criminal tribes

            Supreme Court Judge Justice D.Y.Chandrachud recently gave voice to the suppressed agony of millions of members of denotified tribes when he clearly stated that injustice and discrimination was still being suffered by them over 7 decades after independence. Speaking on the occasion of the 13th B.R.Ambedkar Memorial Lecture on ‘Conceptualizing Marginalisation’ organized by the Indian Institute of Dalit Studies and Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, South Asia, he stated, “ The British enacted the Criminal Tribes Act 1871 through which a tribe, gang or class of persons ( believed to be) addicted to the systematic commission of offences were notified. The Criminal Tribes Act was later repealed in 1949 and the tribes were ‘de-notified’.”

Futher the learned judge known for his deep concern for marginalized sections of society noted, “However even after nearly 73 years since the tribes were denotified, the members of the tribes are still subject to oppression and cruelty. Members of the denotified tribes are still picked up by the investigating officers to cover up shoddy investigations.”

It is generally not realised that as many as 120 million people in India belong to denotified and nomadic tribes (DNTs). They are among the worst victims of neglect and oppression. Various nomadic and semi-nomadic tribes may be pastoral groups , or they may have artisan based livelihood (like godalia lohars or blacksmiths of Rajasthan) or else they  may derive livelihood based on medicinal herbs, acrobatics, folk arts, etc.

Some attention could be drawn in recent years to  the numerous problems and sufferings  of these neglected groups due to the efforts of dedicated social activists and the National Commission for Denotified, Nomadic and Semi Nomadic Tribes.

This Commission observed,”The Commission was shocked to notice the living conditions of large section of these people during its field visits. It was appalled by the fact that some of these communities are far away from receiving the benefits  of freedom and social justice even though they are classified as ST, SC or OBC. The welfare measures implemented for these groups either have not reached them or are irrelevant in their context. Those among the concerned communities who got the benefits of welfare are basically the ones who are better off and organised and the vulnerable groups are completely left out of their reach.”

“The nomads nurture a feeling that independence of the country has no meaning for them, as their condition has become worse in the more recent past.”

“Several groups among these communities across the states, in both urban and rural sectors, are seen dwelling in temporary shelters or tents on vacant lands. These people have no permanent addresses; hence they have got no land allocation for housing purpose. With no proof of residence or property ownership certificates, they are not in a position to avail ration cards and have not been included in the BPL list.With no certification of their residence, they also face a lot of trouble in getting the caste certificate, which results further in not being able to avail government welfare schemes.”

“In the name of change of occupation, the people are encountering dehumanization and deterioration of character, sometimes being forced to move away from morality and ethics due to their vulnerability. ”

“The people concerned have no stakes in the decision making processes of the state. They are not a part of the gram panchayats as they are severely discriminated against, and inhabit the outskirts of a village.”

“Among the extremely patriarchal nomadic communities there is hardly any protection for women, and the progressive property laws and laws for the dignity of women have virtually no relevance to the women in these communities. Living utterly undignified lives in destitute conditions, they are subject to maltreatment and abuse by all- the family, the community and the society at large. Having no shelter or support, they fall victim to every kind of social harassment and torture.”

This report says that long after the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871 attached the stigma of criminality to these communities, the people of the communities are still harassed and persecuted under various sections of the Indian Penal Code and Criminal Procedure Code.

In addition the nomadic communities also suffer. As this report says, “Generally, it is understood by the goverment as well as by the activists that atrocities are perpetrated on the tribes considered ‘criminal’; however, the fact is, that the nomadic communities which are scattered and in today’s circumstances dehumanized into begging or other illegal activities at the bottom most level are being victimized on a growing scale. As was often reported by the people, they are haressed more often under Acts like the Prevention of Beggary Act. If they are caught begging, they are allowed to carry out the same only after agreeing to pay regular cuts to the officials, the non-payment of which may result in persecution. The same is true about other communities in the context of the Wildlife Protection Act, the Act for Prevention of Cruelry to Animals, the Act for Prevention of Magic and Drugs. These are the laws that have destroyed traditional livelihood supports, with no thought given to destroyed traditional liverlihood supports, with no thought given to providing any alternative means of livelihood. ”

Based on these observations the commission made a number of  recommendations aimed mainly at helping the DNTs to make better use of existing government programmes. Recommendations to provide essential facilities for the settlements of DNTs and some land to the landless were also made

The Commission stated,”One of the major problems being faced by the Denotified Tribes is a continuing stigma of criminality about them and which has made them vulnerable to frequent police action merely on the basis of suspicion arising out of the stigma of criminality. It is, therefore, necessary that the Denotified Tribes get rid of this stigma at the earliest and live a dignified life like the mainstream citizenary of the country.”

Coming back to the recent speech of Justice Chandrachud, he emphasized the need for social mobilization of collective against discrimination. This should not be seen as identity politics but instead should be seen as necessary for redressing historical discrimination, he asserted.

 Bharat Dogra is a journalist and author. His recent books include Protecting Earth for Children and Man Over Machine—A Path to Peace.


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