Caste-based discrimination in India was enshrined in law in 1871 by the British colonial authorities when they enacted the Criminal Tribes Act which designated several nomadic and indigenous communities as “hereditary criminals” – criminals by birth, enforced by the institution of police. Although this law was repealed in 1952, the devastating stain of crime for these “Denotified Tribes” (DNTs or “Vimukta‘) has persisted through vague laws and caste-based policing. Lawyer and social entrepreneur Nikita Sonavane co-founded the Criminal law and police accountability project in Bhopal, India, to end the criminal justice system’s disproportionate attack on oppressed caste communities. Angelou Ezeilo from Ashoka sat down with Nikita to find out more.
Angelou Ezeilo: Nikita, your initiative, which aims to increase the transparency of policing, challenges some long-standing forms of discrimination in India. Can you give us a brief overview of your country’s caste system?
Nikita Sonavane: dr. BR Ambedkar, the founder of our constitution, called it a system of gradual inequality. In this system, occupation is assigned by birth. First, there are the Brahmins, the intellectual class; then the Kshatriyas, the warrior caste; than the Vaishyas, the merchant class. At the bottom are the Shudras, the “subordinate” workers. And then, of course, there are communities that fall outside the caste system, such as the Denotified Tribes, who as criminal by birth. Once you are born into a caste group, you are only allowed to associate with people who belong to that caste. Any form of mixing is an offence.
Ezeilo: Thank you for that, Nikita. As an African-American woman, it’s hard for me not to draw parallels between the laws criminalizing certain tribes in India and the Jim Crow laws of the American South — and in both cases, police discrimination has continued long after those laws have been withdrawn. What inspired you to do this work? Because it’s not a pleasant job to do.
Sonavane: No not at all. But for me, doing this work is a way of understanding my lived experience. I belong to a community known as the Dalits, or “untouchables.” I remember working on a project during law school that mapped the socioeconomic profiles of death row inmates in India and saw that most of these people were Dalits. I got curious: Why do only certain types of people end up on death row? Why is a certain group of people disproportionately stuck?
Ezeilo: This idea of hereditary crime is very disturbing, but we see it playing out in both our communities. Tell me, how do the police get to your work?
sonavan: The police are the first point of contact in the criminal justice system. They decide who gets arrested and who goes to jail. So I was very interested in how and why they exercised these discretionary powers.
To zoom out for a moment, a recurring criticism of the Indian criminal justice system is that it is a colonial body. It is a critique that has enabled us to put the British at the root of the problem. But it is clear that the story predates the British. The caste system, which existed long before they arrived, was the fertile ground on which they built their discriminatory justice system and the institution of police work.
Many are now calling for police reforms. But if we look at the origins of the police, we see that the standard procedure is to maintain the caste hierarchy by keeping the ‘lower castes’ in place. So to me it’s absurd to talk about reforming the police without talking about dismantling the caste system.
Ezeilo: So many parallels with the US Now I’m really interested in your focus on women in marginalized communities and the danger they face in police custody. Please talk to me about this term, “custodial rape”.
sonavan: Indian law defined ‘custodial rape’ as sexual assault committed in police custody by police personnel in the early 1980s. The term originated when two police officers raped an underage girl from a tribal community (also known as “Adivasi”) while she was in custody. Of course the Supreme Court acquitted them.
I’m immediately drawn to a parallel, Angelou, from your context: the way black feminists first challenged the idea of a monolithic “femininity.” Here we fight to show that women who belong to tribal communities experience violence as tribal women, not just women. For example, when denominated tribal women become victims of police brutality, it is alleged that they are lying to cover up the crime they have committed. Seeing these women as ‘criminal’ is a way to hide or even excuse the harm done to them, in a way that would never happen to women of higher caste.
Ezeilo: Nikita, can you tell us how great technology seems to amplify this system of caste discrimination?
sonavan: It happens in the US criminal justice system too, right? The police are building these massive databases, digitizing the criminal records of various people and pushing for predictive policing that will determine who is more likely to commit a crime. To say that technology is going to make the police neutral is a complete hoax, because police bias doesn’t just happen on an individual level. It’s structural. And technology just digitizes that.
Ezeilo: Right, it speeds up a flawed system. Nikita, tell us why your organization supports the legal education of two students from the Denotified community.
sonavan: Having lawyers from our own community is very important to us. From our background, we are able to see the law as a product of the society in which it is formulated, and not as the kind of objective tool that many see it. So educating community students who have been silenced in the past is one way to make their voices heard in the justice system. They will be able to take a system that has violated them for so long and use it to pursue justice.
Ezeilo: Can you share a recent case you have worked on and the role members of the Denotified tribes have played in leading change?
sonavan: A recent case we worked on was a 14-year-old child from a Denoted Tribal Community who was targeted by the police, and we were able to acquit him. Community members were present at every step, documenting the time he was illegally detained and subjected to torture, and social workers helping him cope with the trauma of incarceration. It has been a very affirming experience for us.
Ezeilo: Thank you very much for that work. But before we go, I would like to ask, what gives you the energy to carry on with the work? What brings you joy?
sonavan: I don’t want my community to be seen only as victims of oppression. dr. Ambedkar, a very important voice in the struggle of oppressed castes, said this is ultimately a struggle for us to reclaim our humanity. And seeing our people who keep space for each other pushing each other to live such a well-rounded existence gives me immense joy.
This interview has been shortened for length and clarity.
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