How a Former ‘Criminal’ Tribe Found Dignity Through TikTok

In January 2020, Shakha Dhanraj Chavhan, 27, made a music video of himself singing in a barren, wind-swept field in Jamde village in western India’s Maharashtra state. He hoped that it would turn him into a TikTok star.

“When I was in sixth grade, I danced at a function in my school. The school chairman was impressed and gave me Rs 1,001 ($13) as an award,”  Chavhan aka Prakash on TikTok, told VICE News. “I wanted to dedicate my first TikTok video to that memory.”

Chavhan and his 29-year-old cousin Dinesh Pawar, both from the same community and village, are stars in their own right. Over the past few years, both have gained success on video content apps like TikTok, achieving fame and fortune.

On June 29 this year however, the Indian government put a stop to all that by banning 59 Chinese apps including TikTok. The government stated that the apps were prejudicial to the sovereignty, integrity and security of the country.

But the ban has more significance for those like Chavhan and Pawar. They are not merely popular video stars. They belong to a historically persecuted Indian community, the Pardhis, who tasted freedom through these Chinese apps.

On TikTok, Chavhan had about 825,000  followers; on Vigo, 356,000; on Vmate, 56,000; and on Likee, 125,000. These are all Chinese video content apps now banned in India.

Pawar is an even bigger star: 3.7 million followers on TikTok; 580,000 on Vigo; 120,000 on Vmate and 1.1 million on Likee. The cousins shot to stardom with music videos they produced, which showed them dancing with their wives. But the arc of their lives differs from that of an average video app star in India.  It’s their social identity as Pardhis that makes their narrative unique.

The Pardhi community is categorised under the Denotified, Nomadic and Semi-nomadic Tribes (DNT) of India. In 1871, the British Parliament passed the Criminal Tribes Act. It “notified” certain nomadic communities as  “criminal”, making them vulnerable to social ostracisation and persecution by the authorities.

In 2020, reportedly 150 million (as per the 2018 Idate commission report) denotified tribes still contend with both. They are even excluded from the population census. The lack of socio-economic documentation means that they cannot access social services and the guarantees of rights availed by other citizens.

For decades now, the DNT groups have been denied ownership and have faced systemic exclusion from education and employment.

But dreams are free and fair. Chavhan dreamt getting a degree and of watching movies inside theatres. “The financial conditions at home were horrible,” he said.

An education was especially difficult because he is 75 percent blind. In school, Chavhan would request his teachers to speak aloud what they wrote on the blackboard, and he learnt to write it all down quickly. In college, Chavhan allowed himself some luxury by “watching a lot of films.”

Chavhan kept an eye out for ways to make some extra money, since working the fields during the monsoon was not sustainable. In early 2019,  one of his neighbours, Jyanesh Suresh Chavhan, told him about the Chinese apps where one could post videos. If they did well, there was money to be made, Jyanesh, told him.

Chavhan and his wife made their first video in November 2019 on Vigo. “We made about $205,” he said. Chavhan joined TikTok early this year, gaining 100 thousand followers in six days. His Vmate videos earned him about $886 for a month and a half. “It was a huge sum for us,” said Chavhan, who mostly tries to include songs featuring Indian actors Govinda and Mithun Chakraborty, because, “I love them both.” Their creative intentions were lost on neighbours, however. His wife Varsha said, “The villagers would taunt my husband saying that he’s making his wife dance for money. But I was convinced we needed to do all it took to become famous.”

Chavhan said that he had hoped to make enough money for his wife who has a chronic brain complication. After the ban, he had to start diverting their savings towards daily expenses.

Chavhan’s cousin, Pawar, said that as an adolescent, he was very inspired by Mithun’s movies and wanted to do “something with music and dance, but lacked the courage.” Last year, not only did Pawar find that confidence to make videos, he performed in them with his two wives. “The second marriage was a love marriage,” Pawar said, asserting there exists no hard feelings between the wives. “They understand each other well.”

Pawar and his wives joined TikTok in February 2020 and made 450 videos. “The app was banned before we could make money off it,” said Pawar. “It’s frustrating because we were about to get a popular tag, that would have given us advertising opportunities.”

Their neighbour, Jyanesh, said that a hard life is the norm for the community. “My father used to hunt small birds or double up as a farm hand for money,” he said. In 2017, Jyanesh bought a mobile phone. Around the same time, Vigo had launched. He made about $163 from Vigo in a year.

The trio eventually inspired others in the village. Dharma Bhonsle, 30, for instance, got introduced to the apps in late 2019. He downloaded Vigo and made about 80 videos. “Next, I joined Vmate and made around 200 videos. I even had about 16,000 TikTok followers. But before I could earn any money, the apps got banned,” said Bhonsle.

On August 31, many DNT groups across India celebrated Vimukti Diwas which commemorates their freedom. That’s the date on which the communities were “de-notified” as “born criminals.”

The legacy of that past, though, is a hard one to erase. But mobile apps appeared to make progress where policy or political will did not. “It would have been impossible to show our skills if not for the apps,” Jyanesh said. It is unfortunate, but they seem to have accepted the government’s decision.

31-year-old Kiran Pawar, another Pardhi from Jamde village, is more vocal about the ban than others. His wife, Soniya Pawar, is the solo performer in all the videos they have produced. As the police patil – the locally-designated village authority reporting to the police – he enjoys a degree of clout in the village. Kiran criticised the government decision to ban the apps. “No one here wants to say the truth, that it’s a horrible decision,” he said. “There’s much resentment about this in people who feel robbed of an opportunity to finally claim some dignity.”

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