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Uchalya: The Caste of the Criminals


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Laxman Gaikwad


'Jamgama'  (also Jadhav, Uchalya, Kasakonore, Ilenore, Gant-Chor..) is a  wandering tribe  whose main profession for ages has been stealing. The caste system of India had rejected this lowly placed segment of the society as born criminals and Gunhegaars. The British classified this community as the 'Criminal Tribe'  and put a lot of restrictions on their employment and movement. Since all other means of earning were closed to a Jangama, they typically took to small thefts.

The author, himself an Uchalya, was the first to bring to light the inner workings, the suffering and the exploitation of the community.  His 1987 book titled 'Uchalya' was honored by India's Central Literary Academy in 1988.

Excerpts, translated from original Marathi. Translation errors are mine and may be forgiven.

-Vikas Kamat

"... My name is Laxman Gaikwad... I was born in a vagabond family with no home, no land to plough, not even a caste to call our own. I told folks that I am from Ghanegao as I was born there and grew up during my early years. My childhood was spent in a bird-nest-like hut. To enter it, one had to bend their knees. My grandmother Narasabai ran the household.  Her husband, my grandfather, Lingappa, had no job and had to report to the local police station twice a day. He once had a flourishing practice. He would go to far way towns, pick pockets, steal shopping bags and come home by night. He was a famous thief of his time in this part of the country. His name was well known even in Nizaam's kingdom.

Once my grandpa went to the marketplace under the influence of alcohol and found an old man with lots of money tucked into his dhoti. While cutting the dhoti, grandpa slipped and cut the old man's thighs. In the chaos that followed, he was arrested and tortured by the police. They came home and searched for other stolen goods. 'Bol kahn kahn rakha hai paisa aur sona ? nahi to bahut maar khayega'. (Show us all the stolen goods. else we will beat you up.) Grandpa told them that he has nothing at home. Then the police started beating my grand mother -- 'Your whore would know' - they said. My mother got scared and ran away into the forest. They beat all of us, especially my grandma - they even squeezed her breasts in rage. My grandfather was sentenced to prison for several months and since then had to go to police station twice a day for attendance -- because of which he could get no job. If he missed a day or two, the police would come home and beat the entire family up. Eventually, grandpa had to become the police informer (Guranda) and had to help police nab other thieves from our community.

Because our caste is that of thieves, my father could never get a job; neither could my mother. Not even as farm helps. Then grandma herself had to take to stealing to feed the family. She would cut the necklaces of women and children in crowded places and then sell them to the local jewelers. Sometimes police would come home in search of some stolen jewelry but they never succeeded as she never brought stolen goods home. People from my community (caste) could not go to other towns without a certification from local police. The British government branded every member of my caste as a criminal. If we did not carry the certificates, the police of the town would harass us by arresting for theft and robbery. They would let us go after taking adequate bribes.

The razor blade was our Laxmi. We would pray to the God of instrument (Ayudha) before every outing. We would cut chicken with the same blade and spray its blood on the participants and prayed --"God, we pray for success in today's stealing mission. Rescue us from Police if we get caught...".

We were very afraid of the police. I cannot count the times I have defecated in my clothes during police tortures. My community members started hating my grandfather as he was giving inside information to police. "...because of Lingappa the life has become hard; we are not able to feed our wives and children..." they complained. One day, they held a meeting to decide the next course of action. That night, they stuffed grandpa's mouth with rags, and killed him with an axe. They even burnt his body to destroy any evidence. 

That is how grandmother became head of the family...."

Laxman Gaikwad; Published in the public interests of the Uchalya People.


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Excerpts from the Book Uchalya

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