August 31 is a very important day in the history of India we have yet to recognise.

Today crores of Indians belonging to the De-Notified Tribes celebrate Vimukti Divas, their day of independence from the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871, which classified their families as criminals, until its repeal by independent India in 1952.

There will be few celebrations today amidst the pandemic, but the day is an occasion to ask why, nearly three generations later, these people remain the poorest of the poor, and we continue to push them to the margins of India’s development.

Although they will not be marking the day with the usual sports and cultural events, people from the De-Notified Tribes (DNTs) have decided to air their demands for equitable inclusion in the process of development.

“We are using the occasion to send across a strong message to political leaders to include our demands in their manifestos for the forthcoming Bihar assembly elections,” Mohammad Kalam Nat from Araria told The Citizen.

“Can you imagine, while there are 19 DNTs in Bihar, four of them do not figure in the caste list? Those still not recognised include tribes like the Banbadiya, whose members still survive by begging in the villages, and also the Gilhara, whose prime vocation even today remains hunting and rearing livestock.

“There are around 10 lakh voters belonging to the different DNTs in Bihar,” said Nat. Some four crore votes were cast in the 2015 election.

The point is elaborated by Bharat Vitkar of Pune, who belongs to the Waddar community of Maharashtra and Karnataka whose members are primarily engaged in stone quarrying work and digging:

“I am not talking about my community alone, but on behalf of all DNTs. We still have no voice despite several decades of the country being independent. We will manage everything like livelihood, education and housing, but the most basic thing we need is a constitutional safeguard, just like the Schedule Castes and Tribes.

“There have been commissions which put our population at some 15 crore, but we continue to be unidentified. The government will have to first conduct a survey to find out how many DNTs there are in India, and then move forward, towards bringing them into the mainstream,” said Vitkar.

Activists from DNT communities and others working with them say that society continues to impose the ‘criminal’ tag on them, and to ostracize them. The stigma is not allowed to lift, and they remain at the lowest rungs. Many incidents can be listed to show this.

The treatment meted out to members of the Sansi community in Punjab is one such example. In my initial days as a reporter working the crime beat in Chandigarh more than two-and-half decades ago, I was witness to police officers picking up Sansis whenever there was a theft, and perpetrating the treatment reserved for hardened criminals.

Just two years ago, a large number of cops went on the rampage in the Chharanagar area of Ahmedabad, targeting Chhara families and homes, damaging dozens of vehicles, breaking into homes and assaulting the residents including women and children. The cops took this course of action, instead of taking the legal route of registering a case against somebody, as though all the Chharas were at fault.

Activists say that members of the DNTs are always threatened with the risk of lynching, because the state and society label them “habitual offenders”, and they remain poor and largely illiterate. Vitkar further explained:

“The Covid-19 lockdown unleashed misery on the DNTs because they could not migrate and earn their livelihoods. With no assets or cash in hand, a very large number of them were at the receiving end, unable to understand why this was happening to them.

“There was a lot of harassment by the Police. Lives have been lost because of a lack of resources required to survive. There have also been suicides.”

According to Ahmedabad based social activist Harinesh Pandya, who works with the community of Dafers,

“The biggest issue with the DNTs is that of social inclusion. The Dafers continue to migrate from one village to another and are mostly in the profession of providing security to the farmlands, mainly in Saurashtra and north Gujarat.

“No village is ready to give them land to settle down. They remain dependent on farmers and if the farmer is unable to get profits on farm produce, the Dafers do not get paid in full, and have to make do with the small advance paid to them. With hardly any cash on them, they still have to resort to hunting wild cats and Neelgai etc.

“The treatment they get is pitiable. While DNTs like the Chuvaliya Kolis have achieved social inclusion to some extent, with its members working in saltpans, the Dafers continue to be marginalised.”

Some 15 years ago working for an international radio station I interviewed an old Dafer woman where she shared how she was not being allowed to fetch water from a public tap. “I am told to fill water last of all because of my community, and by the time my turn comes the water supply is shut.” This was her biggest predicament in life.

There are 12 DNTs and 18 nomadic tribes in Gujarat alone. Social and cultural activist Dakxin Chhara emphasises that

“The prime issue for all these tribes is development through constitutional safeguards. We have been seeking 7% reservation within the 27% given to the Other Backward Castes. The reservation benefits given to the DNTs in Maharashtra demonstrate how there has been a change in their lives socially, politically and economically.

“The budgetary allocation for DNTs in the state has to be increased, with the focus on education and employment. DNT members must get land to build their houses and keep livestock. The government must give at least two milch animals to every family.

“An example is that of the Gond tribals in Karnataka where the government has taken steps in this direction. There is no point in just constituting Commissions. The recommendations of these Commissions need to be implemented.”

This year members of Gujarati De-Notified Tribes have decided to write to the state government to officially declare August 31 Vimukti Divas. The word means getting rid of, being freed.