From historic stigma to present prejudice, we take a deep dive into how media shapes public perceptions and reinforces discrimination against denotified tribes, despite their legal emancipation
Denotified tribes in India have long grappled with the burden of stigma. This is evident to this day in the manner in which they are portrayed in the media. The shadow of criminality cast upon them has hindered their social integration, access to education, and economic opportunities. Despite their de-notification, the deep-rooted stereotypes continue to shape public perceptions, perpetuating discrimination and exclusion. Today, we try and unmask how this group, a minority within the minorities is portrayed in news and visual media in the most abhorrent of ways.
A Brief History
India gained independence on August 15, 1947, marking a pivotal historical moment. However, this newfound freedom did not immediately reach all segments of the population, and many continued to endure oppression. It took nearly five years post-independence for these marginalized communities to achieve legal emancipation.
On August 31, 1952, the Indian Parliament repealed the oppressive Criminal Tribes Act. This legislation had unjustly branded around 200 nomadic, semi-nomadic, and tribal communities, encompassing men, women, and children, as ‘hereditary criminals addicted to the commission of non-bailable offenses.’
While primarily aimed at tribal communities, the act also violated the rights of transgender and gender non-conforming communities in India. On that significant day, individuals from these communities, previously stigmatized as ‘born criminals,’ were officially ‘denotified.’ This event is now celebrated as Vimukta Diwas by the Denotified tribes (Vimukta Jatis).
While most denotified tribes (DNTs) fall under Scheduled Castes (SC), Scheduled Tribes (ST), and Other Backward Classes (OBC), some DNTs do not neatly fit into any of these categories.
The Denotified Tribes Act 1952 aimed to dismantle the oppressive generational labeling of communities as ‘criminals by birth.’ However, the repeal of this legislation did not immediately eradicate the deeply entrenched prejudices against them. The Criminal Tribes Act was succeeded by the Habitual Offenders Act, which, as the name implies, perpetuated the same oppressive beliefs, further stigmatizing these marginalized communities.
Notably, certain postcolonial historians, anthropologists, and scholars have attributed many of the subcontinent’s injustices to colonial rule, often depicting the “criminal tribe” legislation as a ‘presumptive colonial stereotype.’
Social anthropologist and senior lecturer at King’s College, London, Anastasia Piliavsky effectively challenges this historical misperception. Correcting this historiographical error, she asserts, “Colonial officers did employ the concept of ‘criminal tribes’ for their purposes, but this stereotype was neither novel nor exclusively their domain. Ancient Hindu treatises, Mughal rulers, European travelers in precolonial India, and itinerant groups all drew upon the notion of hereditary robber tribes to further their exploitative agendas.”
Throughout India’s enduring history, the caste system has remained a defining feature. The Varna system, characterized by discriminatory practices and exploitation, created a rigid hierarchical structure that marginalized those placed at the bottom and even excluded some (referred to as Avarnas) from the social and political mainstream. This deeply ingrained system provided the foundation upon which the British formulated the oppressive Criminal Tribes Act of 1871.
Sudama Rathore, a Ph.D. research scholar from the Laman Banjara tribe in Maharashtra, sheds light on the pervasive stereotypes that persist against Denotified Nomadic Tribes in various sectors, including the police, media, society, and even within the judiciary. He emphatically states, “Every member of this community is deemed a criminal from birth, and this stigma endures throughout their lives.”
During a lecture on Vimukta Diwas last year, Justice Ravindra S Bhat addressed the plight of NT-DNTs, recounting the tragic loss of many lives due to their classification as ‘habitual offenders.’
Chuni Kotwal, the first woman graduate from the Lodha Sabar community, tragically ended her life in 1992 due to relentless caste-based harassment in the workplace. In 1987, Dilip Ghosale, a member of the Pardhi community, was arrested in a dacoity case, subjected to fatal police brutality, and clandestinely buried. Budhan Sabar, belonging to the Kheria-Sabar community in West Bengal, fell victim to custodial abuse in 1997. Jalan, also from the Pardhi community, endured humiliation, including being stripped, merely for lacking a cash memo in 1998. Pinya Hari Kale, another member of the Pardhi community, lost his life in police custody in 1998. In 2017, Indira Malbai, hailing from the Pardhi community, succumbed to police violence.
Indian Media’s Insensitive Reporting Concerning DNT
- Bulandshahr gangrape, 2016
Bawaria, a nomadic group from Rajasthan and denotified tribes, have spread to UP, Haryana, Punjab, and Uttarakhand. Originally associated with Rajput clans, they were regarded as hunters during the British Raj.
