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69 Years After Independence, There Are Still Tribes That Are Considered ‘Born Criminal’

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By Varsha Torgalkar for Youth Ki Awaaz:

On June 20, Raosaheb Jadhav, a 42-year-old jeweler was killed in police custody in Karad in Satara district, 70 kilometers from Pune. He had been picked up in a case of burglary. Jadhav was a member of a Denotified Tribe of Maharashtra – the Vadars.

Jadhav owned a jewelry shop in the Karnala block of Solapur district. He was arrested after a jeweler from Mumbai lodged a complaint with the Khandala Police that gold and cash worth Rs. 77 lakh had been stolen from him when he was traveling from Kolhapur to Mumbai.

Following the death of Jadhav in police custody, the Satara superintendent of police suspended 12 policemen. By July 18, only one constable out of the 12 suspects had been arrested.

The action came even as over 500 people of the Vadar tribe took out a rally demanding an inquiry into the death of Jadhav.

“The police illegally arrested Jadhav. He was beaten to death in police custody. The oolice could not stomach the fact that a Vadar could own a gold shop. They should have produced him in court instead of killing him,” Bharat Vidkar, a social-worker who works for the Vadar community, said to YKA.

How the State Sees Its People As Criminals

The Denotified Tribes are communities that were listed or notified as ‘born criminal‘ by the British under a number of laws. This process began with the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871, which gave the police wide powers to arrest members of such communities and to control and monitor their movements. The Act was repealed post-independence and the communities were ‘denotified’.

There were various reasons as to why these communities were labelled ‘criminal’. The National Commission for Denotified, Nomadic and Semi-Nomadic Tribes (NCDNST), constituted in 2005, notes in its 2008 report that the forest laws that came into force from the mid-nineteenth century onwards “deprived a large number of communities of their traditional rights of grazing, hunting and gathering and shifting cultivation in specific areas.” The new laws, of which these communities were unaware, criminalised their very source of livelihood and they “frequently found themselves on the wrong side of the law.” When the forests were cleared by the British for commercial use and forest communities asked to contribute to labour, some communities resisted and were declared ‘criminal’.

Nomadic communities, the Commission further observed, traded with settled communities and lost their livelihood with the arrival of road and railway networks. The British thought that “once such communities had lost their legitimate means of livelihood, they must have been living by indulging in criminal activities. There is ample evidence to show that a very large number of communities that were formerly nomadic fell in the net of the Criminal Tribes Act because of such an argument.” On the pretext of ‘law and order’, anybody who resisted the British or any “‘respectable’ people of the village (landlords, high castes or those who paid taxes to the British)” was notified as ‘criminal’.

The fallout of this period of labelling has been that, that stigma and suspicion against entire communities has persisted, as noted by as many as six committees and commissions before the NCDNST was formed.

Balak Ram Sansi from Patiala in Punjab, who belongs to the Sansi community, which is one such denotified tribe, says that he has had to live a life in hiding for decades. “People see through a different eye when they get to know that we are denotified tribes,” Sansi says.

As the NCDNST report says, “In fact, the state was the biggest enemy of the nomads, for it represented the interests of the dominant classes, for whom peregrinating communities were both a threat and a nuisance.” Although denotified in 1952, members of denotified tribes often find themselves restricted by the Habitual Offenders Act, 1959, which has similar provisions as the 1871 Act for restricting movement of those found to be ‘habitual offenders’.

This has also manifested in what Kiran Bedi, a well-known former police officer and now Lieutenant Governor of Pondicherry, tweeted this month:

Tribal, Not Criminal

The fact is that the stigma of belonging to a ‘criminal tribe’ at one time continues to dog the members of these tribes. To this day, the discriminatory practice that nomadic tribes have to verbally inform the Sarpanch (head of a village panchayat) on arrival at a village continues.

“Today most tribal communities are settled in one or the other village where they work as labourers. But a few groups still move from village to village, and they have to verbally inform the Sarpanch on arrival,” says Santosh Jadhav of Nirman, an organisation that serves denotified communities in Pune.

“The blot of belonging to a ‘criminal tribe’ still exists and police pick one or the other whenever a crime is reported and they are found in the vicinity. That makes it difficult for these people to get work and they have to live on begging. Sometimes with no option left, they turn to criminal activities for a livelihood,” Jadhav said.

A couple of months ago, a woman of the Nandiwale tribe, which sells utensils and cutlery for a living, was stripped and beaten up in Indapur block of Pune district for allegedly stealing silver spoons from a household.

After being accused of the crime, she was stripped and beaten up. They did not even ask if she had committed the crime. That she belonged to a once criminally notified tribe was considered proof enough.

32-year-old Yuvraj Kale complains of police suspecting him of burglary in his locality.

Yuvraj Kale and his wife. Image Courtesy: 101 Reporters.
Yuvraj Kale and his wife. Image Courtesy: 101 Reporters.

“The police of Baramati are behind me. I have been accused of committing more than 20 crimes that happened around me. The first time the police picked me up was in 2001, in a burglary case. I was just 16,” says Kale.

“Since then whenever a burglary is reported, I’m at risk of being picked up. I don’t stay in my house for more than 3-4 days at a time for fear of being picked up. I have two kids and I’ve to rely on neighbours and relatives to look after them,” he said.

Kale said it is very difficult for him to get a job and to hold on to one if he lands one. His wife, Sarika, too, is in the same boat.

Where This Needs Fixing

Suresh Khopade, a retired IPS officer, who has studied these communities all through his career as a police officer, told YKA that the kind of training the police get is to blame in part for the plight of the likes of Kale.

“The police are trained in such a way that they look down on people from denotified tribes. The police cannot be blamed. There is a need to change the syllabus and the training,” Khopade said. “Even after so many years of Independence, denotified tribes are still listed as criminal tribes in police training manuals of the state.”

Inspector Santosh Girigosavi of Pune Rural Police, Chakan, agreed. “The problem still exists in rural areas. However, the chances of police picking up a denotified tribal has diminished as they have now integrated well within other communities,” he said.

A police inspector at Indapur, where members of many denotified tribes have settled for good, does not agree. “We do not necessarily pick up people just because they belong to a denotified tribe. We pick up people with a criminal background. It just happens that lots of criminals belong to these tribes because of their socio-economic background,” he told YKA.

“There is a wrong tendancy of people linking crimes with caste or community. For a cop, a criminal is a criminal,” says Rahul Gopal, former Director General of Police of Maharashtra. He probably hasn’t heard of the tribal woman who was stripped and beaten up after being falsely accused of stealing silver spoons by a household.

Varsha is a Pune-based independent journalist and a member of 101Reporters.com. She has earlier worked with Pune Mirror (Times of India). She primarily writes on human rights.

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