The decision of the police to photograph and fingerprint beggars living in south Delhi just because two of them are alleged to have been involved in criminal activities shows a clear prejudice — reminiscent of the colonial days — of the State against the poor and the destitute. This cannot guarantee that crimes will end because the inflow of beggars is uninterrupted and they are scattered all over the city. That the police and other law-enforcing agencies, egged on by the relatively well-heeled people of society, reveal a bias against the poor is too well-known to be recounted. This discrimination between the treatments given to people who are visibly poor and those who are not is manifest in all areas of social life.
Till a few decades ago this was matter of only society and State policy steered clear of the issue. However, in the 1990s there started appearing government advertisements that said ‘do not give alms to beggars because such (munificence) destroys their urge to work’. This showed two things. One, this was a change in the orientation of the Indian State, which started borrowing, in distorted form, some notions of market economics that had gained currency in Britain and America some 15 years earlier. The Conservative government in Britain, inspired the right-wing economist Friedrich Von Hayek, thought that the poor were lazy and hence did not believe in working. And second, the thinking of the Indian State seems to have got spliced with society’s louder voices, which have been suggesting for years on end that begging is nothing but moonlighting on the part of some who work elsewhere. Maybe in some cases it has turned out to be true, but what is forgotten is that without flesh-mortifying poverty, such a state of affairs would not have come about.
These also show that the State has not shed the colonial mindset even in independent India. An article published in this newspaper some months ago highlighted an important fact. When a member of the Bawaria community in UP was charged with rape, a lieutenant governor had tweeted that ex-criminal tribes were cruel and adept at committing crimes. The Criminal Tribe Act of 1871 labelled the community and many other nomadic and forest groups “criminal”. Once a tribe became “notified” as criminal, all its members were required to register with the local magistrate, failing which they would be charged with a “crime” under the Indian Penal Code. The law was repealed after 1947, and was replaced with another piece of legislation that sought to enrich and empower the tribes “denotified”. But as so often happens, far from enrichment, they were harassed by the police and often ended up as beggars in urban areas. As for the present case, the police should step up vigil in areas they think are crime-prone. But such profiling should stop because it is denigrating.