In context to the Bulanshahr rape case, rather than focusing on the incident and the perpetrators, it was a case in which the entire mainstream media focused their light on the Bawaria clan as a whole, probably for the “spice” that it adds to the stories.
India Today reports five men allegedly linked to UP’s infamous Bawariya gang. Times of India mentions that three accused individuals, Mohammed Shahvez, Raes Ahmad, and Jabar Singh, have ties to the “Bawaria Gang” led by Samir Bawaria. Police investigations focused on this gang, resulting in the arrest of three members. Zee News covered the case with headlines like “How Bawaria gang planned and executed Bulandshahr gangrape” and “Five members of notorious Bawaria gang arrested.”
The India Today article especially takes the cake when it comes to not reporting news as it is and rather focusing on narratives and sensationalizing the news by further victimizing the Bawariyas. They go on to include a long list of things that the Bawariya employ as part of their “tainted crime trail”.
It’s crucial to differentiate between a community and a criminal gang. Accusing a small group of criminals, as the police did, should not reflect on the entire tribe. The lead person has the surname ‘Bawariya,’ but there’s no proof that he and the other accused are actually from the Bawaria tribe. Members of the Bawariya community disputed the police’s claim, stating that Saleem, the main accused, is a Muslim while Bawariyas are Hindus. Puran Singh, a former Army officer, also affirmed that ‘Bawariyas are hardcore Hindus.’
To me, it seems like a prejudicial rush to conclude.
Adding fuel to the fire, Kiran Bedi, a prominent ex-IPS officer and then lieutenant governor of Puducherry, took to Twitter to publicly denounce the entire population of the denotified tribes.
Realizing her irresponsible stigmatization of a community, she soon expressed regret stating ‘her views meant ill to no one’.
How Stigmatization by Media Influences People, Courts
- Dhule lynchings, 2018
The influence of media in the minds of people can never be overstated. That is precisely why the media needs to have a higher level of responsibility and accountability. The constant denouncement of members belonging to the de-notified tribes resulted in the 2018 Dhule lynching.
It was a case of 3,500-plus villagers who killed five agricultural laborers on the suspicion of their being ‘child-lifters’. The men- Raju Bhonsle, Dadarao Bhonsle, Bharat Bhonsle, Bharat Malve, and Agnu Ingole- all belonged to the Nath Panthi Davari Gosavi nomadic tribe. They came from their village to Dhule to beg for alms and food grain- as per their community’s custom.
The state of Maharashtra recorded 14 incidents of mob lynching and vigilante justice in the same year. Similar incidents have been reported from the states of Assam, Tripura, Jharkhand, Gujarat, Karnataka, and Tamil Nadu regularly. By only delving a little deeper, we find the targets have always either been migrants, mentally challenged people nomadic and denotified tribes, or other vulnerable sections of society. The mobs, seemingly, are influenced and infuriated by social media messages and videos.
Kalpana Ingole, who lost her son, brother, son-in-law, and his brother in the same incident asks, “How could they kill my son without finding out anything about him? Why didn’t they stop to think before killing my brother?” She reiterates, “If they had asked, my son had all his papers to show them. He had his Aadhar Card too. Why did they do this?”
- Ankush Maruti Shinde . vs State Of Maharashtra, 2019
Six men hailing from “nomadic tribes”-Ankush Maruti Shinde, Rajya Appa Shinde, Ambadas Laxman Shinde, Raju Mhasu Shinde, Bapu Appa Shinde, and Suresh Shinde were convicted and their death sentence was confirmed by the apex court on the charges of murder and rape of a ‘minor’. After a full 16 years, they were all acquitted as the Supreme Court found glitches in the prosecution case and all of the convicted members were acquitted with a compensatory remuneration of Rs 5 lakhs each. Ordering a reinvestigation, SC pulled up the state police for botching up the case, holding the investigation process “unfair and dishonest”.
The initial arrests and convictions happened in 2006. In 2012, The Times of India published a piece ‘Not just age, consider the seriousness of crime’ raising concerns regarding Juvenile Justice. Criminal lawyer and special public prosecutor Rohini Salian is quoted saying, “Children today mature at an early age, a result of the over-exposure to the television and the internet. It’s time the law was overhauled to deal severely with cases of juveniles who commit heinous crimes.”
