My research with Chharas traces the contemporary afterlives stemming from their history as an identified Criminal Tribe. This is a community of former itinerant adivasis who were forcibly settled in an industrial labour camp in Ahmedabad in 1932. Chharas’ high visibility as a former criminal population has had conflicting effects in the immediate post-colonial moment. It has rendered them disproportionately vulnerable to particular forms of state violence and extreme social discrimination. At the same time, it is precisely this history through which Chharas managed to wrestle basic concessions from the Nehruvian state.
This research is particularly interested in how Chharas—over the past decade—have deployed street theatre as a socio-spatial strategy to both resignify the subjectivity of the criminal adivasi and to stage a much broader material politics in the city. Chharas’ creative activities have positioned them at the centre of a national social movement being orchestrated by prominent cultural figures who are exerting pressure on the central Indian state to assert the collective constitutional rights of adivasis.
I am presently conducting new ethnographic research with Chharas, which has involved a period of archival work in London where I’ve been accessing the archival records of the Salvation Army. The Salvation Army was the welfare agency charged with the regulation, management and discipline of Chharas in Ahmedabad until the decommission of Chharas’ labour camp in 1952. Archival materials and a series of interviews in Ahmedabad are providing the raw materials for a collaborative writing and performance project with Chharas.
My research in Ahmedabad with Chharas (and Baoris) is part of my long-term commitment to producing equitable forms of knowledge in a post-colonial setting, which is to say, much of this work is being organized to further the know-how of community-based researchers and organizers (many of whom are youth). For example, as part of my dissertation research, along with a professional filmmaker, we spent four months making street video with Baoris and Chharas. This work emerged directly out of the desires of community residents, and a series of short documentary videos were produced out of these engagements in which these adivasi communities identified, narrated, filmed and edited local struggles. These videos were seen by several thousand people in a series of street screenings in Ahmedabad.