A Nomad is a community member who regularly moves from one place to another without any fixed habitat. Known as the wandering community, the members of nomadic tribes were generally entertainers and transporters historically. The Denotified tribes (DNTs), a part of a wandering community, are the tribes that were originally listed under the ‘Criminal Tribes act’ of 1871. Currently, there are 315 nomadic tribes and 198 denotified tribes in India, and they constitute 60 Million of India’s population.
History before the Criminal Tribes Act:
Historically, ‘Ramoshis’ belong to the nomadic tribe community. Before the rule of East India Company, Ramoshis used to work for surveillance of the Maratha region and security of Maratha forts in Maharashtra. As compensation for this duty, Ramoshis had the right to collect the taxes from the specific villages. But after the defeat of the Maratha kingdom, this right to collect the taxes was snatched away, which led to protests of the community against the Britishers.
Umaji Naik emerged as a leader of Ramoshis in this fight. In 1926 he declared himself as the king and instructed the community members to kill the Britishers and loot their money. He also announced the prizes for the community members who beheaded the Britishers and presented their heads to him. As a result of this, many Britishers were killed by the Ramoshis. British officer Sleeman declared the ‘Ramoshi’ community as ‘Thugs.’ Many Nomadic tagged as Thugs were hanged from 1840-42. This incident formed a basis for the Criminal Tribes Act, 1871.
Criminal Tribes Act, 1871:
The Nomads continued to oppose to British Colonial Idea of civilized living, which involved settled agriculture and wage labour. Britishers accepted a theory that said that such non-conformational behavior is hereditary. Thus, the crime, which was a social determinism, became biological determinism. Under this assumption of biological determinism, the Criminal Tribes Act was formulated by Britishers. The entire set of some communities were tagged as ‘habitual criminals’ and were declared as addicted to the systematic commission of non-bailable offenses. Restrictions were imposed on the movements of such habitual criminals, and adult male members of the community were forced to report weekly to the local police station. The adult male members were not allowed to travel beyond the prescribed area. The act was introduced in North India at first and then was gradually introduced in Bengal and Madras presidencies as well. By the time of Independence, 13 million people faced search and arrest warrants if any of them was found outside the prescribed area.
The draconian act was repealed in August 1949, and ‘criminal’ tribes were ‘denotified’. But soon, another act was introduced in the name of ‘Habitual offender act’ and was included in the state list.
The government of Bombay set up a committee in Jan 1947 to look into the matter of ‘Criminal Tribes’. The committee repealed the act in August 1949, resulting in 2300000 tribals being decriminalized. The act was first repealed in Madras province, followed by other provinces. The committee appointed by the central government to study the utility of the existing law also concluded that the act was not in the spirit of the Indian constitution. But, unfortunately, at the same time, there was a crime wave. The stigma about the criminal tribes haunted them, and the crime wave was attributed to the removal of the criminal tribe act. The huge public outcry due to the removal of the criminal tribe act and crime wave led to the formation of the Habitual Offenders Act. The law stated that a habitual offender is one who has been a victim of subjective and objective influences and has manifested a set practice in crime and presents a danger to society. This way, the habitual offender act re-stigmatized already marginalized criminal tribes. National Huan Right Commission in Feb 2000 recommended repeal of habitual offender act, 1952. In 2007, the United Nation’s anti-discriminatory body Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) noted that the alleged criminal tendencies in Criminal Tribes Act, 1871 continue to be stigmatized in the Habitual Offender Act, 1952. The body stated that much of the Habitual Offender Act had been derived from Criminal Tribes Act, and hence, it does not show a marked departure in the intent of the government apart from renaming the ‘notified tribes’ as ‘denotified tribes’. Unfortunately, no further progress has happened on this issue.
Current Status and Issues:
- Continued Stigma: Though the alleged criminal tribes have been denotified, there is continued stigma around the denotified tribes. Though the hereditary criminal inclination has been repealed by the law, it is still present through social norms. Due to the ‘social tag’ of so-called ‘criminality,’ the members of the community are still facing issues of mistrust by other non-community members, continued non-inclusion in the mainstream society, and discriminatory behavior towards the members of the society.
