Former top cop Kiran Bedi, who is now the Lieutenant Governor of Puducherry, recently tweeted that “ex-criminal tribes” are very cruel professionals in committing crimes and rarely caught or convicted. An otherwise active Twitterati, Bedi did not reply to the critical comments on the post on how an entire community can be branded as criminals. While Bedi’s post led to a debate, a 17-year-old from Kuravar community was under the illegal custody of the Chennai police, learning what it means to be born a Kurava, one of the 150-odd communities branded as “criminal” by the now-abolished British law. He spent three days in custody after being picked up from his hut in Cholavandipuram, Villupuram district. Here’s his account...
Why was I born a Kurava? This question has been haunting me for the last three years, ever since my father returned home after spending days in police custody. For days, he described how policemen tied and beat him, picking different parts of his body each day.
In the end, he was let out with no case registered, after they discovered that our family had only debts over debts and nothing worthy that he could have stolen. “Why did they do this to you?” I asked my father during those days when everyone in our family did nothing but weep over the cruel phase that my father had gone through. “All problems are because we are born in this Kuravar community,” he replied.
Till then, I was just like any other boy who roamed the village with friends and spent days fishing in the lake. Then one day, a person on his monthly collections slapped my parents with slippers as they were unable to pay the interest. This incident forced me to start working. My father couldn’t walk for months, let alone work and earn money.
Soon, I joined my elder cousins and uncles, going around villages in search of work. The only job we knew was making old grinding stones nonabrasive (kallu kuthurathu). We would get work after hours of walking and shouting at the top of our voices to catch the attention of prospective customers. On a good day, we would earn up to `500. Even if a person paid `50, I would offer my services.
Two others in illegal custody, says family
Sankar and Pandian’s kin said the two have been in police custody since last Sunday. The Crime Branch officials of Ambattur allegedly sought 50 sovereigns of jewellery from the family to release them. Joint Commissioner (West) Santhosh Kumar said they were arrested for burglary. “We recovered 18 sovereigns of jewellery from Pandian,” he said. When asked why the juvenile was in custody, he said he was unaware of it. The family on Friday filed a habeas corpus petition (Sr.No C-33348 (HCP) numbered as HCP 1631/2016) in the HC.
The memories of the brutality that my father underwent were beginning to fade when I was jolted out of sleep on Sunday. A man tapped on my back, asked for my father’s name and I responded. As I walked out of the hut trying to figure out what was happening, one of the men referred to my father’s name, saying he was innocent, hence they could leave me. But another one insisted, “I know everything. Take him also.” Within minutes, they handcuffed me, my cousin Sankar and uncle Pandian.
“They are police,” Sankar whispered in my ears, indicating that I must remain quiet, else I would get beaten up. I remained quiet. But that did not spare me from the heavy blows once we were taken to a white van.
They used a wooden log, and hit me on my back and hands. They asked me to name people in my community who are into burglary. I said I didn’t know any and that only a few Kuravar families live in our village and the rest hail from other communities.
But the torture continued. I did not cry much when they hit me. But when they started assaulting my cousin, I couldn’t hold my tears. His thin frame couldn’t take it. A policeman hit him on the shoulder and he started bleeding. He started crying and so did I. But the policemen were least bothered. Their next victim was my uncle. They asked him the same question — to name a few Kuravar thieves.
We could not give them a proper reply, and were taken to the Ambattur Police Station in the wee hours. They asked us to undress and we spent the next three days in underwears in the cell. Around 2 pm, they called out my uncle. He was carried back to the cell around 6 pm by two policemen. He could neither walk nor sit. His buttocks and legs were in tatters. At best, he could crawl.
We cried the entire night. My uncle would occasionally ask for water and I would fetch him some from the toilet in the cell as we had no access to drinking water. The packets of idlis they delivered in the cell remained almost untouched.
The next day, they chose Sankar and me. Compared to what they did to my uncle, we were not so cruelly assaulted. Perhaps they sensed that we were very young. As they hit me, they asked for names of all the thieves in my community. “Sir, I am a Kurava. But that does not mean I know everyone in my community. And all the people I know are my relatives who work hard to earn a living,” I said. “You are talking too much,” a policeman responded as he continued to hit me.
After three days of horror, all we could do was guess who would be picked up next. After one of the torture sessions that lasted for half-an-hour, the policeman said he would return that night and that by then I had to identify a few thieves in my community or he might kill me.
But it appeared the police team left for some other place that night. My relatives, who were searching for us, heard about our detention at Ambattur Police Station the next day and reached there on Wednesday morning. After intense pleading, a policeman came and asked about my age. I said I was 17.
Soon, my clothes were returned and they asked me to leave. Everything happened so fast that I hardly had time to figure out whether my cousin and uncle were also let off. Only later did I realise that they released me as I was a minor.
I don’t know why such things happened to us. I never even had a stray thought of stealing. Perhaps, my mistake is by birth, a mistake that I can’t correct.