De-notified tribes still face existential crisis

Even after the repeal of the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871, the living conditions of nomadic and unnotified tribes are far from satisfactory

In colonial India, around 200 tribal communities across India were reported by the colonial government as “criminal” tribes, “addicted to the systematic commission of crimes without bail”, through the Criminal Tribes Act 1871. According to this law, the state has committed a series of discrimination, stigmatization and oppression in these communities. The designation “criminal tribes” exacerbated their social and economic marginalization at a time when their way of life and traditional occupations were being threatened by the spread of modern technology and the commercialization of social relationships.

Five years after the end of British colonial rule in India, the Criminal Tribes Act was repealed (August 31, 1952) and these communities were “denotified”. Since then, these communities have observed August 31 as “Liberation Day” or “Vimukti Diwas”.

However, it is important to note that the repeal of the Criminal Tribes Act was not enough to end the oppression and stigma of Nomadic Tribes and De-Notified Tribes (NTDNTs). The year independent India repealed the Criminal Tribes Act, the Union Government enacted the Habitual Offenders Act, followed by versions of the same law in different states. Authorities have routinely used these laws against NTDNTs.

As a result, even after 75 years of India’s independence and 70 years after its ‘liberation’, the NTDNT communities still face discrimination and are associated with crime. As a result, the NTDNT communities cannot enjoy the basic rights enshrined in the constitution. There have been countless cases involving the right to equality before the law (Article 14), the prohibition of discrimination on the basis of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth (Article 15), and the right to life and liberty (Article 21 ) of individuals belonging to the NTDNT communities have been disregarded.

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The socio-economic conditions of the NTDNT communities also remain poor. They have no access to education, health care, livelihood, housing, social security, participation in political processes and governance. In addition, members of these communities, including women, are subject to harassment and violence. While several state governments have established some welfare systems, their limited scope, weak mandate, and patchy implementation render them ineffective in alleviating the plight of NTDNTs.

“After we were freed from the settlements, the Indian government had no rehabilitation plan for us. The government should have given us land to grow and build our houses on. We were allowed to live in forests without basic amenities,” said Sunita Bhosle, a Pardhi community member and activist from Pune, Maharashtra, who has been active in the cause for 25 years. She further stated that the socio-economic circumstances of 200 such communities across the country are still deplorable. “They have no access to jobs, housing, social security, healthcare, education or political engagement. In addition, women from these communities are subject to attacks and harassment. Even after 75 years of independence of our country, we still have to fight for our fundamental rights through protests and rallies,” she added.

“We all identify with our country’s Independence Day on August 15, but we also celebrate August 31 as a liberation day for our communities. Aside from celebrations, we hold awareness programs and rallies to highlight our issues, raise concerns and urge the government to formulate policies and allocate budgets for our rehabilitation, resettlement and livelihood restoration,” Sunita added.

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Arun Jadhav, a member of Grameen Vikas Kendra, says the motive for celebrating August 31 as “Liberation Day” is to organize communities. Grameen Vikas Kendra works with Banjara, Pardhi, Nandiwale and Dabri Gosawi communities in Ahmednagar, Maharashtra.

Arun explained: “They discuss the identity issues they face on a daily basis when they don’t have IDs. They do not have access to food security and other social services because they do not own land. Their livelihoods, including their traditional jobs, are under constant threat. Raj Kumar Bahot, an activist from Panipat, Haryana, said that most NTDNT residents in his district are from the Sapera and Bawariya communities, who mainly rely on the forest for their livelihood.

“To earn a living, the Sapera community mainly collected snakes, taught them to dance, and put on performances in different villages. However, they lost their jobs when the government banned such actions in the country,” said Raj Kumar.

The Bawariya community, who used to raise cattle in the forests, lost their livelihood after the forests were heavily deforested, Raj Kumar said, adding that they have now largely evolved into rag pickers.

“Both communities have become homeless. You are not allowed to settle anywhere. When they set up temporary settlements, they often receive notices from courts after cases are filed by powerful villagers,” he said.

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“The network of organizations is needed to unite our voices to fight for rights and re-emphasize demands related to basic social security services, entitlements, land rights, rehabilitation and resettlement issues, child education, employment and livelihood restoration demands said Bajrang, who also directs Lokhita Samajik Vikas Sanstha in Maharashtra.

He said that while much has been achieved for rights and access to entitlements in different parts of the country, more needs to be done to uplift all NTDNT communities.

“Against any criminal activity in any part of the country, we become easy targets for the police. We are often booked into fake cases, harassed and tortured. The Angrez (English colonizers) left our country, but the police in our country are now our Angrez. In 2021-22 alone, I have documented six cases of incarceration deaths in my district,” said Sunita Bhosle, who also wrote a book called Vinchavacha Tel (The Oil of the Scorpion) in which she discusses the police harassment of members of NTDNT communities in Maharashtra.

Arun Jadhav said police still have training in training centers on how to deal with NTDNT communities using the Common Offenders Act.

“I have documented several cases of murder, rape, fake encounters and other abuses and harassment and submitted them to the National Human Rights Commission. Therefore, we must wage an uphill battle to uphold our rights and ensure protection,” Arun said.

(The author works in the communications department of the ActionAid Association; views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the organization)

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