An age-old prejudice is being kept alive by Kiran Bedi’s stigmatising of Denotified Tribes
The answer to the question in the headline is ‘never’. This, in spite of Brahmins, like all other communities, contributing their fair and proportionate share to both petty and serious crimes. We all know that crime is committed by individuals and that a group of criminals ought not to be identified by the community they were born into. Then why were the ‘Bawaria gangs’ in the news lately in relation to the rape incident in Bulandshahar?
There is a painful history that has led to the thought process behind the stigmatising of an entire community without there being any consequence. Bawarias are one of the 200 communities that were declared ‘criminal tribes’ by the British.
The general public may not have made this connection immediately, but a tweet by Kiran Bedi – a retired high-ranking police official – did not go unnoticed by those who knew:
The statement came just a day after the Bulandshahar rape incident, even before the investigation had gotten off the ground and at the precise time Bawarias were beginning to be named as perpetrators by the police.
If a responsible state functionary, a lieutenant governor and a retired policewoman, who has for long been associated with prison reforms, still uses discredited terminology like ‘criminal tribes’ to describe the Bawaria community, then her views resonate with the belief held by the colonial British government that brands an entire community as incorrigible and ‘hereditary criminals’.
At any rate, her use of it shows that this colonial term is still alive and in use by the police. In fact, those who were branded in this gross manner are now officially called denotified tribes by the government of India.
It is important to share a brief historical account of the concerned people, stemming from decades of scholarly research.
There were about 200 communities, mostly nomadic, who were notified by the British as criminal tribes through a notorious piece of legislation called the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871. After independence these communities were denotified by Jawaharlal Nehru. Hence, now these communities are called ‘denotified tribes’.
Nehru described the Criminal Tribes Act as a blot on the law book of free India and annulled the Act itself. The very fact that overnight, and with a stroke of the pen, the independent Indian state no longer considered these communities to be criminals, shows that the earlier charge of criminality against them was a fabricated one.
There were a host of other reasons behind the conception of the Act. For the moment it is sufficient to note that communities were declared criminal tribes for a variety of reasons, including for their participation in the 1857 war of independence or in other rebellions against the British.
The fact that those who rebelled against the British could be classified as criminal tribes shows in no uncertain terms that this category is a legacy of British colonialism.
Also, the late 19th century was an era of belief in genetically transmitted criminal genes from parents to the next generation. There was also an acute social prejudice shared by the British and the settled Indian communities against nomadic people, which was in line with the attitude of the British against gypsies back home.
There was, and still is, a tremendous prejudice against an itinerant way of life – termed as a ‘lust for wandering’ – even though, all over the world, it was the nature of the livelihood of these communities that required them to be nomadic.
A large number of police officials seem to have inherited a deep prejudice against these communities from the British police and from the British government. Since they were officially declared criminals by birth, police brutality against these communities has been widespread. Their members continue to be the easiest targets of police whenever there is an incident of a heinous crime or when the pressure to solve a crime mounts.
In addition, as the Bulandshahar incident proves, contemporary media, with a few exceptions, chooses to take their entire story on such incidents from the police. Reporters seldom seem to question either the police statements or do any research of their own to find out who the accused communities are, what exactly they do for a living and what the facts of a given case might be.
Not only does the general public get influenced by such news, but they also have other nefarious sources shaping their understanding of what makes them unsafe. In the days since the incident happened I have come across several acquaintances who are convinced of the fact that Bawarias committed the crime in Bulandshahar. They believe that they already know about the community from having watched an episode of ‘Crime Patrol’ aired in November 2015 that focused on Bawarias.
I watched this episode for the first time last week. It was shocking to see how nomadic communities are shown to be potential criminals. Their homes are shown as being routinely checked by the police after a family is murdered and robbed and how all those who live in temporary tents and shelters with meager belongings are described as dangerous criminals, living this way so that they can commit a crime and then quickly pack and leave. There isn’t any awareness of the reasons for people living in such pitiful temporary tents: A few nomadic communities’ livelihood options still require them to be constantly on the move, but the majority live like this because they are utterly destitute and homeless.
A number of nomadic communities are shown to be practicing their traditional occupations of singing, dancing, street acrobatics or tight rope walking, but only as a ruse for fooling gullible victims before murdering them. Women and children are all shown to be complicit in the commission of the crime. The Bawarias are even shown as skilled child snatchers who raise these children to become future criminals.
In this episode on the Bawarias, the police are shown to be extremely rough in their dealings with them. They manhandling them, mercilessly beat them to draw a confession and constantly threaten and terrorise them with a fate worse than death if they fail to confess.
Hence, it was very distressing to see recent news about the “third degree treatment,” which the captured Bawaria in the Bulandshahar case was given, under which the ‘hardened criminal’ broke down and finally confessed to his heinous crime.
This indicated that the police still use and brags about such methods in order to make members of denotified communities confess to crimes. My worry is, who amongst us will not confess to even an uncommitted crime in order to stop inhuman torture?
It is shocking that even in the 21st century, the police are able to release to the newspapers accounts of third degree treatments of denotified communities, hence legitimising the grievous physical assaults that they have encountered for the last century and a half.
So my direct message to Bedi is this: Please withdraw your statement. The ordinary members of the denotified communities and all well minded citizens will have an immense appreciation for it. A statement like yours not only causes enormous hurt and humiliation to members of the concerned communities, but also legitimises a potential physical harm to them from vigilante groups and individuals and even more so from the police.
Bedi, you have been associated with prison reforms throughout your career, so surely you have thought of doing things out of the box before. It will be a fitting challenge to your skills and experience as a police officer to show the entire police force, beginning with the one in Puducherry, that how wrong and unwarranted the ‘criminal tribe’ stigma is.
Throw away the current terms about criminal tribes in police training programmes and replace them with information about their economic, cultural and social profiles and their wonderful skills in crafts and performing arts. As a lieutenant governor, you can do away with the brutalising police surveillance over the denotified communities under your jurisdiction.
Make the stigmatisation of these communities in the media an illegal and punishable offense. Visit their dwellings and find out for yourself that most of these communities are poor and impoverished. Arrange jobs, housing, voter cards, schools and hospitals for them, but most importantly, first arrange for some respect for them as fellow citizens and fellow humans, and then watch what happens.
Who knows, you may thus become the first police officer to prove to the world that there can never be a community whose members are born criminals; that there never were and there aren’t any ‘criminal tribes’ except in colonial law books and in prejudiced people’s minds. You have a chance to make history.
Meena Radhakrishna is a sociologist and author of Dishonoured by History: ‘Criminal Tribes’ and British Colonial Policy. She was also Director (Research) with the National Commission for Denotified, Nomadic and Semi-Nomadic Tribes.