(‘Anguished cry of the Pardhis’)
In his moving account of the lives and travails of the De-notified and Nomadic Tribes (DNTs) of India in ‘A Nomad called Thief’ eminent writer and a tireless crusader of the cause of these peoples Dr Ganesh Devy puts it very simply but starkly, “…they are a people on the run…for decades…Freedom has still not reached them…” Who are they really? Who are hounding them? Where are they headed? They seem to be fugitives, forever. Dr Devy adds that the most dreadful thing about them is that they are branded as ‘born’ criminals, as if to point out that criminality is in their blood and is passed on through genes to succeeding generations.
About the time Mahatma Gandhi emerged on the Indian social and political scene leading the freedom struggle, Indian society began to witness the tragic emergence of a new underclass of people who were branded as criminals. The movement to free India from foreign rule eluded them. Even when India awoke to political freedom, lakhs of these people were enclosed in settlements stripped of their civil liberties and subjected to unimaginable indignities.Another of India’s great leader Jawaharlal Nehru was alarmed that the law with such nomenclature and import continued to be on the statute book. He promptly appointed a committee to look into the problems and suggest rehabilitation measures for the DNTs.
Our encounter with Shiva Bapu Kale, a Pardhi who remembers his meeting India’s first PM Jawaharlal Nehru as a youngster with nostalgia, has been an eye-opener and a challenge.”Sir, please help us remove the ‘Shikka’ (branding)from our foreheads so that we can lead a life ofdignity”, he pleaded earnestly. He is literate and had taken up petty jobs in offices. Diminutive and frail and withpiercing eyes, the fire in his belly and the courageand strength of his conviction belies his advanced age andhis stigmatized and powerless social status. He isnow one of our associates and helping out his community by helping the members get their various documents.
One day, when one of our students asked him where he lived,his prompt reply took everyone around by surprise:”Slater Road, Bus Stand No. 155 (!)” That’s it. Nopermanent dwelling, not even a roof over his head.Around fifty families live in and around a bus stopclose to a railway station. Shelter-less! This afterIndia kept her tryst with political freedom over 65years ago. The so-called freedom movement,national leaders and finally even the Constitution,bypassed them. When the freedom bells rang tensof thousands of these tribes were into ‘settlements’stripped of a life of liberty and dignity staring into afuture without hope.
“Maansa sarkha amaala Jagude” (allow us to live like human beings) is the pleaof Avinash Annasaheb Gaikwad, another of ourclose associates hailing from the Takari Bhamtacommunity whose espousal of the cause has seenmany police officers at the receiving end.No wonder that the DNTs mark their Independence notfrom 1947 but from 1952 when the ‘Criminal TribesAct of 1871’ (CTA) was finally repealed and all thosewho were ‘notified’ under it as criminals were’de-notified’. Did they become free? That they werecontinued to be hounded by a new law that soonreplaced it, ‘The Habitual Offenders Act’ (HoA) is anotherstory.Dakxin Chhara, the dynamic founder-director of the Budhan theatre in Gujarat, told this writer, “The HoA is the extension of the CTA. We have never felt that we have been liberated. We are still suspect and the old prejudices against us still continue.”
It is perhaps unimaginable for many of us to eventhink that a Law such as the CTA could ever find its wayin the Statute Books. It did! It consequentlycondemned lakhs of innocent tribals largely givento a nomadic way of life to ‘reformative settlements’where hard labour was extracted from them for apittance and under duress;where punishment wasroutine and severe for infringement of the harsh rules;and where all civil liberties and collective rights, aswe know them today, were not merely suspended as they are during an emergency but taken away indefinitely.
Research has shown that although the draconianand bizarresounding Law wasannounced asa piece of ‘social legislation’ intended to reformhardened criminals, its true intent wasvery different. It was meant to curtail the movements of a people, whose wayof life and philosophy was beyond theunderstanding of British India. The movement of the people was not only a source ofnuisance for an administration overly concerned about law and order, it was also unrewarding from the economic pointof viewsince these communities evaded the taxnet due to their way of life. Since they were on the move they hardly owned any taxable property.
There was another reason: restricting their movements and forcing them into settlements enabled the administration to obtain cheap and captive labour for Britishtextile mills, businesses and factories. How can theeconomic angle ever be forgotten?! Some of the bestbrains from academia and the shrewdest mindsfrom the administration were deployed behind thescenes to make the law become not only a realitybut also one that appealed to the minds and heartsof a society plagued by rising crimes and unrest ina rapidly expanding and restive population.
