Unveiling the World of the Nomadic Tribes and Denotified Tribes: An Introduction

31 August 2021 marks the 69th year of the repeal of the Criminal Tribes Act, 1871. This act was the most draconian law passed by the British colonial state, under which millions of nomadic and semi-nomadic communities were declared criminals and put under continuous surveillance, making their lives impossible. 31 August is celebrated as Vimukta Jatis day in India by the de-notified tribal communities. After denotification in 1952, about 200 communities were included in Scheduled Tribe (ST), Scheduled Caste (SC) and Other Backward Caste lists because they come from diverse social backgrounds. While they mainly come from nomadic communities, these communities are not homogeneous. All nomadic tribes (NTs) are not de-notified tribes (DNTs), but all DNTs are NTs. Given the historically embedded diversities between the NTs and DNTs, it is difficult to treat them as a homogeneous social group or an analytical category (Renke 2008: 8–20). They are fluid categories which often cross boundaries from one social group to another.

In India, broadly, we have three types of nomadic communities: (i) hunter/trappers of birds and animals, gamer, etc, such as Konda Reddis, Chenchus, Kadar and Cholanayakas, Kakkipakkis, (ii) pastoral communities,  such as Pardis, Guzzars, Banjaras, Bhils, Minas, Kurabas, Kurumas Dangers, Madhuras, etc, and (iii) peripatetic groups of peddlers, itinerant, fortune tellers, storytellers, acrobats, dancers and dramatists, such as Lohars, Kaikaris (basket maker) Kewats (jute weavers), Yerakalas (basket maker), Pitchakuntla, Jogis, etc. These communities constitute 10% of India's population. Many of them are religiously mixed communities (Renke 2008: 43). Sometimes, it is challenging to underline their religious identities, as the same community practices Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh faiths. Indeed, some communities, like Meo, are half Hindu and half Muslim in their faith and appearance.

The tribe and caste dichotomy is also a major issue for the NT and DNT communities. This is primarily because they are made of both caste and forest tribe historically as they trespass both the geographical zones and depend on caste and forest society for their survival. In this process, many groups from both caste and tribal communities had joined the nomadic communities. So the nomadic community in India was making and unmaking throughout history. The diversity of the nomadic communities can be attributed to the very rationale of nomadism. Nomadism is not a social and political organisation or world view, but it was a strategy adopted by people and communities to overcome challenges posed by historical conditions. In this sense, nomadism is a response to socio-economic, political and ecological circumstances (Rao 2003: 3).

In India, the NT and DNT communities are largely concentrated in semi-arid zones, mainly western, central and Deccan India, which are hilly and covered with dense forests (Heredia and Ratnagar 2003: 9). These hills and forests served as refuge zones to nomadic communities to escape from the caste Hindu society. The inhuman caste practices and recurring famines led many social groups to embrace nomadism. In the medieval period, empire building and continued wars, particularly in central India, caused severe damage in villages. Many nomadic communities were produced as a result of the strife and communities engaged in diverse trades to secure their livelihood.

Nevertheless, their nomadic ways of life were perceived as a challenge to the modern state by the British colonial rulers, as the nomadic communities were on the move as cattle-grazers, transporters of food grains, paddler-traders, musicians, acrobats, fortune tellers, mat, basket makers, etc. The colonial state, which saw itself as conducting a civilising mission, believed in a fixed society which made state control of subjects easier. Indeed, the colonial rulers had a troubled experience of nomadism back in their own country. This fear of nomadism led them to view the nomadic communities in the colony as unchanging. The project of settling these communities not only discouraged nomadism but also resulted in ruthless suppression of them. In the process, many nomadic communities lost their traditional occupation. This forced some of them to resort to dacoity. Under colonial rule, dacoity was defined as a group activity, and those communities committing dacoity in groups were declared criminal tribes under the Criminal Tribes Act (CTA), 1871. The communities who were on the move, without occupation, held martial traits, and celebrated freebooters were brandished under the CTA and subjected to continuous surveillance. The implementation of the CTA, indeed, manufactured a large number of criminals in India. The colonial state saw dacoity as the hereditary trade of certain communities. Although there was a change in the colonial perception of dacoity at the later stage, particularly from the early 20th century when they had taken reformatory activities by setting up exclusive settlements of dacoits, there was no real positive change in their lives because they were stigmatised as criminal communities (Bhukya 2010: 117–158).

