Identity politics has become the hallmark of our times and emphasizing cultural identities does have some advantages in multicultural societies. However, it also encourages us to generalize about groups. The terrible effects of painting an entire community with one brush are to be seen in many ways. One instance is that of a teenaged girl who commited suicide in Bhopal some weeks ago. It was chance that she was born into the Pardhi community. The girl was a rag-picker and had been hauled away along with her sister-in-law by the Bhopal police. As is the convention, she was sent off to get Rs 500 while the sister-in-law was kept at the police station. She handed the money over to our guardians, came back home and hung herself.
When confronted, the police and various public figures shrugged and said that she was a Pardhi, she deserved no sympathy.
The above shares a common pattern with the existence of pariah groups in other parts of the world. A group at the bottom of a social hierarchy begins to get a special label stigmatizing it. Now that group is recognized everywhere and marked out for discriminatory treatment. Its members can no longer get ordinary employment and must survive through extraordinary measures. They resort more and more to activities outside the pale of normal society and have to survive by doing things which other folks do not need to do. Typically, several members of the pariah community may resort bootlegging or petty theft along with casual and irregular labour in fields and factories. When a society has turned against you, then life must be lived in whatever spaces you can find. As a result, the stereotype of that group as a bunch of criminals and with no respect for the law is reinforced. It becomes a vicious circle, with the use of the stereotype by the mainstream forcing a certain response from the pariah community and that response in turn driving deeper the stereotype into the imagination of the larger society.
Such patterns have been studied in the impoverished blacks who live in the ghettoes of America, among the Romani Gypsies of Europe and also amongst what are called the denotified tribes of India.
Identities are part and parcel of human life. Without a sense of identity I cannot distinguish between different people or different groups. But the creation of a pariah identity, which is ostracized and marked off from the rest of society is an especially harmful one. Most of the time, we switch smoothly between different identities in different contexts. Thus in a particular situation I may be a woman, at another time an engineer, at a third a connoisseur of classical music and so on. When labels become rigid, it becomes much more difficult to move between identities. Most blacks in America in the 19th century found it impossible to become a professional. Almost all institutions of higher education were closed to them. They were seen as negroes over and above all else.
Highly unequal societies have a degree of closure in them. You are born into group and tend to stay a member of that group. Some individuals do manage to escape the label they are born with, but they are usually relatively few in number. Societies vary in the degree of closure they may have. In societies with high degrees of closure, a group identity can become all-pervasive and colour one's entire range of activities.
The hapless teenaged girl mentioned above was from the Pardhis. The Pardhis have the same origin as most other communities in their region. However, when the British took over India, they lived in close association with the forests, hunting and trading in forest produce. As the British tightened their grip over the forests, the Pardhis were no longer able to rely on the forest. They were left with no land and no means of livelihood and had to make their living any way they could. Not surprisingly, some of the Pardhis also resorted to theft whenever the opportunity presented itself. Many such communities came to be called the "Criminal Tribes" by the British. They were persecuted and harassed by the colonial police wherever they went. This identity drowned all other dimensions of their existence.
After independence, this label was replaced by another one - the denotified tribes. It is a sad expression of the social closure of contemporary India, that the denotified tribes continue to be stigmatized and persecuted all over India.
No one wants to hire a person carrying the stigma of being from "criminal" origins. While those who perpetrate share market fraud do not get stigmatized in our society , the so-called ex-criminal tribes carry their name around their necks and live in groveling poverty. All reports of visits to the households of Pardhis and similar groups paint a dismal picture of unemployment, lack of facilities and malnourished children. If they are indeed engaged in crime, then it does not pay.
The Pardhis are convenient scapegoats for the police whenever a nocturnal, violent dacoity takes place. The press is often a willing accomplice in this. Whenever a house is raided by a kaala-kachha gang, the Pardhis of that region are the first to be thrashed by policemen. However, there is little evidence to back up this persecution. The de-notified tribes make up over seven percent of Indian population. If they were really criminals then how come there are still so few dacoities taking place in India. Clearly the number of individuals involved in criminal activities must be a tiny fraction of communities like the Pardhis. A more accurate picture is given by the fact that their women and children pick up plastic bags on the streets to fill their stomachs.
There is a long series of studies in sociology and psychology that the best way to make someone a criminal is to label him one. The emotional costs of being stigmatized are enormous. Studies of blacks in America have reported many problems a loss of self-esteem, greater stress, lower ambitions in life and worst of all, a sinking feeling that one really deserves no better. This further hinders them from seeking to move up in life.
It is important to note that the wider community shares the responsibility for the present condition of the Pardhis. The isolation and labelling of pariah communities is what keeps them pariahs. The answer is partly a social and political change the Pardhis must get access to good quality schools and to increased opportunities for employment.
What is also needed is a cultural change in the larger community. The absolute labelling of people must cease. It is important to see people as what they really are built of up many kinds of identities, of which the ethnic group is just one. When the community ceases stereotyping the Pardhis only then will they be able to really flourish. And no longer will teenaged girls be driven to hang themselves because of the chance of their birth.
22nd March 2008