Isolated & potential groups of soldiers were persecuted
The British colonial rule in India was not only a political and economic venture, it was also an experiment in restructuring a complex society. For the first three centuries of the colonial contact, beginning with the arrival of the East India Company at Surat in 1600 to the establishment of the Asiatic Society in Bengal towards the end of the 18th century, the colonial imagination had great difficulties in understanding the complex weave of the Indian society. Out of these difficulties arose many misconceptions and myths about communities and social conventions. At times these were comical as was the idea that India is a country of snake charmers and magicians. But in many instances the wrong reading of the society resulted in untold human misery. The story of the communities known as 'denotified' is without doubt the most mind-boggling tale of inhuman collapse of compassion.
During the 1830s, the colonial government appointed Sleeman to prepare a list of instances of assaults on wayfarers in central India. He took to this task with an amazing devotion and produced a voluminous list of violent episodes. The list would not have amounted to much had it not been for the turn of events during 1857 in central India. In the wake of the battles fought and lost by the Indian states, all isolated and potential groups of soldiers, and even those who were likely to be in the supply chain for them, came to be seen as candidates for the Sleeman list. This list became the basis of the 1871 Criminal Tribes Act. The infamous CTA asked for forced 'isolation' and 'reform' of the communities listed. These included coin makers, entertainers, petty merchants, peasants, wandering groups, nomadic communities, long distance traders, and many others.
The CTA required creation of 'settlements' as reformatories. The settlements required 'strict procedures'. These procedures kept becoming increasingly inhuman. Forced labour became the daily fate of the inmates. The CTA of 1871 went through several revisions, every revision bringing in new forms of 'punishment' for being born within the listed communities. The last of the CTA was passed in 1924. By then a total of 191 communities had been brought under its purview. The total population of all these communities 'notified' under the successive CTAs is, at present, nearly six crores. That is about five percent of Indian population. After Independence, the Iyengar committee was constituted in 1950 to think of redeeming these victims of the colonial savagery. The process of 'denotification' began in 1952. The CTAs promulgated in various Indian states were annulled and replaced by the Habitual Offenders Act. But by the time the HOAs were framed and the denotification was completed, the schedules of tribes and castes had already been constituted. Hence, the DNTs did not find an easy entry in these categories. Some of them were given the status of STs, some communities were admitted as SCs, the others continued to languish.
The country, and the successive governments, did almost nothing to change the sad situation of the DNTs. It was in 1998 that the DNT rights action group was formed in Vadodara as an advocacy group. The national campaign that the RAG ran resulted in appointment of a technical advisory group and a national commission. The reports of these two bodies are under consideration of the ministry of social justice.
In the meanwhile, the DNTs of India continue to suffer inhuman treatment from all sections of the society and from the law-keeping agencies.
Dr Ganesh Devi is a literary critic and a social activist. Along with Mahasweta Devi, he is the founder of Denotified and Nomadic Tribes-Rights Action Group (DNT-RAG).
It's unbelievable but true: As many as 40 lakh people in Gujarat and six crore in India are listed as born criminals -- the tag given to them by the British in the year 1871, when the Criminal Tribes Act was passed. Five years after Independence, they were de-notified by Jawaharlal Nehru but were left to fight the battle of life alone without any proper rehabilitation schemes, neither by the central nor the state governments.
Some of the known DNT communities in Gujarat are chharas, daffers, ode, ravals, vaghari or devi pujaks and bhamta or kaikadi. The plight of these tribes is still miserable and they are struggling for the attention of the government as well as for acceptance by civil society.
Along with Koumudhi Patil, faculty at IIT Kanpur and Budhan Theatre, the drama group of the chhara tribe, DNA has initiated a drive to remove the stigma attached to the DNTs in general and chharas in particular.
Starting from today, a series of articles will be published in DNA daily, wherein the history and present condition of such tribes will be highlighted. The writers will include the people who have so far been a part of this movement. The series kicks off with an article by Dr. GN Devi.
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