Orientalist critique can sometimes seem like an intellectual game of “gotcha,” but for India’s Denotified and Nomadic Tribes (DNTs), orientalist colonial policies, and the regimes of knowledge upon which they were built, are a very real burden which informs nearly every aspect of their daily life. The stigma of criminality that prevents, for example, someone with a masters degree in English literature from finding a job as a schoolteacher, or makes it imperative for a professional photographer to carry his camera receipts with him so he can prove he bought his own camera, or makes DNTs afraid to talk in their own language when traveling by train, are a direct result of colonial practices.
When doing research last summer in the British colonial archives I read numerous colonial ethnographies of the so-called “Criminal Tribes” (as DNTs were then known). Many were written by policemen, and the information in them was written for the express purpose of identifying such criminals. Gunthorpe’s 1882. Notes on Criminal Tribes Residing in, or Frequenting the Bombay Presidency, Berar and the Central Provinces, Lemarchand’s 1915, A Guide to Criminal Tribes, and, also from 1915, Naidu’s The History of Railway Thieves : With Illustrations & Hints on Detection are all in many ways the same book with slight variations. They freely stole from each other and the style was essentially the same. Numerous other such guides were circulated among the various colonial agencies.
They are like bird watching guides, identifying common habits and markings which will help you spot a criminal among the crowds. From Lemarchand:
Bhampta: Working in lots of three. Often disguise themselves as Marwadi or Hindu traiders, Lingayats, Jangam, Brahmans or shepherds. They are sometimes seen as minstrels, Sanadikorwas or Dakkhani Bhats. They are most commonly met with as Marathas. When posing as Gosains they add the suffix “das” to their names.
Barwar: Accompanied by women who pose as Brahmains and keep their faces veiled.
Sanoria: Gang consists of 2 to 15 or 20. Never accompanied by women.
Chandravedi: Gang comprises 10 or 20 half men, half boys. They alwasys work with a boy between 8 and 12 years of age called the “Chawa”, the man being styled Upaidar. They work by signs and secret vocabulary.
Some of the information was gathered from the confessions of convicts, but much of it seems to have been the result of embellishments and variations of previous works (“remixing” might be a polite way of describing it). A fair amount has been written about such colonial practices, but it wasn’t until I immersed myself in descriptions of which tribe ate jackal meat and which did not and which community’s women were faithful to their men (with each book contradicting the previous one) that I became aware of the true absurdity of this literature.
What is really shocking is just how little has changed a hundred years later. I was motivated to write this post when I stumbled upon this 1999 article from the Indian Express News Service:
The Modus Operandi branch of the police force, which works under the DCB, based on the evidence and eyewitness accounts can thus exactly point out the gang involved in the crime, sometimes even making it possible to identify gang members based on information provided and previous records.
Among the main gangs active in South Gujarat are the Chaddi Banian Dhari, Dafer, Kevat, Waghris, Bawaris, Nats, Sansis, Shikliyar, Jhaver Thutho, Chharras and other gangs. Police records made available to Express Newsline list distinguishing features of various gangs that help the police identify and track them down.
For example, the Bawari gang is known to camp at railway stations before striking. They use the `rumali’ method, where they bend grills of houses to force their way inside. Other gangs like the Dafers and Chaddi Banian Dharis survey possible targets by posing as beggars, vendors and the like. Dafers are known to possess firearms but use these only when challenged. The Chaddi Banian Dhari gang, as the name suggests, are dressed in shorts and banians and have their faces masked. They strike only on highways and of late, have been known to raid houses on the outskirts of cities and towns. The Shikliyars are known to manufacture country made firearms and sell these to gangs with whom they are connected.
Of course, the continuation of these practices requires explanation. There is no reason the past must necessarily burden the present. A proper critique cannot be content at simply pointing out the crimes of the past, but must also ask why colonial practices are still so prevalent in modern India. (It would also be interesting to compare this to other forms of “racial profiling.”) Still, pointing to these continuities is at least a start.