On Tuesday, an Ahmedabad court issued summons to the Joint Commissioner of the city police and five other police officers after a complaint by an advocate who was one of several people allegedly assaulted by the police during a midnight raid on Ahmedabad’s Chharanagar colony on July 26.

Joint Commissioner Ashok Yadav and Deputy Commissioner of Police Shweta Shrimali are among the officers who have been asked to appear in court on October 11. An inspector and three subinspectors have also been issued summons.

The advocate, Manoj Tamanche, approached court after the police refused to file an FIR against members of the force for excesses they are alleged to have committed during the raid. The Ahmedabad Commissioner of Police, AK Singh, has ordered an internal inquiry into the incident.

Chharanagar is home around 20,000 members of the Chhara tribe, one of the most vulnerable and marginalised communities in Gujarat.

The court order has come as a pleasant surprise for the colony’s residents, who had given up hope of any action being taken against the officers. Award-winning filmmaker and theatre activist Dakxin Bajrange Chhara, who lives in Chharanagar and who was also assaulted during the raid, said the court summons would go a long way in making the police force more accountable.

Eyewitness accounts pieced together by Scroll.in indicate that the police acted with total disregard for the law when it raided Chharanagar colony. According to witnesses, soon after midnight on July 26, a contingent of around 400 policemen began to run amok in the neighbourhood. CCTV footage accessed by Scroll.in shows dozens of police squads fanning out into the colony’s narrow lanes, dragging residents out of their homes, trashing vehicles, and chasing women with rods.

That night, the police arrested 29 residents of Chharanagar, charging them under 11 sections of the Indian Penal Code, including those related to robbery, rioting, and preventing a public servant from performing his duties.

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‘Ghetto for criminals’

Situated next to Ahmedabad’s bustling Sindhi Market, Chharanagar falls under the jurisdiction of the Sardarnagar police station.

Even a fortnight later, on August 14, signs of the raid were still evident. Many homes had broken doors and windows. A pushcart lay upturned in a lane, a tempo stood with a shattered windshield, scooters sported broken headlights and rear-view mirrors, and the windscreens and windows of dozens of cars were smashed, glass shards strewn on the seats inside.

Many residents of Ahmedabad claim that the colony is a haven for criminals. This has a history to it. The Chharas were branded a criminal tribe by the British under the Criminal Tribes Act, 1871, which led to the stigmatisation of the community for a century and a half. When the law was repealed in 1952, the Chharas were denotified – that is, their criminal status was abolished. But members of this community are still eyed with suspicion and regularly booked under the Habitual Offenders Act, which came to replace the Criminal Tribes Act.

Residents of the area admit that a section of the community in Chharanagar is engaged in brewing chhangli, slang for country liquor. This is especially egregious in Gujarat, where a policy of prohibition is in force. The police regularly conduct raids (which locals claim are a ploy to extort money) to crack down on this illicit trade. But the July 26 raid was different – in its scale, intensity and impact on the community, say local residents.

The trigger

There are two contradictory versions about the trigger for the raid. According to the police, local residents had started pelting stones at officials who were conducting raids on the bootleggers, prompting an escalated response from the force. But residents insist that there had not been any stone-pelting or raid on bootleggers that night. Instead, they claim, the police had attacked them after two residents got into an altercation with a policeman.

According to eyewitnesses, it started at 11.30 pm on July 26, when DK Mori, a sub-inspector from Kubernagar police chowki was patrolling the area in his personal car. He got into an argument with a local resident over the manner in which a two-wheeler was parked. Mori is alleged to have made lewd comments directed at the wife of the man he got into an argument with.

According to a police official who requested anonymity, Mori notified the Deputy Commissioner of Police, Zone IV, Ahmedabad, about a stone-pelting incident in Chharanagar, requesting reinforcements. Eight companies of the State Reserve Police (roughly 80 personnel) were dispatched from Nava Naroda, 2.5 km away, along with police constables from Sardarnagar, Naroda, Meghani Nagar, and Gandhinagar divisions.

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A fact-finding report released by the Alpsankhyak Adhikar Manch, a civil society group based in Ahmedabad, notes that the police descended on Arjun Nagar Society, Single Chali, and 40 other homes in Chharanagar, in the early hours of July 27. In the ensuing crackdown, more than 80 residents were beaten up by the police, of whom 35 sustained serious injuries. The police damaged around 50 vehicles, as well as televisions, washing machines, doors, windows, and CCTV cameras belonging to residents.

First-hand accounts

Pravin Indrekar, a photographer with a national daily, suffered a fractured left arm and thumb after the police hit him. “The police knew who I was, and thrashed me for taking pictures of the incident,” said the 52-year-old. “They arrested me from the civil hospital without letting me get treated for my injuries.”

While the police claimed it was cracking down on bootleggers, the majority of those it picked up had nothing to do with the illicit trade.

“They punched my 69-year-old mother-in-law in the jaw and knocked her out,” said Dakxin Chhara. “When I protested, they rained blows on my back.”

Rajkumari (name changed), a housewife whose son was picked up by the police and beaten up, said that the police also beat and molested her daughter. “The policemen barged into our house and started beating my daughter, mistaking her for a boy as she wears her hair short,” she said. “When I told them they were beating a woman, they did not believe me and groped her chest to confirm.”

Atul Gagdekar, a cloth merchant, suffered a compound fracture in his arm because of the police beating and had to get a metal rod surgically inserted in the limb to fix it.
Atul Gagdekar, a cloth merchant, suffered a compound fracture in his arm because of the police beating and had to get a metal rod surgically inserted in the limb to fix it.

