Suspects forever

Published : Jun 08, 2002 00:00 IST

Members of the "denotified tribes" continue to bear the brunt of police brutality.

DESPITE repeated strictures by courts and inquiry commissions, and statements by successive Chief Ministers, not to speak of regular in-house exercises to "humanise" the police force, there seems to be no let-up in the violation of human rights by the custodians of law. Deprived sections, particularly Dalits and women, are the prime victims of police brutality.

The recent arrest and harassment of a large tribal (Kurava) family in the backward Dharmapuri district of Tamil Nadu not only highlights the high-handed and inhuman attitude of the police towards these sections but also exposes the gaps in the criminal justice system. The Criminal Tribes Act, 1871, introduced by the British rulers labelled people belonging to 160 communities across the country as "born criminals". Four decades after its repeal, the mind-set remains.

Says P. Shanmugam, general secretary of the Tamilnadu Tribals Federation: "Kuravas, one of the communities under the purview of the Criminal Tribes Act, continue to be treated as criminals and harassed by the State police even after the repeal of the Act following prolonged struggles by leaders of the national movement. These hapless people silently suffer this humiliation and many incidents of police torture involving them often go unnoticed by the media." Interestingly, "Kurava crimes" is part of the police training syllabus, says Shanmugam.

Social activist G.N. Devy observes in his foreword to Branded by Law: Looking at India's Denotified Tribes by Dilip D'Souza (Penguin Books India, New Delhi, 2001): "If prejudice is a common human instinct, state-sponsored prejudice can spell disaster for humanity. Fascism is one form of it. The 'criminalisation' of a large number of communities is another. In India this criminalisation of communities is credited by historians to British colonial rule... the colonial administration in India displayed its profound ignorance of India's social structure and cultural institutions by formulating a series of Criminal Tribes Acts, beginning with the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871, and turned a large number of nomadic communities and artists into criminals."

The 1871 Act was enforced in the northern part of British India first. Later it was extended to Bengal (1876) and other areas, with the Madras Presidency being the last to enact it in 1911. Under the Act 150 notified castes of "hereditary criminals" within the Hindu system were to be kept under police surveillance. More castes were added to the list. The branding of these communities as "criminal" was not based on the notion of heredity but rather as a community profession passed on from one generation to the next. The Act, therefore, provided for establishing reformatory schools and settlements for the reclamation of these people. Their movements were restricted to specific areas and the Act provided for their arrest without warrant if there was any violation. The crimes covered included counterfeiting of coins and currency, murder, theft, robbery, dacoity and house-breaking. Children in the age group of 6 to 18 were separated from their parents and put in reformatory schools.

The stated purpose of the Act was "to ensure peace, law and order" by bringing under "effective control anti-social elements chronically addicted to criminal activities". The District Magistrate notified the tribes. The Superintendent of Police maintained a register, secured fingerprints of members of the tribes and issued identification passes to them and required them to report to the police at regular intervals. In the settlements, work was extracted from them for nominal wages.

Various landed communities and castes, according to critics, were behind the branding of the nomadic and tribal people as "criminals" with a view to using them for land reclamation and agricultural operations. The compulsion behind the Act, they said, was more to provide cheap labour than to maintain law and order. There were several amendments to the Act from time to time and the Criminal Tribes (Consolidation) Act of 1924 incorporated all of them.

Making entire communities responsible for offences committed by a few individuals was seen as unjust. There was also dissatisfaction over treating children and aged persons on a par with hard-core criminals. Nationalist leaders voiced their protest. Jawaharlal Nehru found the very idea of calling whole sections of Indians criminal "disgusting". He said in 1936 that "the monstrous provisions of the Criminal Tribes Act constitute a negation of civil liberty." The Act was ultimately repealed, first in Madras Province in 1949 following struggles led by Communist leaders such as P. Ramamurti and P. Jeevanandam, and Forward Bloc leader U. Muthuramalinga Thevar. Other provincial governments followed suit.

The communities "notified" under the Act were since "denotified". That is the official term that denotes them now. "As it often happens, that term has in its turn acquired derogatory connotations. And, in any case, even half a century later, they are still routinely called criminal and perceived to be so, for colonial attitudes die hard," Dilip D'Souza says in his book.

The victims are yet to be freed from the stigma of criminality. "Their persecution continues, and indeed has worsened," says Devy, "through legislation such as the Habitual Offenders Act (HOA) and the Prevention of Anti-Social Activity Act (PASA), the very nature of the police training and, more importantly, thanks to the general indifference and distrust of citizens towards them."

D'Souza cites several instances to show that the members of these "denotified" tribes (DNT), which include Bawarias, Pardhis and Sansis, are still treated as criminals. "The widely held prejudice about DNTs defines the way they live, the way they are treated by the rest of society... their very birth makes them criminal," he says.

The attitude of the law-makers as well as the police towards these communities has not changed post-Independence. The failure of the police to address the issues relating to crime and the outmoded nature of crime detection drive it to find scapegoats in the DNTs comprising some 25 million people. The HOA and PASA contain the same draconian provisions as in the repealed Act.

