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Viewing entire communities in a bad light

commentpaper Updated: Aug 18, 2016 08:21 IST

Recently when a member of the Bawariya community in UP was accused of rape, Kiran Bedi, lieutenant governor of Puducherry and a former IPS officer, 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 specialises in making fishing nets. They sell 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”.

Their crime: They were experts in manufacturing and trading.

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 Act, the colonial police were given sweeping powers to arrest, harass, extort and even kill the people that belonged to these tribes. In fact every police officer in colonial India was taught who the “criminal tribes” were.

Children were branded “criminal” at birth. They were not allowed to build pucca houses, ride horses, wear shoes, go to school or hospital, celebrate festivals, own land or cattle, and make or sell anything. They were not allowed to travel without putting their thumb-marks on a police register. If they refused, escaped, hid or hit back, their resistance was called “cruel, illegal, sly, savage”.

Independence meant undoing unjust laws, one of which was this Act. In 1952, Jawaharlal Nehru as prime minister “de-notified” this 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. 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 punishment 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. The National Human Rights Commission has recommended the repeal of the Habitual Offenders Act, 1952. So has the UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, which 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…”

The late writer-activist Mahasweta Devi spent a lifetime bombarding the government with complaint letters and published articles documenting their suffering at the hands of the police, landlords, politicians and officials.

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 outdated colonial laws.

Ruchira Gupta is editor of Antyajaa: Indian Journal of Women and Social Change, professor at New York University and founder of anti­sex trafficking organisation Apne Aap Women Worldwide. The views expressed are personal.