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The Missing 10 Per Cent

Pragati K.B.

The De-notifoed and Nomadic tribal communities are among the most persecuted, marginalised and dispossessed communities in the country. In the photo, a group of whip-lash performers in front of the Tirupparankundram Murugan temple in Madurai during a temple fair.

Dharmadorai walks into his settlement, tugging at a festooned bull. On his shoulder slings his collection bag and in the crook of his arm rests a big book. On that book is an illustration of a boy in a white lab coat, a beaker in hand, and an ongoing chemical experiment in the background. Practical Record Book, the letters read. Dharmadorai had to buy seven books for school and his father, Pandi, gave him Rs. 500, insufficient for the seventh book. “I went with the bull for 5 km and made a collection of Rs. 200. I bought this book with that money,” he says, handing over some change to Pandi. Dharmadorai is a student of class 10 in Government High School, Sakkimangalam in Madurai. He wants to be a Collector when he grows up.


Dharmadorai with the nodding bull

Dharmadorai is from the Boom Boom Mattukaran nomadic tribal community, called Perumal Mattukaran in north Tamil nadu, who go from house to house with their bulls, fortune-telling and singing devotional songs in return for alms. Pandi earns between Rs. 200 and Rs. 400 per day like this. “I make a profit of Rs. 4000 per month,” he says, after accounting for the upkeep of his bull. His daughter Rajeshwari was the first “12th-pass girl student among Boom Boom Mattukarans”.


Pandi, Dharmadorai’s father

Around 15 km away, in Sannathipudukulam in Kalainagar, 11 families of the Street Circus community live in a settlement of temporary tents. The settlement does not have toilets or electricity connection. For water, “totti iruku, motor-ku current ille” (There is a tank but no electricity for a motor to pump water). They source their drinking water from 4 km away.


Families in the Sannathipudukulam settlement take turns wheeling drinking water every morning

19-year-old Tayamma is in class 12 and is the first in the community to finish schooling, leaders say. Tayamma wants to “learn computer in college.” Her parents, though, are not optimistic. “Colleges are not safe for girls from communities like ours. Our children are bullied and discriminated against in school as ‘circus podarva iva’ (he is a circus performer). It will be worse in college. Moreover, who will offer her admission? And even if she gets into a college, how will we pay for it?” In the same settlement is Jaya, 6, who wants to attend a nearby English-medium school instead of the Tamil school she studies in. She shows me a Tamil pamphlet with pictures of modern classrooms and computers. “I also want to go to this school,” she says shyly from behind her pregnant mother. 


Tayamma’s settlement in Sannathipudukulam

Hamsavalli, 28, has three children. “I was married off when I was 16 years old. I am not educated. Fortune-telling is how I make a living. But this work should end with my generation. That’s why I send all my children to school,” she says. She lives in a settlement of 200 people from the Gudugudupandi community in JJ Nagar in Madurai. They are a soothsaying community, who cover 10 km or 55 houses per day. “We get some food and a handful of foodgrains at these houses. Some give us a rupee or two,” Hamsavalli says. Everyday, she leaves her house at 8 am and returns by 4 pm. “I work according to my children’s school hours. So, I am around when they come back.” 


Hamsavalli with her son

Other households in the settlement have different arrangements to care for the children and ensure uninterrupted schooling, given that their vocation and trade mandates a peripatetic lifestyle – one family or relative stays behind in the settlement while the others travel, for months, for livelihood.

R. Maharaja, 31, and his family comprising his wife and 7-year-old son, from the Dommara or Street Circus community, live in his bandi in Manamadurai in Sivaganga district. It is the same bandi or makeshift caravan that he and his wife Gouri retire in for the night during their travelling months. 


Maharaja and his wife Gouri retire for the night in this bandi while travelling for work

“My wife and I leave in our bandi in the morning. We reach Tirupattur, which is the first village from here, and seek permission from the village thalaivar (head) to pitch our bandi in the outskirts and put on our show within the village. We also request electricity connection for our loudspeaker and mic.” If they are permitted, they go around the village making announcements about their performance – the where and when. They usually start at 4 pm; perform circus stunts for an hour and “record dance” (freestyle dance to pre-recorded music) for the second hour. “Tips” are then given and donations made by onlookers. 

