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Nikita Sonavane on Vimuktas, policing and casteism

Nikita Sonavane
Nikita Sonavane

During the colonial period, the British introduced the Criminal Tribes Act in India in 1871, which criminalised several nomadic tribes and branded them as ‘hereditary criminals’. Though the act was repealed post independence in 1952, the persecution of Denotified Tribes (DNTs) and the stigma around their criminality still continues. 

Criminal Justice and Police Accountability Project or CPA Project is an initiative working towards making the criminal justice system more accountable and questioning the persecution of the DNTs and other marginalised communities at the hands of police.

The CPA Project is an initiative started by lawyers and researchers Nikita Sonavane and Ameya Bokil, who are based in Bhopal. It aims to hold the criminal justice system accountable and reform lawyering practices. The CPA Project provides legal representation to people belonging to the DNTs and other marginalised identities. They also undertake research to understand how various laws and amendments have been implemented to target these communities. 

I got a chance to speak with the co-founder of CPA Project, Nikita Sonavane, who talked about the institutional changes needed in the criminal justice system and the project’s role in bringing about these changes. The interview has been edited for clarity.

Sana Irshad: What is the CPA Project? And who is involved in it?

Nikita Sonavane: The CPA Project is a research and litigation-based intervention into the police targeting of marginalised communities called the Vimukta jatis, also known as Denotified Tribes (DNTs). These communities were criminalised by the British. The narrative was that these communities were criminal by birth. 

They were criminalised under the Criminal Tribes Act which was repealed in 1952 but the criminalisation still continues through various laws and provisions and largely by terming these people as ‘habitual offenders’. So we are working around this issue in Madhya Pradesh, more specifically in Bhopal, through providing legal representation to people from the communities and through research around the targeting of these communities. 

There is very little data available around the targeting of the DNTs or Vimuktas because they do not form a separate administrative category, unlike Scheduled Castes (STs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs). They are spread over all administrative categories as there were several kinds of communities that were classified as DNTs, some were nomadic tribes, some semi-nomadic. It is difficult to identify the targeting of these particular communities but the history and stigma of criminalisation remains. 

The project was co-founded by Ameya Bokil and I in 2020. Right now we are a team of three full-time and one part-time employees, and several interns. We actively not only hire full-time workers but part-time workers and interns from various Bahujan communities too.

Irshad: How does the CPA Project work to hold the criminal justice system accountable?

Sonavane: We are the critique of the law and criminal justice system and its colonial history. We are locating this institution within the caste structure and arguing that their system is the repository of the caste structure, and the rationale of who needs to be targeted and who needs to be controlled by police is derived from the caste system. The idea that certain communities are criminal by birth and therefore need to be controlled by the police is drawn from the caste system and we are trying to draw attention towards it through empirical research.

We conducted a study during the lockdown last year titled ‘Counter Mapping Pandemic Policing: A Study of Sanctioned Violence in Madhya Pradesh’, where we looked at what kind of people were arrested by the police during the pandemic and also for what kind of offences. We studied the First Information Reports (FIRs) and various arrest data from 10 districts of Madhya Pradesh to highlight how this policing was happening. 

Unsurprisingly, it largely consisted of people from STs, SCs, OBCs [Other Backward Classes], Muslims and Vimukta communities. Most of them were essential service providers and pedestrians working on roads without masks and they were all charged for petty offences for which arrest was not even mandated by law, and were thrown into prison at a time when pandemic was raging and it was absolutely risky for them to be in the prisons. The Supreme Court had also taken note of it, saying we need to decongest prisons as Indian prisons are one of the most overcrowded ones in the world. So our work was showing who the people were whom the police were arresting and how the prison population increased during this period. 

Police also have a lot of discretionary power so we are trying to draw attention to how this discretionary power is being exercised in a casteist manner. Police as an institution has been designed to surveil, maintain and control certain sections of society who are from the marginalised backgrounds. And the research that we have done has also been a part of litigation in the Madhya Pradesh High Court and the Supreme Court, where we not only show that the law has been violated but people from marginalised communities are being targeted. 