A particularly egregious example of police brutality was the case of Atul Gagdekar, 40, a cloth merchant, who suffered an open fracture in his lower arm after the police beat him savagely. “Six policemen held me on both sides while a dozen men brought down their lathis on me,” alleged Gagdekar. “When I asked them what I had done wrong, they beat me more.” After spending nine days in jail with a fracture, Gagdekar, who is also diabetic, had to undergo surgery to insert a metal rod in his arm. He also alleged that the police did not allow him to take his diabetes medicines while in jail.

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Advocate Tamanche, his three sons, who are also lawyers, and his wife, were beaten up by the police when they protested against the vandalisation of their vehicles. His wife was hit on the elbow and has a fracture. According to Tamanche, the majority of police personnel involved in the raid were drunk.

In the lock-up, the police refused to provide water to the detainees, claimed Atish Indrekar, a theatre activist and Chharanagar resident. Indrekar, who was beaten and arrested for protesting against the damage to his vehicle, had to drink water from a tap in the toilet. “They refused to give water to Gagdekar, who is diabetic,” Indrekar said. “The next morning when our community members protested outside the police station, they handed one bottle of water for the 29 of us.”

Indrekar added that after being sent to judicial custody to the Sabarmati Central Jail in Ahmedabad, the authorities humiliated him and the others by stripping them naked for a customary search, even though body scanners were available. After spending six days in jail, seven of the 29 arrested people were given bail by the sessions court. The remaining 22 were released on bail three days later.

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Community responds

In response to the police action, on July 29, the residents of Chharanagar organised a funeral ritual – called besana in their tradition – to mourn the death of law and order. They also held a silent rally in which more than 5,000 local residents participated –unprecedented for the community.

During that rally, which was attended by Commissioner of Police Singh, children from Chharanagar presented roses to the policemen who were at the spot. Following this protest, Singh instituted an internal inquiry into the incident. “In private, Singh apologised to us,” said Chhara. “But for justice to be served, we want action against the four erring police officials, from the sub-inspector to the DCP [deputy commissioner of police].”

Neeraj Badgujar, deputy commissioner of police, Ahmedabad Zone IV, said that since the police had been accused in the case, the investigation has been handed over to the city’s Crime Branch, headed by Assistant Commissioner of Police BC Solanki of the Special Operations Group. Declining to comment on the case, Badgujar said, “Just spend a few days in Chharanagar, you will see for yourself what these people are up to.” Solanki also declined to comment, saying that the matter was subjudice.

On August 8, Gujarat Chief Minister Vijay Rupani promised action against those policemen found to be out of line. Gujarat’s Chief Secretary JN Singh told Scroll.in that the law would take its course once the Chharanagar residents filed a First Information Report against the police. But Chhara pointed out that the police have thus far been thwarting their attempts to file an FIR against the policemen involved.

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Unfair legacy

Residents say that besides putting the spotlight on police brutality, the incident must also be seen in the context of the stereotyping of Chharas and other denotified tribes as criminals. “In our community we have lawyers, journalists, teachers, actors, artists, and gazetted officer,” said Dakxin Chhara, the theatre activist. “There is 100% literacy in Chharanagar, remarkable for a community with a delinquent past. Still, the police view Chharanagar as nothing more than a den of criminals.”

Chhara described how local legislators propagated the stereotypes about the community. He said the MLA of the neighbouring constituency of Naroda, Balram Thawani, recently stated that the Chharas were a nuisance to society.

This came in the backdrop of a report submitted to Parliament in May by the National Commission for Denotified Nomadic and Semi-Nomadic Tribes, chaired by Dada Idate. The report found that the denotified tribes were at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder as compared to the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes, and are subject to “social stigma, atrocity and exclusion”. The report said that this has driven some of the Chharas, mostly elderly widows, into the bootlegging business as they are unable to find work due to the stigma around their identity.

The reading room in Chharanagar, which doubles up as a space for filmmaking and theatre workshops.
The reading room in Chharanagar, which doubles up as a space for filmmaking and theatre workshops.

Dakxin Chhara claimed that while senior police officials had in the past worked towards rehabilitating bootleggers, the business enjoys the patronage of members of the lower levels of the state machinery. “The common saying here is that a constable comes to Sardarnagar [police station] on a cycle, but leaves in a car,” he said.

He added that politicians do not even attempt to do anything for the Chharas as they are a negligible votebank. “Over the years, the state has failed to uplift the Chharas, and whatever development did take place was possible due to the community’s own efforts,” he said.

Chhara is part of the Budhan Theatre Group in Chharanagar, set up by writer Mahashweta Devi and linguist Ganesh Devy. The filmmaker-actor believes theatre has been able to wean young members of the Chhara community away from a life of crime. The group borrows its name from Budhan Sabar, a member of a denotified tribe in Purulia, West Bengal, who was killed in police custody in 1999. It has staged over 1,500 shows across the country on issues like state oppression and atrocities against marginalised communities. The group also runs a library in Chharanagar, which doubles up as a space for workshops on filmmaking and theatre.

Leaders of the community have sought the formation of a Special Investigation Team to inquite into the July 26 incident and are collecting evidence to file the First Information Report against the police. But some of them are also using the tools of their trade to spread awareness about the incident. For instance, Chhara is writing a play based on the events that night, while budding filmmakers from the community are working on a documentary about the raid.

Chhara added that if the government does not meet their demands, members of denotified tribes across the country will take to the streets before the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. “We may not have the numbers to bring any parties to power,” he said. “But across the country, we have enough numbers to bring them down.”