“If it rains or if the police interrupt our act, we make no collection that day,” Gouri says. The next day, they drive their bandi to the next village and the routine is repeated. “We travel for almost a year like this before returning,” says Maharaja. What of their son Manimaran’s school? “One year my brother’s family stays back and looks after the children, sometimes my uncle’s,” he says, echoing the arrangement devised by the above JJ Nagar community.


Gouri performing stunts with fire

Among the most persecuted

According to the Idate Commission report, there are over 15 crore De-Notified and Nomadic tribal persons in the country, accounting to about 10% of the Indian population. They are among the most persecuted, marginalised and dispossessed communities in the country, politically, economically and socially. In at least four places, the Report mentions how this number is a rough estimate since there has been no formal enumeration to give us concrete data. The National Commission for De-Notified, Nomadic and Semi-Nomadic Tribes was formed in 2015 for three years with the task of studying, identifying and enlisting these communities. Under the chairmanship of Bhiku Ramji Idate, the Commission report was submitted in 2017. Earlier efforts were made in 2003 and 2005. The latter culminated in the Renke Commission Report (2008), which used data from the 1931 Census to peg the number of De-Notified Tribal communities (DNTs) at 334 and Nomadic Tribal communities (NTs) at 809.

The DNTs are communities that were branded criminal by the Criminal Tribes Act, 1871 during the colonial rule. What was restricted in application to Punjab and the North-West province was, by a subsequent legislation in 1911, extended to the whole nation. Entire groups were attributed hereditary criminality under this, mandating registration and attendance in police stations. Members belonging to these communities were regularly rounded-up upon mere suspicion of having committed an offence and given severe and prolonged sentences. While the experience of associating crime with the nomadic way of life in their home country is seen as the reason for this colonial treatment, their misconceived and confused notions of caste-class-tribes exacerbated the mistrust of these communities – if India followed the caste system wherein occupations were generationally followed, then criminality or the proclivity to commit crimes, too, must be passed down. Social circumstances and an individual’s agency were, of course, disregarded in this formulation.


There are over 15 crore De-Notified and Nomadic tribal persons in the country, accounting to about 10% of the Indian population. In the photo, Narikuruvar men and women selling trinkets near the Meenakshi Amman temple in Madurai

Lost traditional rights, livelihood

Owing to forest-protection laws enacted to meet the growing need for resources to fuel development projects both within the colonies and outside, a lot of these communities lost their traditional rights like grazing and hunting and gathering. For basic survival and sustenance, they were frequently found breaking these laws. The colonial enterprise of “civilising” and settling the population to aid in better state-subject control further oppressed them, by barring their nomadic way of life. They – fortune-tellers, street-performers, snake-charmers, trinkets-sellers, traditional healers, tightrope-walkers, nodding bull-handlers – lost their livelihood, for it depended on mobility and seeking new audience and customers. Post-colonial India too has time and again legislated similar laws, like the Wildlife Protection Act, Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act and Prevention of Beggary Act, that have led to dispossession and persecution.


Parrot astrologer or kili josiyam practising on GH Road in Madurai

The Criminal Tribes Act was repealed in 1952 by independent India, de-notifying these communities from the “born criminals” list. Hence the nomenclature De-Notified Tribes. However, the Habitual Offenders Act, enacted by various States soon after, followed similar registration and surveillance procedures; the difference now being that individuals and not whole communities were targeted by the police. Despite their altered legal status, the stigma stuck on. “If something is lost in a village we are passing through, we are the first to be blamed. Theft of poultry, jewellery, clothes – anything and everything – we are held culprits and imprisoned, beaten up and humiliated,” Maharaja says. “They live in a constant state of fear. Police atrocities and mob lynchings are a common occurrence,” says R. Maheswari, secretary of TENT (The Empowerment Centre of Nomads and Tribes) Society, Madurai, an NGO working for the communities’ rights. The Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act has accorded legal protection to Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST) from discrimination and violence. No such constitutional and legal safeguard exists for the vulnerable groups of DNTs and NTs, despite various Commissions and Reports advocating for it.

