If the Pardhi tribespeople are genetically criminals, then those who see them so are genetically colonised.
In 1932, a British army officer, Lieutenant-General Sir George MacMunn, wrote a book called The Underworld of India. In this not-quite-scholarly treatise, MacMunn rambles at length about all that he found dark and dreaded while on his tour of duty in India. In particular, he has a chapter titled “Criminal Tribes and Classes”, where he says of India’s ‘criminal’ tribes: “[T]hey are absolutely the scum, the flotsam and jetsam of Indian life, of no more regard than the beasts of the field.”
Sprinkled through the rest of the chapter are several other references to such tribes, all about as derogatory. The Chantichors (“Bundlestealers”) are all “feckless and unstable”; the Harnis have a “gift for humbugging the world”; the Ramoshis were employed by the British as watchmen, but such a watchman “is always an incorrigible pander, being prepared to produce ladies of the flimsiest virtue at the shortest notice”; Vanjari women are “bright and comely [with] wellmoulded breasts”, and are “adepno doubt in venery”. In fact, MacMunn makes it a point to comment on the women of nearly every tribe he mentions: all are invariably “comely” yet “hopelessly immoral” (MacMunn also has an astonishing tendency to refer to women as “baggages”.)
Read 70 years later, the general’s language seems quaint at best. It is hard to imagine a writer of serious pretensions today describing a whole people in the terms he uses. Yet that is what MacMunn does; because that is indeed how criminal tribes were viewed in colonial India.
In 1871, the British passed the “Criminal Tribes Act”, which notified about 150 tribes around India as ‘criminal’, giving the police wide powers to monitor their movements and arrest them. The effect of this law was simple: just being born into one of these tribes made you a criminal. This was not seen as particularly odd; there was even a notion that it was just the way things were meant to be in a caste-ridden India. As T.V. Stephens, a British official of the time, said, while introducing the bill that became the Act: “…people from time immemorial have been pursuing the caste system defined job-positions: weaving, carpentry and such were hereditary jobs. So there must have been hereditary criminals also who pursued their forefathers’ profession.”
Why did the British feel the need for such an Act? Arguably, it was part of an entire model of how law and order was to be preserved in he colony. To the British, India must have seemed a hair-raisingly anarchic and volatile place. Nineteenthentury England’s rather more settled society meant that the police there had begun focusing on protecting private property; in India, simply keeping public order was work enough and became the prime job description of the police. Strife and conflict were everywhere in this vast country; there were tensions entirely different from anything the British had known at home. There was little hope of being able to contain them all.
Consciously or not, a strategy evolved, of concentrating the limitd resources and efforts of the police on selected, visible targets. There were groups who were known for committing crimes, and there was also the campaign the British had waged from the 1830s onwards to suppress the thuggee cult. The idea must have been a seductive one: that certain people were congenital criminals and needed to be policed harshly. The police used that idea to build a broad perception about crime, and how it had to be tackled was by singling out such groups. In Imperial Power and Popular Politics: Class, Resistance and the State in India 1850-1950, the Cambridge University historian Rajnarayan Chandavarkar explains: “[The police had] necessarily to rely upon a general consensus about which groups in society were especially prone to criminal activity and might constitute, therefore, the proper objects of policing. …[B]y enacting this principle of selection [of particular groups], the colonial state was able to create criminal tribes and castes.”
Criminal tribes, then, became a convenient target, a scapegoat — and this is said without meaning to imply that they were entirely free of crime. By acting against them, the state could keep up at least a pretence of law enforcement — even if other, more serious crimes took place and were left unpunished. Writes Chandavarkar: “While in reality crime went largely unreported and unrecorded, police reports and memoirs…described in painstaking detail crimes of savage brutality or extraordinary guile and cunning or those which reflected exotic customs and elaborate rituals. [T]his was particularly the case with…the criminal tribes and castes, whose supposed criminality was represented as an inheritance and a profession, inextricably connected to their lineage and genealogy.”
