Gujarat capital.
The Chharas were notified as criminals in 1871 by the Britishers, but they were denotified five years after India attained independence. However, the denotification didn't last long and they were reclassified as 'habitual offenders' in 1959.
Crime may not be the monopoly of a caste or religion, but historical injustice, owing to the misdeeds of a few miscreants, has left the entire community suffering for decades.
Law then, is not just a livelihood option for the community, but also a means to escape the systemic oppression.
Tamanche says he struggled to get a case as a lawyer initially even though his father, Kushal Tamanche was a practising lawyer. "The police saw me as a criminal and the society did not trust me," he says.
Manoj Indrekar, a retired additional judge from the community, insists that law isn't a choice, but a compulsion for Chharas as learning about the Indian Constitution and law helps them deal with difficult situations.
"Ahmedabad has been a textile hub for almost a century now. Before Independence, our ancestors were employed as labourers in the factories here. They had their own settlements and the police accompanied them to their place of work. Their lives were contained in settlements and they were not aware of the outer world.
"Then on August 31, 1952, the government denotified Chhara as a criminal community. We celebrated the day as our independence day and still do, even though we were reclassified seven years later," he says.
"Since then the Chharas have been suffering and the police have played a crucial role in in not just perpetuating wrongful perceptions about them but also their oppression," he adds.
Indrekar cites his own example to explain that. "After graduating with a degree in commerce, I tried joining getting a job, but was rejected everywhere as people looked at my community with suspicion. It was my switch to law that saved me. Law has helped our community both to stand for its rights and also to show others the right path," he says.
The retired judge admits to the illicit liquor trade run from Chharanagar in a state where alcohol is prohibited, and stresses upon the need for police intervention to end it. "Containing crime is a must, but arresting people on whims is wrong. Youngsters need direction and guidance to shape their future," he adds.IANS