- Police Atrocities: As the community is still socially recognized as a community with criminal inclination, the community members are still easy targets for the police, according to Mr. Dakshin Bajrange. The community members are impacted by this prejudice of the criminal mentality and hence suffer from illegal arrests. According to Mr. Dakshin, denotified tribes have become a scapegoat for the Police department.
- Denial of Admission: The discrimination is faced by the students of the community members while getting admitted to the schools and colleges. The admission form of the education institutions contains the column of ‘Caste.’ Declaration by the pupil of belonging to the Denotified or the nomadic tribe is the source of discrimination, and the students are denied admission into the private schools on the basis of belonging to the denotified or nomadic tribes.
- Private Jobs: The job applications for private jobs or the verification generally includes the Declaration of the address of the applicants. But the DNTs still stay in the colonies which are named after their castes, For ex: Chhara Nagar. When the potential employers look at the declared address, it is very easy to identify the applicant belongs to the DNT community, and hence the job opportunity is denied to the applicant.
- Illiteracy: The DNT community has an abysmally low percentage of literacy. Only 2-3% of the people are literate enough to get a job, while 95% of the community members still live in extreme poverty. Such a bad education level is making it tough for the community to live respectfully in the mainstream section of the society.
- Lack of political will: The DNT community members are scattered across the country. The lack of sizable communities living together makes it tough for the community to put pressure on political parties or the people contesting the elections. Due to a small number of people living at an area, their needs are often ignored by the political representatives, and hence the community is struggling to progress. Due to the scattered community, the members are not getting successful in creating a movement for justice.
- Lack of Financial Support: Though a separate commission for Nomadic and Denotified Tribes was instituted in 2006, the governments over the years have shown little intent in the allocation of budget for the welfare of the DNT community.
Budhan Theatre is a theatre group composed of members of the Chhara tribe. The name of the theatre is taken from Budhan Sabar, a tribal man who was labeled a criminal and murdered by West Bengal police. The group is currently led by the youth of Chhara community in Ahmedabad. Founded in 1998, the group has performed more than 1500 shows of 52 different plays across the country. The theatre believes that art has the power to change the mindset and hence tries to sensitize all the strata of the system and society with the issues faced by the community members. The theatre is attempting to sensitize the policy makers, judiciary, police department, politicians, media houses etc., through their constant efforts. Answering the question of why theatre only, Mr. Dakshin said that the group believes in an intimate relationship that can be built in between the performer and audience. Taking pride in the fact that, now the third generation of actors and actresses are also taking a keen interest in performing on these critical issues, he feels that the group has been receiving a good response from the audience and media houses. The performances have been very successful in making a long-lasting impact on the audience where some of the spectators have come ahead and joined the hands with the theatre. The theatre has been successful in making the people realize their mistakes and wrong attitude towards DNTs. In the words of Mr. Dakshin, “Budhan Theatre” has become a bridge in between the ignorant section of the society and the DNT community.
Budhan theatre also contributed a lot to the testing times of Covid. Community members in Chhara Nagar faced a huge cash crunch during the lockdown. As most of the people are daily wage earners, their earning stopped, and hence the members were struggling to get money for the daily livelihood. Chharanagar also lost more than 30 community members during Covid. The narrow roads and crowded locality were the major cause of concerns as they could have triggered Corona’s quick spread. But the Budhan theatre members supported the community financially in distributing ration kits and also helped in the sanitization of the entire Chharanagar. In Mr. Dakshin’s words, “Actors of Budhan theatre are the cultural leaders. We speak and perform for and on behalf of the community. So it is our moral duty of everyone in the Budhan theatre to protect the community when it is in danger”.
- Though the DNT community has been ‘denotified’ legally, the social stigma of being criminals still exists. Society has turned the community into ‘social criminals’ when ‘legal criminality’ was stripped.
- Despite multiple attempts by various social workers and the formation of DNT commission, most of the promises made to the community are mere ‘promises’ only. There has not been an intent to allocate the budget for the development of the community.
- DNT community faces discrimination at every stage in life, right from admission to the school to rejection by employers.
- DNT community could not create a unified socio-political movement due to lack of education, extreme poverty, and scattered population.
- Thus, it is on every responsible citizen to respect and to provide enough opportunities to the DNT community to progress on their own independently and live respectfully in the mainstream society.
Dhiraj Kulkarni is a student of IIM Ahmedabad