PUCL Bulletin, September 1998

The Branded Tribes of India
-By G. N. Devi

[The following piece is by G. N. Devi, editor Budhan, the newsletter of the Denotified Nomadic Tribes Rights Action Groups (DNT-RAG). The newsletter is named after one Budhan Sabar who belonged to the Kheria Sabar Tribal community of the Purulia region in West Bengal. His dead body was handed over from the Purulia jail to his family in February, 1998. The police said that he had committed suicide in his jail cell. Jnanpeeth-Magsaysay award winner Mahasweta Devi took this case to the Calcutta High Court and alleged that Budhan was beaten to death. Justice Rama Pal of the Calcutta High Court rejected the police story in the judgment delivered on July 6 and ordered the State Government to pay compensations of Rs. 80,000/- to his wife and Rs. 5,000/- to his parents. The judgment also directed the State to punish the Jail Superintendent of Purulia and the office in-charge of Burrabazar police station. The newsletter of TNT-RAG is so named after Budhan Sabar - General Secretary]

The social category generally known as the Denotified and Nomadic tribes of India covers a population approximately of six crores. Some of them are included in the list of Scheduled castes, some others in the Scheduled Castes, some others in the Scheduled Tribes, and quite a few in Other Backward Classes. But there are many of these tribes which find place in none of the above. What is common to all these Denotified and Nomadic Tribes (DNTs) is the fate of being branded as 'born' criminals.

The story of the DNTs goes back to the early years of the colonial rule. In those times, whoever opposed the British colonial expansion was perceived as a potential criminal. Particularly, if any attempts were made to oppose the government by the use of the arms, the charge of criminality was a certainty. Many of the wandering minstrels, fakirs, petty traders, rustic transporters and disbanded groups of soldiers were included by the British in their list of criminal groups. During the first half of the nineteenth century, the tribes in the North West frontier had been declared 'criminal tribes'. This category became increasingly open ended and by 1871 the British had prepared an official list of Criminal Tribes. An act to regulate criminal tribes was passed that year. For instance, Bhils who had fought the British rule in Kandesh and on the banks of Narmada and were convicted under section 110 of the IPC were to be recognised as criminal tribes. The CT Act made provisions for establishing reformatory settlements where the criminal tribals could be kept in confinement and subjected to low paid work. They were required to report to the guardrooms several times every day, so that they did not escape the oppressive settlements.

By 1921, the CT Act had been extended to cover numerous other tribes in Madras Presidency, Hyderabad and Mysore. Thus, about the time Indian politics saw the emergence of Mahatma Gandhi as the leader of the freedom struggle, the Indian society mutely witnessed the emergence of a new class of people who were branded as born criminals.

Soon after Independence, the communities notified as criminal tribals were denotified by the Government. This notification was followed by substitution of a series of Acts, generally entitled 'Habitual Offenders Act! The HOAs preserved most of the provisions of the former CT Acts, except the premise implicit in it that an entire community can be 'born' criminal. Apparently, the denotification and the passing of the HOAs should have ended the misery of the communities penalised under the CT Act. But that has not happened. The police force as well as the people in general were taught to look upon the 'Criminal Tribes' as born criminals during the colonial times. That attitude continues to persist even today. One does not know if the police training academies in India still teach the trainees that certain communities are habitually criminal; but surely the CT Act is a part of the syllabus leading to the discussion of crime-watch. The result is that every time there is a petty theft in a locality, the DNTs in the neighbourhood become the first suspects. The ratio between the arrests and the convictions of the DNTs needs to be analysed to see the extent of the harassment caused by the police to these most vulnerable and the weakest sections of our society. The land possessed by the criminal tribes was already alienated during the colonial rule. After independence, various state governments have done little to restore their land to them. Schemes for economic uplift do not seem to have benefited them. The illiteracy rate among the DNTs is higher than among the SCs or the STs, malnutrition's more frequent and provisions for education and health care almost negligible since most of the DNTs have remained nomadic in habit. And above all, there is no end to the atrocities that the DNTs have to face.

Being illiterate and ignorant of the law of the land, the DNTs know very little about the police procedures, and so often get into difficult situations. The onus of proving innocence rests with them. I have known many of these people who are scared to wear new clothes for the fear of being arrested and therefore spoil them before using them. Mob-lynched, hounded from village to village, starved of all civic amenities, deprived of the means of livelihood and gripped by the fear of police persecution, the DNTs of India are on the run. Freedom has still not reached them.

It is time that the Census authorities take up the work of deciding on a procedure to count the DNTs as a distinct category in the next Census. Similarly, the police training academies will have to make special efforts to senstise the new trainees to treat this unfortunate lot with less brutality and greater understanding. They will have to be brought under the provisions made for the STs in the Tribal Sub-plans. Moreover, the people of India will have to raise their voice and alert the authorities at local and national level to the kind of silent genocide that the DNTs are facing. It is then that, some day, these first freedom fighters of our country will receive the benefits of independence for which they have carried the stigma of being branded for over a century.

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