Budhan Theatre: Art As An Expression Against Oppression


Founded in 1998 by Prof. Ganesh Devy, a well-known critic and linguist and Smt. Mahasweta Devi, a Magsaysay awardee and noted Bangla Author, Budhan Theatre is an Indian Theatre Group that is composed of members of the Chhara tribe. The name of the theatre is taken from Budhan Sabar, a tribal man who was labelled a criminal and murdered by West Bengal police. The Chhara tribe belongs to the group of Denotified or decriminalized tribes, and resides in Ahmedabad, Gujarat. The Theatre performs street plays, theatre and other experimental forms of art to create awareness about the discrimination faced by the Chhara Tribe, and other denotified tribes across India. The Theatre has performed about 1500 shows of 52 plays in different parts of the country, and has even been appreciated by Dr Manmohan Singh, the former Prime Minister of India.

The Chhara tribe has chosen this artform to protest against the discrimination they faced in numerous areas and avenues as a result of the stigma that their tribe faces, owing to the tag of ‘criminal’ that had fallen on them since the time of British rule. The members believe that art has the power to sensitize the individuals regarding the problems that the community faces, and to alter the mindset of the community regarding how Chharas are perceived. The art targets stakeholders from diverse strata of society including policy makers, police, judiciary, media, and ultimately the common public and attempts to showcase the need of upliftment of the Chhara tribe.


Nomadic Tribes and Denotified Tribes

Nomad is a term used for a person or a community who does not have a fixed place of residence and moves constantly and settles in different places for short periods of time. Nomadic tribes used to be quite abundant in medieval India. The community formed entertainers, merchants and transportation in terms of their occupation throughout history. The current Denotified tribes formed a part of this nomadic community. They were listed under the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871. There exist 315 nomadic tribes and 198 Denotified tribes in India, at present. They constitute 60 million of India’s population.

The Criminal Tribes Act, 1871

The Ramoshi community, a part of the nomadic tribes, were known as the security guards in the Maratha empire. They stood guard and performed surveillance of the forts and other areas within Maharashtra. In the pre-British era, the community earned their living through the permission given by the Maratha kingdom to collect taxes from specific villages they worked in. However, post the collapse of the Maratha empire and the British rising to power, the Ramoshi tribe lost their means of livelihood as the British now retained the power to collect tax.

The community protested against the English East India Company. A major leader during the protest was Umaji Naik. He rose to power as the leader of the Ramoshis in the protest and declared himself as their king in 1826. He led a violent rebellion, looting the British and even offering rewards for their assassination and beheading. Considerable Britishers were assassinated as a result, which led to the community being branded as ‘thugs’, (a term used by a British officer named Sleeman). The actions of the tribes can be classified under social determinism.

umaji naik
Umaji Naik

The British retaliated and this led to the execution of quite a lot of ‘thuggee’ nomadic tribes during the 1840’s. These incidents caused the British authorities of law to consider the tribes as unlawful and criminals. This belief cemented the cause for the creation of the Criminal Tribes act in 1871. The act was further cemented by a belief by the Britishers in a theory which advocated the non-conformity of the nomads to heredity. The actions of the nomads too augmented the same, as they refused to acknowledge what came to be called civilized living in the form of settlements, settled agriculture, employment for wage etc. The assumption by the British centring around biological determinism, resulted in the creation of the act, which classified the community as habitual offenders.

Severe restrictions were imposed on the communities, such as those on movement. The adult male members were to mandatorily report to the police stations in their areas and forbidden from travelling outside certain prescribed areas. The act classified the tribes as those under the systemic commission of non-bailable offenders.  By 1947, the act affected 13 million people, having spread from North India, where it was introduced, to Bengal and Madras presidencies as well. The people faced arrest and search warrants if found outside their prescribed area.

