Criminalisation and Political Mobilisation of Nomadic Tribes in Uttar Pradesh

This article aims to historicise the experiences of nomadic and denotified communities with respect to their encounter with colonialism, and maps their attempt at gaining political visibility and representation in Uttar Pradesh. Based on archival material and ethnographic accounts from various districts of UP, the article delineates the ways in which DNT communities have been stigmatised and excluded historically. The politics of appropriation is at work and they are being lured by the Hindutva and welfare politics of the Bharatiya Janata Party. 

“But unfortunately there are ten million people in India who, without any fault on their part, are described as criminal tribes from their very birth. Hundreds of thousands of men and women in India were declared as criminal tribes according to the current law. To deprive them of their rights they are declared so. No matter whether they are criminals or not, from their very birth, they are made criminals. Some provision to abolish this law must be embodied in this Resolution. I hope the mover will realize it and provide some safeguards for this Class in the Resolution” (Constituent Assembly Debates 1947).

These are the words of H J Khandekar, who represented Central Provinces and Berar, during a discussion in the Constituent Assembly of India in early 1947. He highlighted the suffering, exclusion and stigma faced by the “criminal” tribes of India. His was the sole voice of concern about the issue but his resolutions did not find a place in the subsequently drafted Constitution of India. In 1952, these communities were declared “denotified.” This article tries to historicise the experience of nomadic and denotified communities with respect to their encounter with colonialism, and maps their attempt at political visibility and representation in Uttar Pradesh (UP).

Through archival material and ethnographic accounts from various districts of UP, the article charts efforts made by denotified communities to build political power. Data collection for the study was carried out through open-ended questionnaires seeking to document the life world and politics of denotified communities in the Gonda and Allahabad districts of UP. The data was then corroborated with colonial archives and the modern-day governmental outlook towards these communities. The electoral mobilisation of Dalits and backward castes in India, and how they are trying to carve out a social and political space is quite visible. Using the right to vote, they have silently revolted. At the same time, there are “other groups” who are not in a position to start a revolution. They are making their space inch by inch in Indian democracy.

The Making of Stigma and Exclusion

The earliest texts on Indian statecraft were suspicious of wandering communities. The king was advised to exercise vigilance over them. Their physical presence and occupation was controlled by the state. The Arthashastra of Kautilya believes that actors, dancers, singers, musicians, bards, and performers should be stopped from entering the village (Olivelle 2014: 101). Historically, these communities engaged in the performing arts such as acting and singing. Among them, the Suta (story tellers) were also the oral record keepers of dynasties before the advent of the Puranas. These communities were also engaged as soldiers, physicians, keepers of horses and elephants (Thapar 2013:  97-110). The wandering communities were in a good position during medieval times, and a lot of the internal trade was dependent upon the caravans of these communities and the state was not as powerful as it subsequently was in the colonial period. So, there was space for these communities to flourish to some extent.

The colonial government created a violent rupture in the life of nomads. Critical writings on nomadic and denotified tribes (DNT) in modern times investigate the controlled surveillance, oppression, discrimination, and exclusion of nomadic communities by the colonial masters. Works by Ganesh Narayan Devy (2002, 2006), Meena Radhakrishna (2001), and Bhangya Bhukya (2010) have shown the degree of exclusion and violence faced by these communities. The English came to India and formed their worldview in accordance with their colonial project of subjugation. Anthropology in colonial India was officially a project to manage information about Indian social life. Even senior police officers were being appointed as anthropologists. Data became the basis for the marginalisation and stigmatisation of many communities, especially in the periphery of mainstream society (Dirks 2015). The dignity of these communities was snatched from them and they were ousted from history (Radhakrishna 2001).

In 1871, the Criminal Tribe Act (CTA) was passed, labelling about 200 communities in several provinces “criminal” communities under this act (Devy 2013). The colonial officers made significant efforts to identify several communities as born “criminals.” It gave the police control over nomadic communities. Specifically, these communities had to register themselves at the nearest police station and obtain a licence. They could not go out of their designated district without the permission of the police. If they changed their residence, information had to be supplied and permission requested. If a member of a community was not present for more than a year in their settlement without police permission, they had to suffer through three years of prison time.1

The Barwar community of Gonda was defined as a criminal tribe on 1 July  1884. Their population was recorded and their hamlets were marked.2 The Barwar revolted against British rule in India and they were patronised by Raja Devi Baksh Singh of Gonda during the mutiny of 1857 (Singh 1995: 159). The report of the Inspector General of Police of the North Western Provinces alleged that there was clear evidence to show that the Barwars of Gonda, the Saunrahiyas of Lalitpur, and the Aheria of Etah were “criminals.”

