Declared Criminal at Birth
India's "Denotified Tribes"
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In 1932, a British army officer, Lieutenant General Sir George MacMunn, wrote a book called The Underworld of India. In this not-quite-scholarly treatise, MacMunn rambles at length about all that he found dark and dreaded while on his tour of duty in India. In a chapter titled "Criminal Tribes and Classes," MacMunn wrote: "They are absolutely the scum, the flotsam and jetsam of Indian life, of no more regard than the beasts of the field."

Sprinkled through the rest of the chapter are several other references to such tribes, all as derogatory. The Chantichors ("bundle-stealers") are all "feckless and unstable." Harnis have a "gift for humbugging the world." Ramoshis were employed by the British as watchmen, but such a watchman "is always an incorrigible pander, being prepared to produce ladies of the flimsiest virtue at the shortest notice." Vanjari women are "bright and comely [with] well-moulded breasts," and are "adept no doubt in venery." In fact, MacMunn makes it a point to comment on the women of nearly every tribe. He mentions: all are invariably "comely" yet "hopelessly immoral." (MacMunn also has an astonishing tendency to refer to women as "baggages", but I’ll let that pass).

In 1871, the British passed the "Criminal Tribes Act." It notified about 150 tribes around India as criminal, giving the police wide powers to arrest them and monitor their movements. The effect of this law was simple: just being born into one of those 150 tribes made you a criminal. As T.V. Stephens, a British official of the time, said while introducing the Bill that became the Act: "... people from time immemorial have been pursuing the caste system defined job-positions: weaving, carpentry and such were hereditary jobs. So there must have been hereditary criminals also who pursued their forefathers’ profession."

Why did the British feel a need for such an Act? Arguably, it was part of an entire model of how law and order was to be preserved in colonial India. To the British, used as they were to a highly centralized governance, India seemed a hair-raisingly volatile place with its complex array of castes and communities, functioning as autonomous, self governing entities, following differnent life styles and social norms. Those communities, which offered the stiffest resistance to pax -Britannica, were targeted in different ways for such special treatment. Among the worst victims were communities which did not have a sedentary life style which made it more difficult to demand subservience from them.

A strategy was evolved to concentrate the limited resources and efforts of the police on selected, visible targets. This was the only way to give the appearance of effectively guaranteeing "public peace" . In Imperial Power and Popular Politics: Class, Resistance and the State in India 1850-1950, the Cambridge University historian, Rajnarayan Chandavarkar explains: "[The police had] necessarily to rely upon a general consensus about which groups in society were especially prone to criminal activity and might constitute, therefore, the proper objects of policing. ... By enacting this principle of selection [of particular groups], the colonial state was able to create criminal tribes and castes."

Chandavarkar writes that even though they were the focus of much police action, "the criminal tribes were scarcely, by the late nineteenth century,a potent threat to social order."

Criminal tribes were just a convenient target, a scapegoat. By acting against them, the state could keep up at least a pretence of law enforcement, even if a lot more crime happened and was left unpunished. Chandavarkar writes: "While in reality crime went largely unreported and unrecorded, police reports and memoirs ... described in painstaking detail, crimes of savage brutality or extraordinary guile and cunning or those which reflected exotic customs and elaborate rituals. This was particularly the case with ... the criminal tribes and castes, whose supposed criminality was represented as an inheritance and a profession, inextricably connected to their lineage and genealogy."

In those lurid police records was born a view of certain tribes that made it easy to call them criminal. It appears repeatedly in the Gazettes, the remarkably detailed accounts by British officials of happenings in the districts. For instance, Volume XII of the 1880 Bombay Presidency Gazette has these remarks about Pardhis, groups of whom this author has been spending time with in rural Maharashtra state: "They are still fond of hunting and poaching and have not got rid of their turn for thieving.... The Phase Pardhi [a sub-tribe] is nearly always ragged and dirty, walking with a sneaking gait."

"A sneaking gait": not very different from the attitude that permeates the writing of Lt. Gen. George MacMunn.

Unfortunately, attitudes like that have long outlived the British administration in India. This is true even though a newly independent India repealed the Criminal Tribes Act in 1952. That being so, they were no longer to be called "criminal", but "denotified tribes." Nevertheless, nearly half-a century later, they are still routinely called criminal.

I found a typical example in The Telegraph newspaper (Calcutta, July 31 1998). A report about a series of robberies by Pardhis in the state of Madhya Pradesh says, Pardhis are "identified as having criminal antecedents," that they are "listed as [a] criminal ethnic group." (This is a lie, because such listing lapsed when the CT Act was repealed in 1952). Besides, the Chief Minister of the state is quoted complaining that his state’s "projects to provide these people with education did not have any impact on their criminal instincts."

When the highest elected official in a state refers to the "criminal instincts" of these tribals, and newspapers write about their "criminal antecedents", there seems little hope that they will ever be seen as ordinary Indians. Sure enough, nearly everyone I have spoken to about Pardhis policemen, industrialists, students, professors, villagers has assumed that they have a propensity for crime. Such an assumption is the starting point for discussion.

