A brief history of the tribal experience in the colonial and modern era
By Vikram Garg
Eviction and ‘Notification’
How do you subjugate a continent of humanity? For the British colonialists, the answer was ruthless aggression. Between 1774 and 1871, the British engaged the various Indian states in a sequence of brutal wars, known collectively as the Anglo-Indian wars . These wars not only set the stage for the colonial occupation of India, but in many cases also resulted in vast, settled populations becoming nomads in their own land . Displaced from the ‘mainstream’ of society, many of these nomads and tribes sought revenge. What was the British response? In 1871, the Criminal Tribes Act was passed. The Act notified certain tribes as being “addicted to the systematic commission of non-bailable offenses” . Examples included, the Boyas and Dongas of Tamil Nadu, and the Bedras of Maharashtra, all of whom had risen up in rebellion against the occupation .
Two more Acts were passed in 1910 and 1920, leading to more than a hundred and fifty tribes and castes being ‘notified’ as criminal tribes . Under the purview of these Acts, the colonial police was given sweeping powers to arrest, harass, extort and even kill the people that belonged to these tribes . In fact, the Act was part of the police syllabus, so every police officer in colonial India knew who the ‘criminal tribes’ were. In a subjugated land, the notified tribals became the most watched people. Their movements were recorded and there were strict controls on where they could travel to and reside . The plight of these tribals was seemingly not lost on the leaders of the independence movement. Pandit Nehru proclaimed , “The monstrous provisions of the Criminal Tribes Act constitute a negation of civil liberty. No tribe [can] be classed as criminal as such and the whole principle [is] out of consonance with all civilised principles.”
From notified criminals to habitual offenders
Independence came and India adopted its Constitution on the 26th of January, 1950. That day, all Indians became equal before the law, with equal rights and freedoms, in principle. A newly liberated India ‘denotified’ its criminal tribes through an act of Parliament in 1952. But far from delivering on the promise of equal rights and justice for all, the Indian government passed a ‘Habitual Offender’s Act’ in 1959 . By defining a class of ‘habitual offenders who pose a threat to society’, the Act put the newly denotified tribes in a precarious position. Both the police and society had learnt to treat the notified tribals as criminals. Like the colonial police before them, the new Indian Police retained the Act as part of its syllabus and widespread abuse continues against the tribals [2, 4]. So far, the Indian government has paid no heed to calls by both the UN  and India’s own National Human Rights Commission  to repeal the law.
Denotified tribals also suffer from the broader implications of a system that either marginalizes or tries to assimilate the tribal population . The state policies are confused and often contradictory. The same Forest Rights regime that gives the tribals ‘ownership’ of forest land prevents them from chopping bamboo wood, critical for their way of life . Asked to unquestioningly assimilate, the tribal culture is either patronized or suppressed by the state. Dr. Ganesh Devy, an activist who works extensively with the tribals provides a particularly telling example , “The liquor they make is the only wine made of flowers in the world. Not only is it not patented by the Government but the process is considered illegal; there is a displaced notion that they get drunk.”
Resistance and Regeneration
Clearly, the oppressive laws and deep alienation from the mainstream society that the tribals face are rooted in their history. To break these shackles, civil society is waging a multi front struggle against some of the most cruel and insensitive aspects of the Indian state and society [10, 2]. To press the Government to repeal Acts like the ‘Habitual Offender’s Act’, social activists have formed the Denotified Tribals – Rights Action Group (DNT-RAG). Under the leadership of the Jnanpith award winner Mahasweta Devi, this group of dedicated activists works tirelessly to bring to light the numerous cases of police abuses against the tribals. The litany of cases that the group has filed in courts and with human rights commissions has brought sporadic justice to the families of many victims . But their task remains a difficult one with the Act protecting the perpetrators of such atrocities and the mainstream society being ignorant of this issue.
Faced with such odds, it has been a tall order for India’s tribals to preserve and propogate their culture. Here again the vaccum left by an insensitive state has been filled to an extent by a vibrant NGO movement and dedicated individuals like Dr. Ganesh Devy. Dr. Devy’s Sahitya Academy, located in Tejgadh, Gujarat has become a leading resource center for the tribal cultures of India . The centre documents the languages, cuisine and art of India’s tribals. The academy has also published a volume of literature in fifty tribal languages ranging in origin from Gujarat to Mizoram . Academies like these are not only preserving tribal culture but also infusing a new generation of young tribals with the confidence to take on the mainstream and have a sense of worth in themselves and their culture.
The road ahead for India’s tribals, especially the denotified tribals, remains challenging. How they are treated by the Indian state will tell us a lot about whether the equal and free society envisaged by the Constitution becomes a reality. We all have a stake in their future.
1. “Anglo-Indian wars”. Wikimedia Foundation Inc.
2. Devi, Mahasveta (October 12, 2010), “An Act Was Born”, Personal Correspondence
3. “Readings – Criminal Tribes Act (XXVII of 1871)”. Y.C. Simhadri. Columbia University.
4. Devi, Mahasweta (March 2002). “Year of Birth – 1871”. Civil Society Information Exchange Pvt. Ltd.
6. Suspects forever: Members of the “denotified tribes” continue to bear the brunt of police brutality Frontline, The Hindu, Volume 19 – Issue 12, June 8–21, 2002.
10. Ganesh N. Devy (2004). “The adivasi Mahasweta”. India Seminar.
Vikram Garg is a PhD student at the University of Texas. He blogs at vikramvgarg.wordpress.com