Denotified Tribes or ‘Vimukta Jati’ include more than two hundred communities of people who had originally been listed under the Criminal Tribes Act, 1871. The Criminal Tribes Act was initially meant to suppress “predatory castes” and was put into place with the vision of a ‘secure and prosperous’ country. It is also believed that the British Raj categorized some of these tribes as ‘Criminal Tribes’ due to their participation in the Indian freedom struggle. This is not considered one of the primary reasons though. At first, the Act was limited to only North India, but it soon spread to Bengal in 1876 and then to the Madras Presidency (South India) in 1911. Though initially intended to contain only 150 notified castes, the list continued to grow over the years.
After independence, the Criminal Tribes Act was repealed in 1949 and these tribes were ‘denotified’ under the Habitual Offenders Act, 1953 . When a tribe is listed as ‘denotified’, all the members of the community are bound to register with the local magistrate, failing which they are liable to be prosecuted under the Indian Penal Code.
There are several reasons due to which these tribes were classified as criminals. For example, the Bulandshahr Gang Rape of 2016 was an incident which turned the spotlight on the Bawaria tribe of Uttar Pradesh. The police claim that they have been committing such crimes since centuries. During night time, they break into cars and rob houses and are especially notorious for harassing young women. The Census of India, 1881 states that they are ‘much addicted to crime’, thieving comes easily to them and their ‘skill in tracking wild animals is notorious’.
Due to the social stigma thrust upon these people, they live in social alienation with no political representation and no reservations under the Scheduled Castes (SCs) or the Scheduled Tribes (STs) lists. They have no means of livelihood. Due to their unstable nomadic lifestyle, their children are deprived of education. Their lives are plagued by ignorance, poverty and superstition. If an act of robbery or theft takes place in any area surrounding these tribes, the people belonging to them are automatically held responsible, arrested and subjected to torture. The society blindly considers them to be criminals by birth.
In 2008, The National Commission for Denotified, Nomadic and Semi- Nomadic Tribes (NCDNSNT) produced a report recommending equal reservation to the 11 crore people belonging to these communities as provided to the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (SCs and STs). The Commission also put forth suggestions of the initiation of special housing schemes to ensure these tribal people have access to proper housing and settlements in the form of villages, which would eventually lead to their social upliftment .
In 2007, the United Nation’s Committee on Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) urged the Government of India to repeal the Habitual Offenders Act and aim at the rehabilitation of these denotified tribes. The committee enumerated various examples of people of these tribes radically discriminated by the police and the society alike.
In the state of Maharashtra, denotified tribes constitute five million people which is a sizeable section of the state’s population. In accordance with the growing population of these tribes in the state, Maharashtra set a milestone in 2016 when it decided to appoint a new ministry for the welfare of Vimukta Jati and Nomadic Tribes (VJNT).
These communities have been economically and socially backward since centuries and this is an important aspect to take into account. More often than not, these tribes are under threat from dominant communities and forced to occupy bottom of the societal strata taking up menial jobs while also being considered as outcasts by the rest of society. This economic marginalisation, cultural supremacy and political exclusion which they face are the basic reasons for their “criminal” behaviour. A group of individuals cannot be expected to change their way of life without any external support and rehabilitation. Efforts need to be taken to improve their situation and for this, education is the only solution, accompanied by societal cooperation. The groundwork for a collective movement to reaffirm their cultural identity needs to be put in place. That is the only way to reverse the age old inferiority that these people have faced.
The journey from “criminal” to “habitual offender” has been a painstakingly long and difficult one. It does not end here; it needs to continue until “equal citizen” status has been achieved by these tribes.