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
India repealed this Act in 1952, thus "denotifying" these tribes.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.
it is this view, more than anything else, that defines the way DNTs live
example is a report in The Telegraph (Calcutta) of July 31, 1998:
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
affidavit, one supposed event, two different times. A simple mistake?
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."
affidavit, one supposed event, three different times.
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."
Kumaresh Roy could not be bothered to get even the date right.
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."
affidavit, two different dates for Case No. 37 of 1997.
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
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
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
this, because of the easy belief that DNTs are criminal.
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.
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.