India’s Denotified Tribal Communities: A long drawn struggle towards getting recognized under the Indian Constitution

[This is a post by Minnah Abraham, Contributing Editor]

“My notion of democracy is that under it the weakest should have the same opportunity as the strongest.” – Mahatma Gandhi

Now since we are talking about lack of representation of certain sections in the political and administrative affairs of the country of India, with the previous article pulling in the shocking percentage ratio of women representatives in the parliament affairs hailing from north-eastern parts of India. 

This article will introduce you to the unrepresented and unrecognized section of the vast diaspora of India’s cultural population. The denotified and nomadic, semi-nomadic tribes of India, (Herein ‘NT-DNTs’) often known as Vimukta Jatis, were notified as ‘born criminals’ by the colonial British. Even so much to note that there was an Act for the same ‘Criminal Tribes Act, 1871’ (Herein ‘CTA 1871’) giving immense power to police to arrest and keep track of their movements. At the time of constituting the CTA 1871, a British official, T V Stephen’s comments upon introducing the said Bill, as quoted,

“people from time immemorial have been pursuing the caste system defined job-positions: weaving, carpentry and such were hereditary jobs. So there much have been hereditary criminals also who pursued their forefathers’ profession”

 The British found the criminal tribes as a convenient target at that time and by adopting a strategic approach of concentrated limited resources and efforts of police on visible targets enabled acting against these tribes with the police force in order to at least keep other criminal acts from happening in the tension-filled country.  

Now exploring the historical beginning which resorted to still keeping those tribes under the pretext of ‘Denotified’ even today, it can be blamed on post-liberalisation policies of independent India for these communities which further alienated them from their land and occupations. Although while repealing the CTA 1871, the assumption still persisted that northern India was inhabited by thugs and dacoits. Even though the communities may be considered as ‘Denotified’ since 1952, but they are regulated by Habitual Offenders Act, 1952, the Probation of Offenders Act 1958 and still invisible and voiceless as well as the unforgotten branding of criminals by the law of the land. This has led to stigmatisation and criminalisation of the Denotified communities, causing an occupational shift and often exclusion respectful work within the informal sector as well as forced entry into sex work, due to lack of reserved opportunities of employment and livelihood. A draft list of Denotified tribes, nomadic and semi-nomadic tribes of India as given. Most states do not even acknowledge their presence, nor do have the proper listed records of these existing communities. Owing to their absence of valid certificate/acknowledgement or even the lack of basic identity proof have prevented them from availing basic facilities or entitlement schemes. 

The Indian Constitution

As prescribed in Article 38, in particular, pertaining to Directive Principles of State Policy, contain the fundamental principle for the governance of the country, impose on the State to promote and safeguard the welfare of its people as effectively in all sections of society i.e. socially, economically and politically, if striving towards a strong Nation with unassailable bedrock foundation of the national policy framework. 

Article 341 of the Constitution provide for the President to specify caste, races or tribes or any groups within those castes, races or tribes with respect to any State or UT, read with Article 342 to provide the specification of the tribal communities deemed to be for the purpose of the constitution to be scheduled tribes in relation to various States and UTs. A Constitution (Amendment) Bill, 2008 entails upon the inclusion of the ‘Scheduled Denotified Tribes and Nomadic Tribes’ along with Scheduled Tribes and Scheduled Caste wherever it is placed in the Constitution of India. However, not much information lies upon the status of the same. The same Bill recognises NT-DNTs to be legally safeguarded, represented and treated with special care under Article 15, 16, 46, 330, 332, 334, 335, 342 similar to how Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes are represented and safeguarded by the Constitution, enjoying the benefits of reservation both in the work and educational institutions. What’s keeping the NT-DNTs from being included in the present Indian laws and lack of provisions for the overall upliftment of these communities? 

In Contrast with Scheduled Tribes and Scheduled Castes: several notable committees were constituted and discussed on NT-DNTs, for instance, Lokur Committee suggested it would be in the best interest of these tribal communities to be distinguished from the list of SC/STs and treated exclusively with specially designed development schemes. Mandal Commission, upon the discussion on the same, suggested the categorization to be called ‘Depressed Backward Classes’ due to the severe exclusion from the Indian Society, either denied, prohibited and ever segregated under the pretext of the stigma of nomadism, ex-criminals and all sort of much lesser respected work profiles forced on them. Several Commissions and committee expressed such concerns before arriving at inclusivity solutions:

  • To evolve a criterion of definition and classification of Denotified, nomadic and semi-nomadic tribes
  • To identify the benefits of reservation to the Denotified, Nomadic and Semi- Nomadic Tribes.
  • To draw a comprehensive plan to secure and deliver fundamental rights to these communities
  • To develop a broad campaign for positive image building in the civil society about these communities.

Even the Planning Committee felt the need to uplift the NT-DNTs being the most backwards community of the country. The Renke Commission or the National Commission for Denotified, Nomadic and Semi-Nomadic Tribes set up under the chairmanship of Balkrishna Sidram Renke by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment presented its report in 2008. Be that as it may, no attempt has been made so far. Nevertheless, the Union Cabinet has granted approval in 2014 for the constitution of Denotified, Nomadic and Semi-Nomadic Communities solely to ensure special strategies, designed and implemented effectively to reach these hard-to-reach DNT/NT/SNT as the question on the other hand question its genuineness of the ‘Development and Welfare Board’.

Concluding Remarks

Upon researching and reading articles on this subject matter, it was pertinent for the author to note that several attempts have been made to bring recognition and upliftment strategies for NT-DNTs but none that were seriously given consideration nor implementation of a proper legal provision in the place. Worse, those heterogeneous groups consisting of all menial work profiles such as dancers, snake charmer, juggler and similarly engaged in theatrics often seem like they are sacked or dismissed or left out while discussing tribal affairs and concerns. So as to state, there was a special provision that was made in the 3rd Five Year Plan for this community but discontinued without any valid reasons. Pandit Jawaharlal’s word on uplifting and development of the Denotified has not been taken up over the years till today. As evident, several committees constituted over the year has remarked the same provision i.e. separate legal reservation. Upon observing the plight of the current situation of the NT-DNTs, it is immensely material to introduce inclusivity and upliftment strategies for these communities in order to develop socially, economically as well as intellectually otherwise they will be marginalized further. Note to mention that these communities suffered greatly, or considerably worst hit with no ration card and work due to COVID 19 pandemic and proves worse case scenarios of a failed government in attending to its most weakened sections of Indian society. The benefits of the same will enable the country to prosper due to the massive contributions of its citizens, irrespective of caste, gender, sexuality or other classifications.

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