Arrests, Intimidation, and Torture: What Life is Like for India’s Formerly “Criminal” Tribes

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Arrests, Intimidation, and Torture: What Life is Like for India’s Formerly “Criminal” Tribes

Illustration: Akshita Monga

Two years ago, on a foggy December morning in western Uttar Pradesh’s Jhinjhana town, Dalip Kumar was about to open the shutter of his newly leased fruit juice stand, when a white Tata Sumo with a Haryana number plate screeched to a halt in front of the shop. Four policemen in civvies and one in uniform leaped out of the vehicle’s back door, dragged him inside the vehicle by the collar, and sped off, leaving his younger brother screaming on the street.

“It was an early winter morning of 2016 and very few people had reached the market. They didn’t face any struggle in picking me up,” Kumar recalls. But had there been more people around, it’s not like Kumar would’ve had an easier time. A resident of Jatan Khanpur village in Uttar Pradesh’s Shamli district, Kumar belongs to the Bawaria community, which is a denotified tribe (DNT).

Before Independence, the British administration had proclaimed many tribes such as Bawarias “criminal by nature” and imposed several restrictions on their movement. Back in the day, the tribe was known for participating in acts of dacoity, and leaving robbed and murdered victims in their wake. Post-1947, these communities were put on a new list of denotified tribes, which granted them all the rights of an Indian citizen. However, like other tribes throughout India, such as the Pardhi, the Chhara, and the Sansi, the stigma of belonging to a “criminal” community is one the Bawarias have not been able to shed.

In many parts of North India, across western UP, parts of Haryana, Punjab, and Rajasthan, the term Bawaria still elicits fear. The tribe continues to be stereotyped as the one which treats crime as a way of life, a narrative fully supported by the police. “This community treats crime as a ritual. For example, during Dhanteras they consider committing a crime as auspicious; and a ‘dawat’ for them is a code word to execute a crime,” says Anil Kumar Jha, Superintendent of Police (Traffic) Noida, who was posted at Shamli, a small town in Western UP and part of the National Capital Region, a few years ago.

This damaging perception obviously makes life hard for the residents of Bawaria villages in Shamli, who claim that their community gave up crime decades ago and returned to a stable and peaceful life. They complain that they are victimised because the police can’t seem to get rid of their colonial mindset. “Now most of our people are occupied in agriculture, masonry, and animal husbandry, and few of us have also been selected in police and teaching professions,” says Sher Singh, a village elder.

In 1949, the government had repealed the Criminal Tribes Act, and in 1959, replaced it with another law called the Habitual Offenders Act.

In 1949, the government had repealed the Criminal Tribes Act, and in 1959, replaced it with another law called the Habitual Offenders Act. Although none of the provisions of the Habitual Offenders Act specifically target any particular community, the convention of using it against formerly DNT communities enables law enforcement to detain members of the tribe with impunity.

Ganesh Devy, a scholar and social activist who was awarded Padma Shri in 2014 for his work with DNTs, their education, and study of their vanishing languages, explains, “At the lower levels of police training, when recruits are taught about crime, examples of denotified communities are given liberally.” Devy also points out that during the events of riots or communal disturbances, when police make preventive detentions of suspected troublemakers, people of the denotified tribes are found to be the easiest targets.

“The police don’t want us to get rid of the criminal tribe tag. As long as the Bawarias exist they always have someone as a sacrificial lamb to slaughter whenever a crime occurs,” says Bhagat Ram, another villager from Shamli.

And just like that Dalip Kumar became an easy target. He had leased a shop for ₹1 lakh by taking a loan. However, some disgruntled police informer told the cops that Kumar had bought the shop for ₹15 lakh, and that he was loaded. Bawarias are a poor community and the police assumed he must have acquired the money through some illegal means. Without any inquiry, Kumar was taken to a police station in Karnal and tortured relentlessly. He was repeatedly hit with a baton on his heels and water was injected inside his nostrils through a pipe. He was being pressured into admitting that he had links with criminals of the area. “They were hoping to extort a few lakhs from my family members in return for my safe release,” Kumar said.

However when Kumar called home to ask for money, his wife recorded the call and handed it over as evidence to senior police officials and secured his release.

Kumar’s arrest was no exception. The Bawarias are often picked up by the police and subjected to custodial brutality. Such is the stigma that the new generation, children going to school and colleges, hesitate to reveal their identities. “Our children adopt different surnames to avoid being mocked by their classmates,” says Om Prakash.

The four months of torture drained Kumar mentally and physically. He had to shutter his shop due to frequent court visits and spent a few lakhs in lawyer’s fees. “It took me nearly two years to clear my name from all the charges that the cops had brought against me,” he says. Kumar has lost a good part of his life, simply for belonging to the “wrong” kind of tribe. And now he thinks, the only option to keep his children safe is to hide their identity.  

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