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To Help India’s Denotified Tribes, Interim Report Suggests Key Policy Changes

The National Commission for Denotified, Nomadic and Semi-Nomadic Tribes has submitted its interim recommendations to the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment with a view to address the issues plaguing the community.

Members of Raika community in Rajasthan. Credit: G.B. Mukherji/FES

Members of Raika community in Rajasthan. Credit: G.B. Mukherji/FES

New Delhi: The National Commission for Denotified, Nomadic and Semi-Nomadic Tribes (NCDNT) submitted its interim recommendations to the government in early June – nearly two-and-a-half years after it was constituted.

The focus in the interim recommendations submitted has been on 12 different areas, including education, health, identity issues, forest rights and discrimination. The report mooted appointment of teachers from within the community, especially for mobile schools, which also formed part of the commission’s recommendations. The report especially emphasised the need for issuance of a single caste certificate – SC-DNT, ST-DNT, OBC-DNT – instead of two separate ones for the same individual. Other recommendations included sensitising police and other officials, repeal of Habitual Offenders Act, a separate national finance and development corporation for denotified tribes among others.

Criminalisation of resistance

The history of denotified tribes dates back to the early years of colonial rule. The tribes represent all those communities which were listed as ‘criminal’ under several versions of the Criminal Tribes Acts between 1871 and 1947. These communities were ‘denotified’ when the Acts were repealed after India’s independence.

This classification of an entire community as criminal by the British, as Dilip D’Souza has noted, was part of a colonila model of law and order whereby those communities that resisted British rule were targeted in various ways. As per the text of the law, “a criminal tribe was a gang, tribe or class of people addicted to the systematic commission of non-bailable offenses and with reason to believe a local government could notify using the local gazette that an entire tribe, gang or class of people were criminals”.

Owing to the stigma of criminality which was bestowed upon them more than 150 years ago, the denotified tribes continue to live in abject poverty and amidst fear and discrimination. The classification and enumeration of denotified tribes is an issue that needs urgent attention. Their numbers run into millions in India but there has been no census for this community – which is spread across states, sometimes finding mention in the SC category, sometimes ST and OBC and at times not being mentioned in any. There is thus no uniformity of their inclusion in the state lists of ST/SC/OBC. One of the reasons behind this is that when these schedules were prepared in 1950, these communities were still under the classification of ‘criminal tribe’ and were denotified only in 1952. Hence the issue of including them as a group had not arisen at the time.

It is interesting to note anomalies that exist in these classifications. An example is the Banjara tribe, which is listed under OBC in Chhattisgarh, SC in Delhi and under Vimukta Jati Nomadic Tribe in Maharashtra. This Banjara tribe is listed as a nomadic tribe in states such as Odisha but as denotified tribe, for instance, in Delhi. Some states have, in fact, listed the same tribe as both denotified and nomadic, adding to the woes of accurate enumeration.

Many states do not have a list of these communities, hence not even acknowledging their presence. Even in places where they do find mention in some list or another, these communities, owing to the absence of any identity proof or caste certificates are not able to avail their entitlements.

The NCDNT interim report and recommendations aim  to address the socio-economic backwardness of the denotified and nomadic communities and ensure their inclusion in the various lists, say commission officials. The report was prepared after visiting communities in 31 states and union territories and analysing over 1,900 grievance petitions – on issues ranging from lack of basic facilities to non-inclusion in state lists.

The commission has been mandated to prepare a state-wise list of castes belonging to denotified and nomadic tribes and identify which state or central list of ST/SC/OBC they belong to. If some are found to be in none, the commission has been advised to make a case for their inclusion. Another important aspect of the mandate is to access the socio-economic status of these communities who continue to live in poverty and deprivation. The report states that a national household survey is underway to determine the same and suggest measures to work towards their upliftment.

Though the commission started functioning in February 2015, it was not until June 2017 that this national survey began taking shape. Delays in compiling and finalising of lists of these communities are also apparent.

While discussing the problems faced during compiling the list of denotified tribes, Pallav Kumar, one of the researchers at the commission, said that due to the existence of various lists with different numbers and names of these tribes, arriving at a final list becomes a cumbersome task. While the Ayyangar committee report states that the total number of denotified tribes present in India is 127, some other sources have found the number to be anywhere between 197-250. Malli Gandhi in his book Denotified Tribes: Retrospect and Prospect has confirmed that there are 13 crore individuals who belong to denotified and nomadic tribes according to Census 2011.

Mayank, secretary of the National Alliance Group for Denotified and Nomadic Tribes, lamented the fact that though internationally the denotified tribes are known as brand ambassadors of Indian folk culture and art, Indian society continues to brand them as born criminals.

The officials at the commission said that their final report will also have components of documentation of not just cases of discrimination against denotified and nomadic tribes but will also attempt to highlight and study certain communities whose way of living is unique or from which best practices could be derived. The final report with recommendations based on the national field survey and interactions with community leaders, experts etc is expected to be released by the end of 2017.

There have been a number of commissions and committees constituted to address the issues of denotified and nomadic tribes which have made several recommendations earlier as well but little seems to have changed for those for whom they were made. But activists hope that this time around, the recommendations and report of the present commission will play a positive role in the lives of these tribes who continue to be invisible and live a life of deprivation and marginalisation.