The most devastating effect of the CTA was that it not only defined communities as criminal but marked rural and semi-rural spaces as dens of criminals. Controlling communities became an exercise in controlling rural spaces. Two years after the proclamation of CTA, in 1973, 11 villages in Etah were defined as belonging to born “criminals.” Forty-eight families from the Aheria community were brought under the act. The fate of Aherias of Aligarh was also the same. The Doms of Gorakhpur were also considered criminal in the last two decades of the 19th century.3  The 20th century brought ruthless rules for both wandering and settled communities.

A report written by E J W Bellairs, the superintendent of police of Basti, shows that 33% of the adult male population of the Khatik community was under deep surveillance in August 1913. The state had labelled them as “criminal” in 1911. The government opened one more reformation camp and “industrial home” in Phoolpur, Allahabad for the girl children of criminal tribes. Salvation Army commissioner Booth-Tucker wrote to L Stuart, the secretary of the government of the United Provinces, that these girls should be trained in silkworm rearing, silk reeling, weaving and needle work.4 Thus, the Salvation Army and the government officers were very eager to “uplift the social and moral status” of denotified communities. It was said that these communities were a threat to civilised life and that they must be kept under state supervision. It gave “substantial reasons” to the provincial government to carry out state-controlled measures.5

These settlements wreaked much havoc in the cultural and economic life of nomadic communities, and separated them from the rest of society, both physically and legally. The opening of “criminal” case histories sheets of individuals, communities and villages at the police stations also had a detrimental impact on the social life of nomadic people. Now, they were clearly marked criminals living in a marked space. Their everyday activities became suspicious. Earlier, they were a part of the rural landscape of the country. Now, they were criminals and were disassociated from the rest of the society. It brought upon them more deprivation and penury.

‘Free’ India?

While nomadic communities continued to be labelled “criminals” in independent India, this label was “denotified” in 1952 on paper. It was ironic that they were freed from one derogatory colonial identity but remained marked by another postcolonial identity. The behaviour of the police did not change, and the Habitual Offender Act,1952 re-created the conditions that caused the marginalised and stigmatised nomadic communities. Both in the colonial period and for a long time afterwards, these communities struggled to gain political power either as a political constituency that could make collective demands or via leaders who could redress the lack of skills required to access the modern system of state entitlements (Singh 2019: 54).

They have made specific efforts to gain visibility in the last few decades. Many representatives from nomadic communities, along with intellectuals and social workers from across the country, are asking for their dues and compensation. In New Delhi in 2002, when the 50th anniversary of the 1952 denotification was being observed. Former Prime Minister V P Singh was present (Gupta 2015). Representatives asked for improvements in the living conditions of NT-DNT communities and for the provision of reservations. The pressure bore fruit and the state formed two commissions to understand its relationship with nomadic communities. According to the report of the National Commission for Denotified, Nomadic and Semi-nomadic Tribes headed by Balkrishna Renke (constituted in 2003), a large number of DNTs were found to be living in Uttar Pradesh. Of these, 38 communities were registered as nomadic and 57 as denotified (NCDNDNT: 2008). People like Dakxin Chhara of Gujarat and B K Lodhi of Uttar Pradesh have been advocating for the rights of these communities. Chhara, who comes from the Chhara DNT of Gujarat, has made 120 fiction and non-fiction films for their theatre group—Budhan Theatre. Since 1998, Budhan Theatre has performed plays to raise awareness about the conditions of many marginalised groups. One of their main goals is to “demonstrate that DNTs are not born criminals, they are humans with real emotions, capacities, and aspirations” (Hasan 2020).

Later, in April 2014, a delegation from Nat, Mahavat and Sanpera communities met Narendra Modi when he was campaigning in Allahabad for the Lok Sabha elections, and submitted a memo demanding reservations (Dainik Hindustan: 2014). When his government came to power, a commission headed by Bhikuji Idate was constituted to look into the question once again. Its mandate was to prepare a list of denotified and nomadic tribes (NTs) of every state and to suggest ways for the betterment of their lives. After consultation with representatives from different nomadic and denotified tribes of the country, the report reiterated that these groups are the “poorest among the poor, most marginalised and most downtrodden communities who are subject to social stigma, atrocity and exclusion” (NCDNDNT 2013: 112-113). The commission has recommended a constitutional amendment so that NT, DNT and semi-nomadic tribes can be added as a third category in the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 (Nair 2018a). More recently, the NITI Aayog has backed the idea of establishing a permanent commission for these communities along the lines of commissions for Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes (OBC) (Nair 2018b). The Renke Commission had made the same suggestion a decade prior, but it was not implemented. However, the new political assertiveness of these communities is what I am interested in here. This assertiveness is making political parties think about them.

