Dichotomies of Categorisation of Denotified Tribes: Reflections from Karnataka

Historically, Karnataka has made a bold attempt to include various castes, races, tribes while creating its unified scheduled caste category. Around 101 communities, including denotified, nomadic and semi-nomadic tribes, were included in the existing Scheduled Caste list along with “ex-untouchable” communities. The diversity of castes, tribes, and races included in the Scheduled Caste list created various challenges to public policy interventions related to the provision of reservation in politics, employment, and educational opportunities. This article traces the complex journey of inclusion of denotified tribes to the Scheduled Caste list through a colonial and postcolonial policy narrative and its challenges. 

The endeavour to explain the criminalisation of thousands of indigenous communities such as itinerant Banjaras, Bhovis, Korachas, is a complex phenomenon. It poses numerous challenges for the identification and defining of denotified tribes (DNTs) in the larger context of Scheduled Caste (SC) and Scheduled Tribe (ST) categorisation in Karnataka. 

A dominant historical approach begins with the narration from the imposition of the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871 (CTA) and its impact on these indigenous tribal groups through colonial rule and governance. The history of CTA 1871 gets the immediate attention of policymakers, being a dominant marker of oppression. Hence, the processes related to the mobility of DNTs are modelled by the approach of relief, rehabilitation, resettlement, limited reservation, and welfare measures implemented through the public administration apparatus guided by the constitutional mechanisms. 

With the above reductionist processes, the fault lines between the centre and states become prominent in identifying the constitutional category of DNTs in different territorial, geographical regions within Karnataka. The centre tries to dictate by bringing uniformity in identification markers while states attempt to present diverse, heterogeneous storylines through their future political estimations. Karnataka, after Maharashtra, has the highest number of notified tribes (NTs) and DNTs in the country. There are instances where some communities are classified as SCs (Banjara, Dombara, Koracha, and Bhovi), STs (Bhill, Phardhi, Hakki, and Pikki) and Other Backward Classes (OBCs) (Bairagi, Jogi, Kanjari, Natt, and Gujar). Further, some of them have not been recognised in any of the above categories. This article attempts to understand the complex narrative of bringing DNTs into the SC category and the policy challenges created by such an organisation in Karnataka. 

Compressed Reservation Quotas

The context of Karnataka is unique where all dominant landed castes, including Vokkaligas and Lingayats, are entitled with some percentage of reservation and are sub-categorised as OBCs. The state compressed 52% of OBCs, 18% SCs, 7% STs within the limit of 50% reservation quota benefit. Further, 15% of the SC quota is shared between 101 communities and creates a conflictual situation where each sub-caste group starts infighting, thinking that few have received more benefits than others. The SC categorisation in Karnataka has a list of castes, races, and tribes in its ambit. There were no consistent criteria for Scheduled Caste categorisation. Also, there was no list of “untouchables” prepared at any time, so far as old Mysore was concerned. The phrase “depressed classes” was used during 1919, while formulating the policies by the then government of the Maharaja of Mysore to encourage marginalised communities to access primary education. The government at that time found that educational backwardness was the leading cause for social and economic backwardness. Then Maharaja decided that socially backward communities must be encouraged through providing access to education by giving scholarships and other special facilities. 

In this context, the term “depressed classes” has been defined to include several communities to award depressed class scholarships. The same list was continued to grant agricultural lands to these depressed classes later on. Intending to secure uniformity in both aspects, that is, scholarship and land grants, the government defined “depressed classes” to include Adi Karnataka, Adi Dravida, Banjara, Voddar, Korachar, Kormar, Hill Tribes and Animists. The process of bringing DNTs in the category of SCs started way back during 1919 by creating a category of “depressed classes,” where some efforts were made to create markers of backwardness through educational attainment in order to equalise the context of “untouchability,” “criminal stigma” and various forms of subhuman conditions including vagrancy. 

The Government of India Act was passed in 1935, and so far as the British Provinces were concerned, a uniform policy was needed, and separate provisions were made in the Government of India Act of 1935 regarding the depressed classes. The castes, races, or tribes, previously called depressed classes in British provinces, were renamed SCs. Thus, in the context of Mysore, the SCs meant “such castes races or tribes or parts of or groups within, castes, or tribes, being castes, races tribes or groups which appear to His Majesty in council to correspond to the classes of persons formerly known as the ‘depressed classes,’ as his Majesty in Council may specify.” Thus “the depressed class” list was carried forward with the exclusion of forest-dwelling primitive tribes and listed them into the category of “STs” during the formative stages of the constitution. Thus, the SC list in existence in Karnataka  is an imagined class incorporating the following (Ramavath 2018): 

