A standing committee of Parliament on Denotified tribes submitted its report recently. It has criticised the functioning of the development programme for de-notified, nomadic, and semi-nomadic tribes.
Denotified tribes owe their origin to the British who landed in India in Surat on August 24, 1608, but the British Raj over the Indian subcontinent is usually considered from 1858 until the independence of India and Pakistan in 1947. During the British Raj, their main intention was initially to maximize profit in an atmosphere where the natives cannot create any law and order situation. This is manifested by the enactment of the Police Act 1861 in the aftermath of the Mutiny of 1857 which is characterised as the First War of Independence. The British naturally wanted to establish a police force that would suit the purpose of crushing dissent and any movement for self-government.
One such colonial piece of legislation was the Criminal Tribes Act 1871 (CTA). Under its provisions, they criminalized entire communities of people in different parts of the country by categorizing them as habitual criminals. Because of this label, restriction on their movements was also imposed. Adult male members of such groups were forced to report weekly to the local police.
To combat the menace of robbery and dacoity committed by the Thugs and such other criminals, the Criminal Tribes Act was ostensibly enacted. At the first glance, it appeared that the Act was brought about to instill order and security by the colonial authorities, but contemporary historians are now seeing the measure as a part of a wider attempt at social engineering which, for example, saw the categorisation of castes as being “agricultural” or “martial” or recognising which groups were loyal to the colonial government and therefore suitable for military recruitment, respectively.
Sociologist Meena Radhakrishna writes that the origins of the creation of the act concerned the revolt of 1857 where many tribal chiefs such as Dhan Singh Gurjar were labeled traitors and rebellious. Some historians have suggested that this happened because many of these tribes were small communities of poor, low-caste, and nomadic people living on the fringes of the society. Following the 1857 mutiny, as many as 237 castes and tribes were given criminal-by-birth tags under the ambit of the Criminal Tribes Act, 1931.
After independence, the Act was ultimately repealed. However, there was a massive crime wave after the criminal tribes were denotified and this led to a public outcry and the Habitual Offenders Act (HOA) (1952) was enacted in the place of CTA; it states that a habitual offender has been a victim of subjective and objective influences and has manifested a set practice in crime and also presents a danger to society. The HOA effectively re-stigmatised the already marginalised “criminal tribes”. The previously criminalised tribes still suffer a stigma, because of the ineffective nature of the new Act, which in effect meant relisting of the supposed denotified tribes. Today the social category generally known as the denotified and nomadic tribes includes approximately 60 million people in India.
The National Human Rights Commission has recommended the repeal of the Habitual Offenders Act, 1952. In March 2007, the UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination said: “The so-called de-notified and nomadic people which are listed for their alleged ‘criminal tendencies’ under the former Criminal Tribes Act (1871), continue to be stigmatised under the Habitual Offenders…,” and asked India to repeal the HOA and rehabilitate the de-notified and nomadic tribes. While a number of these tribes are categorised under SC, ST, and OBC, many are not.
Many commissions and committees had been constituted since Independence to address the problems of these communities. Finally, a National Commission for De-notified, Nomadic and Semi-Nomadic Tribes (NCDNT) was constituted in 2006 by the then government which was headed by Balkrishna Sidramrenke and it submitted its report in June 2008 which highlighted that it is an irony that these tribes somehow escaped the attention of our Constitution makers and thus got deprived of the Constitutional support, unlike SCs and STs. The Renke commission estimated their population at around 10.74 crores based on Census 2001. A new Commission was constituted in February 2014 to prepare a state-wise list, which submitted its report on January 8, 2018, identified 1,262 communities as de-notified, nomadic and semi-nomadic.
Much recently, the Minister of Social Justice and Empowerment launched the scheme called Scheme For Economic Empowerment of Denotified, Nomadic, and Semi Nomadic Communities (SEED).
DWBDNC (Development And Welfare Board for Denotified, Nomadic, And Semi-Nomadic Communities) was constituted on February 21, 2019, under the chairmanship of Bhiku Ramji Idate.
Also, a committee has been set up by the NITI Aayog to complete the process of identification of the de-notified, nomadic, and semi-nomadic communities.
Ethnographic studies of DNCs are being conducted by the Anthropological Survey of India, with a budget of Rs 2.26 crore sanctioned.
From the above facts, it is clear that despite intervention by NHRC, the UN, and the constitutional ideal, it has not been possible to abandon the Habitual Offenders Act, of 1952 and the Government is looking for various measures to empower these communities with education, skill development, and other measures so that the communities can be empowered within the framework of the Constitution.
In Assam, we also come across a section of people from Char and minority-dominated areas who are castigated as criminals in the mainstream media. They allege that the most disturbing development in the 21stCentury Assam is the population explosion, which has been more intensified by a large-scale influx of illegal immigrants to Assam and has created an explosive situation upsetting the demographic balance in Assam. It is also claimed that illegal International immigration from neighbouring Bangladesh saw more criminals flocking to Assam and thereby increase in the crime rate in the region.
It is a universally accepted view that immigrants may be crime victims as well as criminals. There is a shameful tradition of violence in many nations toward the newcomer. Some immigrants who enter India illegally are at the mercy of fraudulent and vicious smugglers, and many die in transit before arriving in the host country. Others, to "work off” their debt to their smugglers, become slaves and are subject to extortion, forced prostitution, and sweatshop jobs, often tricked by their ethnic compatriots into doing so. But at the same time, this reality should not be overlooked that there is an increasing concern over the crimes committed by illegal and undocumented immigrants. States with large immigrant populations within India, such as Assam and West Bengal, have had to devote a massive part of their law enforcement and criminal justice budgets to investigating, apprehending, and incarcerating immigrants to ensure safety for the law-abiding citizens and legal immigrants.
As indicated at the beginning about the denotified tribes, the all-around development of the Char area population, irrespective of their religious affiliation, is the only solution for the development of Assam. Assamese society should accept the historical truth of immigration and accept the people who came before 1971 as their stakeholders remembering the fact that some of this populace vouched for the Assamese language as their mother tongue when the state was passing through a language nightmare. The saner sections of the community should also demonstrate their trust through writings, meetings, and other modes and guide their brethren to subscribe to the pluralistic traditions of the Assamese Society. Everybody must remember that pluralism implies religious tolerance, not unchecked religion freedom-fortunately Assamese culture is a manifestation of this ideal.
The Author is the former director-general of police, Special Branch, and erstwhile Chairman, APSC. Views expressed by him are personal.)