‘My father is a thief’ read the tattoo on the arm of a child in the 1980s hit Bollywood film Deewar. In genuine Bollywood tradition, the child grows up to become Big B and then the obvious happens.

Imagine tattooing that message for hundreds of years, generation after generation, on millions of children. No, this is not a Deewar sequel, nor is it a plot of some xenophobic fiction. Tens of millions of children have suffered this fate in India, starting sometime in 1871. Unfortunately, Big B never turns up in real life. Sure, there have been heroes who have made a difference – we’ll come to that in a moment – but first the background.

In 1871, the British Government in India enacted the Criminal Tribes Act 1871 under which members of, what were then mostly nomadic tribes, were required to register with the local magistrate and report to the guardrooms several times in a day. The Act also gave broad powers to the local government to forcibly move these ‘notified’ tribes to ‘permanent reformatory settlements’.

Why? Former director of the Baroda-based Tribal Literature Project and noted tribal scholar G.N. Devi suggests that the story goes back to the early years of the colonial rule. “In those times, whoever opposed the British colonial expansion was perceived as a potential criminal. Particularly, if any attempts were made to oppose the government by the use of the arms, the charge of criminality was a certainty.” The other plausible theory is that after the 1857 rebellion, the colonial authorities grew nervous about nomadic people who moved around carrying important commodities such as salt and honey, and possibly carrying intelligence the British could not control.

Perhaps some form of ‘self-interest’ led the British to enact the Criminal Tribes Act. The more worrisome question is: why did the Government of independent India replace it by the ‘Habitual Offenders Act’ which preserved most of the provisions of the former Criminal Tribes Act? More than 50 years after independence, we still refer to these tribes as De-Notified Tribes (DNTs). They are still living with the tattoo on their forearm!

Police academies, I hear, still teach officers about the history of the so-called criminal tribes. No wonder, then, that members of these tribes are regularly rounded up for interrogation every time there is a petty crime in the neighborhood. Their children still fall under the needle of suspicion and get thrown out of schools on flimsiest and unsubstantiated accusations. Private enterprise and the public sector continues to refuse them jobs. They are prosecuted everyday by anyone who has the power to do so. Irrespective of the reason why the British branded them criminals, even today our society does not allow them access to an honest livelihood.

Recently I had the opportunity to spend a week with one such DNT called the Chharas in Ahmedabad, Gujarat. It was obvious to me that some of them participate in the brewing and distribution of illicit country liquor. Locals also confessed that some among them do indulge in petty crime. I also happened to meet someone who ‘proudly’ claimed to have whole-heartedly participated in the post-Godhra riots. But, what was obvious to me was that most people I talked to wanted a different future for their children. The children themselves expressed a desire to get educated and find a profession that offered some respectability. Doctor, pilot (the locality is adjacent to the airport, which may have something to do with this), lawyer, a police officer are the choices I heard repeatedly.

Will they make it? Will this generation break through? I am hopeful and this isn’t just wishful thinking. My hope is based on the changes I witnessed during my visit, changes caused by the good work of Jnanpeeth-Magsaysay award winner Mahasweta Devi, and the Denotified and Nomadic Tribes-Rights Action Group (DNT-RAG).

In Charranagar, a suburb of Ahmedabad, the breakthrough is being made possible by a partnership between the NGO Sneh-Prayas, Budhan Theater Group, and the few locals who have managed to access the mainstream. They manage an informal evening school that is bustling with activity until late at night. Older kids teach the younger ones and help them with homework. A library of mostly recycled books is at hand for those in need of a textbook or desirous of reading some fiction.

In an ironic yet appropriate twist, the Sneh-Prayas outreach centre recently moved into a larger building, which until recently was just another illicit-liquor brewing factory! The rent the owners get will keep them away from the trade, says Keshav Kumar, the trustee of the NGO. He has ambitious plans for this new space. He wants to set up a training centre that will help the locals find economic sustainability outside of their ‘traditional craft’. He also has plans for informal education and vocational education for locals.

One of the first initiatives for technology-driven informal education is taking shape now. The first Hole-in-the-Wall project was commissioned in Chharanagar recently (the reason why I was there)*. At this centre, children will learn to use computers and use computers to learn. This will also be a test-bed to study the relationship between collaborative, informal learning and the perceptions and achievement motivation of Chhara children. Children in the age group of eight to fourteen will be tracked for their formal academic performance in school, their self-esteem, achievement motivation and their perceptions about education, learning, computers, careers…

If some of these experiments and initiatives do succeed, as I hope they will, then it would be nothing short of a miracle. A generation would throw away 150 years of baggage and find their place under the sun!

– Ajay Jaiman

*The author visited Charranagar on the invitation of Sneh-Prayas, a Ahmedabad based NGO, which funds informal schooling and educational support for the students of Chharanagar, and works with Budhan Theatre to sensitize the Police Authorities of Gujarat.

First published on March 26, 2006