Denotified Tribes

‘Born Criminals’

Mahasweta Devi

[Mahasweta Devi, the renowned writer and social activist, won the Jnanpith Award, the Ramon Magsaysay Award, and the Padmashree. Her support for indigenous communities was immense and legendary; she along with Prof G N Devi formed the Denotified Tribes Rights Action Group (DNT-RAG) to fight the cause of tribal people otherwise ignored by the mainstream society. Following is a shortened version of Mahasweta Devi’s original speech delivered in March, 2002 and, appeared as an article in Budhan, the newsletter of the DNT-RAG. In Modi’s digital India of 2024 the situation for DNTs has not changed much. Mahasweta Devi passed away in July 2016. She was associated with Frontier right from its inception in 1968.]

Indian society is thoroughly indifferent to the word "tribe". For India's millions of deprived ones living either below the poverty line, or on the fringe of it, the word "human rights" is non-existent. Right to have a living, proper housing, drinking water, education, electricity, health facilities, communication and right over the land, they are denied everything. And they are the people whose poverty is really a big capital for the Country's ruling powers. Showing non-development of their areas the persons in power make big projects and get money. Naturally nothing concrete is ever done. If they were lifted over the poverty line, they would not depend upon the people they elect. They know that the pre-election promises never get translated in action. Yet they cast votes. Because vote-boycott is considered an extremist attitude.

Theirs is a faceless existence. They are in India from ancient times, for thousands of years, yet the mainstream India has continually refused to recognise them. In the tribal society there is no caste division, no dowry system, divorce and widow remarriage is socially sanctioned. They are, after centuries of oppression and neglect, still so civilised! Yet the ‘enlightened society’ has simply refused to recognise their worth. The socially and economically advanced people have made them bonded slaves in the unorganised sectors, have evicted them from land wherever the government has founded industries, or built dams.

Having been denied fundamental human rights, they have joined the floating population of the other poor who follow the contractors and go anywhere for a pittance. The mighty tribal culture, their fantastic dances, music, painting and wood cuttings are lifted by middlemen for a handful of coins and sold at high prices at home and abroad. The artisans receive next to nothing.

In Indian history they are seldom mentioned. So many mighty tribal peasant rebellions against the British in the 18th and 19th centuries never got a mention in the history of the Indian Freedom Struggle. The leaders of the nation, like Gandhi, Phule or Ambedkar seldom mentioned the tribals whose very existence was threatened under mainstream onslaught.

And, to the caste hierarchy, the tribals were, and are, still untouchables. The Central and state governments make special budgets for their development. Such schemes are made by people who know next to nothing about the tribals. One instance, KALAHANDI of Orissa. Famine and starvation death among Kalahanditribals are quite regular, yet Kalahandi is fertile, grows regular crops. Of course the tribal land has been usurped by non-tribals. During famine the tribals, government will say, are supplied with rice and wheat. Yet, no one ever made any effort to know the truth about this disjunction between a good harvest and starvation deaths of the tribals. For the Kalahandi tribals like many other tribal groups, the staple food is not rice or wheat, but according to government jargon "lesser food grains" like "Marwa, Kurthi, Kodo" etc. Tribal land gone, they cannot grow what they eat, so they starve. The "KORKU" tribe of Amravati district of Maharashtra are a forest tribe. They were food-gatherers. The rich teak forest, their home, has been depleted. Plenty has been written about them. Many good organisations and persons are sending them processed and unprocessed food in mountains. But the Korkus do not touch such food. They scour food from the vanishing jungles. This tribe is shrinking in size, losing weight and 2/3 years ago a bureaucrat summarised the Korku-question in one sentence, "This tribe is congenitally unfit to survive."

Take the Korku as the representative of Indian tribals, and the bureaucrat as Indian mainstream. The gulf is unbridgeable. And think of the big industries in pre and post-independence India. In each case there was large scale tribal land eviction and the tribals received neither land, nor money in exchange. From the time of the Tata Iron & Steel factory in British India, down to Narmada dams, the tribals are distant spectators. Their role is to see how their land is making India's wealth.