Present Scenario

In January 1947, the government of Bombay set up a committee to investigate the matter of these criminal tribes, and by 1949 August, the act was repealed. The tribes were officially ‘Denotified’, leading to the decriminalization of over 2.3 million individuals. Madras presidency repealed the act first, followed by other states. A committee appointed by the central government of India, classified the act as not aligned to the spirit of the constitution. However, the decision was faced with huge public resistance. There still existed considerable crime, and therefore people say decriminalization as tantamount to ignorance. Therefore, to pacify the opposers, a Habitual Offenders Act, 1952, was created in its place. The law states that the person who is criminalized is one of subjective and objective influences, and as a result, presents a danger to society, because he has manifested tendencies and practices in crime.

The Act affected the communities even further, with the stigmatization affecting an already marginalized community. A lot of government and private bodies have investigated the Habitual Offenders Act and have concluded that it has been derived quite a lot from the Criminal Tribes Act. Therefore, it does not showcase an intent by the Government to de-notify the tribes in completion.

  • In February 2000, the National Human Rights Commission recommended repeal of the Habitual Offenders Act.
  • The UN Anti-discriminatory body, Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, (CERD) saw that the alleged criminal tendencies that were seem in the Criminal Tribes Act, 1871, continue to be stigmatized in the Habitual Offender Act, 1952.

How are the tribes affected in the present?

The group had a conversation with Mr. Dakshin Bajrange, a popular director and a part of the Budhan Theatre, who provided the context of the present situation of the Chhara tribe. The issues that still plague the community are: –

  1. Exploitation by the Police: As the community is still considered criminal by a large part of the population, and even the authorities, police continue to target the tribes. The members of the tribe allegedly continue to be arrested for petty crimes, without proper evidence and severe punishment is doled out. The community members are said to be still asked to report to police regularly, and according to Mr. Bajrange have become their scapegoat.
  2. Admission to schools and colleges: Severe discrimination is faced by members of the Chhara community and other communities here. Most colleges and schools ask for the caste of the student. The declaration by a student that he/she is a member of a Denotified tribe causes severe discrimination, as admission has been found to be denied to members of these communities.
  3. Private Employment: Discrimination is not absent in the private sector as well, as the job applications or its verification includes the present address of the employee as well. The tribes stay in colonies that are either named after, or historically associated with their caste, e.g., Chharanagar. The identification of the address further stigmatizes and discriminates the community, and rejection ensues.
  4. Lack of Financial Support:  Hardly any budget is allocated to the upliftment of DNTs. Though a separate Commission for Nomadic and Denotified Tribes was formed in 2006, governments over the years have shown little intent in the development of the communities. The previous state budget allocated INR 40 Crore for a community that has a population of 6 lakh in the state, amounting to a negligible amount per person.
  5. Illiteracy: Poverty is compounded due to the fact that only 2-3% of the community is literate. The low education level makes it extremely difficult for the community to achieve upliftment.
  6. Political support: The community members are dispersed across the nation and lack unity as a result. Only small pockets of the communities live in a common area. This makes it very difficult to organize political movements, and small protests in localized pockets are often ignored by political bodies as a result. This causes the community to fail to invoke national attention and create a movement for justice.
  7. Continued stigmatization: Despite denotification, the existing social norms do not dispel the community from any kind of criminal association. The members of such tribal communities are still considered to be ‘criminals’, and suffer from lack of trust, credibility, and non-inclusivity, and thus face discrimination.

Impact of the Budhan Theatre

The theatre is run on a belief that an intimate relationship is created between the performer and the audience in a drama. The theatre has been going strong for over 22 years, and Mr. Bajrange takes pride in the fact that the third generation of actors are now introduced into the program, to talk about critical issues that affect their community. The performances have been successful in creating awareness and have received considerable positive response from diverse parts of the communities. The theatre has also been instrumental in correcting wrong perspectives on the Denotified tribes. The Theatre has been successful in becoming a bridge between the ignorant section of the society and the affected communities, in the words of Mr. Bajrange.

“Actors of Budhan theatre are the cultural leaders. We speak and perform for and on behalf of the community. Therefore, it is our moral duty of everyone in the Budhan theatre to protect the community when it is in danger”- Mr. Bajrange.

Ganesh V, a 2nd Year MBA student of IIM Ahmedabad



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