i.  Untouchable service castes such as Madigas, Holeya, Dhor, Bandi, etc,
ii. with the language and geographical identities attached such as Adi Karnataka (Holeyas and Madigas), Adi Andhra, etc, 
iii. with the status of officiating priestly status such as Holeya Dasari and Budga Jangama,
iv. who are mendicants such as Chennadasara
v. who practice acrobats such as Dombar, Sindholl
vi. who carry out ritual dance to appease spirits such as Pambada (Bhuta Kola)
vii. who perform puppetry such as Sillekyathas
viii. Untouchable begging castes such as Dakkaliga
ix. Begging communities emerging from burial grounds such as Sudugadu Sidda
x. Denotified tribes such as Banjaras, Bhovi, Ganti Chores, Koracha, etc,  
xi. Hunter and gatherers such Kalladi, Moger; 
xii. Pig rearers such as HandiJogis
xiii. Snake charmers such as Kuruvan
xiv. Semi-nomadic fisherfolk such as Maila, Mukri

After the reorganisation of Karnataka through incorporating the princely states of Mysore, Bombay province, Hyderabad–Karnataka Region, Coorg, etc, geographical (area) restriction was removed and a unified list of SC was prepared. The DNTs in Mysore province, such as Bhovi, Korama, Banjara, and Koracha, were labelled as SCs during the 1950's Presidential list. A series of conferences of DNT communities were organised from the 1950s onwards to promise special constitutional status on par with STs and extend all required benefits. 

The tallest leaders of the time offered apologies to these communities for the historical injustice done to them. In Karnataka, the official declaration made by the then social welfare minister, N Rachaiah at Raibag, Belgaum district during 1958 to include DNTs into ST list and further promise by Devaraj Urs in 1971, the then President, Mysore Pradesh Congress Committee, for the inclusion of ex-criminal tribes under Article 342 is worth noting. Before this, the Kaka Kalelkar Commission remarked about the extreme backwardness faced by the DNTs. Mysore backward classes committees appointed during 1960 acknowledged them as “backward” in its interim report and mentioned them as “more backward” in its final report.

L G Havanur Commission and DNTs of Karnataka

Justice L G Havanur Commission Report of 1975 acknowledges that these DNTs are far more backward than some of the castes and tribes included by the President in the schedules under Articles 341 and 342. Justice Gajendragadkar noted in the Balaji case that the OBCs are similar to SCs and STs in the manner of their backwardness. The begging tribes, the wandering tribes, and criminal tribes that have been specified separately are far more backward than some of the SCs and STs notified by the President under Articles 341 and 342. He further remarked that the "NTs and DNTs are halfway to untouchability and semi-inarticulate. They suffer from the stigma of criminality and begging. There are no members of the village panchayats, municipal councils, and cooperatives belonging to these tribes. The majority of members of these tribes are not even voters at any elections." The Justice Havanur Commission made a critical policy note about the plight of these communities in its final report (Havanur 1975). He mentions that the commissioner for SCs and STs indicated the situation of these communities as “extremely backward” in almost all his reports but did not create many provisions under Articles 15(4) and 16(4).

Justice L G Havanur Commission Report (Havanur 1975) was seen as a watershed for deciding the future of the politically dominant DNTs such as Banjaras and Bhovis. Two members from the DNT Banjara community were Y Rupla Naik, an IAS officer, who worked as member secretary to the commission, and L R Naik, a member of the Mandal Commission of inquiry, who tried to integrate the learnings from the L G Havanur report into Mandal Commission report. This journey of L R Naik finally ends with him writing a dissent note, as Mandal refused to accept the creation of two separate lists of OBCs as suggested by L R Naik. In essence, it is essential to note that the Havanur Commission report (Havanur 1975) was seen as a prelude to the Mandal Commission report (Madal 1980), in terms of bringing hope to DNTs at the national level. Later, the Renke Commission (2008) and Idate Commission (2017) made important policy suggestions, including creating separate schedules and permanent commissions for denotified, nomadic, and semi-nomadic communities with a prominent leader of the community's chairperson. 

On the other hand, over the years, the integration of DNTs into SC categorisation in Karnataka has created heightened conflicts between DNTs and untouchable communities such as Madiga and its sub-castes. They are demanding to exclude four DNT communities such as Banjara, Bhovi, Koracha, and Korama from the SC list. This type of intolerance is still in the nascent stage in Karnataka amongst different SC communities. SC communities have made constant efforts to misunderstand each other's identities; for example, there has been an expression of “touchable SCs” used in recent policy texts to connote NT–DNT communities amongst the unified SC category. This led to a complete misunderstanding of the conditions of these historically deprived communities who suffer from the stigma of criminality. There is a tendency to equate these “depressed classes” with other “touchable caste Hindus” and demand their removal from SC categorisation. 