Yet, the Indian tribes constitute 8% of India's population, according to 1991 census. This too is misleading, as the last listing of tribal groups was done in 1976. Anthropological Survey of India insisted that there are 635 tribes in India. Yet Government of India recognised only 426 as tribes. 209 tribes were, and still are left out. If the total population of 635 tribes was counted, the percentage would go up.

Indian society is caste-ridden--- upper castes and lower castes. The tribals are lower than the Hindu lowest caste. Government of India's sole drive is to "develop" the tribals, so that they can become like the "main stream." The privileged tribals have become like the mainstream where they have not yet received equal-acceptance but have become "Detribed."

Tragically enough, the privileged tribal people along with non-tribals, victimise the denotified tribes. These tribes, "denotified" ones, have one birth year: 1871.

In 1871, the British Government of India "notified" certain tribes as "criminals" and passed the notorious "Criminal Tribes Act of 1871." Such people were notified, who, according to the British, were nomadic cattle grazers, wandering singers, acrobats, etc. Also those who resisted the British aggression from time to time. The logic was simple. These people lived in forests, or were nomads. Only the criminals would do this. As Indians follow caste professions, these mysterious (to the British) people too are hereditary criminals. Thus history's most heinous crime was perpetuated in this Act.

From 1871-1944 this Act was amended several times, new areas and new communities were roped in. The itinerant traders lost their livelihood with the introduction of railways, roads and outsiders entering their lives.

In 1952, Government of India officially "denotified" the stigmatised ones, without making any provisions for their livelihood.

In 1959, Government of India passed the "Habitual Offender's Act" which is not much different from the "Criminal Tribes Act, 1871".

From 1961, Government of India, through the state machineries has been publishing state-wise lists of "Denotified and Nomadic Tribes."

Between 1871 and 1952, certain communities came to be known as criminals. The local people and the police killed them, tortured them and hounded them like beasts of prey. In truth after independence, police and the political and non-political power wielders engaged them in criminal activities. They were forced to rob and steal. The police and the stolen good receivers took it all, and often had them killed. Their stigma is the curse of their life. All over India, the denotified communities are jailed, mob-lynched, tortured to death in police lock-ups. Worst of all, even India's other tribals treat the denotified tribes as "expendable ones."

In West Bengal there are 3 denotified tribes----they are Lodha, Kheria Sabar and Dhikaru. In other states, killing of denotified tribes is a regular affair. In West Bengal, where the picture is somewhat better, there occurred numerous incidents of mob-lynching of denotified tribe people. Between 1979 and 1982, 42 denotified Lodha tribals were mob-lynched not for crimes committed, but for being born as "Lodhas."

And between 1960 and 1998, more than 50 Kheria Sabars were killed by the police, or mob-lynched. And in the Lodha cases, police took no action.

That the 1871 Act is kept alive by the Government of India is proved by countless instances. In Maharashtra certain nomadic denotified communities that sell herbal medicines fleeing from village to village as they have to obtain passes from the police to stay in one place for 4 days only. About 6 years ago, some women, belonging to the denotified "SANSI" community were arrested by police and the word "THIEF" was branded on their foreheads with hot iron. Only in October 1998, a popular TV Channel showed the denotified destitute Pardhi children on Bombay streets. The commentator said, "They look innocent, but they are Pardhis. Born criminals."

A Budhan Sabar is killed because he is born to the Sabar community. In the old India, only the upper castes had right to literacy. The lowly born ones lived outside the city. The denotified ones live outside the society. They have no right to anything. Millions of Indians are still treated as born criminals.

[Courtesy: Dr B K Lodhi, Ex-Deputy Secretary & Director (Research), National Commission for DNTs, Government of India. Ex-Senior Fellow-ICSSR)

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Vol 56, No. 31, Jan 28 - Feb 3, 2024