Although the postcolonial state replaced the CTA with the Habitual Offenders Act, 1952, the DNT communities continue to be criminalised by both the police and wider society. The impact of this criminalisation is severe, as the articles in this series make clear. The NT and DNT communities are denied basic civil rights guaranteed by the Constitution for want of proof of permanent address. Their children are denied education. They are denied safe drinking water, the right to work, the right to vote and many other civil rights. From the early 21st century, central governments made some attempts to understand the state of NT and DNT communities and bring them under one administrative category. In 2014, for example, the National Democratic Alliance government set up a National Commission for Denotified, Nomadic and Semi-Nomadic Tribes (NCDNT). However, nomadic communities continue to face considerable challenges.

Rama Shanker Singh’s article examines how the colonial state imposed criminal stigma on diverse nomadic communities of Uttar Pradesh and how that stigma continues to haunt the large numbers of DNT communities in the postcolonial period. His study provides a broad background for another article in this series.

Pradeep Ramavath’s article deals with the most pertinent issue of DNT communities: the issues of categorisation. After repealing the CTA in 1952, there was serious ambiguity about classifying DNTs under the reserved category. Ramavath focuses on Karnataka where several DNT communities in the state were included in the SC list, which created a range of development and sociological dimensions. Interestingly, access to modern education produced an educated middle class in the communities, enabling them to articulate community demands and advocate for them to state authorities. This emerging politics of bargaining in the state led the state government to set up sub-caste development corporations. However, Ramavath argues that the state government’s welfare schemes failed to provide qualitative change for DNT communities.

Deepa Pawar adds to the discussion on development for DNTs in urban settings. She shows how urban planning in India has been the exclusive domain of the “dominant” groups and has ignored those who are, in reality, the “city builders.” Ironically, most of the “city builders” who provide undervalued labour and other related services to these “rulers” of our urban spaces actually live in slums and chawls in atrocious conditions. Unfortunately, most of those whom we call DNTs do not even get access to live in these slums. They resort to living on sides of roads in makeshift tents where they are vulnerable to exploitation and harassment. Most of them end up in police custody purely based on prejudices or stereotypes. Pawar questions how our urban planning can exclude such a vast section of our society that provides essential services to our cities and the urban elite. She recommends that urban planners focus on creating amenities and recreational places for historically neglected and excluded communities, particularly given their role in building cities and providing essential services.

Vislavath Rajunayak and Bhukya Sunitha focus on the lived experience of a nomadic woman political representative. The authors argue that modern politics has opened opportunities to the DNTs—those who are recognised as SC or ST—but they find it difficult to stand up for themselves. The narration of the poor woman suggests that by virtue of the quota system, she was elected thrice as president of village panchayat samiti, but she did not get any support from the fellow villagers. The villagers endeavoured to defame her politically. The narration suggests how the constitutional provisions designed to protect marginalised communities are being deprived at the ground level.  

Srujana Bej, Nikita Sonavane and Ameya Bokil analyse criminal law to understand the gendered nature of the colonial construction of criminality attributed to women belonging to nomadic tribes. Their article raises three critical questions. First, how has the CTA provided the foundation for the construction of women's criminality? Second, how has criminal law and the criminal justice system erased and invisibilised violence against Vimukta women, and how is this violence negated in public discourse? And third,  how do narratives of criminality further aid and abet repression? The authors address the third question by analysing arrest data for excise offences in Madhya Pradesh and bail orders passed against women from the Vimukta Kuchbandiya community in the state.

Firdaus Soni details the interplay of popular religious celebrations and economy by examining jatras, yatras, urus and melas held in Maharashtra. She argues that we need to rethink our understanding of the “market” as an economic or commercial site of exchange, the “pilgrimage” as the site of the religious or sacred, and the “fair” as a site for social and cultural exchange, as its meanings changes in the jatras. Soni shows how the life of nomadic communities was intrinsically linked with the jatras as they serve as sites of market exchange, pilgrimage and social and cultural. She also says the jatra becomes a site where we can see the interplay of the state with ex-criminalised groups, as well as new forms of criminalisation and disciplining. Her study sheds light on the nuances of the rural agrarian universe picture, highlighting mobile and dynamic flows of life and livelihood that constitute the Deccan region.  

The articles in the collection delineate diverse socio-economic, political and cultural issues of NT and DNT communities. However, a thread that connects all these articles is their focus on the criminal stigma attached to these communities. Although the NTs and DNTs constitute a large proportion of the population of the country, they have not received much scholarly attention. The contributors of this volume are young scholars and activists; some of whom come from first-generation educated families of NT and the DNT communities. The volume, in this sense, represents both insider and outsider voices of the subject of this special volume. Authors have investigated several issues faced by NTs and DNTs using archival and secondary sources and field studies, despite restrictions and hardships caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. While this initiative is the first of its kind, we hope that the questions raised by the authors open up further debate and academic inquiry into the concerns of these communities.


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