It’s around 2.30 at night. In the silence of the night, when darkness engulfs the surroundings and there is deafening silence, people are sleeping under their roofs, suddenly a police jeep sneaks into the settlement. People are forcibly removed from their tenements, causing a disturbance in the sleep of the hard-working daily wage laborers who have been labouring hard and sweating till night. Police entered their tenements and overturned all their belongings and made all of them sit outside their hutments till morning when 80 of them including persons of both sexes, all ages, even the infirm and blind were removed to the police station. Other members of the colony who were employed in the city were also called to the police station for an enquiry. During their roll-on and search, women were stripped and forced to give their clothes away in the presence of men including police officers. Even a girl of age 15 was asked to give her lower cloth dhoti to a policeman. A school uniform of a teenage boy was taken away, who would not be able to go to school now.

Soon this incident made a hue and cry in the city and Hindustan times came up with a detailed narration of this event under the title “Police Zabardasti in Capital of India” on 11th May 1938. It marked the police raid as unnecessary and unjustified, contrary to law and undue severity, the offensive treatment of women being particularly mentioned and ensuing police proceedings were condemned as irregular and oppressive. During the investigation, Mr. Thakkar, General Secretary of All India Harijan Sewak Sangh, and Mr. Sham Lal M.A assistant of the same body found the report subsequently correct. The Sang was established by Gandhi as an integral part of Congress mainly to eradicate untouchability from society. From then onwards Sangh is known to favour grievances of marginal groups like Dalits as well as criminal tribes.

This horrifying, unjust incidence episode narrated above is from the pages of the history of colonial Delhi, was meted out to Sansis (popularly known as kanjars) marked as one of the criminal tribes and wandering gangs in census, happened in Sansis and Bagadis Basti Rehgar Pura, Karol Bagh 3rd May 1938.

When the matter started catching up, and attracted the concern of political leaders, the police were seen trying to prove themselves innocent. Police claimed that they had evidence for the attempt at burglary or dacoity in New Delhi during the nights of 2nd, 3rd May 1938, could be traced to basti. It was probable that the gangs recently operating in New Delhi come from the basti. But when the roll or raid was called out in the early hours of the 3rd May, only two men were found absent, and that the other proceedings were, therefore, marked unjustified by Hindustan Times report.

It was reported that about 100 of the Sansis (popularly known as kanjars) were detained in the police station for twenty-four hours and were forced to accept their involvement in burglary or dacoity in Delhi. On the morning of 4th May, about thirty of them were released while the other 70 people were kept in the lock-ups until the 5th of May, when 13 were Challan and the rest were released.

But J.A Scott, senior superintendent of police denied all this allegation and, in their defense, police seem to hide behind the curtain of the Code of Criminal Procedure act 1898 which empowers them to investigate for cognizable cases and entitled them to conduct searches without a magisterial warrant.

It was also found that when the searches took place no independent witnesses were present, and no recovery lists were prepared. Later in their defense, police-reported discarding two bags containing flour and clothes which were subsequently identified as stolen property. A person named Budhu son of Ram Das inquired under the section 411 Indian Penal Code, was claimed to be found in possession of these stolen properties at the time of the raid. But later it was disclosed that these properties were recovered from someone else’s house and not from the accused house.

Congress and Mr. Thakkar a leader of General Secretary of All India Harijan Sewak Sangh remained under impression that the raid was made under the code of Criminal Procedure, 1898, however, he later condemned the undue severity meted out to women who were forced to strip their clothes and insulted.  He criticised the police for gravely exceeding their legal powers, for being harsh and unreasonable to individuals. He also pointed out that even the articles which this community has received from the Deputy Commissioner as a token of honour for their good conduct and gesture in the city were also snatched away by police without any justification. He said that police forcibly wanted to fix the guilt of undetected burglaries in old and new Delhi on these people.

The matter was decided to be discussed in the central assembly debates in favour of these long-neglected people, and to condemn the illegal and unjustifiable procedure of investigation adopted by police on a large scale and illegal detention of innocent people.

However, this was not for the first time, when the criminal tribe’s community had to face such a horrendous treatment. Historical writings show that such unjust interrogation and raids became part of their everyday life during colonial time. Census list of them used to alter, a community can be free from the degrading tag criminal tribes on the remark of their general behaviours during the course of past and if the member of these communities settling down for an honest livelihood if there any sign of improvement. These people were forced to live under the strong surveillance of police in urban centres. Their activities encroached to an extent that they could not even move about on their own. Fingerprints of each one of them were recorded, they were not allowed to go on leave and absent without informing their master. In the city, they were reported to earn their living by engaging themselves in various daily wages labour and often suspected to be involved in thefts of the city. They played a vital role as labour class in the making of imperial Delhi. According to rules and regulation which were defined in the criminal tribe’s act of 1911, particularly to regulate their movement they were forced to notify about their departure or any move out of their residential locality to the office-in-charge of a police station at least three weeks before their intended departure. They must report the reason of his departure and intended place of residence, name of the nearby police station, address of the house in which they would stay and proposed duration of their stay in that place.

In her book “Dishonoured by History? Criminal Tribes and British Colonial Policy”, Meena Radhakrishna focusing on South Indian nomadic communities, argued that nomadic communities were turned into criminal tribes by the colonial government through a criminal Tribe Act of 1871. When the pack bullocks’ services were replaced with carts and railways and nomadic groups were ignored by merchants, the Britishers criminalised their collective identity and declared them as criminal tribes. They concluded that after losing their visible source of income they were forced to indulge in dacoity and petty robbery. However, British authorities themselves fail to come up with any statistical indication and authentication in their surveys and studies. She argues that the real motive of marking them as hereditary criminals under 1911 kept them under strong surveillance duty of which was assigned to village headmen in the rural areas and to police-in-charge in urban areas. She argues implementation of Criminal Tribes Act actually served the interest of village landlords as well as urban capitalists. Where in the villages it extends the power of landlords to extract unpaid agricultural labour from tribal households, in urban areas they were kept in filthy and congested slums as daily wage labourers. Thus, CTA was the result of an alliance between the British administration with landlords and capitalists to impound certain groups as daily wage workers.

Though independent India had denotified them on August 31, 1952, it failed to bring any substantial change in their lives. The stereotypes against them have survived.  Irrespective of individual behaviour, entire communities’ men, women, and children all subjected to stigmas which followed them till their last breath. Without analysing the individual behaviour, people born in this community are considered criminals by birth who practiced crime as a profession. The illiteracy rate is high among them. People are suspicious and hesitant to provide any job to them. Many of the children end up as a street play artist and fail to secure enough money to feed themselves and their family members’ stomachs. Many of the women and girls end up in human trafficking and prostitution. We as a society fail to respect these individuals as human beings, as emotional beings having grievances, capacities, and aspirations

Vaishali is a PhD scholar at the Department of History, University of Delhi. She has received a Post-graduate degree in Modern History from Jawahar Lal Nehru University. Her current field of research is Dalit history.


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