India has a large tribal population consisting of various tribes chiefly concentrated in central India. By and large these tribal communities have had very little contact with mainstream society. This was more so during the time of the British occupation. The British administration did not understand the tribal way of life, even though of a sedentary nature, and their contact with them had been by and large marked by an uneasy relationship. At the end of the day the tribals were finally allowed to live according to their own customs and traditions in places known as ‘Agency Areas’. These are today generally known as ‘Schedule V’ areas and the tribes are classified as Scheduled Tribes (STs). STs and the Scheduled Castes (SCs), who are considered lowest in the caste hierarchy, together form the SC&ST group. This group enjoys some Constitutional protection and is also the object of some affirmative action initiated by the government. Their condition though is far from satisfactory.
The Nomadic tribes (NTs) of India are a very different category. They are found all over India and they wander from place to place trading their traditional wares and/or performing acrobatic or dramatic acts for a living. Since ‘Nomadism’ as a way of life was not understood by mainstream settled communities (including the tribes mentioned above), they are generally suspect. All kinds of myths and stories about them existed and very often these were more prejudices than actual facts or reality about their world view and way of life. These prejudices exist even now in this century, as they did during the time of the British in India. Their condition therefore is pathetic and is growing worse by the day. Modernization, with its technology, laws and governmental policies have marginalized them even further.
Dr Devy tells us that the story of the DNTs goes back to the early years of colonial rule. In those times, whoever opposed the British colonial expansion was perceived as a potential criminal. This were more true if any attempt was made to oppose the colonial government with the use of weapons, in which case the charge of criminality was a certainty. In their list of criminal groups, the British included many of the wandering minstrels, fakirs, petty traders, rustic transporters and disbanded groups of soldiers. During the first half of the nineteenth century, the tribes of the northwest frontier were declared ‘criminal tribes’. This category became increasingly open-ended, and by 1871 the British had prepared an official list of criminal tribes. For instance the Bhils who had fought the British rule in Khandesh and on the banks of the river Narmada were convicted under sec 110 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and were referred to as criminal tribes.
He states further that after the repeal of the CTA, the government came up with a series of new Acts, generally entitled Habitual Offenders Act (‘HoA’). The de-notification and the passing of the new Act should have ended the misery of the communities penalized under the CTA. This did not happen as the HOA preserved most of the provision of the former CTA, except the premise implied in it that an entire community could be ‘born’ criminal. The police forces as well as the people in general had been taught to look at the ‘criminal tribes’ as born criminals and that attitude persisted and persists even today. One does not know if the police training academies in India still teach trainees that certain communities are habitually criminal but the CTA is very much a part of the syllabus leading to the discussion of crime-watch. The result is that every time there is a petty theft or burglary or murder in a locality, the DNTs in the neighbourhood become the first suspects.
According to Dr Devy, the ratio between the arrests and the conviction of the DNTs needs to be analyzed to see the extent of the harassment caused by the police to this most vulnerable and disadvantaged section of our society. The land possessed by the ‘Criminal’ tribes was already alienated during colonial rule. After independence, various state governments have done little to restore their land to them. Schemes for economic uplift do not seem to have benefited them. The illiteracy rate amongst them is higher than among the SCs or the STs, malnutrition more frequent and provisions for education and health care almost negligible, since most of the DNTs have remained nomadic in habit. Above all, there is no end to the atrocities that they have to face. And no end either to the indignities heaped on them making daily life a veritable hell on earth.
Take for instance the episode at the Reay Road settlement of the Pardhis we are working with. When the police got to hear that a family had pawned its gold and silver jewelry with a shop for a loan they wanted for a marriage, they barged into the house and took some members into custody for interrogation. They wanted to know from the family as to where that jewelry came from insinuating that the jewelry was stolen and expecting that the family to‘confess’ as to where they stole it from. Infuriated by the behavior and attitude of the police and their questioning the women dared the police to arrest them. They told them they were ready to show them the shop from where they bought the jewelry and the receipt they had for the payment made by them. The women narrated to us how humiliated they felt when people from the neighborhood witnessed this unfortunate event. “Do not have our self-respect? Are we not normal human beings?” they asked.
Being illiterate and ignorant of the law of the land, the DNTs know very little about police procedures, and so they often get into difficult situations. In their case, criminal jurisprudence is turned on its head since the unstated but actual position is that they are not presumed innocent but it is the other way round. They are presumed guilty and the onus of proving that they are not, that they are innocent, is on them. Many of them are scared to wear new clothes for fear of being arrested for theft! Therefore it is not uncommon for them to soil their clothes before using them. Lynched, hounded from village to village, starved of all civic amenities, deprived of the means of livelihood and gripped by the fear of police persecutions, the DNTs have no respite.
