By Inder Bisht
About a 20-km drive from Uttar Pradesh’s Shamli city on the Haryana border is a cluster of 12 villages that houses one of the biggest concentration of people of the Bawaria community, a denotified tribe in the country.
One of the many tribes termed as ‘criminal’ by the British before independence, the term Bawaria still elicits fear among people in North India thanks to being depicted by the media as being a tribe of organised gangs involved in robberies and murders, a narrative fully supported by the police.
Police officers who served in the area say the community has a definitive tendency towards crime and has also been involved in offences disproportionate to its size.
“By observing the habits of the community over a period of time we have built our response mechanism. This community treats crime as a ritual. For example, during Dhanteras they consider committing a crime as auspicious, and a ‘dawat’ for them is a code word to execute a crime,” says Anil Kumar Jha, Superintendent of Police (Traffic) Noida, who was posted at Shamli a few years ago.
Villagers, however, vehemently refute the charges and say that their community gave up crime decades ago for a stable and peaceful life, and call themselves victims of the police’s colonial mindset and methods.
“Now most of our people are occupied in agriculture, masonry and animal husbandry, and a few of us have also been selected in the police and teaching professions,” says village elder Sher Singh in a proud tone.
But dig a little deeper and one can sense the disillusionment that runs deep in the community.
“The police don’t want us to emerge out from the tag of a criminal tribe. As long as the Bawarias exist they will have someone as a sacrificial lamb whenever a crime occurs,” says Bhagat Ram, another villager.
Living near the UP and Haryana border, the people of the Bawaria community are sitting ducks for the police of both states who routinely raid the villages on the faintest suspicion.
The fallout of painting an entire community with the same brush is that a whole generation is growing up with the stigma of being from a criminal tribe despite the tag officially being done away with over 60 years ago.
Experts say the stigma hinders the economic and social growth of the community and leaves a scar on the psyche of community members, especially children.
“Our children in school don’t reveal their identity and adopt different surnames lest they be mocked by their classmates,” says villager Om Prakash.
In the 2016 gang rape of two women in UP’s Bulandshehar district, some of the accused were from the Bawaria community. This led the police and the media to describe the group as the “Bawaria gang,” reinforcing the image of the community as criminal.
The community took exception to being labelled a gang by the media.
“Would you ever say that a Jat gang murdered a man or a Gujjar gang raped a girl?,” asks community leader Dheer Dhwaj rhetorically. “So why a Bawaria gang…just because we are insignificant in numerical strength and don’t have any political representation,” he adds, alluding to the fact that Jats and Gujjars are politically and socially more dominant communities hence are treated differently by the police.
But it is also in the police’s own interest to keep the bogey of Bawaria gangs alive.
“They have to show results to the higher authorities whenever a crime takes place. To assuage the relatives of the victim and the media, the police come to the Bawaria village and arrest a person randomly,” says Balak Ram Sansi, general secretary of All India DNT Welfare Association.
In 1949, the Criminal Tribes Act was repealed in a bid to do away with the stigma associated with belonging to a “criminal tribe,” and was replaced by the Habitual Offenders Act in 1959.
Experts say that the Habitual Offenders Act borrowed several provisions from the Criminal Tribes Act, and has been used by the police to target the erstwhile “criminal” tribes.
“Under the Habitual Offenders Act if a person is detained three times for a crime, police don’t need to follow normal criminal procedure to arrest him the fourth time if he is accused of a crime,” says scholar and social activist Ganesh Devy.
Devy claims that during riots or other incidents of communal disturbance when the police make preventive detentions of suspected troublemakers, members of the denotified tribes are the easiest targets.
“They have to detain goondas (unsocial elements) of the area during the time of social disturbance but we have seen that most of the detained people happen to be from the denotified communities,” Devy adds.
Devy says that at the lower levels of police training when recruits are taught about crime, the denotified tribes are cited as examples, which forms a certain perception in the minds of new police officers about these communities.
Shamim Modi, associate professor at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, says that although the Criminal Tribes Act was repealed, the police’s perception has not changed.
“The framework which was carrying the law is still intact. People of denotified community are being picked up from their houses and locked up on flimsy grounds. Police use the Habitual Offenders Act to proclaim a person habitual offender which restricts his freedom for life,” she says.
“Under the Act if you have committed a crime three times then your details are maintained in a register and you have to notify your presence on a monthly basis,” she adds.
Modi says that policemen often arrest and jail the members of these communities randomly and pressurise them to accept their culpability.
Once they are pronounced habitual offenders, the police can arrest them merely on suspicion.
Villagers near the Shamli area concur with the views of the experts. They narrate tales of the police exploiting their vulnerability to extort money from them to not charge them with any crime.
“Last year, a Bawaria took loan from a bank to open a fruit shop in the market. Within a few days of opening the shop he got abducted at night. Three days after the abduction, his relatives got a call from a Haryana police sub inspector saying that the person had been picked up by him and if they want to set him free they should give him eight tola, (around 90 gram) gold,” says Dhir Dhwaj.
The family recorded the conversation and handed it over to the policeman’s senior officers, which led to his suspension.
Like the Bawarias, other denotified tribes such as the Sansi, Pardhi, Kaal Beliya, Gadiya lohar and Bagariyas are also facing persecution from society and the police.
Experts say that since many of these community do not have any specific occupational skills, they are forced to wander from one place to another in search of work and food. This has prevented them from becoming part of the mainstream society.
Gurudtt, a Sansi community leader, says that in the absence of education and with few social and professional skills, the communities are being taken advantage of by the police.
“The irony is that on the one hand police accuse us of being criminal and on the other doesn’t let us break the shackles of this image. Some of the police officers even don’t let us stop making illicit liquor because that’s how they earn the extra bucks,” Gurudutt says.
Inder Bisht is a Delhi-based independent journalist.
Stay updated with all the insights.
Navigate news, 1 email day.
Subscribe to Qrius