Where Are The Nomadic Communities of UP?

They are making possibilities by trying to enter the arena of democracy—casting votes and fighting every kind of election. The complex political and social scenario of UP makes their efforts difficult but they are trying their best to overcome the trauma of their “constructed history.” For instance, the Bhar and Nishad communities in the state were “criminal tribes”’ in colonial India but are now in the list of OBC. After the emergence of OBC politics in UP, they lagged behind in the initial phases but now have their own political parties and elected representatives. The Nishads have come a long way and now they are in Parliament and the State Legislative Assembly. During the fieldwork in Kanpur, Allahabad, Varanasi and Chandauli in 2020, I found them to be very vocal and assertive about their political, cultural and electoral demands. They are making their heroes, heroines and symbols more visible and vocal than before. Recently, the Nishad Party and the Vikassheel Insan Party have demonstrated their mobilising power across UP Scheduled Caste communities like Pasi, Khatik, and Dharkar who were formerly categorised as “criminal tribes” also have a sizeable electoral representation in UP now (Narayan 2016). Technically, the Dharkars are a Scheduled Caste community but they live a semi-nomadic life in the many cities of UP. The Dharkars are invisiblised because of their relatively small numbers and the lack of leaders (Singh 2015: 268-69). However, they are trying to make their voice recognisable in Indian democracy. I interviewed two Dharkar leaders in Varanasi and Lucknow who contested the state and general elections respectively, but they lost by a large margin. Despite their loss, they are now considered respected leaders among their community members.  

The third category of denotified communities is facing invisibility, exclusion and violence. They are the Bahelia, Chidimar, Chamramngta, Kanjar, Kankali, Nat, Mahavat and Patharkat communities. These communities were dependent on rural landscapes, natural resources and informal social relations. The rural landscape has changed and natural resources have been depleted. They now live in orchards, near graveyards, in open spaces along roads, and on the cartographic margins of villages and hamlets. Sometimes, they have small hamlets dotted with polythene roofs and thatched mud houses. The communities who settled in these hamlets 30-40 years ago are in a better position in terms of their habitat but lack proper housing, education, potable water and other essentials. Some of them may possess documents like Aadhaar cards and voter identity cards.

The nomadic communities of Gonda are making some political progress in panchayati raj institutions (PRI). Recently, they have also settled in villages and have been able to get voter identity cards. The Mahavtas of Paraspur, Khadaura, Sisai and Parasda villages are casting their votes and getting some benefits through PRI. The Nats are also following the same path but the Chamarmngta and Kankalis continue to live a nomadic life. They make their livelihood through daily wage work in agriculture, or through beggary, or by performing as dancers during the wedding season. They are well connected with their kins and relatives residing in nearby areas. Through negotiations and dependency among the communities, the Nats, Pattharkats, Mahavats and Chamarmangtas they are trying to settle down in rural areas.  The PRI offers a chance for nomadic communities to play a greater role in the formal political system.

Politics of Appropriation: Electoral Mobilisation, Welfare, and Hindutva  

The Renke Commission highlighted that 7% of India’s population is nomadic and consists of 500 different communities (NCDNT 2008). In its 2019 election manifesto, the Indian National Congress promised to include DNT and semi-nomadic tribes (SNT) communities as categories in the next census and repeal the Habitual Offenders Act, 1952 if it wins the parliamentary elections. Such a census is vital to assess the feasibility of providing compartmental reservation for DNT and SNT communities. It would also make a case for state governments to impart education and skills to denotified and semi-nomadic tribes to increase their employability.

Based on my experience in Gonda and Allahabad, the BJP and the Congress are trying to draw them into party ranks. Empirical research done by Badri Narayan on Hindutva political mobilisation shows that many marginalised and denotified communities of North India are being recruited by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The Nat, a semi-nomadic community who are settled in some parts of Bundelkhand, are aspiring for a temple for their deity in the area. They had made this demand during the 2017 assembly elections. They felt that since the upper-caste locality had a big Shiva temple, they too should have a similar temple for their deity (Narayan 2021: 38-39). The BJP is not only drawing on Hindutva politics and sentiments to gain support, but it is also using developmental and welfare schemes to do so. Overall, the Nats and Patharkats of Gonda district are supportive of the BJP. Their hamlets and villages are regularly visited by party cadres who try to win the confidence of these communities.

Nomadic communities have experienced widespread oppression under the colonial and postcolonial governments. They were forced into reformatory schools and industrial homes. Future scholars should be attentive to the voices of NT and DNT communities, including those among them who are more severely repressed and underserved.


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