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DNT - Denotified and Nomadic Tribes

The DNTs, or Denotified and Nomadic Tribes of India, are more commonly recognised in mainstream society under their colonial-era classification: the Criminal Tribes. Historically itinerant traders, entertainers, and folk-craft practitioners, DNT communities are often compared with the Roma in Europe. Like "gypsies" elsewhere in the world, whose lifestyles made them difficult to bring under state control, the wanderers were regarded with suspicion by India's British rulers.

In the global economy, goods and services are standardized and centrally controlled by multinationals and other organizations. The newly emerging global economic system does not allow communities to lead their traditional life, with the result that nomadic communities have lost their livelihoods and independence. Folk artists of the past have become destitute; artisans who supplied agricultural implements or weapons of warfare are reduced to beggars; pastoralists who once owned large flocks of animals are now landless labourers or marginal farmers. They suffer a constant, relentless humiliation at the hands of ‘respectable’ people.

After the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871, a raft of castes were "notified", that is, branded "hereditary criminals", alienated from traditional sources of income, and made vulnerable to a range of state-sanctioned abuses. These laws were enacted as crime was considered a ‘hereditary profession’. Local governments were authorized to establish industrial, agricultural or reformatory schools and settlements for members of the Criminal Tribe. Most nomadic communities were declared criminal, and put into these settlements where they were forced to work without payment in British owned enterprises, plantations, mills, quarries and factories.

The Salvation Army, was extremely influential with the British government, and considered these settlements to be an experiment in ‘curing criminals’. Even while these were often termed as ‘open prisons’, land was allotted to the people, housing created, though under strict police supervision, and occupational training was imparted to them in various trades with a view to get them habituated to a settled living earned through hard labor.

A number of communities in the north of India were involved in the rebellion against the British in 1857. These communities were used by the rebel princes and rajahs either directly to fight against the British, or were indirectly involved in a variety of ways in assisting their armies. As a result, these communities were brutally suppressed during 1857, and later declared Criminal Tribes under the Criminal Tribes Act, 1871. A number of communities that had sided with the rebels and mutineers in 1857 were declared Criminal Tribes in 1871.

The forest laws put into force from mid-nineteenth century onwards deprived a large number of communities of their traditional rights of grazing, hunting and gathering, and shifting cultivation in specific areas. The affected communities were ignorant of the new laws, and frequently found themselves on the wrong side of the law because of the new legislation against their livelihoods. The colonial rulers systematically exploited the forest resources for its commercial and industrial ventures at home. Resources were siphoned off from the colonies, and strict forest laws were enacted to stop its use by natives, having traditional rights over them.

Indian society always had traditional groups which subsisted on alms and charity, or paid in kind for ‘spiritual’ services. Such groups had a low but legitimate place in the social hierarchy of settled people. Many of them, sadhus, fakirs, religious mendicants, fortune-tellers, genealogists, traditional healers, etc., were accepted by the settled society for their services. There were groups that entertained the public through performing arts. There were nomadic musicians, dancers, storytellers, acrobats, gymnasts and tightrope walkers. The British declared a number of these nomadic communities criminal tribes. Similarly, many nomadic groups, which entertained the public with the help of performing animals and birds (such as bears, monkeys, snakes, owls, birds) were also declared criminal tribes.

Independent India envisioned building an egalitarian society in which people with diverse socio-cultural and economic backgrounds can have equal opportunities in different fields with dignity and honour. To achieve this society, some sort of social engineering was imperative for bringing the historically wronged and deprived communities at par with the historically favored and privileged. Positive discrimination along with developmental interventions, and capacity and asset building, was considered essential to this social engineering. For achieving a state of social and economic equality, the builders of modern India have undertaken certain measures right from the time of Independence.

The preamble of the constitution sums up the resolve to secure, inter alia, justice – social, economic and political to all the citizens of the country. The Directive Principles in general and Article 38 in particular contain the fundamental principles for the governance of the country. Accordingly, the State has to strive to promote the welfare of the people by securing and protecting as effectively as it may a social order in which justice – social, economic and political will be the bedrock of the national policy framework. In pursuit of this constitutional objective, the Union Govt. and the States have been taking a number of measures from time to time. Similarly, Article 14 and 16 (4) of the Constitution intend to remove social and economic inequality to make equal opportunities available to all the citizens including the poor and the disadvantaged.

The Criminal Tribes Inquiry Committee, 1947, was constituted in the United Province. In its report, this Committee felt that till the Gypsies settled down, they would continue with criminal tendencies. It proposed that ‘efforts should be made under sanction of law (suitable provision may be made in the Habitual Offenders and Vagrants Act) to settle them and teach them a life of industry and honest calling as against idleness, prostitution and crime to which their conditions of existence make them prone’.

Following India's independence in 1947, the stigmatised tribes were "denotified", but these communities have been unable to shake their historic disadvantage. As a part of this process the people who had been historically wronged and disadvantaged were put under different social categories, such as the Scheduled Castes (SCs), Scheduled Tribes (STs), and Other Backward Classes (OBCs). Each was accorded certain privileges to overcome its socio-economic disabilities. In this categorisation, the communities that were earlier part of the Denotified, Nomadic and Semi-Nomadic Tribes were also included in the lists of SC, ST, and OBC categories. However, their categorisation was not logical or uniform. There are still a number of Denotified, Nomadic and Semi-Nomadic Tribes which have not been included in any one of these categories. Instead, they are placed at par with the communities of the general category.

