Arts

Campus screening of Birth 1871 tells the story of India’s denotified tribes

 Photo by Mico Mazza

From anger can come the seeds of creativity and social change.

On March 8, the University of Ottawa was host to the world premiere of the documentary film Birth 1871 by Indian director, scholar, thespian, and activist Dakxinkumar Bajrange.

“When I heard that our Indian political leaders, whom we worship, they never cared about us, my anger — not to destroy anything but to transform — brought out my creativity,” said Bajrange. “My creativity is in film and theatre. I cannot do anything else.”

With help from William Gould, a professor of history at the University of Leeds, the production took more than two years of work, from research to the final cut of the film.

Birth 1871 details the history and corruption behind the treatment of what are known in India as the denotified tribes, some 192 ethnic groups comprising approximately 60 million Indian nationals who are subject to repeated mistreatment, ranging from the more pedestrian arrests to having their houses and possessions burned, being beaten, raped, or even in rare cases, killed by state police. This abuse is based on a nearly 150-year-old piece of legislation called the Criminal Tribes Act and the more recent but nearly identical Habitual Offenders Act. These make it state policy to consider these groups of people as hereditarily criminal and allow for their arrest, detention, and abuse without warrant or reason, even going so far as to intern large numbers of these individuals in open prisons known as rehabilitation settlements.

Today the denotified tribes are still considered pariahs in society and continue to fall victim to shocking abuses by the state police who are trained in racial profiling. The documentary reveals there is a section in most police training manuals in India that details the physical and cultural attributes of local denotified tribes, so they can be easily identified.

Despite all of this, Birth 1871 ends on a hopeful note, revealing that despite tremendous adversity, these communities are pulling themselves up and using the arts to spread a message of change. Over the past decade or so, groups like Bajrange’s Budhan Theatre have formed in nearly every denotified tribal community in India, performing plays in the streets that expose the plight of the very actors and writers who put them on.

In March, the film screens at four Canadian universities, at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and then heads back to India with Bajrange to be shown throughout the country.