“We stay dirty to repel harassers”

Since the occupations of these communities are public in nature – performed using their bodies in public spaces for an interactive audience – it puts women in vulnerable situations. “Touch my hand,” men have told Hamsavalli when she is palm-reading. “We put on makeup and colourful clothes while performing. Men see that as an invitation. We get touched inappropriately, get catcalled, and are asked for our ‘rates’,” says Rukmini, 37, a street-circus performer. “Men from the village enter our tents in the night and lie down beside us,” Selvi, 66, adds. “We stay dirty to repel such harassers. We don’t comb our hair, bathe or wear clean clothes. And yet, the miscreants are not dissuaded.” 

Girls from these communities are married off at an early age, Maheswari explains, in the hope that her husband’s presence will keep her safe. “Besides, if something goes wrong [alluding to sexual assaults, rapes and pregnancies], she will be ostracised even within the community with no marriage prospects,” Selvi says.

Do they complain to the police about the sexual harassment? “They pay no heed to our complaints,” Rukmini says. “The men we complain against feel offended and in turn file false theft cases against us, which the police act upon, locking us up and thrashing us.” These women, thus, are disadvantaged in ways unique and different from other marginalised women due to the interplay of misogyny and persecution based on history, occupation and identity.

Prejudice against the communities hurts them in other ways too. Pandi’s settlement in Sakkimangalam houses 47 families or about 250 people. 12 of these families have any semblance of permanent housing, while the rest live in tents. They are a target of thefts from miscreants from neighbouring villages. “These outsiders come here and create a ruckus. When they are short on money for alcohol and drugs, they steal from our houses,” Pandi says. Dilapidated and flimsy structures make them vulnerable to these thefts. “Bulbs, cooking utensils, bicycles, poultry – we have lost so much to thefts.” They keep dogs to guard their homes. But, they have been fed “chicken mixed with poison” by the thieves and killed in the past. “Whether we are nomads migrating from village to village or settle in one place, there is no safety for us,” Pandi’s daughter says. “They know the police will not trust us and act on our complaints and this emboldens them.” 


Pandi’s settlement in Sakkimangalam

Crisis of identity

To this matrix is added another crisis, the crisis of identity of DNTs and NTs. By the time these communities were de-notified in 1952, States had drawn-up their lists of SC and ST, used to determine the beneficiaries of affirmative action and welfare benefits. This led to a non-uniform categorisation across States. Hemraj P. Jangir, a researcher with the Indian Institute of Dalit Studies, Delhi, explains with an example: The Nats, a nomadic tribe, are classified as SC in Rajasthan and Bihar, as ST in Uttar Pradesh and as Other Backward Class (OBC) in Karnataka and Gujarat. “These categories determine not just their reservation benefits but also their social status. Because they have been listed under the SC category in Rajasthan, they are perceived as Dalits, adding another dimension – caste – to their persecution. The community’s demand is to be listed under ST because they are a tribe,” he says. On what basis do States make these classifications? “That is a question I have tried to answer in my PhD thesis and failed to find a uniform, rational explanation to.”

The Idate report mentions 269 communities that have simply not been enumerated till date under any category (SC, ST or OBC) at all. The Anthropological Survey of India (AnSI) and Tribal Research Institutes in Odisha, Gujarat and Kerala were tasked with conducting ethnographic studies and categorising the communities by the end of 2022. The Parliamentary Panel on Social Justice and Empowerment, in a report, flagged the delay in the process in the Winter Session of the Parliament. “Delay in locating them would increase their suffering and they would not be able to get benefit of the prevailing schemes meant for the welfare of SC/STs,” the report said. In reply, the Department of Social Justice and Empowerment said the AnSI had submitted categorisation study reports on 48 communities. SEED (Scheme for Economic Empowerment of DNTs was launched in February last year by the Centre, with an allocation of Rs. 200 crores, to be spent over 5 years, on education, housing support, health insurance and livelihood initiatives. According to a report in The Hindu, over 5,400 applications were received as on December 26 to avail these benefits, but none have been approved owing to this delayed categorisation exercise.

