Kiran Bedi really should have known better.

When I first started meeting and writing about denotified and nomadic tribes – DNTs, once-called “criminal tribes” – I wanted to speak to a few police officers about them. Someone introduced me to Ashok Kamte, the officer who, some years later, was shot dead during 26/11. While telling him what I was interested in, I used the words “ex-criminal tribes”.

Kamte interrupted. “You should not call them that,” he said, apparently unwilling to even mouth the phrase. He went on: “They should never have been called criminal in the first place, you know. In my police training, we were told not to use that word.”

Suitably chastened, I switched to “DNTs” for the rest of our conversation (and ever since).

The history here is simple, if galling. In 1871, our British colonial masters put on the books the Criminal Tribes Act. By name, the Act listed about 150 tribes around this country, thus defining them (“notifying” them) as criminal. Stop a moment to think of the implication here. If you belonged to one of those tribes, you were a criminal. The day you were born into one of those tribes, you became a criminal.

The CT Act stayed on our books through the rest of Britain’s rule over us. The result was not just that the law was used against them, which it was, and with brutal effect. It was also that members of these tribes were viewed with a great deal of suspicion and prejudice. It was also that they were described in terms that seem hardly believable today.

'Sneaking gait'

The Bombay Presidency Gazette of 1880, for example, had these remarks about one such tribe, the Phase Pardhis: “They are still fond of hunting and poaching and have not got rid of their turn for thieving. … [They are] nearly always ragged and dirty, walking with a sneaking gait.” Four years later, the Gazette called Phase Pardhis a “low, unsettled tribe … a strong, hot-tempered and cruel people” who are “under the eye of the police and are a depressed people.” In a 1932 book, another British writer called these tribes “absolutely the scum, the flotsam and jetsam of Indian life, of no more regard than the beasts of the field”.

What would you think if you read a description of modern-day Jains –or Syrian Christians, or Iyengars, or speakers of Haryanvi, or any community you choose – that described them as “ragged and dirty”, “low and unsettled”, “walking with a sneaking gait”? That said they were “scum” and “beasts of the field”? That pronounced them unable to “get rid of their turn for thieving”? That used such prejudices to justify treating them as criminals from birth?

Astonishingly, it took independent India five years to get rid of the perverse CT Act. When we repealed it in 1952, these tribes were “denotified”, and that’s why they are called that today. That’s the word Kamte used for them; that’s the word he urged me to use as well.

You’d think the 60-plus years since 1952 would be enough to allow the notion of “criminal” tribes to fade, deservedly, into unlamented history. Except that there are still plenty among us who hold on to the law’s pernicious legacy – the suspicion and prejudice.

Custodial deaths

Now it would be bad enough if these were just ordinary citizens I mean. But enough policemen also look at these tribes this way. Which means they inevitably focus on these tribes when crimes happen on their watch, which means members of these tribes are routinely arrested, beaten, tortured and even killed in custody. This is how a Pardhi named Pinya Hari Kale died in Baramati in June 1998; this is how a Kheria Sabar named Budhan Sabar died in Purulia in February 1998.

To pick just two cases of plenty.

None of this bothered the sub-inspector I met in Satara District who said of denotified tribes that it was “their culture” (yes, he actually used the word “sanskriti”) to be criminal and thus he was “forced” to use “degree-vagairah” (you know, that “third-degree” stuff) on them. Another had this intriguing take, unwittingly bringing to mind those deaths in custody: “It is the habit of Pardhis to endanger their lives in thieving.” And yet there’s no real evidence that they are disproportionately involved in Indian crime – not in British times, not today.

And then there’s Pondicherry Lieutenant Governor Kiran Bedi, celebrated ex-police officer and nearly chief minister of Delhi. On August 1, she had this to say:

As you can see, Bedi’s language could have been lifted straight from those Gazettes of over 130 years vintage. Just like Bedi, those long-forgotten British writers called these people “cruel”; and what really is the difference, anyway, between “have not got rid of their turn for thieving” and “hardcore professionals in committing crimes”?

I like to think Bedi’s late colleague in the police, Ashok Kamte, would have interrupted her tweeting like he interrupted me, to say: “You should not call them that.”

You should not, Ms Bedi. You really should have known better.

Dilip D'Souza is the author of several book, including Branded by Law: Looking at India's Denotified Tribes.