A woman from the nomadic Banjara tribe during a demonstration in Mumbai in this photograph from 2010. | Reuters
In the first week of August, I visited the Documentation and Cultural Centre of German Sinti and Roma in Heidelberg, which has been established to research the long cultural traditions of the community that lost 500,000 members in the mass exterminations in Nazi-occupied Europe.
It was only in May 1995, after a 45-years civil rights movement, that Germany legally recognised the Roma community and the Sinti subgroup as a national minority. It took the European Parliament another decade to acknowledge the genocide: it declared August 2 as a European Holocaust Memorial Day for Roma and Sinti.
Talking to members of the community, I learned that even though the Roma and Sintis in Europe have been recognised as a minority group, most other people would rather stay far away from homes occupied by members of the community. In many ways, their situation is similar to the predicament of the groups in India that until 70 years ago were known as the criminal tribes.
Members of these groups were stimagised as “born criminals” under the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871 – and continued to be classified as such until August 31, 1952. That is when they were “denotified” by the Habitual Offenders Act. But even though these communities celebrate August 31 as Independence Day, the Act of 1952 has not completely abolished the stigma of criminality.
Seventy-five years after India attained independence, these groups are still struggling to get recognition from society and have dignified lives. According to the report of the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment’s Idate commission on Denotified Nomadic and Semi-Nomadic Tribes in 2016, there are 809 Nomadic and 334 Denotified tribes in India. But though its members constitute 10% of the country’s population, “they are citizens who are yet to be conferred with the rights of citizenship”, it said.
The report explained that these are “...the most neglected, marginalised and economically and socially deprived communities…Most of them have been living a life of destitution for generations; and still continue to do so with an uncertain and gloomy future. From an unsmiling childhood, they step into tearful old age. Their adult life is too short to make ony perceptible difference to their future savings and livelihood. Poor health adversely affects their longevity. Haunted by all – from common masses to law enforcers – they lead a precarious existence, bereft of the rights that are bestowed upon the legitimate citizens of the nation.”
It is still a distant dream to imagine the social integration into settled communities of members of these groups, who traditionally wander from one place to another in search of their livelihood needs.
During colonial rule, nomadic tribes were seen as a threat to rooted, settled communities and the colonial administration. Their wandering traditions made it impossible for the colonial rulers to exert economic control over them. Moreover, the colonial state completely misinterpreted the Indian caste system and attempted to stop their wandering by declaring them as born criminals by the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871.
British rule not only gave them the tag of criminality but also, with the introduction of the colonial new market economy, commercial exploitation of forests, transportation, and communication networks, destroyed their traditional occupations.
The British view of these nomadic tribes was a continuation of the history of deep-rooted discriminatory in Hindu civilisation, as BR Ambedkar noted. The chaturvarna system is a fundamental part of the Hindu civilisation based on graded inequality where,
‘‘All learned are the preserve of the Brahmins; all warlike services are of the Kshatriya class; trade is open only to Vaishya, services to the Shudras. Those outside, there being nothing honourable left, have been driven to dishonourable and criminal ways of earning a livelihood.’’
As the chaturvarna system did not provide any honourable place to Shudras or Avarnas (Primitive Tribes, Criminal Tribes, and the Untouchables) in the Hindu social structure, their social status and place remained vulnerable.
The Roma and Sinti, due to their wandering mode of living in Europe, had a similar history of being accused of criminality. It took a long civil rights movement for them to gain some rights. For members of India’s denotified tribes, however, a dignified life in society and recognition from the state of their economic, social and cultural rights is essential if they are to achieve real independence after 75 years of independence.