The recent rape of a mother and daughter in UP has brought focus on these communities and their proclivity to crime
By Murad Ali Baig
People have been shocked by a recent report that a 35-year-old woman and her 13-year-old daughter were brutally gangraped in Bulandshahr district in UP. It now emerges that this gang had committed similar crimes on this highway earlier. The police now claim that it is the work of a criminal class of Bawarias living in the area.
Scheduled classes and castes have great political clout today, so it was not surprising that the political establishment reacted angrily when sociologist Ashis Nandy had earlier said that they were responsible for much of the corruption in India. These scheduled castes include numerous criminal tribes that had once been known for violence, theft and other anti-social behavior.
As it is politically incorrect today to speak of criminal tribes, we have almost forgotten that they once existed and may still form a large, though almost invisible, social stratum among a number of overlapping social layers. This might also explain why the system of law and order is sometimes so out of sync with ground realities and why India’s politicians and bureaucrats have been incapable of a clear response.
CRIMINAL TRIBES ACT
There used to be a Criminal Tribes Act of 1924 that had listed 313 nomadic and other communities (including some of the Ahir, Bangars, Bhanjaras, Bawarias, Bhattis, Gujjars, Jats, Lambadis, Kanjars, Meenas, Sansis, Vagharis, Yadhavs, etc.) Regulating their activities began with the suppression of Thugees in 1831 and was further elaborated in 1871 when 127 tribes were kept under constant police scrutiny. They were described as being “so habitually criminal” that their arrests were non-bailable. The British forcibly settled many of these mostly pastoral tribes about a century ago on virtual wastelands like the areas around Faridabad, Manesar and Greater Noida where new industries were to later find cheap land but had to sometimes also face serious violence in their industrial disputes.
These tribes and castes were then estimated to number 60 million or around 16 percent of India’s population, making them too large a number to be so ruthlessly suppressed. It is not a coincidence that many instances of rape and violence, including industrial violence, have routinely erupted in most of the areas close to where these tribes had been forcibly settled.
After Independence, the criminal tag was deleted to help them assimilate into India’s mainstream but laws and rules do not instantly change the social behavior or the habits of people. Vote-bank politics were to also give them considerable political muscle and further embolden their ambitions. Most Indians may be moral, ethical and religious but there is also a vicious strata that cannot be wished away.
The social values of many these communities as well as some of these clans of north India is also a subject that is seldom discussed. Several studies have not only shown their tendency to violence and intoxication but a terrible attitude towards women. While their mothers and wives were usually held in honor, any other woman is still considered to be open game for exploitation. In many tribal communities, marriage by capture had long been a normal custom and this automatically implied rape. How can such people be shocked by rape when young brides in some communities were routinely “deflowered” by their own fathers-in law or uncles? Why should we then be surprised that village “khaps” or panchayat courts should self-righteously uphold their mediaeval and often gender-hostile old customs? Young members may have had some education, but these do not instantly change their social conditioning.
Apart from the molestation of women, a cult of violence seeking instant justice or revenge has unfortunately been the stuff of many Indian films and TV shows and may have been especially appealing to socially unsettled people who have long been at the outer fringes of the law. As they had been virtually ostracized by the richer classes, they also had little compunction about stealing from them or molesting their women.
Over the past few decades, India has seen many millions of young villagers move from rural to urban areas. The lucky few got jobs in petty bureaucracy, property, trade, small businesses, driving taxis, cars, autos, trucks or buses and in the army and the police. The frustrated failures usually drifted into the criminalized underbelly of every town and indulged in violence, car thefts, bootlegging and rape whenever opportunity allowed.
As the police, who are supposed to control them, often come from the same village stock, it is not surprising that they are often unwilling or incapable of opposing their own village brothers whose social values they share. This problem needs to be recognized and fully understood before effective measures to solve them can be contemplated.
—The writer is a former columnist, India Today,
and author of a best-selling book on Dara Shikoh
Lead Illustration: Anthony Lawrence