Plight of DNTs
Henry Schwarz writes :
The so-called denotified tribes (DNTs) of India are among the lasting victims of British imperialism. Originally ‘‘notified’’ by the government as criminals in 1871, the DNTs should have enjoyed the freedom of independence that came to the rest of India’s people in 1947. Instead, they have languished as the most handicapped community in the nation, with health, literacy, and employment levels far below the average.
The British labeled them criminals because they pursued a nomadic way of life. The nomadic tribes traditionally carried important commodities such as salt and honey between the coasts and the inland forests. The British relied on these networks to establish their own trading relationships and to guide their armies through unknown regions. Indeed, these traders and transporters of goods were crucial informants for the new rulers, who benefited from tribal knowledge of flora and fauna, transportation and communication.
As railways and telegraphs were built in the 1850s such networks became redundant. The colonial authorities grew nervous about people who moved around, carrying intelligence they could not control directly. In the aftermath of the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857 these former allies were
seen as potential enemies. In 1871, an official Act was passed for ‘‘the notification of criminal tribes.’’ Hundreds of tribes that traditionally collected food from the forest became criminals with the stroke of a pen. When they could not be forcibly settled, they were sometimes shot on sight. Those who were settled were subjected to a pass system to control their movements and were rehabilitated through rigorous labour.
These criminal tribes were properly denotified in 1952 after India’s independence. But they were reclassified as habitual offenders in 1959. The stigma of the criminal label still follows them to this day. Many laws and regulations in various states prohibit certain communities of people from travelling; others must still register at police stations in the districts they pass through. This close association with authority makes nomadic tribes especially liable to suspicion when crimes actually occur. The percentage of DNTs in custody and under investigation is greatly disproportionate to their population.
Progress towards social justice is being made. DNTs throughout India are standing up and demanding their rights. Their voices are being heard in the courts, in the press, and within the administration. They demand the same rights to land, educating, health care, employment and justice enjoyed by all Indian citizens.
There are approximately sixty million denotified and nomadic tribal people in India today.