This is not to say that members of such tribes do not indulge in crime. They do, and their crimes range from stealing pomegranates from fields to burglaries in which people get murdered. A retired police constable I met in Satara district showed me several lists of Pardhi tolis or gangs, each centred on one family that wander the district committing crimes. He knew the particular methods of each toli. The police station in Phaltan, a large town in the district, has pictures of several Pardhis wanted for area crimes, some of whose names were in the tolis that the retired constable showed me.

Without doubt, there are Pardhis who commit crimes.But there are reasons for such crimes. They deserve consideration. Take what Stephen Fuchs wrote in The Aboriginal Tribes of India (1973): "A number of such tribes are passionately nomadic, and since foodgathering and hunting in the jungle, in the traditional manner, is often impossible, they have switched over to the rather dangerous ... life of ‘foraging’ in the fields, villages and towns. ... This has gained them a bad reputation and in the British times some of them were branded criminal and held under close police supervision. Since Independence this stigma has been taken from them, but the watch over them by the police has not much relaxed. ... They are forced by the prevailing adverse circumstances to practise subsistence thieving."

If there are Pardhis who commit crimes, at least part of the blame lies in the fact that life "in the traditional manner" is no longer an option. Part of the blame also lies with societal attitudes that leave them with no choice. Time and again, I have met Pardhis who tell me the local schools do not allow their children to attend classes. If they do manage to stay in school and graduate, jobs are hard to get. After a meeting near Phaltan where several speakers urged Pardhis to educate their children, and especially their girls, one woman stopped me outside and pointed to her grown daughter. "I struggled so she could graduate from school," she said. "But now nobody will give her a job because she is a Pardhi. What’s the use of all this talk of education?"

So Pardhis continue to be seen as criminal. The police continue to round them up every time there is a crime petty or major in the area. This usually means just one thing: a thrashing in the police station. That is what happened to a Pardhi called Pinya Hari Kale at the Baramati (Satara District, Maharashtra) police station, on June 8 1998.

Like many Pardhis in Satara, 35 - year-old Kale was a landless agricultural labourer. His 1000 rupees a month was the only income available to support his wife and five children. Late on June 8, three constables picked up Kale in Baramati. Now since the arrest of Pardhis on suspicion is a purely normal thing, Kale’s wife Chandrasena wasn’t particularly perturbed when he did not return home that night. As she told the Bombay High Court in a petition, she "expected him to be detained and released."

That did not happen. When she went to the police station to ask after him the next day, two constables showed her his dead body.

A local magistrate and a doctor at Baramati’s Golden Jubilee Hospital produced an extraordinary post-mortem report that absolved the police altogether, corroborating their claim that Kale "fell down" while trying to run from the constables and died soon after. A second post-mortem, at Chandrasena’s insistence, found "evidence of multiple concussions", 14 in number. It concluded that Kale had died "due to multiple blunt injuries with evidence of head injury."

Because of these conflicting post-mortem reports, an official of the Pune Criminal Investigation Department, BN Mane, was asked to investigate Kale’s death. He found that at the police station, the three constables and a sub-inspector had beaten Kale "with sticks and belt." Because of this, Kale died early on June 9. The sub-inspector’s report about the incident said Kale died accidentally; Mane terms this a "false and concocted story."

Mane has filed complaints against all four men. They are under suspension, while a further investigation takes place.

Clearly, given Mane’s findings, the state itself has concluded that Kale was killed in police custody. Yet, for months, it did not pay his family any compensation, let alone show that it intends to punish the four policemen. Chandrasena’s petition, now making slow progress through the courts, asks for both these measures.

It is important to understand that what happened to Kale is entirely typical of what happens to denotified tribes. Police harrassment happens solely because these tribes are seen as criminal: too often, such harrassment results in death. That is the spectre India’s ex-criminal tribes face every day.

There are, nevertheless, some signs of hope. DNT-RAG (see box) informed the National Human Rights Commission about Pinya Kale’s death. The NHRC’s response got far less attention than it deserved. On December 22, 1998, it ruled that "for the limited purpose of awarding interim relief," it is not necessary to wait for charges against the four policemen to be proved in a criminal court. A "strong prima facie case" is sufficient; and BN Mane’s investigation clearly makes just such a case.

The NHRC directed the State of Maharashtra to pay Kale’s family Rs 2,00,000 in compensation. It also directed the State to consider action against the magistrate and the doctor who conducted the first post-mortem, for "doctoring the inquest report to suit the offenders." The punitive action has not happened yet.But in February 1999,the Government of Maharashtra responded to the NHRC’s direction by issuing instructions to pay the Rs 2,00,000 compensation. On April 9, a police inspector at the Baramati Police Station handed over the money to the Kale family: Rs 25,000 was in cash and the rest was invested in three-year term deposits in the names of Pinya’s wife and children.

Cases like this may be the first signs of a small turn in the tide. In awarding compensation and recommending that police officers be punished, the state implicitly recognizes the rights of such tribes, the injustice that they live under daily. This does not yet amount to much. In particular, we need to see if the policemen are really punished. But it is a step up from the widespread attitudes these tribes have always had to face. To me, these cases offer some hope that one day, India’s ex-criminal tribes will no longer suffer the stigma of being so labelled; that they will no longer be a convenient target via which the police can pretend that they are fighting crime.

Dilip D'Souza
Manushi, Issue 123

Dilip D' Souza is a Bombay based freelance journalist.

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