She further stresses the need to check if the juvenile accused of a crime was mature and knowingly committed it, or is a ‘habitual’ offender. It referred to Ankush Maruti Shinde, one of the convicts and a juvenile in the above-mentioned case. It reflects Salian’s misplaced trust in logic that ‘someone who commits repeated offenses has the inherent tendency or propensity for crime’ which was the bedrock idea behind the Habitual Offenders Act.
- False police cases against DNTs in Tamil Nadu, 2022
Madurai-based non-profit organization, The People’s Organisation for People Education (POPE) has urged the Tamil Nadu government to act against unfair discrimination and false filing of cases against people belonging to denotified tribes. Acc. to their research, a total of 549 cases were registered against 30 people hailing from districts Thanjavur, Kallakurichi, Cuddalore, and Puducherry. The accused were discharged in 262 cases, there were convictions only in 38 while the rest went under trial. The report suggested efforts towards sensitization against derogatory behavior against people of denotified tribes.
Given this, it is important to touch upon the influence of movies and their portrayal of denotified tribes in crimes.
In 2017, ‘Theeran Athigaram Onru,’ a film written and directed by H. Vinoth, claimed to be inspired by real events from the Operation Bawaria case. This case involved criminal activities by dacoits and their eventual capture by the Tamil Nadu police. After the film’s release, the ‘Denotified Tribes Welfare Association (DTWA)’ petitioned the district collector to halt the movie’s screening, alleging that it portrayed denotified tribes negatively and demanded the removal of objectionable scenes. Karthi, a renowned Tamil actor who played the lead role, made derogatory statements about various communities, labeling them as criminal tribes.
The DTWA members expressed their hurt at the film’s derogatory depiction of criminal tribes in India and asserted that it had not been based on accurate historical records and facts. They sent representations to the CBFC, director H. Vinoth, producer S R Prabhu of Dream Warrior Pictures Ltd., and distributor Reliance Entertainment, urging the removal of objectionable content from the movie.
Gayatri Jayaraman pointed out that the film exploited these disparities to fuel an ‘us-versus-them’ sentiment, depicting outsiders as villains and thugs. This led to a climate of fear among nomadic tribes across the country, causing them to avoid going out, risking starvation, and pushing many to a single meal a day and indebtedness.
Caste Equations in Newsrooms
The article titled ‘Indian media wants Dalit news but not Dalit reporters,’ published by Al Jazeera on June 2, 2017, explores the issue of diversity and caste discrimination in journalism education, particularly at the Asian College of Journalism (ACJ). The author, Sudipto Mandal, an investigative journalist, and former ACJ graduate, delves into a ‘secret’ diversity project at the institute. Mandal highlights that the majority of students in premier English-medium journalism institutes in India come from upper-caste backgrounds, forming influential alumni networks.
The article reveals that news of caste-based scholarships for Dalit and Adivasi students at ACJ had surfaced, leading to outrage among upper-caste students who sought to identify these scholarship recipients, often referring to them as “freeloaders.” In an institute of 190 students, only six were Dalits, and one was Adivasi, making them a minority among a heavily Savarna (upper-caste) student body. The article sheds light on the challenges faced by Dalit and Adivasi students in pursuing journalism education and the prevailing caste-based discrimination within the field.
It is vague to make comparisons between the perils of different marginalized communities but it’s hard to disagree when Sudipto says “There are still more openly queer people in English journalism than people who admit to being Dalit. Indian journalism is so mind-numbing upper-caste that the mere act of ‘coming out’ by journalist Yashica Dutt was hailed as a milestone.”
The lack of diversity in newsrooms contributes to a lack of diversity in views and perceptions of the varied sections of society, especially ones in the minority who lack a voice of their own. A survey by Oxfam revealed that out of the 121 leadership positions in the newsroom, including that of editor-in-chief, managing director, executive editor, bureau chief, and input/output editor- across the newspapers, TV news channels, news websites, and magazines, none was occupied by a person belonging to Scheduled Caste (SC), Scheduled Tribes (ST) or other backward class (OBC) communities.
The word Vimukta in Vimukta Diwas symbolizes liberation. Every year DNTs across the country celebrate Vimukti Diwas or Liberation Day. Dakxin, the filmmaker, is also the national convenor of DNT Adhikar Manch, said they want the government to officially declare 31st August as Vimukti Diwas. “We don’t want any holiday and disturb the government’s work. But recognizing this day will mean recognizing our dignity,” he said.
Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie highlights the power of stereotypes in her TED talk “Dangers of a Single Story”. “Stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and malign. But stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of people. But stories can also repair that broken dignity.”
The thoughts and opinions expressed in this are those of the author and not necessarily WeThePress.