Irshad: How did the idea of this project take shape?

Sonavane: Before the CPA Project, we were already working with these communities in Bhopal and it became quite apparent to us that there was a need for concerted legal intervention into these questions. In the Constituent Assembly [for the drafting of India’s constitution] there was a lot of debate back and forth whether these people should even be decriminalised and given the right to vote. It was only after five years of independence that the Criminal Tribes Act was repealed and the Vimuktas were decriminalised. 

Largely, in the anti-caste discourse also the targeting, violence and oppression of Vimuktas is something that has not received the attention and support it requires and has remained undocumented. That was our main motivation for starting this project. Also, the fact that this kind of criminalisation has continued since the police is the one that is playing a major role in perpetuating this kind of criminalisation and targeting. But now, especially in the last couple of years with the Black Lives Matter [campaign in the United States], discourse around the racist nature of the institution of policing has started. But there has hardly been any work around the casteist nature of the institution of policing. 

Even within the criminal justice system there is a lot of work that has happened around the prisons but ultimately who enters the criminal justice system and who does not, is determined by the police because they are the gatekeepers of the same. And I think not a lot of work and discourse around that is being built. That became very important for us. 

We are trying to ask these questions not just from the point of view of reform that we need sensitive police, instead what we are asking for is more accountable police. Also, the question of whether we need to rely on criminal laws for everything became very important for us. Like even with the spread of Covid-19, the first point of response of the state was to impose a lockdown by invoking various criminal laws. This gives the police immense discretionary power. 

But the more fundamental question that was significant was that when there is a public health crisis, should a body which has nothing to do with it or maintaining or responding to a public health crisis be the first point of response to it? Should the police have been the first respondents to this? We realised that there is an imperative requirement to delve into, through research and litigation based work, to unpack and contextualise these ideas of what law and order means. Who do you consider to be a criminal? And what even is considered to be a crime? 

Irshad: Although the Criminal Tribes Act was repealed in 1952, what could be the reason for persecution of the Vimuktas at the hands of police that has still not stopped?

Sonavane: Like I was saying earlier, though after independence they did away with the Criminal Tribes Act, its legacy was reproduced in various ways. Through ‘habitual offenders’ provisions, which give police enormous power to brand anybody as a habitual offender and of course the easiest target are the Vimuktas because of the attitude of the police that view them as born-criminals. 

And through seeking their data, for instance, the Pardhi community, Irani Muslims, Kanjars in Madhya Pradesh, who we work with, their fingerprints, demographic details and all kinds of data has been stored in the police stations in registers for decades now. And because there has been no work done in (a) understanding the targeting of the Vimuktas, (b) oppressive institutions and the nature of the institution of policing itself, this kind of criminalisation has continued unabated. So essentially what we are trying to do is to put into perspective the working of everyday policing and its impact on the lives of the Vimukta community.

Irshad: Do you think that some changes in the law are needed to provide protection to the marginalised communities?

Sonavane: I do not think it’s a legal reform question, because we have done that. We also have the Prevention of Atrocities Act, which has been around for over two decades now. On paper it is a wonderful piece of legislation but we have seen what has come out of it. So I think the question is not whether we need better laws or stronger laws, which is where the conversations and discussions have been around for many years. 

The question to be asked is: Can this system do the work of delivering and protecting these communities? And then to ask the question whether we need to look beyond this system or not. Because we have tried to make this better, so the question to be really asked is, Should we be pushing for decriminalisation? Should Adivasi people in cities making mahua at home, people playing cards on the road be counted as criminal offenders? Should people be thrown into prison for that? That is where we should be channelising our energies, to question the criminalisation of the lives, culture, and heritage of certain communities.

Irshad: Do you plan on expanding your organisation out of Bhopal?

Sonavane: No, not as of now. Though we are open to collaborating with groups and organisations that are based out of other states.

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