Caged in Kanpur: how 'criminal' tribes are fighting to get their due
|16 SEPTEMBER 2015
· Some warrior tribes were allied to Rana Pratap in his battle of Haldighati with Akbar
· After his exile, the tribes moved further north into Uttar Pradesh
· They fought the British in the First War of Independence in 1857
· The British labelled them 'criminal' tribes and placed them in open jails in various locations
· They opted for SC status under Nehru, and were promised land by Indira Gandhi
· The CTS Basti is Kanpur is one such open jail where these tribes still live
· The UP govt is taking away the land given to them bit by bit
· The land still belongs to the govt, and hasn't been given to the tribes
· The govt says the tribes are misusing the land, and says it wants to build a hospital there
Ramesh Kumar Bhantu is in his sixties. He looks like the archetypal school teacher - he wears thick glasses and talks deliberately and didactically.
But he was never a school teacher. For decades, he worked at Kanpur's ordnance factory, which made parachutes for the Indian military.
Bhantu's personality and professional background defies his address. He was born, grew up and still lives in the Criminal Tribe Settlement, or CTS Basti, a colony meant for criminals, in the Kalyanpur neighbourhood of Kanpur.
Nothing about Bhantu's personality is a giveaway that his forefathers were criminals, and before that, warriors.
Rana Pratap's allies
Robby Sharma, a social activist in Kanpur who has chronicled the lives of people living in the CTS Basti, has found they have an interesting history.
"Their history begins with the battle of Haldighati that was fought between Akbar and Rana Pratap in the 16th century," he told Catch.
According to him, many tribes had joined Rana Pratap in his fight against the Mughal emperor. They remained loyal to Rana Pratap and moved with him when he was exiled from his kingdom.
When Rana Pratap died, the tribes got scattered and moved towards north India - what is now Uttar Pradesh.
Sharma says many kings and chieftains of north India were eager to have the tribes in their army as they were skilled warriors.
But they kept moving from place to place, as they had vowed they would never settle at one place till Rana Pratap had regained his kingdom.
The tribes were patriots and took up arms once again when Indians fought against the British in the country's First War of Independence in 1857.
As the British subdued the Indian forces and consolidated their position, their attention turned towards the tribes.
Sharma explains, "The British realised that the tribes were a menace for them. The tribes had fighting skills and could get united under their leader on a short notice. Hence to destroy the force of the tribes, they were declared criminals."
Isolation in open jails
In 1871 that the British passed the Criminal Tribe Act. There were six main tribes under the purview of this act, four of which were Solanki, Pawar, Dabi and Makwana.
"There were two more tribes but, after Rana Pratap died, they migrated to Europe and nothing is known about them at present," Sharma says.
The British restrained the tribes in forts in different places. Later, in 1922, the British decided to settle the tribes in open jails.
Places selected for the jails included Kanpur, Moradabad, Lakhimpur Kheri, Lucknow and Gorakhpur.
The warrior tribes were labelled 'criminal' by the British and kept in open jails like the CTS Basti
In Kanpur, the open jail was named the Criminal Tribe Settlement (CTS).
On one side of CTS flows the Ganges and on the other side is the GT Road, the highway that connects Delhi and Kolkata.
Covering 159 acres of land, CTS has agricultural fields, planned houses, schools, hostels and wide streets.
Sharma says, "The settlement gained notoriety as a colony of criminals. But the only crime of the tribes was that they had fought against the British. Even a child born in the settlement was branded a criminal. The tag of criminal stuck to him when he became an adult. Even today, the very name CTS evokes fear and hatred."
The settlement also came to be known as Habuda Basti. "People think Habuda is the name of a tribe. But the origin of Habuda is bura, the Hindi word which means bad. The British would say the tribesmen were bura and the name Habuda got coined." says Sharma.
Following age-old customs
Though the battle of Haldighati took place over four centuries back, the tribes still follow some of the customs they did back then.
Salina Devi, one of the inhabitants of Habuda Basti, says, "Women and girls, to avoid being kidnapped by the Mughal soldiers, disfigured their faces with tattoos. Even today, tattoos are common among the women and girls of the tribes."
Many branches of the tribes keep moving from place to place and live in tents.
While in exile along with Rana Pratap, the tribes would cook their dinner before sunset, as lighting fires in the night for cooking could have attracted Akbar's soldiers. Even today, many tribal families have dinner before sunset.
Muslims consider pigs as unclean. To keep Mughal soldiers away, the tribes would rear pigs and release them whenever they were attacked.
Once the tribes made swords and spears. But now they have switched on to making hoes, axes and trowels.
Wedding processions were often raided by Mughal soldiers. To evade the attack, the groom would carry the head of a slaughtered pig on his shoulder .
