What does it mean to belong to a ‘denotified’ tribe (DNT) in India? It means that your past is marred by the notorious Criminal Tribes Act enacted by the colonial state in 1871. It means that your present is haunted by the aftermath of this colonial legacy because of the Act’s post-independence reincarnations. It also means that your future is uncertain.
The Criminal Tribes Act not only stigmatised entire communities irrespective of the actual activities of particular members of the community, but also imposed severe restrictions on the movements of its members. Many communities notified as the “criminal tribes” of India were confined to settlements and were subjected to mandatory attendance regimes to keep their movements in check. The Government of India took more than five years after independence to repeal the Criminal Tribes Act in 1952, a first and necessary step towards erasing the stigma that burdened the lives of these people. But this significant segment of Indian people – by some estimates almost ten percent of the total population – are not sure whether ‘denotification’ has in fact freed them.
Most denotified communities are a disgruntled lot today, unable to break away from the consequences of past injustices
Many DNTs in India celebrate ‘Mukti Divas’ or ‘Freedom day’ on 31 August to draw attention to the date on which they were denotified, rather than joining the celebrations on 15 August, which marks India’s freedom from colonial rule. This trend is partly fueled by increasing connectivity over social media which members of the community are rapidly learning to use. The symbolic significance of such celebrations cannot be understood unless we understand that most denotified communities are a disgruntled lot today, unable to break away from the consequences of past injustices. In post-independent India, they have not yet received what is legitimately their due as citizens.
Following the repeal of the Criminal Tribes Act, no sustained attention was given to the specific concerns of the DNTs. Though the denotified communities were made part of the affirmative action policy in India, this was achieved indirectly. They were haphazardly adjusted within the categories of Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Castes. Many remain excluded even from this. These discrepancies created discontent and unrest, which has not yet subsided. If anything, it is becoming more manifest in various mobilisations occurring in different parts of the country.
Post independence reservation policies have guaranteed affirmative action to depressed classes on the basis of caste for education, employment and gaining representation in parliament and state assemblies. Given the sway these policies have in the Indian public imagination, it is not surprising that many of these groups frame their demands and expectations from the Indian state within such a framework.
Demands for realignment of modes of inclusion in these categories as well as separate quotas have increasingly surfaced in contemporary times. The longstanding agitation of Gujjars of Rajasthan for inclusion in the Scheduled Tribe category is a good example of the discontent arising from issues of classification in official categories. Even before they were classified as Other Backward Class (OBC) in 1994, the Gujjars were demanding inclusion in the Scheduled Tribes category, particularly because Meenas, another denotified community in Rajasthan had been allowed such a classification. Despite the state’s many attempts to placate the Gujjars, their main demand remains unmet. More recently, the Nishads (or Mallahs), a group of fishing and river faring caste – to which the well known ‘bandit queen’ Phoolan Devi also belonged – are vociferously demanding a five percent quota within the scheduled caste category and have launched an agitation which, having begun in eastern Uttar Pradesh, has quickly spread to Bihar.
The complex character of the politics around reservation policies in India renders the hope of any easy resolution of such demands distant. Moreover such a focus fails to address the many more pressing problems of these people which can and should be addressed outside the framework of affirmative action policies in India.
One consequence of the nebulous position of denotified communities within official categories is that there is no comprehensive data on many aspects of these communities’ existence. The systematic bias against them remains largely invisible. Although several commissions have been set up by the government to look into their problems, the latest being the one headed by Dadasaheb Idate in 2015, there is no statutory body looking into the concerns of denotified communities in India. The recommendations of the commission headed by Balakrishna Renke, which submitted its report in 2008, were relegated to the cold storage, in effect reinforcing the status quo.
Most members of these communities exist on the physical peripheries of our society owing to lack of access to proper housing, schooling, healthcare and employment. They are either stuck in remote villages or inhabit fringe urban settlements. Their claims to land and even basic amenities are precarious. In northern India, the members of the Kalbelia tribe, a community of snake charmers, are currently engaged in a struggle to ensure the availability of burial land that is being denied to them by dominant groups in the region. Some members of the community have been forced to bury their dead within their dwelling places. Given the wandering lifestyles of many groups – not necessarily a willing choice under present conditions – their access to basic official documentation is often difficult. This effectively leaves them outside the ambit of many entitlements that they would otherwise have a claim to.
