Even after repeal of the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871, the conditions of nomadic and de-notified tribes are far from satisfactory
In colonial India, through the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871, around 200 tribal communities across India were notified by the colonial government as “criminal” tribes, “addicted to the systematic conduct of non-bailable offences.” Under this Act, the State visited a range of discrimination, stigmatization, and oppression on these communities. The designation of “Criminal Tribes” exacerbated their social and economic marginalisation at a time when their way of life and traditional occupations had come under threat with the spread of modern technology and commercialisation of social relationships.
Five years after British colonial rule in India ended, the Criminal Tribes Act was repealed (on August 31, 1952), and these communities were “de-notified”. Since then, these communities have observed August 31 as ‘Liberation Day’ or ‘Vimukti Diwas’.
However, it is essential to note that repealing the Criminal Tribes Act has not been enough to stop the oppression and stigma faced by the Nomadic Tribes and De-Notified Tribes (NTDNTs). The year the Criminal Tribes Act was repealed by independent India saw the enactment of the Habitual Offenders Act by the Union Government, followed by versions of the same Act in various states. Authorities have routinely used these laws against NTDNTs.
As a result, even after 75 years of India’s Independence and 70 years after their “liberation”, the NTDNT communities are still subjected to discrimination and are associated with criminality. As a result, the NTDNT communities cannot enjoy the fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution. There have been innumerable cases in which the right to equality before the law (Article 14), the prohibition of discrimination on the grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth (Article 15), and the right to life and liberty (Article 21) of people belonging to the NTDNT communities have been disregarded.
The socio-economic conditions of NTDNT communities also continue to be poor. They cannot access education, healthcare, livelihoods, housing, social security, participation in political processes and governance. In addition, members of these communities, including women, are subjected to harassment and violence. While several state Governments have established some welfare schemes, their limited purview, weak mandate and inconsistent implementation render them ineffective in easing the plight of NTDNTs.
“There was no rehabilitation plan for us with the Government of India after we were freed from the settlements. The Government should have given us land for cultivation and to build our houses. We were allowed to live in forests without basic amenities,” said Sunita Bhosle, a member of the pardhi community and an activist based in Pune, Maharashtra, engaged with the cause for the last 25 years. She further stated that the socio-economic circumstances of 200 such communities across the country are still deplorable. “They cannot access jobs, housing, social security, healthcare, education, or political involvement. Additionally, women from these communities experience assault and harassment. We still have to fight for our basic rights through protests and rallies even after 75 years of our country’s Independence,” 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. Apart from celebration functions, we hold awareness programmes and rallies to highlight our problems, give voice to concerns and press the Government to frame policies and allocate budgets for our rehabilitation, resettlement and livelihood restoration,” Sunita added.
Arun Jadhav, a member of Grameen Vikas Kendra, says that the motive of celebrating August 31 as “liberation day” is to organise 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 daily in the absence of identity cards. They lack access to food security and other social security benefits because they do not own land. Their livelihoods, including their traditional occupations, are constantly under 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 primarily relied on the forest for their subsistence.
“To make a living, the sapera community mostly gathered snakes, trained them to dance, and staged performances in different villages. However, they lost their jobs when the Government forbade such actions in the country,” said Raj Kumar.
The bawariya community, which used to rear cattle in the forests, lost their livelihoods after the forests were heavily cut down, said Raj Kumar, adding that mostly they have turned into ragpickers now.
“Both of these communities have become homeless. They are not permitted to settle anywhere. If they establish temporary settlements, they frequently receive notices from courts after cases are filed by powerful villagers,” he said.
“The network of organisations are needed to unify our voices to fight for the rights and re-emphasise demands related to basic social security services, entitlements, land rights, rehabilitation and resettlement related issues, education of children, employment and livelihood restoration-related demands,” said Bajrang, who also heads Lokhita Samajik Vikas Sanstha in Maharashtra.
He said that while much has been achieved for rights and access to entitlements in various parts of the country, more needs to be done to uplift all the NTDNT communities.
“Against any criminal activity in any part of the country, we become easy targets of the police. We are often booked in fake cases, harassed, and tortured. The angrez (English colonizers) have gone from our country, but the police in our country are our angrez now. In 2021-22 alone, I have documented six cases of custodial deaths in my district,” said Sunita Bhosle, who has also written a book titled “Vinchavacha Tel (The Oil of the Scorpion)”, highlighting the police harassment of members of the NTDNT communities in Maharashtra.
Arun Jadhav said that the police in training centres still have training about dealing with NTDNT communities using the Habitual Offenders Act.
“I have documented several cases of murder, rape, fake encounters and other abuses and harassment and submitted those before National Human Rights Commission. Therefore, we need to put up a hard struggle to safeguard our rights and ensure protection,” said Arun.
(The author works in the communications unit of ActionAid Association; views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily reflect the organisation’s)