Looking up the year 1871 on Wikipedia, I didn’t find any particularly interesting events and except for the birth of Orville Wright and Ernest Rutherford and the death of Charles Babbage, most of the names on the page were obscure to me. Yet a landmark judgment passed that year by the British Government changed the lives of millions of Indians. The sad part is, most of us don’t even know about them. Reading Dilip D’Souza‘s Branded by Law over the weekend was an eye-opener. The “Criminal Tribes” as the British called them were habitual offenders of the law. It ran in their family they said.

T. V. Stephens, an officer of those times quoted:

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

In one single stroke, under the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871, a hundred and fifty tribes were branded as criminal listed as “addicted to the systematic commission of non-bailable offences.” The law provided the biggest cover-up for police inefficiency. They could always arrest a member of these communities, beat him up and make him confess the crime.

These tribes or communities were thus put into “settlements” where they were “reformed”. The children were separated from the parents so that they may not inherit their “values”. It doesn’t take Einstein to figure out what happened in those settlements. They provided for cheap labor, you see.

Things changed somewhat after independence in the sense that these tribes were now “denotified”. But, there lives remained the same. They still live in deplorable conditions, have no permanent house and are asked to shift according to the whims and fancies of municipal councils and governments. Still don’t have the access to education and the reservation rules do not apply to them. They are still the first to be rounded up by the police after any act of crime. Many still die in police custody every year for no fault of theirs. There are an estimated 25 million members of DNTs in India presently. 25 million people, for whom spending an odd night at the local police station is a part of their existence.

D’Souza takes up these and other issues about these people who have been rejected by everyone in the society. As he says in the last chapter of the book, the least we can do in our individual capacities is to treat them as normal human beings and help restore in them some level of confidence.

More links

1. Mahasweta Devi on the DNTs

2. Wikipedia Link