Tagged criminal for life

Much like the Rohingyas of Myanmar, there are as many as 227 tribes who face persecution and discrimination on a daily basis in India. They live inside the country but have been branded 'resident criminals', and are haunted by the state on a daily basis.

Described as the 'Underworld of India', they are victims of the state's deep-seated prejudice prevalent since the colonial times. The British thought that in a caste-based society with hereditary carpenters and weavers, there must also be hereditary criminals.

What seemed like tribes with criminal bent to the British were in fact groups who worked as informants to freedom fighters, supplied them with food, money and ammunition, besides fighting alongside them in the freedom struggle. As a result, researchers argue, these communities were considered a threat to the local administration of the British Raj. There was no better way to tag them 'criminal' to not only curb their collective power but to ensure their disappearance from mainstream society as well.

Armed with this logic, the British criminal injustice system fell on 150 tribes who were declared 'criminal' following the 1857 mutiny. Eventually, a total of 237 castes and tribes were given criminal-by-birth tag under the ambit of the Criminal Tribes Act, 1931.

The question many scholars continue to pose is: how a community could be considered and treated as criminals by birth because such an idea can only alienate these communities from power, sovereignty and freedom?

As was expected, a large section of such tribes were pushed to the margins of existence, posing little or no threat to the British administration. Jawaharlal Nehru had denounced the monstrous provisions of the Criminal Tribes Act, and found it clearly out of sync with all civilised principles. Although post-independence, the government found it in violation of the spirit of the constitution but took a while before the Act could be repealed, and replaced with the Habitual Offenders Act, 1952.  

Far from easing life of these tribes, the new Act only re-stigmatised the already marginalised criminal tribes. Alienated from their dwellings, often bereft of any property, they were forced to live in deprived conditions. Many survive by begging for food and money and work as ragpickers, street acrobats, street vendors and hawkers. They possess little or no land, no house, no assets and wander from one place to another in search of a means for survival.  

Today, these tribes constitute no less than 60 lakh people for whom nothing has changed in the post-independence era. Spread across the country, several variants of criminal tribes like Pardhis, Kanjars, Ramoshis and Vanjaris continue to remain outside the reach of affirmative action. Stripped of their fundamental right to justice, equality and freedom, these tribes live under the fear of the police guard who comes knocking at midnight to count that no registered member of the tribe is absent without notice.  

There cannot be anything more humiliating than being subjected to head count for upholding the colonial tag of being held a habitual offender by the state. Quite often, the members of such tribes become easy replacements for those criminals whom the police fail to apprehend.

While laws to curtail unlawful activities by the habitual offenders are in vogue in many countries, India is perhaps the only country that continues with the orientalist notion of tagging the entire tribe as hereditary criminals. Notable is the fact that the anti-social stigma has millions of these tribes from the concerns of the welfare state. In reality, members of these tribes literally as persona non grata within the federal structure.

Draconian law

Researchers find it difficult to avoid that the post-independent governments have fared no worse than the colonial government which conceptualised such a draconian law in the first place, leaving millions of denotified tribal out of the mainstream of dignified living. Should such a horrendous piece of legislation not be repealed? Since it is violating the essence of the constitution, there cannot be anything less compelling than to repeal the horrendous Habitual Offenders Act.

Although the government has constituted a National Commission for Denotified, Nomadic and Semi-Nomadic Tribes (NCDNT), which is expected to submit its report in 2018, its terms of reference are to suggest only appropriate measures for the welfare of these tribes.  

Nothing less than repealing the Habitual Offenders Act can do justice to the lives of these unsuspecting millions, who have been enslaved to the legacy of their stigmatised existence for no fault of theirs.

Classifying the whole tribe as 'criminal' is clearly out of consonance with all civilised principles, and no democratic state can afford to keep a section of its society tagged to something as absurd as 'the scum, the flotsam and the jetsam'. After all, the right to dignified living is enshrined as a fundamental right in the constitution.  

(The writer has spent a year working among the designated criminal tribe of Kanjars in Jhalawar (Rajasthan), and has been witness to their daily ordeal of humiliation and ridicule)

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