There are people who attend workshops, debate in classrooms, conduct field researches and then sit in their air conditioned offices overwhelmed and saddened by the issues around. And then there are the Chharas of Gujarat. These are the ones who don’t sit there counting their misfortunes or crying over the discrimination meted out to them. They fight back, they strive to make a difference. They do not believe in waiting for others to get interested in their plight and work for them. They are the ones who build their destiny with their own two hands.
Chharas of gujurat have quite the colourful (or black as some would see it as) history. The Chhara community were indigenous and nomadic people of the Punjab region who were “notified” and settled by order of the British colonial government in the 1930s. At that time they were confined in a colony called Chharanagar and brehabilitated through industrial and agricultural labor. After independence they were released from the settlement, but many chose to remain, having essentially no resources or other means of livelihood and no retraining in useful skills.
At a time when children are supposed to learn how to spell their names, the chhara kids learn the nicknames that the society addresses them with. When they are supposed to be studying to make a living, they’re constantly reminded of their heritage of thievery and dacoity. While most of us would probably take all this in considering it a curse passed down from the ages, the youth of this tribe have taken the first step of braving this big bad world and proving themselves. After recently being de-notified, the struggle has become one of gaining acceptance and forming a whole new identity which would benefit generations to come.
What is most interesting and unique about this fight is that it is fought on the stage. Theatre has become their weapon, outlet and basic means of communicating with the world. With the bright lights shining down on them, through the hired microphone and costumes, they tell stories, stories from their past, stories from their present, stories which reflect the society and their lives. Their theatre group fondly called the “Budhan Theatre group” is creating magic in the performing arts sphere of Gujarat. Some of their famous plays include “Budhan Bolta hain”, “The accidental Death of an Anarchist”, “ charan das Chor”.
In a recent interview with the kids performing these plays and the person behind them, I discovered a whole new world. A world which breathes right next door but is completely opposite to mine. Dakshin bhai, says, “ all through these years, we’ve all been vocal about our miseries. There have been heaps of injustice against us and we’ve cried out for help every single moment of our life. It is through Theatre that we finally regain the lost identity, it is through the stage that we finally prove ourselves and it is through this very medium that we initiate a dialogue between us and the world outside.” The kids of ages from 12 to 19 shared the same zeal and dream. They shared with us the acts of discrimination against them in their schools and the identity that has been gifted to them by the theatre group. As a sign of protest, every body in Chharanagar has adopted the surname of “Chhara”. In their own words, “why should we hide or feel ashamed, we are equals and have the same rights as others. If a Chhara is what I am, a Chhara is what I’ll be. The world will have to accept me.”
The passion in their voices is revolutionising enough. Actions speak louder than words and theirs speak volumes of their refreshing way of fighting injustice.