In colonial India, through the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871, some communities came to be unjustly “notified” as “criminal” tribes “addicted to the systematic commission of non-bailable offences”. With this Act, the discrimination, abuse, and social and economic marginalization of these “criminal” tribes started. Five years after the British colonial rule over India came to an end, the Criminal Tribes Act was repealed (on August 31, 1952), thereby “de-notifying” these communities. Since then, August 31 is observed every year as ‘Liberation Day’ or ‘VimuktiDiwas’.
It is important to note, however, that the repeal of the Criminal Tribes Act has not been enough to stop the oppression and stigma faced by the Nomadic Tribes and De-Notified Tribes (NTDNTs). The year the Criminal Tribes Act was repealed by independent India saw the enactment of Habitual Offenders Act by the central government, followed by versions of the same Act in various states. These laws have been routinely used against NTDNTs. Thus, even after 64 years of their “Vimukti”, the NTDNT communities continue to face oppression and carry the stigma of criminality. The NTDNT communities are unable to enjoy the fundamental rights that the Constitution of India guarantees to all its citizens. There have been innumerable cases in which the right to equality before law (Article 14), the prohibition of discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth (Article 15) and right to life and liberty (Article 21) of people belonging to the NTDNT communities have been flouted.
The socio-economic conditions of NTDNT communities also continue to be poor. They are not able to access education, health-care, livelihoods, housing, social security, participation in political processes and governance. In addition, members of these communities, including women, are subjected to various forms of harassment and violence. While several welfare schemes have been established in certain states, their limited purview, weak mandate and inconsistent implementation render them ineffective in ameliorating the plight of NTDNTs.
ActionAid India has been concerned with the issue of securing rights for NTDNT communities and has been working with these communities, in alliance with both community-based organizations and civil society organizations, both at the level of grassroots interventions and policy advocacy at various levels. VimuktiDiwas gives an additional opportunity to the NTDNT communities to come together and collectively voice their demands. In this write-up, we will try and capture glimpses of how the VimuktiDiwas – 2016 was observed in various states and also the charters of demands emerging out of each of those states.
The National Alliance Group for De-notified and Nomadic Tribes (NAG-DNT) organized RashtriyaGhumantuMuktiDiwas, a national convention of DNTs on August 31, 2016, in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, along with Budhan Theater and BoddhiSatva. NAG-DNT is a network of community-based organizations working with DNTs in Bihar, West Bengal, Delhi, Haryana, Maharashtra, Gujarat and Rajasthan. The day’s programme witnessed the participation of communities not just from Gujarat but also from Rajasthan, Delhi, Uttarakhand, Tamil Nadu, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh.
Speaking at the convention, people from the NTDNT communities strongly articulated their issues and problems. They spoke about how they do not have land or any permanent place to stay. They do not even have ration cards and other identity cards in their name. Also, their traditional livelihoods are under constant threat, making it difficult for them to earn a living. In addition, there are no schools or anganwadis in their bastis, and hence, their children stay deprived of education. They spoke about how they are suspected for any crime happening in the place where they are staying and therefore, are subjected to violence by the police every other day. There was a strong feeling among NTDNTs that they continue being treated as “slaves” despite living in an “independent and free” India.
Mr. Ramdas Athawale, Union Minister of State for Social Justice and Empowerment, was the chief guest at the programme. In his address, he stated that he respects the voices that came up during the convention, and that his ministry would do its best to address the issues faced by NTDNT communities and to ensure that they enjoy their due rights and entitlements.
The programme also saw NTDNT communities using traditional songs and dances, and plays to share about the various issues their communities routinely face and to voice their demands, including reservations for people from the NTDNT communities.
The de-notified, nomadic and semi-nomadic communities of Rajasthan came together on August 31, 2016 to observe the 64th GhumantuMuktiDiwas at 12 different spots across the state – Jaipur and Chaksu in Jaipur district; Tonk and Malpura in Tonk district; Chittorgarh; Bharatpur; Phalodi and Osiyan in Jodhpur district; Barmer; Jaisalmer; Sojat in Pali district; and Atru in Baran district. The State Response Group, Rajasthan, organized these meetings and also drew up a list of demands that emerged from the gatherings and submitted them to the Chief Minister, Ms. VasundharaRaje. These programmes witnessed active participation of people belonging to many communities including Banjara, GadiaLohar, Kalbeliya, Kanjar, Mirasi, Manganiyar, Sansi, Sapera and Kalandar communities.
At the Jaipur meeting, there was also a unanimous agreement reached among all NTDNT communities to continue pushing for the constitution of an NTDNT Board and to demand for budget allocations for these communities.
A Vimukti Diwas programme was organized by Gramin Vikas Kendra (GVK) and ActionAid in Jamkhed in Ahmednagar district on August 31, 2016. GVK, along with Lokdhara Network, organized a rally in Jamkhed city, which culminated in a Melawa with NTDNT communities.
These celebrations on the occasion of VimuktiDiwas were all the more significant since in Ahmednagar, with active support from and policy advocacy by GVK and Lokdhara Network, the district administration had recently developed ‘District-level ParadhiVikasArakhada’ (District-level Paradhi development plan) and had allocated adequate budget for the rehabilitation, resettlement and livelihood restoration within the district of Ahmednagar. This is the first such district where such kind of a holistic plan has been developed and approved. GVK and Lokdhara are now making similar efforts in other districts too. The Beed district administration is currently developing such plans.
Several NTDNT communities participated in this rally and Melawa. They effectively used this opportunity to re-emphasize their demands related to the basic social security services and entitlements, land rights, rehabilitation and resettlement-related issues, education of children, employment and livelihood restoration-related demands etc. The Melawa was followed by a charter of demands being submitted to the Sub-Divisional Magistrate.
VimuktiDiwasprogrammes were also organized in Bihar by Centre for All-Round Development (CARD) and ActionAid in Ladaura village, Kalyanpur block and Waini village, Pusa block of Samastipur district. The NTDNT communities that participated included Karori, Madari and Chidimar communities.
At these gatherings, people from these communities strongly voiced their concerns. They shared about the identity issues they face everyday in the absence of identity cards. They do not have land, and also lack access to food security and other social security benefits. Their livelihoods too continue to be under threat all the time, including their traditional occupations. At these meetings, these communities resolved to continue pushing for their due rights and entitlements, and for getting their issues addressed. The meetings also witnessed traditional songs being sung by women from the communities.
On September 4, 2016 NAG-DNT organized a Nomad Film Festival at India Islamic Cultural Centre and India Habitat Centre, New Delhi. ActionAid India was one of the festival partners.
The film festival showcased short films, movies and documentaries on de-notified tribes and brought together film-makers who are engaged with or are from these communities. The festival was also an endeavor to create awareness about the lives and struggles of people from these communities, and to break the stereotypes around them through interactions with the film-makers. In addition, through this film festival, homage was paid to Late Mahashweta Devi whose support for indigenous communities in India has been long-standing and immense.
The films made by an Ahmedabad-based film-maker, DakxinBajrange, who himself belongs to the Chhara community, were also screened during the festival. His film, ‘Fight for Survival’ is on the livelihood issues faced by the snake-charmer community due to the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960. Another film of his, ‘Bulldozer’ is about families in Maninagar whose homes were repeatedly demolished by the Municipal Corporation till 2008. The National Award-winning film, ‘The Lost Behrupiya’ was also screened.
(Developed with inputs from ActionAid’s Rajasthan/Gujarat, Maharashtra and Bihar regional offices)