My father is not a thief: Tales from nomadic and denotified tribes
Every year, the Denotified and Nomadic Tribes (DNT) community observes 31 August as Vimukti Divas -- the day of freedom. On this day in 1952, the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871 was repealed. To mark the day, we brings you our experiences through these digital stories we made.
Time to do something
“A friend and I had gone shopping and were returning with several bags, when the police stopped us and accused us of having stolen the stuff we bought,” said Golden, a student of medicine from Chhara Nagar in Ahmedabad.
“We told them we were students and that I was studying to become a doctor, but they refused to listen to us and took us into custody,” she said.
Golden is not the only one to experience such discrimination from officers of the law. Members of her Chhara community are regularly suspected of stealing or committing other illegal activities.
People from nomadic and denotified tribes were branded criminals by the 1871 Act. “Though the Government of India repealed it in 1952, such communities continue to face:
* the stigma of criminalisation
* the arbitrary use of the Habitual Offenders Act
* societal non-acceptance
“The polity has failed to include them in the mainstream of the India’s social and economic fabric. This, despite their culturally rich and artistic traditional occupations”, says Mayank Sinha, convenor of the National Alliance Group of DNTs.
The community recently ran the #MeraBaapChorNahin campaign to bring attention to the stigma they face.
The community observes Vimukti Divas to acknowledge the struggle their forefathers faced and the momentous journey before them to rid themselves of the stigma and discrimination they face.
We want a free community
“I am an unemployed youth of the Chhara tribe from Ahmedabad. We were folk artistes at one time, but are now known only for criminal activities,” says Atish Chhara, 32.
“When the Act was repealed on 31 August, 1952, our forefathers settled down near the open prison area, now known as Chharanagar. Despite ‘de-notification’, no one gave us jobs or food and treated us as criminals.
“Most youth in Charanagar are quite highly qualified, but it is difficult for them to find jobs because of their identity – employers are wary of hiring them. Chara for most people translates as a derogatory abuse and for the police it means that we are thieves, even if we are doctors, lawyers or IT professionals,” Atish adds.
See for yourself
“We traditionally danced at entertainment programmes, wearing full-sleeve blouses without exposing an inch of skin but you called us names…. and today, when skimpily clad girls are invited to shows to dance, it is encouraged,” says Kiran Devi, a member of the Bediya community from Banda, Uttar Pradesh.
“There are many communities like us in India, who are reduced to sex work because of the kind of morality preached by elites and the attitude of the police. In our own country we don't get one inch of space and are treated like refugees, but while refugees from other countries are welcomed and provided shelter, we are despised,” she adds.
Kiran works with women from her community. When a government official asked her son to get his father’s signature to obtain his marks sheet, she took it upon herself to ensure that her children did not fall prey to the discrimination Bediyas are subjected to.
Me and my folks
While Bediya women were treated as outcasts, others like Nitin suffered because of the systematic way in which traditional livelihoods were criminalised, pushing them to unsustainable forms of work, such as rag picking.
“My grandfather used to make medicines with antlers. With the arrival of allopathic medicines and the passing of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, his art was deemed illegal. He was forced to give up his work and eventually, my father had to support the family by rag picking,” says Nitin.
“With every ‘progressive’ law you pass, our occupations lose illegalised. When the law takes away our livelihood, it does it without any rehabilitation plan,” says Siddique Usman Sama from the Machhimar community.
This Vimukti Divas, the DNT community wants to reiterate its demands. These demands involve:
* the basic right to a life where the police does not view the community with suspicion and does not abuse people because of their identity as a member of the DNT community
* access to free, quality education with hostel facilities as many of the tribes are nomadic in nature
* livelihood opportunities, including revival of traditional occupations
* right to land
* identity documents which assert citizenship of these tribes
* reservation in education and jobs as well as representation in public offices
It is finally up to the larger society to ensure that Vimukti does not stop with repealing the Criminal Tribes Act, but extends to life as a citizen with all the rights that citizens have.
Brought to you by members of DNT communities: Nitin, Kiran, Anish, Jayendra, Golden; with inputs from: Atish, Bhola Nath Sabar, Deepak Saxena, Gomti Devi, Jaishree, Kesar Das, Mahendra Devi, Sakila, Shakinaben Movar, Siddique Usman Sama, Subhey Singh and Sundari Sabar
Edited by Joyjeet Das