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    In 1871, the British passed the Criminal Tribes Act. It notified about 150 tribes ("communities" is probably a more correct word, but I will stick to the more-used "tribes" in this article) around the country as "criminal". It gave the police wide powers to deal with members of such tribes, including restricting their movements and requiring them to report at police stations regularly.

    Independent India repealed this Act in 1952, thus "denotifying" these tribes. That is why they are now called denotified tribes (DNTs). Except that term is rarely used. Half a century later, they are still nearly always referred to as criminal. While studying DNTs on a recent fellowship. I heard industrialists, journalists, farmers and policemen call them that. For there is a view that just will not die: DNTs are congenital criminals.

    And it is this view, more than anything else, that defines the way DNTs live today.

    A typical example is a report in The Telegraph (Calcutta) of July 31, 1998:

    "Madhya Pradesh: Chief Minister Digvijay Singh has expressed concern over a series of recent robberies in MP by Pardhi tribals, identified as having criminal antecedents. These tribes (sic), listed as criminal ethnic groups, have defied the efforts of the Government to rehabilitate them. The CM said state projects to provide these people with education did not have any impact on their criminal instincts."

    "Criminal antecedents," criminal ethnic groups," "criminal instincts," this is the kind of language that is still routinely used to describe DNTs. Now some of them do indeed commit crimes, and serious ones too. Still, hardly all of them, and hardly on a scale that would justify such a blanket prejudice.

    If society and Governments look at "these people" this way, the police is no exception. This means that DNTs are invariably the first suspects in area crimes. What happens to them when rounded up is no surprise: they are usually, and brutally, beaten. Sometimes they die.

    In 1998, activists filed writ petitions about two such custody deaths: one in the Bombay High Court and one in the Calcutta High Court. They also informed the National Human Rights Commission about the two deaths. In a little-known victory for justice, both efforts resulted in compensation being awarded to the families. One came through a direction from the NHRC, the other via a judgement in the Calcutta High Court. While the compensation is welcome and may act as a deterrent, the really revealing thing about these cases is what they say about attitudes towards DNTs.

    Examining police affidavits. I was astonished at how carelessly drafted, almost deliberately filled with lame mistakes, they were. It is as if these officers were arrogantly certain nothing could touch them - even though they had hammered a DNT to death. It is as if they considered laughable the mere thought of being accountable for a mere DNTs murder.

    Take the case of Budhan, a 30-year-old member of the denotified Kheria Sabaras in Purulia District, West Bengal. Taken into custody on February 10, 1998. Budhan died in the Purulia Town police station on February 17. The police claimed he committed suicide. In response to a writ petition about his death (No. 3715 of 1998. Paschim Banga Kheria Saber Kalyan Samiti vs State of West Bengal and Others, filed on February 23, 1998). Purulia police officers filed several affidavits in Court.

    Consider these extracts.

    On page three of his affidavit, Biplab Dasgupta. Purulia's Jail Superintendent, says that as soon as he reached home that February 17 evening, he got a call about Budhan's death. "(I) rushed back," he goes on, "and at about 6.25 p.m. I entered the jail... (and) found the said Budhan Sabar lying on the floor (dead)." However, on page 10 of the very same affidavit, Desgupta says "I saw the body at 6.18 p.m. on 17-2-98."

    One affidavit, one supposed event, two different times. A simple mistake?

    In paragraph three of his affidavit. Syed Liakat Hossein, the Sub-Divisional Officer in Purulia, says: "I proceeded on February 17, 1998 to District Jail, Purulia, at 7-30 p.m. to inquire into the alleged suicidal death of ... Budhan Sabar." In paragraph 4 - the very next one-Hossein says: "I entered into the District Jail .... at 7.15 p.m. on February 17,1998." And as if that 15 minute difference in consecutive paragraphs were not enough. Hossein's Annexure "A" says: "I proceeded to the District Jail, Purulia at 8.30 p.m. on 17-2-98 to enquire (sic) into the alleged suicidal death of... Budhan Sabar."

    One affidavit, one supposed event, three different times.

    The jailer, Kumaresh Roy, began his statement thus: "While I was working in the office on the evening of 14-2-98... (I was informed) that (Budhan) committed suicide in cell."

    Apparently Kumaresh Roy could not be bothered to get even the date right.

    Ashoke Roy of the Barabazar Police Station was the officer who arrested Budhan. In paragraph four of his affidavit. Roy says he picked up Budhan for interrogation "in connection with Barabazar Police Station Case no. 37/97 dated 15-9-97." (This was a bus robbery Roy claims Budhan was a suspect in). In paragraph 10, Roy says: "(Budhan) disclosed startling facts in connection with... Case no. 37/97 dated 5-9-97."

    One affidavit, two different dates for Case No. 37 of 1997.

    One or two such discrepancies might be put down to typos. But this entire series speaks of an attempt to cover up: an attempt so shabby that we must conclude that these officers were confident their affidavits would not even be read. But they were. "(They were) several other contradictions and inconsistencies in the affidavits." observed Justice Ruma Pal in her judgement (July 6, 1998) in the case. "(T)here is no credible evidence of the alleged suicide of Budhan."

    Justice Pal ordered a CBI investigation into Budhan's death, departmental proceedings against the police officers involved and Ashoke Roy's transfer out of the district. She also awarded Rs. 2,00,000 compensation to Budhan's widow Shyamoli.

    Good news, and yet this is just one case. The attitudes in those affidavits are what DNTs all over the country face every day, right now. Potential harrassment is a constant preoccupation. The chances of being reasonably treated if arrested are minimal. Rights and justice are utterly unknown concepts.

    All this, because of the easy belief that DNTs are criminal.

    The result is the profoundly insecure lives DNTs live. Their huts are regularly demolished by expanding municipalities: they must live outside village limits: villagers do not like DNT children in schools: one or the other member of their little communities is constantly in jail and cases drag on in court; nd periodically one or the other member is beaten to death.

    Any wonder, then, that many DNTs are still largely nomadic? And their wandering lifestyles fuel still more suspicion. That vicious circle has a lot to do with the state's continuing willingness to view DNTs as criminal, to treat them that way. To kill them that way.

    Source: The Hindu, Folio


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