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69 Years After Being De-Notified, Former “Criminal Tribes” Continue To Battle Stigma

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Recently, the whole country celebrated its independence day on August 15, 2021, because on the same day in 1947, we obtained freedom from British rule. All of us know the history behind it, as it is taught to us right from school.

However, many of us are not aware that a large population in our country celebrate their independence day on August 31, every year i.e., the nomadic tribes and de-notified tribes (NT-DNTs).

This is the day which these communities celebrate as vimukti diwas or liberation day, not August 15. Why? Because, on the same day in 1952, these communities were de-notified from the list of criminal tribes.

Representational image. Photo credit: countercurrents.org

Due to many rumours and on the basis of inaccurate information, the British government passed a law named the Criminal Tribes Act (CTA) in 1871; and criminalised hundreds of nomadic and semi-nomadic tribes.

According to scholars working in this field, strong rebellion and agitations against the British government, and playing the role of messengers through their movements were some reasons to impose the CTA (Malli Gandhi, 2019; Meena Radhakrishna, 2008; Brinder Pal Singh, 2010).

These wandering tribes that refused to settle, were forcibly relocated and sedentarised. The law was the first of its kind in the world, where whole communities were labelled as criminal, in the eyes of state. One can’t even imagine how hundreds of communities can be criminal, that too by birth.

But, the British policymakers passed the law and implemented it steadily. These communities had to wait for five years even after the country got its independence. The first prime minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, said in his first speech after independence that, “…when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom.”

While many Indians celebrated independence day on August 15, 1947, there were millions of people who were waiting for their liberation from the tag of “criminal tribes”. They got their liberation on August 31, 1952, when the CTA was repealed by the Indian parliament.

It took five years for our policymakers to repeal such an inhuman and cruel law. However, even after their de-notification from the list, the stigma against these communities continues today.

Despite the stigma and oppression they suffer from, they are not given any special constitutional safeguards. Instead, they have been fitted into the categories of scheduled caste/scheduled tribe/other backward classes (SC/ST/OBC); and that too, it varies from state to state.

Who Are The Vimukt Jaatis?

De-notified tribes is the term used for all the communities which were notified as “criminal” under the CTA. In 1952, the law was repealed and these communities got de-notified from the list of criminal tribes.

They started to be known as de-notified tribes. But, society, the police and the administration still treat them as criminals.

There are more than 150 such communities that face the stigma of criminality from society and oppression by government machinery. The police system still sees them as the first suspects if anything happens in particular areas.

Dakxin Chhara, activist and director, from the Chhara denotified tribe of Gujarat, commented in a webinar that de-notified tribes’ hamlets are the prime targets of police. If they receive any complaint from the locality, their first suspects are people from NT-DNTs.

Chhara said that the police and the administration harass the community’s people, even though they don’t do anything. This is just because of a cruel law by the British.

Many of us are not even familiar with these communities, although they live near us. We might have heard about them, but we never took an interest in getting to know their history.

We never thought about why society treats them as thieves. We never questioned why their occupations are stigmatised.

These communities are heterogeneous. They are engaged in different occupations such as transport, key making, salt trading, street dancing, acrobatics, snake charming, and pastoralism. Nat, Bedia, Sansi, Kanjar, Lohar etc. are some of the communities which live near us, but we never want to know their history.

According to the Renke commission’s report (2008), there are a total of 1,500 nomadic and semi-nomadic communities; and 198 de-notified communities.

What Are The Many Concerns Of The NT-DNTs?

The major concern is the persistent battle against the stigma of criminality. These communities are living in constant fear of police raids and arbitrary arrests.

There are regular headlines of their arrests in the newspapers, but hardly any news agencies cover their real concerns.

Other than the criminal stigma, these communities are also victims of atrocities and mob lynching. They do not get justice in such incidents because they do not have protection under the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989.

Dakxin Chhara said that he wants such communities to get protection under the Atrocities Act, only then can they think of getting justice.

NT-DNT Women are seen as soft targets for violence and harassment, because men from dominant communities try to teach the whole community a lesson “through” the women. They want NT-DNTs to remain inferior.

Stigma, violence and atrocities against these vulnerable communities directly impact their socio-economic and educational status. These communities are victims of discrimination and social exclusion, especially those who are listed under the SC category, like the Nats, Bediyas and Kanjars of Rajasthan.

Representational image. Photo credit: Abhinav Saha, Indian Express.

Because of this, their social status is very low. It also impacts the education, health and occupational statuses of such communities. These communities are disadvantaged.

Those who still live as nomads are not able to enrol their children in schools and those who are settled, enroll their children in schools, but these children face discrimination and harassment from others.

This is why the drop-out rate is high in these communities. The Covid-19 virus and the resulting lockdowns impacted the NT-DNT communities badly.

They became more deprived in the socio-economic indicators, such as the education of children, which was already low, became zero, because they can hardly afford the online mode.

The women who were working in red light areas, as sex workers, went back to their rural hamlets and were suffering from an economic crisis.

Many educated people from these communities are now taking the lead and working towards the empowerment of their communities. They are forming groups, organisations and forums to work towards betterment of their communities. Hence, their situation is also improving, gradually and marginally.

Most notably, the De-notified and Nomadic Tribes Rights Action Group (DNT-RAG) was formed in 1998 by eminent scholars in the field, such as Laxman Gaikwad, GN Devy and Mahashweta Devi. The group played a very important role in building pressure on the government for the justice of NT-DNTs.

As a result, the government formed a commission for the NT-DNTs under the chairmanship of Balkrishna Renke in 2006.

In an article in counter currents, Mahashweta Devi (2007) wrote that:

“Being branded a ‘denotified tribe’ makes these communities easy targets. Dalits, caste Hindus, Muslims, everyone who feels like it can kill them. When will the state government start doing something to ensure that the Nats do not have to live in fear of being lynched anymore?”

Organisations like the All India DNT Welfare Sangh, were formed by the educated members from NT-DNTs for the welfare of these communities. NAG-DNT and Praxis India are among some organisations that are actively working for the NT-DNTs.

My Experiences With The Nat Community

There is a hamlet of the Nat community in my own village, in the Ajmer district of Rajasthan. I was born and brought up in a village, but I did not hear anything about the community except that we should stay away from these people. I did not know anything about them until my M.Phil research.

When I researched on the Nat community, I read about it and understood the history of the community. We happened to be biased and prejudiced against a community until and unless we know about them. The same happened with me and is still happening with the people of my village, who treat them differently.

The Nat community is a de-notified tribe of Rajasthan, also found in Bihar, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, among other parts of the country.

The community, primarily known for their occupations, traditionally worked as dancers. Some women from the community engage in sex work due to many reasons.

And, because of this, the whole community is labelled and treated unfairly by society. The community is listed in the SC category and due to this, they are the victims of caste-based discrimination, despite their tribal identity and being excluded from different civic and public spheres.

They are denied basic human rights like drinking water, and accessing health and education services. My findings show that the children of the Nat community face discrimination in school life, from the sitting arrangement in class rooms to participating in extracurricular activities.

The community faces unfair treatment by the police and the panchayat administration. The women of the community are seen as impure or bad, due to some women’s engagement in sex work. They face eve-teasing and harassment.

The community is placed in the margins of society and deprived… Socially, economically, and culturally.

Featured image is for representational purposes only. Photo credit: UN Women, Flickr.
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