In those lurid police records were born a certain view of certain tribes that made it easy to brand them criminal. It appears repeatedly in the Gazettes, the remarkably detailed accounts by British officials of happenings in the districts. For instance, Volume XII of the 1880 Bombay Presidency Gazette has these notes about Pardhis, groups of whom this writer has been spending time with in the rural areas of Maharashtra: “[T]hey are still fond of hunting and poaching and have not got rid of their turn for thieving… The Phase Pardhi [a sub-tribe] is nearly always ragged and dirty, walking with a sneaking gait.”
Unfortunately, views like that have long outlived the British administration in India. This is true even though a newly independent India repealed the Criminal Tribes Act in 1952. They were no longer to be called “criminal”, but “denotified tribes”. Nevertheless, nearly half a century later, they are still routinely called “criminal”. Other than activists and scholars, virtually nobody refers to them as DNTs. Not even policemen. The term is known, as is its Hindi equivalent vimukta jati, but “criminal” is what they get called. And criminal is what they are seen to be.
A typical example is in a report in Calcutta’s The Telegraph (31 July, 1998). Commenting on a series of robberies by Pardhis in the state of Madhya Pradesh, it says the tribe is “identified as having criminal antecedents”, that they are “listed as [a] criminal ethnic group”. Which is an error of course, because such listing lapsed when the CT Act was repealed in 1952. Besides, the chief minister of the state is quoted complaining that his state’s “projects to provide these people with education did not have any impact on their criminal instincts”.
When the highest elected official in a state refers to the “criminal instincts” of these tribals, when newspapers write easily of their “criminal antecedents”, there seems little hope that they will ever be seen as ordinary human beings. Sure enough, nearly everyone I have spoken to about Pardhis — policemen, industrialists, students, professors, villagers —has assumed that they have a propensity for crime. That assumed propensity is the starting point for discussion.
Of course, some DNTs do indulge in crime, and their crimes range from stealing pomegranates from fields to burglaries in which people get murdered. A retired police constable in Satara district, Maharashtra, showed several lists of Pardhi tolis (gangs), each centred on one family engaging in banditry that wander the district. He knew the particular methods of each toli, what their beats were. The police station in Phaltan, a large town in Satara, had pictures of several Pardhis wanted for crimes in the area, some of whose names were in the lists the retired constable showed me.
But there are contexts to, and reasons for, such crime. They deserve consideration. Take what anthropologist Stephen Fuchs wrote in The Aboriginal Tribes of India (1973): “[A] number of [such tribes] are passionately nomadic, and since foodgathering and hunting in the jungle, in the traditional manner, is often impossible, they have switched over to the rather dangerous… life of ‘foraging’ in the fields, villages and towns… This has gained them a bad reputation and in the British times some of them were branded [criminal] and held under close police supervision. Since Independence this stigma has been taken from them, but the watch over them by the police has not much relaxed… They are forced by the prevailing adverse circumstances to practise subsistence thieving.”
If there are Pardhis who commit crimes, at least part of the blame lies in the fact that life “in the traditional manner” is no longer an option. Societal attitudes that leave them with no choice, are also a factor. Time and again, the writer has met Pardhis who recount how the local schools do not allow their children to attend classes. If they do manage to stay in school and graduate, jobs are hard to get. After a meeting near Phaltan where several speakers urged Pardhis to educate their children, and especially their girls, one woman pointed to her grown daughter. “I struggled so she could graduate from school,” she said. “But now nobody will give her a job because she is a Pardhi. What’s the use of all this talk of education?”
And yet there are Pardhis who manage to rise despite the prejudice. I spent an afternoon last June with a 24-year-old Pardhi who is a respected school teacher in the town of Dahivadi (also Satara District). In another family, both daughters are educated, one son is in the army and the other is a wireman with the state electricity board. Among the other Pardhis I met, several men find work as labourers, either in fields or on construction sites in cities. Others are hired by farmers to guard their fields (on the age-old theory that you need a thief to catch a thief). Some are raising crops on land al lotted by the government under various schemes. In West Bengal, I met the Sabars who raise river fish for sale; others breed roosters for the regular cockfights in the area.
Even so, the police continue to round up DNTs every time there is a crime —petty or major. This applies in cities as well as in rural areas; in fact the first time this writer heard about Pardhis was when two were arrested for a burglary in a Bombay suburb. And rounding up can only mean a sound thrashing at the police station.