Irrespective of the status of denotification and lack of any explicit official sanction for such targeting, a large segment of the denotified communities remain not only downtrodden but also despised
An important concern is the lack of secure employment opportunities. The erstwhile activities of many nomadic and denotified communities, which involved a variety of peripatetic innovations including transporting goods and providing various forms entertainment through music, dance and acrobatics, have been rendered obsolete by modern technologies and media. Further, new laws such as the Indian Forest Act in its various versions, Wild life Protection Act (1972), Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (1999), and other Acts proscribing begging, performing and selling medicines and drugs has constrained the livelihoods of many communities and has even deemed them criminals in the eyes of the law, effectively re-criminalising them. Many now work in the informal sector. Some segments have become dependent upon sex work, while others have branched off into bar dancing.
Stigma of criminality
Apart from the poverty, dispossession and the considerable strain on livelihood options, is the continuing stigma of criminality which haunts the DNTs. It is this stigma that allows them to be singled out as ‘criminals’ by both society and functionaries of the state. Many denotified communities dread that the police will pick their young men up on minor offences or arrest them on trivial charges. Irrespective of the status of denotification and lack of any explicit official sanction for such targeting, a large segment of the denotified communities remain not only downtrodden but also despised. This distinguishes their condition from other marginalised groups such as the Dalits whose lives though mired by the stigma of untouchability, has at least been widely condemned politically and socially. The stigma attached to denotified communities has no clear name.
Not only has the idea that some groups are inherently and hereditarily criminal survived its official demise, many vestiges of the Criminal Tribes Act persist in the form of the Habitual Offenders Act which was passed in the state of Punjab on the very same day the Criminal Tribes Act was repealed in 1952. The Act was later also extended to other Indian states and is seen as almost identical to the Criminal Tribes Act, except that it seeks identification of, and restrictions on, individual ‘habitual offenders’ rather than entire groups. The Act has in large measure been used against the members of the denotified communities.
Habitual Offenders Act has not been done away with despite various appeals to do so in the Parliament, as well as by the National Human Rights Commission and the appeal by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) in 2007. In addition, there are scores of other provisions in the Indian Penal Code like local acts such as the Bombay Police Act and draconian acts such as the Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act (MCOCA) which allow easy targeting of vulnerable sections when the police is hard pressed to find scapegoats to ‘solve’ criminal cases in their areas.
While the National Crime Records Bureau does publish data on atrocities on Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, there is no separate data available to assess the extent of violence and persecution faced by members of denotified communities. We do not know how many of the cases reported under the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, better known as the Atrocities Act, deal with members of DNTs. Moreover, not all DNTs are covered by the Act. As a result, although the forms of violence they experience are exceedingly casteist and racist in origin, they cannot rely on the protection of the state.
An ongoing study, which is part of the Death Penalty Project of the National Law University, Delhi, has shown through their research on 373 death row convicts that a large bulk of them belong to poor and marginal communities, including Dalits and religious minorities. But it is not clear whether this data can tell us about those who belong to denotified communities. Similar data about other incarcerated people will shed a great deal of light on the plight of these communities in India.
Several of the cases are trivial, involving minor thefts such as of a few hundred rupees, clothes or chickens or other unproven allegations such as breaking a mirror in a police station
‘A study report on persecution of ex-criminal tribes’, brought out in 2014 by Sangharsh Wahini Bhatke Vimukt Sangharsh Parishad, a Nagpur-based collective of independent activists, has documented the systematic targeting to which members of Pardhi community in Maharashtra are subjected to. The report shows that almost every member of Pardhi families in the settlements covered by the study has multiple criminal cases registered against them. Several of the cases are trivial, involving minor thefts such as of a few hundred rupees, clothes or chickens or other unproven allegations such as breaking a mirror in a police station. There is a case in which a Pardhi man was accused of stealing a bike that he had bought. The Pardhi people are routinely asked to produce receipts for household goods. All possessions are presumed to be stolen unless proven otherwise. The consequences of such persistent persecution are severe and many Pardhi men have ended up suffering jail sentences far exceeding the maximum punishment such acts would have invited even if the cases against them were proven.