Under the British
Apart from homes, the open jail had facilities like a kindergarten, a school and a sewing school for women.
The British did not want the tribals to mingle with the locals even for last rites of the dead. Hence, the settlement had a graveyard as well in one corner.
The tribals earlier buried the dead, but now, like Hindus, have started burning the corpses.
Salina Devi is not sure of her age. "May be I am 50," she says.
It was her great grandmother who was first settled in CTS. She says, "I have heard from my mother and grandmother that the CTS during the British rule was well managed."
The creche and school had lock ups and people who did not send their children to school regularly were briefly imprisoned as punishment. Cleaners cleaned their toilets twice in a day. Wells were regularly sprayed with disinfectants.
The land provided by British in the settlement for agriculture was the main source of income for the tribes. The women also used to stitch police and army uniforms at the sewing school. Every morning, the men were taken to British-run factories as labourers.
Nehru and the SC/ST question
Around the time India was to gain independence, a delegation from CTS went to meet Jawaharlal Nehru.
Bhantu says Nehru promised the delegation that CTS residents would become free the day India had its own Constitution, which came into force on 26 January 1950.
"A delegation again went to meet Nehru. But he was wary of releasing people who had been branded as criminals. The delegation was able to make Nehru realise that even children born in the settlement, who were innocent and had committed no crime, were being branded as criminals.
After independence, the tribes opted to be classified as SCs, owing to a bigger reservation quota
"Nehru took up the matter and finally on 31 August 1952, we were declared free and denotified," says Bhantu.
According to Bhantu, Nehru asked the Centre's scheduled caste/scheduled tribe commission to suggest steps to assimilate people of CTS into the mainstream.
"Commission officials visited the settlement in Moradabad, as it was closest to Delhi. The CTS inhabitants were given a choice to declare themselves as scheduled caste or scheduled tribe. They were told scheduled castes had 18% reservation in government jobs and educational institutes while scheduled tribes had only 4%. The CTS inhabitants, lured by the 18% reservation, declared themselves as scheduled castes. That has become a bane for us," says Bhantu.
"Isn't it ridiculous that we were earlier notified as tribes but later declared as scheduled castes? Shouldn't the government have done some homework?" he asks.
Twenty years later, Indira Gandhi, as the Prime Minister, said that each family in CTS Kanpur was to be given one acre of land for agriculture.
"We were given the land but it was not entered against our names in the records of government departments, like the excise department or social welfare department. This despite the fact that we continued paying revenue for the crops we grew year-after-year," says Bhantu.
Legal battle for land
Sharma is now fighting a legal battle to see that the tribal people get their land.
"The inhabitants of CTS are vulnerable. Whenever the state government needs land, it usurps from CTS. The settlement initially covered 159 acres of land. But in the last 20 years or so, 30 acres has already been taken by the government. The state government had promised that those whose land was taken would be compensated. But years have passed and that has never happened," he says.
The state government now wants to build a hospital over an area of 25 acres in CTS, and has served eviction notice to many of its inhabitants.
Bhantu says, "Once we lived as nomads. But the British settled us. Then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi said we should be given land. Why does the state government want us to become nomads once again? Are we not citizens of India?"
Kanpur's district magistrate Roshan Jacob told Catch, "Land is being misused by the people in CTS. It was meant for agriculture but people are building houses or shops. The land is close to GT Road, hence very prized. Land sharks want to usurp it. The land belongs to the state government and we want to use it wisely. Hence, a hospital has been proposed at CTS, but a final decision is yet to be taken."
Righting past wrongs
Tej Bahadur Singh, head of the social science department at PPN College, Kanpur, says, "The government should take steps to see that the inhabitants of CTS join the mainstream. They are also Indians and there should be no discrimination against them. They have already been discriminated against for a long time."
Sharma says there is still much discrimination against the tribal people of CTS. He says, "They are yet to shed the tag of 'criminals'. Whenever a crime incident takes place in Kanpur, the needle of suspicion always points towards Habuda Basti."
He says the condition of the tribes in Kanpur was most pathetic. "The settlement in Kanpur was the biggest. Today, the population is around 10,000. The district administration claims it owns the land. It should be transferred to the inhabitants legally.
"CTS inhabitants in other places are pretty well off. For example, each CTS family in Moradabad has six acres of agriculture land."
The Central government's Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, in 2006, constituted a group to look into the condition of the tribes that were earlier declared criminal.
The group noted in its report, "As a way of some moral compensation to the community as a whole, the government may install at some selected locations having a substantial tribal population, memorials on the lines of war memorials.
"The memorials will be symbolic of public admission of the historical and collective injustice caused to these people for a century-and-a-half. The memorials will also serve the purpose of reminding the public of the collective responsibility of the state and the society to ensure that the atrocities are not perpetrated again."
Sharma says that's a distant dream.