Identity, Performance and the State: India's Denotified Tribes over Independence


In 1871 the colonial government in India officially defined 192 ethnic communities as ‘Criminal Tribes’ – groups considered to be ‘hereditary’ criminals. In consequence, these communities were subject to collective penal and ‘rehabilitative’ measures that included increased surveillance, forced resettlement and employment that the government deemed productive. After independence, they were reclassified as ‘Denotified Tribes’ (DNTs) in 1952.  However, through both formal legislation such as the 'Habitual Offenders Act', and informal measures these tribes continued to be subject to the state's special penal scrutiny, and were defined more broadly as social pariahs.  

This project combines historical research with film documentary, to produce a subject-driven textual history and related film output, directed by a leading DNT film-maker, that explores DNT experiences of India’s changing state and constitutional structures.  The project explores the changing practices of community mobilisation among two communities – the Chharas (or Kanjars) based in Ahmedabad, and the Pardhis based in Mumbai.  It will examine the implications for these two communities of the process of denotification, which had a variable effect on the range of ‘criminal tribe’ groups, the continued use of police surveillance and enforced settlement, registration and rehabilitation.  It also explores the effects of new definitions of ‘habitual’ criminality; the changing processes of language formation and social stigma through the late colonial and early independence period.  It will explore these themes partly to examine how concepts of habitual criminality related to older colonial notions of biological determinism, labour, movement, and pan-European/Asian nomadic communities.  Finally, it will look at how community strategies since independence have been geared towards the larger project of promoting a special reservation list in civil service employment and political representation among disadvantaged castes and tribes.  Currently, denotified tribes do not enjoy a separate list of reservations, but some communities are included within other Scheduled caste categories.  This therefore cuts across a larger ‘denotified’ strategy, but allows certain local groups to lobby for ethnic representation.  This theme relates very closely to my long-standing research on the relationship between ethnic (caste) mobilisation and political corruption in India over the late colonial and early independence period.