Prejudice sometimes is more deeply embedded in our consciousness than historical fact. Recently a member of the Bawariya community in UP was accused of rape. Kiran Bedi, lieutenant governor of Puducherry and a former IPS officer, promptly tweeted: “Ex-criminal tribes are known to be very cruel. They are hardcore professionals in committing crimes. Rarely caught and/or convicted ...”
The Bawariyas are a nomadic group that specialised in making fishing nets. They sell their fine nets, fish and birds to different parts of northern India. In 1871, the British colonisers passed the Criminal Tribes Act, labelling them, along with 198 other nomadic and forest groups, “criminal”. A stroke of the pen turned 14 million people into criminals in their own land.
Their crime: They were experts in manufacturing and trading.
The British gave contracts for the merchandising of these and other products such as tobacco, betel nut, salt, leather hides, dyes, and essential spices and condiments to British officers and companies. Indians who continued to manufacture, transport and ply the very trades that they had been doing for centuries were considered “rebels” and listed as criminals.
The Act stipulated that members of the communities “notified” under the law not just register with the police, but live in “settlements” where they laboured as slaves. Under the purview of the Act, the colonial police were given sweeping powers to arrest, harass, extort and even kill the people that belonged to these tribes. In fact, as part of the police syllabus, every police officer in colonial India was taught to know who the “criminal tribes” were. In a subjugated land, the notified tribals became the most watched people. Not only were they were routinely arrested but their women sexually abused to “keep them under control”.
Children were branded “criminal” at birth. Fourteen million people were not allowed to build pucca houses, ride horses, wear shoes, go to school or hospitals, celebrate festivals, own land or cattle, and make or sell anything on their own. They were not allowed to travel without putting their thumb-marks on a police register.
If they refused, ran away, hid or hit back, their resistance was called “cruel, illegal, sly, savage”.
Independence meant undoing unjust laws, one of which was the Criminal Tribes Act. In 1952, Jawaharlal Nehru as prime minister “de-notified” this unjust law. He said: “The monstrous provisions of the Criminal Tribes Act constitute a negation of civil liberty. No tribe [can] be classed as criminal as such and the whole principle [is] out of consonance with all civilised principles.”
The Act was replaced by the Habitual Offenders Act, meant to empower the “de-notified” groups with education and livelihoods instead of criminal punishment.
Unfortunately, the Act allowed the list of the original criminal tribes to be retained in the new Indian Police syllabus. The idea was the identification of such groups for gentler punishments and special access to social and economic empowerment programmes launched by the Indian government.
Instead, like the colonial police before them, the Indian police use the lists to arrest and harass members of these tribes. DNTs (de-notified tribes) men and women are closely watched, picked up by the police on any pretext, accused and convicted without thorough investigation. Due to the continued criminalisation and consequent discrimination, members of the community are branded “thieves, pimps, prostitutes,” and still not admitted to schools, given jobs or sold land in “respectable” areas. They live on the margins, eking out an existence from livelihoods that are inherently exploitative. Most of them do not have any citizenship documents and are much too scared of the government authorities to even line up for them.
The National Human Rights Commission has recommended the repeal of the Habitual Offenders Act, 1952. In March 2007, the UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) noted that “the so-called de-notified and nomadic people which are listed for their alleged ‘criminal tendencies’ under the former Criminal Tribes Act (1871), continue to be stigmatised under the Habitual Offenders…,” and asked India to repeal the Habitual Offenders Act and rehabilitate the de-notified and nomadic tribes.
There are 313 nomadic tribes and 198 de-notified tribes of India. Most of them still live below the poverty line. The late writer-activist Mahasweta Devi, a Magsaysay awardee, spent a lifetime bombarding the government with complaint letters and published a profusion of articles documenting their suffering at the hands of the police, landlords, politicians, and officials.
She died four days before Bedi’s tweet. Bedi’s own Magsaysay Award citation read that she tried to “break down adversarial relations between the police and the community…. seeks to replace the hard hand of punishment with the healing hand of rehabilitation”.
Bedi has since apologised for her tweet. Her next step could be to read the history of the de-notified tribes and of outdated colonial laws.
Ruchira Gupta is editor of Antyajaa: Indian Journal of Women and Social Change, professor at New York University and founder of anti-sex trafficking organisation, Apne Aap Women Worldwide
The views expressed are personal