The Government of India repealed the Criminal Tribes Act with effect from 31 August 1952 by the Criminal Tribes (Repeal) Act, 1952 (Act No XXIV of 1952). But, to keep effective control over the so-called hardened criminals, Habitual Offenders Act was placed in the statute book.

The first Backward Class Commission was appointed on 29 January 1953 under the Chairmanship of Mr. Kakasaheb Kalelkar. This Commission in paragraph 48 of its report suggested that the erstwhile ‘Criminal Tribes’ should not be called ‘Tribes’ nor should the names ‘Criminal’ or ‘Ex-Criminal’ be attached to them. They could be called ‘Denotified Communities’. The Kalelkar Commission further recommended that “these groups may be distributed in small groups in towns and villages where they would come in contact with other people, and get an opportunity for turning a new leaf. This would help in their eventual assimilation in society”.

The first Backward Class Commission in paragraph 41 mentions that there were as many as 127 groups aggregating 22.68 lakhs in 1949 and 24.64 lakhs in 1951 described in official records as Ex-Criminal Tribes. These groups could be divided into two sections, i.e., (i) Nomadic; and (ii) Settled. The nomadic groups included the gypsy-like tribes such as Sansis, Kanjars, etc., and ‘had an innate preference for a life of adventure.’ The settled and semi-settled groups were deemed to have descended from irregular fighting men or persons uprooted from their original homes due to invasions and political upheavals.

The Second Backward Class Commission under the Chairmanship of Mr. B.P. Mandal (1980) criticized the government policy for emphasizing the economic criteria and dismissing caste as a criterion to determine social and educational backwardness. Mr L. R. Naik wrote a separate minute of dissent with reference to the categorization of the socially and educationally backward classes. He states of the Denotified that "They, generally, are ex- criminal tribes, nomadic and wandering tribes, earth diggers, fishermen, boatmen and palanquin bearers, salt makers, washermen, shepherds, barbers, scavengers, basket makers, furriers and tanners, landless agricultural labourers, watermen, toddy tapers, camel-herdsmen, pig-keepers, pack bullock carriers, collectors of forest produce, hunters and fowlers, corn parchers, primitive tribes (not specified as Scheduled Tribes), exterior classes (not specified as Scheduled Castes), and begging communities etc. etc.…"

The new forest policy of the Government of India has served to displace hunting and gathering communities from the forests by creating National Parks, Wildlife Sanctuaries, and protected areas. Hunting-gathering communities have lived along with wildlife in the forests since ages. Today’s hunting-gathering communities are in a state of penury as they have not only lost their traditional means of livelihood, but their very survival is also in jeopardy.

The issue of identification of the Denotified, Nomadic and Semi-Nomadic Tribes [DN-NT-SNT ] is complex. The State Governments have a separate and designated list of ‘Denotified and Nomadic Tribes’, and it appears that they do not follow any well defined criteria for their classification. It has been observed that the inclusion and exclusion of communities in such lists was done on political considerations rather than on fair and uniform criteria.

Welfare programs have been offered to the most marginalised communities - those social groups classed as the Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Tribes (STs). But even officially eligible DNT communities often do not gain access to these opportunities. Getting a caste certificate - the necessary proof of eligibility for benefits - is difficult when many community members hold barely any government identification of any kind. These communities are largely politically ‘quiet’- they themselves do not place their demands concertly before the government, for they lack endogenous vocal leadership; and also, they are devoid of the patronage of a national leader who can help bring them to the centre stage of political discourse.

The DN-NT-SNT need to be given a special focus, and different development programs be designed for them, as their problems are different from the Scheduled Castes (SCs), Scheduled Tribes (STs) and Other Backward Classes [OBC] communities. Also, culturally and socially, they are different from the others. In other words, these communities deserve a separate treatment and plan for affirmative action.

The Government constituted a Commission on Denotified and Nomadic Tribes for a period of three years, from 09 January 2015. The terms of reference of the Commission include preparation of a State-wise list of castes belonging to Denotified and Nomadic Tribes and suggest appropriate measures in respect of Denotified and Nomadic Tribes to be undertaken by the Central Government or the State Government. The Commission shall consist of one Chairperson, One Member and one Member Secretary. Accordingly, Government notified the name of Shri Bhiku Ramji Idate as Chairperson and name of Shri Shravan Singh Rathore as Member Secretary of the National Commission of DNTs. Shri Bhiku Ramji Idate and Shri Shravan Singh Rathore took charge as Chairperson and Member respectively on fore-noon of January 9th, 2015. The term of the Commission was three years from 09.01.2015.

The new Commission was to make a priority of addressing a deep information gap: at this point there is zero reliable, countrywide demographic information on denotified communities. They have become the lowest of the low; they are invisible.

Among the women and girls of the acutely marginalised Perna caste, entering the sex trade is a usual next step after marriage and childbirth. The Perna women leaves the Perna basti (settlement), each night with other women from the community to tout for customers in "random places": bus stops, lay-bys and parks far from their own neighborhood and out of view of the police. They travel in a group, sharing the rickshaw fare and the risk of assault. They conduct encounters in cars or hidden outdoor nooks. While one woman is with a client, a friend will make sure to stay within shouting distance. Each client pays between 200 rupees and 300 rupees ($3-$4.50). In a night, the women can expect to make as much as 1,000 rupees ($14.60), or as little as nothing. Husbands herd goats, or didn't work at all. Girls who resist prostitution are often physically abused by their in-laws, who expect their son's wife to contribute to the family finances.

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