A population of some 60 million “denotified tribes” can be found throughout India today. Since 1998, Budhan Theatre has performed street plays to raise awareness about the condition of such tribes. Their goal is to demonstrate that Chharas are not “born criminals,” they are humans with real emotions, capacities, and aspirations.
The so-called denotified tribes of India are among the lasting victims of British imperialism. Originally “notified” by the government as criminals in 1871, the DNTs should have enjoyed the freedom of independence that came to the rest of India’s people in 1947. Instead, they have languished as the most handicapped community in the nation, with health, literacy, and employment levels far below the average.
The British labeled them criminals because they pursued a nomadic way of life. The nomadic tribes traditionally carried important commodities such as salt and honey between the coasts and the inland forests. The British relied on these networks to establish their own trading relationships and to guide their armies through unknown regions. Indeed, these traders and transporters of goods were crucial informants for the new rulers, who benefited from tribal knowledge of flora and fauna, transportation and communication.
As railways and telegraphs were built in the 1850s such networks became redundant. The colonial authorities grew nervous about people who moved around, carrying intelligence they could not control directly. In the aftermath of the Revolt of 1857 these former allies were seen as potential enemies. In 1871, an Act was passed for “the notification of criminal tribes.” Hundreds of tribes that traditionally collected food from the forest and entertained on the streets became criminals with the stroke of a pen. When they could not be forcibly settled, they were sometimes shot on sight. Those who were settled were subjected to a pass system to control their movements and were rehabilitated through rigorous labor.
These criminal tribes were properly de-notified in 1952 after India’s independence. But they were reclassified as “habitual offenders” in 1959. The stigma of the criminal label still follows them to this day. Many laws and regulations in various states prohibit certain communities of people from traveling; others must still register at police stations in the districts they pass through. This close association with authority makes nomadic tribes especially liable to suspicion when crimes actually occur. The percentage of DNTs in custody and under investigation is greatly disproportionate to their population.