Samvada | The Question of Silence

Pastoral-nomadic communities have acquired a stigma thanks to a colonial-era law that branded them as ‘criminals’. For how long will we remain quiet about the atrocities carried out against them

Public memory is short. In times when artificial memory is replacing natural memory, the society’s ability to remember is shrinking as never before. Yet, some incidents and some visuals continue to stay alive in memory. Charlie Chaplin’s tramp, once seen, is impossible to forget. The bloated corpse of the drowned Syrian child carried by refugees fleeing the ISIS regime is one such visual. The rape and murder of an eight-year-old girl in Kashmir is the most recent among haunting, tragic images. This hapless child belonged to the Bakerwal community.

In order to understand the full pathos of the ghastly deed, it is necessary to know who the Bakerwals are. They, like the Dhangars in Maharashtra and the Bharwads in Gujarat, are a pastoral-nomadic community. I am not quite sure, but probably, the Gavlis in Karnataka belong to this type. The ancestry of pastoral-nomads goes much beyond the ancestry of the settled agrarian communities in India. The pastoralists mainly engage in cow-herding, camel-tending, goat-keeping or pig-rearing. Intimately related with animals, the community members and the animals they cultivate form a family. There are other nomadic communities in India such as Hakki-Pikki, Pardhi and Nats that excel in bird-keeping; and yet others like Banjara, Sansi, Vadi and so on which traditionally engaged in trading. Unfortunately, all these nomadic communities were brought under an inhuman law during the colonial times, called ‘The Criminal Tribes Act, 1871’. The British did this not just in India. Other colonies such as Australia, Nigeria and Kenya had similar laws branding and isolating the non-sedentary or nomadic communities. In a way, this was the failure of the European mind to recognise that nomadic life was a form of civilisation, much older than the agrarian.

During the years 1946-1949 when the Constitution was being drafted, the ‘criminal tribes’ were still within the settlement-prisons. So they got ignored.

The 1871 Criminal Tribes Act was further ‘refined’ throughout the colonial era. The newer versions of the law made it possible for the British rulers to restrict the movement of the communities, to force them to settle in specially created ‘settlements’. All regulations related to these settlements were comparable to the Prison Code. The communities thus restricted came to be seen over the decades as ‘criminal’. They were not criminal in any moral or legal sense. Their only crime was that they belonged to a nomadic civilisation. The rest of the society in India too started looking at these communities through the prism of the colonial view. And, by the time India was independent, these communities had acquired a stigma hard to erase.

The makers of the Constitution should have made some special provisions for bringing justice to these communities; but during the years 1946-1949 when the Constitution was being drafted, the 'criminal tribes' were still within the settlement-prisons. So they got ignored. The process of their ‘denotification’ began in 1952. By that time, the SC and ST schedules had already been drawn up. And so the ‘denotified’ communities remained outside the social justice network in free India. In most parts of India, they continue to survive without much land, livelihood support and equality. Persons belonging to these communities are generally hated by the public. They are hounded out of villages and cities on suspicion of ‘crime’. In my work with the Denotified and Nomadic communities (DNT), I have repeatedly come across incidents of ghastly atrocities including rape and murder that they have to face. The ‘lesson’ that the others wanted to teach to the Bakerwal community by raping a child is a result of India’s attitude to the DNTs. One thinks that this is an incident that happened far away in Kashmir. But, all of us keep quiet about the fact that the hatred for the DNTs is shared by all of us, in all parts of India. How long shall we remain silent about it?

(GN Devy is a literary critic and cultural activist)
Photo: Laportechicago/CC BY 2.5

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