De-Notified Tribes (DNTs) continue to bear the brunt of the various laws that stigmatised them since 1871. In 1871, nearly 150 tribes were notified to be criminals by the ‘Criminal Tribes Act’ passed by the British, meaning, just being born into one of these tribes made one a criminal.
The creation of these criminal tribes was a “colonial stereotype”. It was to justify the British to discipline or control a section of the population who did not fit into the colonial power’s moral order they were trying to enforce on rural society.
Dakxin Chhara, the award-winning filmmaker and DNT activist, explained, “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.”
The DNT community in India continues living an abysmal existence because of a centuries-old criminality stigma. Chhara calls his community an “invisible population” owing to their absence from government records, welfare schemes and a complete lack of political will to address their marginalisation.
“They are not considered worthy of being part of the village, and most end up living in jungles, moving from one place to another, isolated and stigmatised.” he said.
The Criminal Tribes Act, 1871, was repealed on August 31, 1952, resulting in the former criminal tribes ‘de-notified’ of this discriminatory tag. However, this was only on paper. Over the years, there haven’t been any genuine attempts to address the plight of the DNT communities, and commissions aimed at improving their condition have failed. Many people belonging to the community commit suicide because of how the authorities continue to ostracise them. Youth are arbitrarily arrested on mere suspicion because they are seen as habitual offenders
Women from the community face prejudice and stereotypes because of their involvement in sex work, and those who wish to explore other avenues of livelihood are discouraged and not treated with dignity. Sex workers from the community not only face stigmatisation but also are targets of police excesses. Khatoon shared how children of these women are often discouraged from pursuing higher education and are recipients of undignified comments from people who know that their parents are sex workers.