Flo Carson

Flo Carson - Social Anthropologist, studying International Development at Sciences Po, Paris. I am slightly obsessed by gender, politics, media, human rights and global health. I've worked in Asia, Africa and Europe and keen to explore more of the world we live in. Take a look at my Twitter & Tumblr for my most recent posts. tly

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

De-Notified Tribes

Exclusion, deprivation and discrimination are endemic experiences amongst de-notified tribes (DNTs) of India. Since British Colonialism institutionalised and 'notified' a group as Criminal Tribes, this social group has been forced to deal with harassment at every level of society. Before Independence, those individuals and groups who opposed British rule and rejected their ideals of daily wages and fixed settlements were seen as problematic in the eyes of the colonialists. Accordingly, British colonialists established a way for them to try to control this mixed nomadic social group by explicitly criminalising them, forcing them to check in with local officials and police three times a night. By 1871, British rule had constructed a list of these Criminal Tribes and passed the Criminal Tribes Act which desperately attempted to control these groups, and force them to stay in one settlement and work in low paying schemes. Ultimately, this act created a new class of citizens out of nowhere, who were born with the status of criminals.

Soon after Independence, the communities notified as Criminal Tribals were 'de-notified' by the Government. However, this Act was basically replaced by a range of alternative, less conspicuous Acts, specifically including  the Habitual Offenders Act, which simply preserved most of the provisions of the CT Acts. 'Denotifying' this social group, failed to make any  improvement to the lives of these groups. Police training academies still teach the that certain communities are habitually and 'naturally' criminal. This concept of naturalised caste is common in so many discussions in India; you can talk to anyone and they will assign traits, personalities and habits to someone depending on which state they are born, whether they are Muslim and their caste. My Indian family that I'm staying with are Punjabis, which according to them, makes them 'naturally friendly'.

However, if a petty theft occurs in a community, local DNTs are always the first suspects. The onus of proving innocence rests with them. Today, it is rare that government schemes for economic uplift to reach them, particularly since illiteracy rates among the DNTs are higher than among even Scheduled Castes or Tribes meaning it is basically impossible for them to complete forms which would allow for them to benefit. 

Over the years with the CT Act and the HO Act, these groups were obliged to settle down in one place and were consequently separated from their 'traditional' forms of livelihoods (As an anthropologist, I hate the term 'traditional', but have fallen into the trap of using it so much when trying to make proposals emotive), such as working as entertainers, and travelling traders. On the one hand, women who were singers and performers were made to suffer economically as a result of this discrimination and many were forced to enter into prostitution, which went onto in many cases to become intergenerational prostitution between families. On the other hand, men were put under substantial pressure, as part of their responsibility to check into police stations three times each night. Many became pimps in order to counter act this financial and institutional discrimination, which also went onto become an intergenerational process.

This is what I learnt from the talk I attended at Apne Aap's offices.

However, when I went back to my Indian family home that evening, I asked the family whether they had ever heard of DNTs, and they looked back quizzically. 'Deyenties? No. I do not know of what you are talking'. This forced me to challenge whether DNTs even identify themselves in such a way. Are NGOs drawing on redundant terminologies and labels in an attempt to create a USP for themselves, a niche in the crazy competition of grant proposals? Perhaps people from DNT backgrounds have managed to shed this identity so successfully that the urban middle classes are unaware of the term in the first place? Or maybe, they are so extremely marginalised and forgotten that they are unmentioned by the masses?

The term 'de-notifed tribes' is obviously problematic, it haphazardly reinforces the false notion that these individuals were once criminals. It's hard to ascertain whether this term could ever be reclaimed and used in an empowering way. Nevertheless these social groups involved, who are thought to make up 8-10% of India's population, must be offered more sufficient support. Currently, those who make up the DNTs are barely incorporated by censuses, and as a result fail to benefit from India's countless government schemes (All of which are elaborate acronyms that I can never remember, or get right when under pressure). These groups are stigmatised by birth and forgotten by their government. Those who make up the DNTs must be helped to feel empowered, beyond this restrictive, constructed social category.  

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