Developments through  A J Sadashiva Commission Report

There has been classification suggested based on the criteria of “touchability” and “untouchability” in Justice A J Sadashiva Commission report of 2006. The argument has been advanced using the logic of “upper-caste touchable community.” This made the commission identify communities such as Bhovi, Koracha, Korama and Banjaras as touchables and forgot the historical stigma that these communities carried (for example, they were known as criminal tribes, outsiders, wanderers, plunderers, uncivilised communities, unclean communities, etc), Justice Sadashiva had stated that the reservation distribution for the left-hand community of the untouchables had been at 6% as they comprised 33.47% of the population, 5% for the right hand, which had 32% of the population, 3% for the touchable who is 23.47% of the population, 1% for the others who were 4.65% of the population. This would have been an agreeable composition from all sections of SCs with persuasion and negotiations through social, legal, constitutional methodologies if these recommendations were placed before the cabinet and brought to public discussion soon after submitting the report to the chief minister. 

The government at that time, soon after receiving the report, indulged in propaganda as assembly elections were approaching. The ruling governments told the Madiga community that they would implement this report without delay, and in meetings with “touchable SC community members,” they proclaimed that they would make efforts to quash the report. This made them consolidate both “touchable” and “'untouchable” SC votes in their favour. The successive governments and political parties have followed similar methodologies. It has almost been a decade since the submission of the report, and the report is not available in the public domain. 

Conclusions and the Way Forward

The unified list of SCs prepared after 1950 incorporating historically marginalised DNTs seemed like a culmination of debate on who should be part of the SC list. Though DNTs were listed in the class of SCs, they have historically lived separately, and there was hardly any social intercourse between these communities except gathering during few village festivals and limited exchange of food. Further, there has been a “superiority complex” between and among these groups, justifying their higher positions based on Jati Puranas. Thus, the SC unification process by incorporating DNTs has not resulted in any form of united identity.

 The practice of untouchability, criminal stigma, and sociocultural isolation made these SC communities live in their habitations and ghettos secluded from other forward castes. The only space where they met and expressed their fraternity was in the SC categorisation list and to a minimal extent during the inception stage of the Dalit movement of the 1970s and 1980s. The reservation issue for DNTs in the SC category has created various challenges such as excluding them from the SC list itself. This issue cannot be resolved through the expert-led commissions of enquiries and instead requires a multipronged approach. 

An all-India level “caste census” is the first step towards such a process. The central government needs to initiate the process of Caste Census, which was stopped after 1931. This requires coordination between the Registrar General of India (RGI), state governments, and local self-government. The enumeration also needs to consider changing socio-economic situations DNTs and integrate qualitative methodologies to understand the developmental experiences of the communities to appraise the situation. An in-depth sociological, economical, educational enumeration of microscopic DNT communities needs to be carried out through marginalised communities' active participation. This is the first step towards their 'self-determination'; till now, we have carried out community studies and surveys without the participation of the affected communities. 

Experiences of Talasamudaayagala Adhyayana Kendra (Centre for the Study of Marginalised Communities) of National Law School of India University (NLSIU) where microscopic DNT communities such as Sindhollu, Korama, Koracha, Dakkaliga have demonstrated how one can integrate the community knowledge, perspectives in the policy formulation process and make more inclusive, relevant policy suggestions. Community-oriented studies relating to educational, economic, and social status need to be complemented from lived experiences, and issue-based studies such as a study on new forms of untouchability practices, criminal stigmas, devadasi system, bonded labour system, disappearing occupations, the practise of manual scavenging, selling of girl children, etc, among the DNT communities. 

The fragmentation on the lines of only statistics, indices, numbers will be misleading. What is required is the careful examination of each DNT community through the “intersectionality approach.” The state needs to focus on enhancing the capabilities of community members, such as providing quality primary education, improved livelihood, employment opportunities, and housing and health care to all DNT communities. We can look for available models around us, ensuring dignity and making community members more empowered. Telangana Social Welfare Residential School Society is a good model for emulation in Karnataka. We also need to revisit the idea of a separate electorate as proposed by B R Ambedkar for these marginalised groups. This could be a more significant step towards “self-determination.” Also, in a majoritarian democracy, we need to assure microscopic DNT communities participate at different levels of governance. 


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