Consider this incident, that of a Pardhi called Pinya Hari Kale who was picked up in Baramati, Maharashtra, on 8 June, 1998. Since the arrest of a Pardhi merely on suspicion is quite normal, his wife, Chandrasena, was not particularly perturbed when he did not return home that night. As she told the Bombay High Court in a petition, she “expected him to be detained and released”.
Instead, he died. The police claimed that Kale “fell down” while trying to escape the constables and succumbed to injuries, a claim corroborated by the post-mortem. A second post-mortem, at Chandrasena’s insistence, found that Kale had died “due to multiple blunt injuries with evidence of head injury”. A subsequent Criminal Investigation Department (CID) inquiry concluded that three constables and a subinspector had beaten Kale “with sticks and belt”, leading to his death early on 9 June. The CID has filed complaints against all four men who have been suspended while further investigation takes place.
What happened to Kale is not something out of ordinary in the experience of the denotified tribes. Police harassment occurs, and tend to be condoned, solely because these tribes are seen as criminal.
There are, nevertheless, some signs of hope. In the immediate instance, the Denotified and Nomadic Tribes Rights Action Group (DNT-RAG) (see box) informed the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) about the Kale case. The human rights body ruling on 22 December 1998 directed that, because there was a “strong prima facie evidence”, the State of Maharashtra ought to pay Kale’s family INR 200,000 (c. USD 4500) in compensation. It also directed the State to consider action against the magistrate and the doctor who conducted the first post-mortem, for “doctoring the inquest report to suit the offenders”.
Cases like this one may be the first signs of a small turn in the tide. In awarding compensation and recommending punishment, the NHRC implicitly recognised the rights of such tribes, and the injustice they live under daily. But it still does not amount to much yet. In particular, we need to see if the policemen are really punished. But it is a step away from the widespread attitudes these tribes have always had to face.
Historian Chandavarkar writes that even though they were the focus of much police action, “the criminal tribes were scarcely, by the late 19th century, a potent threat to social order”. In the late 20th century, much the same applies to these “flotsam and jetsam of Indian life”.
(This article is part of Dilip D’Souza’s study of India’s Denotified and Nomadic Tribes on a National Foundation for India Fellowship for 1998-99. He is now working on a book on the subject.)
* It is difficult to say exactly how many people from the DNTs there are in India. But most observers believe their number to be between 20 and 30 million. Census takers are often reluctant to work among DNTs because of their perceived criminality; this makes their numbers harder to gauge. Each state in the country has its share of denotified tribes. Some of these tribes are small, like the Sabars of West Bengal, while others are much larger—like the Pardhis, who are found from Punjab all the way south to Karnataka.
* The Denotified and Nomadic Tribes Rights Action Group (DNT-RAG) was founded after a conference in Baroda in March 1 998. Mahasweta Devi, the Bengali writer-activist, was invited to speak of her work with the Kheria Sabar ‘ex-criminal’ tribe in West Bengal. DNT-RAG was started by Mahasweta Devi, together with two others: Laxman Gaikwad, an award-winning author and activist from Maharashtra, himself a member of the Uchlya denotified tribe; G.N. Devy, professor of English, well-known writer and head of the Bhasha Research Centre in Baroda, which conducts research in tribal languages.
Since then, DNT-RAG has worked on getting justice for the families of Pinya Kale and Budhan Sabar (a DNT similarly killed in West Bengal); and were able to get the killers of Bhikabhai Bajania (a member of Gujarat’s Bajania tribe) in Ahmedabad arrested. The group has also set up four community development centres for these tribes in Gujarat, Bengal and Maharashtra.
As part of its ongoing activism, DNT-RAG compiled and submitted to the NHRC a comprehensive report on the status of the DNTs. DNT-RAG also publishes the journal Budhan (named for Budhan Sabar) every two months, which carries news and research reports about the DNTs.
Direct inquiries to: DNT-RAG, 6 United Avenue, Near Dinesh Mill, Baroda 390007, Gujarat, India. Telephone: (+91 -265) 331968/351487. Fax: (+91-265) 331130. Annual subscription to Budhan: INR 110 in India, USD 100 outside.