Five characteristics are studied while classifying a community as a tribe, Jakka Parthasarathy, former director of Tribal Research Centre, Ooty, says. These criteria are taken from the recommendations of the Lokur Committee Report (1965) – primitive traits, distinct culture, geographical isolation, shyness of contact with the community at large and backwardness. “The definitions of each have been modified and adapted over time.” Anthropologists, through their ethnography, help the States in categorising DNTs, NTs and semi-nomadic tribes into ST category. “But this has become a political topic, used to appease groups during elections,” he says. Citing the example of Banjaras, Parthasarathy recounts that they were classified as OBC in Tamil Nadu, owing to their lack of strong leadership and scanty number. “In Andhra Pradesh and Telangana however, they agitated to be included in the STs list.” Infighting among communities within a category in a State and lobbying efforts by their leaders, too, influences these decisions. In an article in EPW, Pradeep Ramavath illustrates that Karnataka has compressed 52% of its OBC population, 18% of SC and 7% of ST within the 50% reservation quota. Further, the 18% SC quota is shared among 101 communities, creating conflict amongst them, each vying for a bigger share by butting the others out. 

Community Certificate, a conduit for social justice

Even as the categorisation debates make snail-paced policy-level progress, the ground reality is that the DNTs and NTs struggle to obtain any documentation owing to their migratory existence. “A Community Certificate for them is not a mere category-identifying paper, but a human rights-realising instrument. It is their conduit for social justice and for ensuring political, social and economic inclusion, undoing decades of wrongs,” says B. Ari Babu, Assistant Professor at The American College, Madurai, and founder of ‘Buffoon’, a non-commercial YouTube channel that documented the hardships faced by marginalised groups in Tamil Nadu during the pandemic and its lockdowns. “Our children don’t stand a chance without reservation in education and jobs. It is unfair to expect us to thrive amidst you without support,” says Pandi. 

TENT Society has been helping the communities in Tamil Nadu obtain Community Certificates. “All but two settlements, one in Burma Colony and the other in Nattarasankottai, both in Sivagangai, now have category certificates,” Maheswari says. Other identity documents like voter’s id and Aadhaar card too have slowly been obtained. R. Supramani, in Jaya and Tayamma’s settlement, showing his EPIC sighed: “I voted in these elections [2021 Tamil Nadu State Legislative Assembly elections] for the first time in 60 years.”

Hamsavalli’s son was sick when I visited their settlement last. “Children here are always sick. The doctor says ‘eat healthy, children need nutrition for energy and immunity’. I can only afford to feed them gruel made from ration rice and rasam daily.” They would earlier hunt bats, squirrels and mongooses for food. “That was our source of nutrition. But now it is illegal. We will be jailed,” adds Valli, Hamsavalli’s neighbour. (Photo 18: Valli, in front of her tent) The Havanur Commission Report (1975) called the DNTs and NTs “extremely backward”, more so than all SC and ST communities. Sparse political representation, if at all, and the lack of a unifying movement or leadership, has left them deprived of welfare benefits, and bereft of a voice to push their demands.

Separate welfare departments in every State, exclusively for DNTs and NTs, to devise and implement government schemes can mitigate their exclusion, Maheswari says. To draw up schemes though, the government needs reliable qualitative and quantitative demographic data. An all-India Caste Census, of which the last publicly-available data is from 1931, can provide these figures. The government has not released the data from the exercise conducted in 2011 and in September 2021, the Union government ruled out the possibility of a Socio-Economic Caste Census during the 2021 Census enumeration (pushed to 2022 due to COVID-19) process.

“Surveyors visit us, ask some questions and list us under whatever category they please,” says 82-year-old Yellappan. His community, the Chaatai community or whip-lashing community, has been enumerated as Sembanand Maravars under the Most Backward Classes (MBC) list in Tamil Nadu. “We are not a coastal, fishing community. Why are we being identified as Sembanand Maravars?” he asks. For 32 years, he has been fighting for his community to be enumerated as Sholagas under the ST list. The government is now willing to accord them SC status as Gosangi, Maheswari says. “We are not Gosangis either. We are Sholagas,” Yellappan is defiant. “They ask for proof. We are here and living. Isn’t that proof enough? Aadhaara ante aadhaara. Yellinda tarli aadhaara?” (Where shall I get the proof from?) 


An edited version of the article was first published in People’s Archive of Rural India (PARI) on 24 March, 2022. Read the story here

The article was published with support from Asia Pacific Forum on Women Law and Development (APWLD).


Pragati K.B. is a freelance journalist, currently pursuing a master’s in Social Anthropology at the University of Oxford.

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