In April 2015, 20 Tamil woodcutters were killed in Seshachalam forest by a special task force of the Andhra Pradesh police. These so-called encounter killings regularly occur as part of state operation against the smuggling of red sanders wood in Andhra Pradesh. While the killing of the Tamil woodcutters received widespread condemnation, what is not sufficiently highlighted is the elaborate network of red sanders smugglers that reaches the highest echelons of political machinery, who use tribal communities to facilitate their ground operations. As a report prepared by Hyderabad-based National Campaign for DNT Human Rights shows, forest tribes belonging to denotified communities such as Vanniar, Yanadi and Vaddera, constitute the lowest layer of this large network. They cut the trees at a great risk and get a pittance compared to what is earned by the second, third and fourth layers. Instances of them being killed in encounters as well as in custody have also been listed in this report. Further, almost half of all those who are in Kadapa and Nellore Central prisons in Andhra Pradesh are from denotified tribes. A large proportion of those killed, detained, arrested and jailed in red sanders smuggling cases belong to denotified communities, while those higher up in the criminal hierarchy, mostly from other dominant groups have managed to go scot-free.
Years ago, the Bengali writer Mahashweta Devi who has relentlessly worked to give voice to the marginalised, estimated that just in the state of West Bengal, between 1979 and 1982, 42 members of Lodha tribe were mob-lynched and between 1960 and 1998, more than 50 members of the Kheria Sabars either died in police custody or were mob-lynched.
Such estimates of mob lynching and custodial deaths among DNTs are not easy to come by but there are scores of cases which have made headlines. In Maharashtra, Pinya Hari Kale and Ramesh Kale, both from the Pardhi community, died in police custody in 1998 after being arrested on charges of theft. The death of Budhan Sabar in West Bengal in the same year became the rallying point for a social movement led by Mahashweta Devi who, along with Ganesh Devy and Laxman Gaikad, founded the Denotified and Nomadic Tribals Rights Actions Group. The groups dissolved in 2007 after remaining active for almost ten years. But despite such dedicated activism, mob lynching, cases of custodial rape and torture of women of these groups are not at all uncommon, even at present, and generally arouse little public outrage.
Almost half of all those who are in Kadapa and Nellore Central prisons in Andhra Pradesh are from denotified tribes
The consequences of such targeting are sometimes very tragic. The suicide by Sandeep Dhotre outside a police station in June 2015 in the Nanded district of Maharashtra is a recent case. According to a Sangharsh Wahini report, Dhotre and his family members (belonging to the Wadar community) from the Ganganagar basti were accused of theft following the complaints of a local shopkeeper with whom they had had a minor argument. When the police came to interrogate them, the attempts by the family members to record their harassment on their mobile phones led to anger, violence and renewed backlash. On 2 June 2015, the entire basti was subjected to midnight raids, beatings and mayhem at the hands of the police. The following afternoon Dhotre doused himself with petrol and set himself on fire at the police station. What other than a sense of extreme desperation and humiliation could have driven this young man to commit such a desperate act in full public glare? While a CID inquiry has been initiated, the hope that there will be any justice remains slim, especially when the mainstream media either does not report such cases or treats it as the suicide of a “criminal”!
In May 2012, men of the Nath Jogi community were lynched to death in Nagpur, Maharashtra when they had gone out to beg dressed as women and were taken to be thieves. Cross-dressing is a form of traditionally practiced art among the community, and even if minor thefts often accompany such activities, the backlash against them was entirely disproportionate. Following this incident, the Maharashtra state responded slowly and weakly, giving a paltry compensation of INR 1,00,000 (USD 1500) each to the family of the dead. Sangharsh Wahini led a shaming campaign, urging people to return the money by sending money orders of one rupee to the chief minister. They filed a PIL seeking a more reasonable compensation which the state is mandated to provide under such circumstances. Finally a high court decision led to an enhanced compensation of INR 5,00,000 (USD 7500) for the legal heirs.
Even though these are fragments of a larger untold story, they allow us to understand why, even after more than 60 years of their denotification, a sense of betrayal and disillusionment is very palpable among the denotified communities and their representatives. It remains to be seen what forms would be taken by the frustration and anger brewing among the denotified communities in times to come.
~ Anuja Agrawal is Associate Professor, Department of Sociology, University of Delhi. She is the editor of Migrant women and work (Sage, 2006 ) and the author of Chaste Wives and Prostitute Sisters (Routledge,2008).