Indiscriminate detention, arrest without warrant, taking photographs and fingerprints of people belonging to DNTs and custodial torture of the people continue in different parts of the country.

In Tamil Nadu, Kuravas and other tribal communities bear the brunt of police prejudice. Unlike Kallars, another denotified community with a significant presence in the southern districts, who had benefited to some extent from the reformatory schools and advanced a little, Kuravas, numbering about 2.5 lakhs, remain backward, says Shanmugam. There are about 28 sub-sects among them. They include Narikkuravas who move from place to place selling honey, herbal medicines and needles and others, whose occupations range from agricultural labour to conservancy work, from vending vegetables and curry leaves to government service, from fortune-telling to teaching. Although they are all tribals and as such qualify to be included in the list of Scheduled Tribes, barring a few sub-sects they are distributed among the backward communities (B.C.s) and most backward communities (MBCs).

According to Shanmugam, whenever a crime is reported the Kuravas in the area become the prime suspects of the police. The police take photographs and fingerprints of every Kurava suspect they confront. "This is not done as a matter of routine in respect of people from other castes," he says. Almost every police station has a register of local Kuravas with their photographs and fingerprints.

THERE seems to be some pattern in the way the police deal with the Kuravas: arrests are made only around midnight. Mostly more than one member of the family is taken into custody. The arrested persons are forced to give statements the way the police want them to. Even when no link is established between the crime and the arrested Kuravas, a case is filed against them.

Several incidents of violation of human rights of tribal people have been reported in the past few years, including excesses by the police and forest guards against tribal women at Vachathi and Chinnampathi. Mass arrests of Kuravas were reported in Vellore and Kancheepuram districts a few years ago.

In Elaichur arrests also there were several violations of norms fixed by courts. However, for the first time in a case involving Kuravas, the government has ordered the release of the arrested persons and withdrawal of cases against them even before any judicial intervention, Shanmugam observes. He pointed out that hardly a week earlier Chief Minister Jayalalithaa had sought to justify the arrests.

POLICE brutality against the family of an agriculturist at Elaichur, a hamlet in Karumandipatti village in Dharmapuri district came to light recently. Eight members of the joint family of Govindasami (58), seven of his close relatives and three neighbours were the victims. Govindasami belongs to the Kurava community, a denotified tribe. The very fact that it took four months for the world to become aware of the incident is enough to indicate the helplessness of these people.

Individual victims were under police custody for periods ranging from two days to six weeks. Many of them had to suffer torture and humiliation while in custody. Two women were even subjected to sexual assault.

A police party from Vaniyambadi in Vellore district, 25 km from Elaichur, raided the house of Govindasami an hour after midnight on January 3-4 with the purpose of arresting his son Anandan (23) in connection with a case of alleged theft. The raid party could not find Anandan. However, Govindasami and Satya, Anandan's wife, were bundled into a police vehicle and taken to the Vaniyambadi station, where they were beaten. Satya was stripped in the presence of her father-in-law and her hands were tied and her mouth gagged. She was beaten with sticks and lathis. Govindasami said that a police official said he would not rest until the "criminal" Kuravas were wiped out.

A day later they were produced before a magistrate and cases were filed. Satya was warned against making any complaint to the magistrate. She was taken to the Vellore jail after being booked for a petty theft. Govindasami was detained for a few days.

Prakash, Govindasami's third son, and Manimekalai, his wife, were picked up a few days later and taken to Vaniyambadi police station, where Prakash was beaten up. Manimekalai, who gives her age as 14, said she was subjected to sexual assault by an ''inspector''.

Three neighbours of Govinda-sami, all Vanniyas, including a woman were brought to the Vaniyambadi station and subjected to violence. Mangamma, a poor widow, said later that she was sexually assaulted by a head constable. She was released after six weeks. Vijaya, who accompanied Satya when she went to the police station for daily reporting as per the bail conditions, was humiliated.

Govindasami's first son, Ravi, who was away at his wife's place in a nearby village when his father and Satya were taken into custody, was detained and beaten up sometime in March after he brought the police brutality and the travails of his family to the notice of P. Dillibabu, secretary of the Dharmapuri district unit of the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

Anandan is yet to be traced. Govindasami said that he was involved in a case some 18 years ago, but was acquitted. None in his extended family had ever before been taken into custody.

Dillibabu said that apart from custodial violence there had been several violations of rules and court guidelines governing arrests for investigation. The policemen were not in their uniform when the arrests were made, and women were taken to the police station though there are court directions that women be examined only in their homes. Besides, most of the arrests were made at night. He demanded withdrawal of the cases, payment of compensation to the victims and legal action against the guilty police officials.

Dillibabu and Shanmugam took up the cause and organised protests. The police denied the charges of custodial violence. The government then ordered an inquiry by the Revenue Divisional Officer. When the issue was raised in the State Assembly, Chief Minister Jayalalithaa ordered an inquiry by the Crime Branch-Criminal Investigation Department. On receipt of its report, in less than a week, the Chief Minister announced the suspension of two police personnel and ordered the withdrawal of cases against the victims.

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