The British did not understand the communities that were non-sedentary. Therefore, all nomadic communities became suspect in the eyes of the colonial British rulers. They drafted CTA in 1871 which passed through a series of revisions till 1924. It provided for confiscation of land and other possessions and the forced internment of the so-called criminal tribes. Special areas for confining the ‘criminals’ were created. They were called settlements. Nearly two hundred nomadic communities were brought under the provisions of the CTA.Despite the de-notification, the general public and the police continued to look upon them as criminals. The police in particular used this situation in an exploitative manner. The state governments or the central government offered little solace to them since they were distributed in the ST, SC and the OBC categories.
They continue to be houndedand rounded up whenever crimes big or small occur,either in the villages or in towns and cities. Their’criminal tag’ facilitates their easy arrest and so areoften convenient scapegoats for the police whootherwise would have to crack difficult cases. “Evenif some of our people do engage in thieving, canthe entire community be branded ‘criminal’?” askedUchlyakaar Lakshmanji Gaikwad while addressinga gathering on the campus of St. Xavier’s College.”In any case, what does this stealing amount to whencompared to the big scams and the white collarcrimes committed by educated and so-called respectablemembers of society and the big corporations?””Who is the bigger thief, or criminal?” he asked.Can a country ever be secure if it did not care forits vulnerable people, its minorities, its women andchildren? The DNTs number around 100 millionand their existence, let alone their plight, is notknown to mainstream India.
The Statutory Commission to study the present situation of the DNTs, popularly known as the’Renke Commission’ has submitted its report to the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA). It makes several recommendations for the rehabilitation and well being of the Pardhis and other DNTs. It is unfortunate that the reasonable and innovative recommendations are not being implemented. As one leader of the DNTs told this writer, “You see we are not united and are not a vote bank; why would the politicians look at us?” Another said, “We have not yet become a ‘nuisance value’ to the state which therefore takes us for granted. We have to ‘organize, educate and agitate.’ We are trying to prepare our youth, the coming generation to fight the battles. The battles will be long and fierce but we must get involved.
There have been other groupsand organizations working to alleviate the sufferingof these most oppressed among the marginalizedowing to the stigma of criminality attached to them.We at XISR have made modest efforts in thisdirection. It is thanks to the work done by all mypredecessors, associates and colleagues that wehave been able to break new grounds: starting theone-credit course on the human rights violations ofthe DNTs was, according to LaxmanjiGaikwad, a first of its kind.According to him, no othercampus in the country offers a structuredUniversity level course such as the one offered. The response from the studentsand others has been very encouraging. Some ofthe students are pursuing further research on thesubject.
A new initiative is the ‘Campus School’ on St. Xavier’s College campus. Pardhi children from the neighborhood gather on the campus, generally on Saturdays and occasionally on Sundays and learn drawing and painting, English speaking, basic literacy in a playful atmosphere. Contrary to what one would expect, these children of the mean street are smart and bold enough to interact with a host of student groups on campus, such as the All India Catholic University Federation ( AICUF), the Social Service League (SSL) and students who study in the Xavier Institute of Communication (XIC). Some of the student groups have begun to relate to them and have offered to spend time with the kids. This has resulted in a two-way process of learning. The children learn from the students, who learn a lot about the survival skills of the children, their background and finally about the world of the nomadic and de-notified tribes. Ms Aarti, Johnson, Saili and other colleagues are instrumental in its success. An inspired itinerant journalist of a local Hindi newspaper was inspired to take not only a picture of two little children engrossed in their work but also to compose a lovely poem on the importance of education.
The book in your hand is the fruit of hard labour of our dedicated and creative researcher, Dixita. It is written to bring into the public domain the situation of the Pardhis in the hope that some policy changes and funds are made available to ameliorate their suffering. I thank Fr Joseph Pithekar SJ for going through the manuscript and offering useful advice. We are indebted to Mr Rocky Lopez for encouraging us in this project and for bring out this little volume in record time. Very special thanks are due to Uchlyakar Shri Laxmanji Gaikwad for providing us with a special note and for his continued support. We are grateful to Shri AvinashjiGaikwad for contributing two important chapters concerning women and the deprivation of children’s right to education. We also thank Mr Anil Mhatre for going through the manuscript and for his suggestions. Ms Alka Gadgil and Mr Prakash Akolkar took time off from their busy schedule to come up with a very lucid translation of the Preface. I thank both of them.
The community of Jesuits on campus has always been keen followers of the happenings and has offered willing support to the various projects, for which I am very grateful. Finally, I thank MISEREOR for supporting and accompanying us throughout the journey that has seen many interesting twists and turns.
Director, XISR, St Xavier’s College Campus
Mumbai, January, 2014
 ‘Pardhis’ are a de-notified tribe of India, earlier notified under a British India Law known as a ‘Criminal Tribes Act, 1871’.
 Ganesh Devy (2006), ‘A Nomad Called Thief’, (Hyderabad, Orient Longman Pvt Ltd)
 Ganesh Devy, Ibid