Mental Justice of the NT-DNTs in Context of the Pandemic

Mental justice of Nomadic and Denotified Tribes (NT-DNTs) should be the most important aspect of their overall access to social justice. Mental health needs to be redefined as a justice issue, especially in the context of marginalised communities. The NT-DNTs being perhaps one of the earliest communities worldwide to be criminalised for dissenting, the ramifications have acutely affected their mental justice over the last 150 years. This has worsened during the current pandemic. The article puts forth recommendations for the mental and therefore overall justice of NT-DNTs.

The author belongs to the Gadiya Lohar Ghisadi nomadic tribe, one of the many Nomadic and Denotified Tribes (NT-DNTs) of India, who form 15% of the total population. Despite this large population, there is very little cultural or administrative understanding of these communities that goes beyond the false and offensive view of them being “criminals.” This stigma injures the community’s collective as well as individual mental dignity time and again—be it in the way police arbitrarily pick-up NT-DNT young men or force them to appear before them periodically (Dhaka and Dhaka 2017), or the regular mob lynching (Shantha 2020b) based on false rumours of crimes (Shantha 2020b). The author herself, for example, has experienced how unsafe women and girls of these tribes are, as they live a nomadic life in tents, handling various cases of sexual and other violence which almost never make it to the news. She has known the indignity of having to wait for hours to use a community toilet when growing up, and the humiliation at having to drop out of college despite standing second in Class 12 because her community did not understand education for girls. These are only few of many examples of constant violation of social justice for the NT-DNTs in India. 

Therefore, when the pandemic started in India, and the lockdown was announced, the author along with her organisation, Anubhuti, decided to work on priority with these communities that are the most neglected by both government and civil society responses (Pawar 2020). Over discussions with many ground activists and community leaders to understand the ground situation, counselling and data collection phone calls to over 1,000 families, relief work including bank transfers and ration distribution with 4,000 families across 15 districts of Maharashtra, many stories were found of acute mental distress caused by extreme financial hardships, starvation, police violence, discrimination by mainstream society, increasing unsafe or undignified work options for women and girls, along with domestic violence, child marriages and forced marriages within the community. Based on these experiences, the author with her organisation chalked out a plan for long-term interventions to work on these long-term injuries caused by the pandemic on these communities. As part of this, an ethnographic study was carried out, with in-depth interviews of five community leaders and FGDs (focus group discussions) with 30 NT-DNT men and women including youth and persons with disability in five communities of Thane district. 

This article outlines the findings of this research. It states that the pandemic has been a period of double emergency for the NT-DNT communities, worsening their mental justice which has anyway been historically violated. The article argues that it is important to focus on the mental impact of this pandemic on these tribes, because that affects all other aspects of their lives. This period has been difficult for everyone around the world, but it is proving to be a time of historical calamity for the NT-DNTs, impacting them in particular ways that will leave deep injuries forever, unless this human tragedy is immediately responded to. What are these particular impacts on these tribes? What has been the historical context that has exacerbated these impacts? How do these impinge on the already very slowly moving intellectual development of these communities? What are their own recommendations for their mental justice, coming out of the crisis? These are some of the questions that this article tries to address.  

Existing literature about the NT-DNTs is few and far between. There are almost no papers by scholars from the community itself. There are a few well-known NT-DNT writers such as Laxman Gaikwad, who have written autobiographical novels that give insight into the deprivation and exploitation that criminalised communities have faced. Much of the existing research about these communities have been done by researchers from outside the community, such as reports by organisations like TANDA TISS Project and Action Aid India. A TANDA report (Agrawal and Sinha 2012) has established various issues such as poor housing, risks associated with employment, poor educational status, continued arbitrary criminalisation, poor possession of official documents. Another by the Ground-level Panel of Denotified and Nomadic Tribes (Praxis 2017), which is by a panel formed by NT-DNTs, strongly paints a picture of how criminalisation has affected different aspects of their life, how they face discrimination from various stakeholders including the government, low access to basic infrastructure, very poor access of the Sustainable Development Goals. A report by the Action Aid Association establishes how a lack of documents is leading to a crisis of their identity and citizenship, in accessing responsible and accountable government structures, and entitlements, welfare measures and policies. All of them highlight the deep social, political and administrative injustices faced by these communities. However, no literature connects these to the impact on the communities’ individual or collective mental health. This is the gap this article tries to address, by defining mental health as a justice issue and redefining it as “mental justice.”

The Need for Mental Justice in the Context of Vulnerable Communities

Mental health justice has been spoken about before in the sense of making mental health services more accessible, inclusive, equitable and just which is certainly needed. However, I argue that we need to go beyond this towards mental justice. Because when an individual from a vulnerable social identity (of gender, caste, class, sexuality, nationality, and so on), experiences any kind of mental health issue, such as an illness, distress, or imbalance, the root causes of this condition can be found in the injustice, discrimination or violence that they have faced directly or indirectly because of being a part of said minority community. Mental justice therefore is important; when we speak of mental health, it remains limited to the treatment of an individual, but when we speak of these communities, we cannot speak of their mental health on only an individual basis—we need to realise that the constant violation of justice that they face in social, political, economic and every other field impacts their communal, collective as well as individual mental health. The response to such mental health impact too needs to come from a space of justice—which comes from our Constitution. Mental Justice is when individuals and communities are able to access their rights of development, opportunities, participation, leadership, and other rights in a dignified and non-discriminatory manner that the Constitution safeguards. 

History of the Mental Oppression of NT-DNTs

The historical oppression of NT-DNTs started with passing the Criminal Tribes Act in 1871 by British rulers, forcing these communities into migration, their land and homes snatched away, and the label of criminality forced onto them. This was revenge for being one of the first who had risen up for Independence against British rule in India. 

The subsequent violence inflicted by the British consisted of economic, social, physical and political exploitation (Jenkins 2006). But along with this there was another, that is mental oppression. How else was it possible to forcefully take away the lands of these communities, who were so strong at one time as to decide to rise up against the mighty British? How did they meekly agree to their consequent exploitation? The author’s analysis leads her to believe that any oppression first begins with mental oppression by which communities are made weak mentally and over time made to accept discrimination and violence. That, over generations, mental terror must have been created by overburdening these communities with unending and insurmountable problems, finally forcing them to lose courage.  

From 1871 till today, the NT-DNT communities were one of the first in modern India to lose their independence and be criminalised for dissent. In these 150 years, this community has suffered some of the worst mental injustice in the world. For example, they were forced into constant migration, criminalised by police where they are picked up arbitrarily and even die in police custody (Dhaka and Dhaka 2017), made to undergo various humiliating practices such as restriction of movement of a registered offender to a “restriction area” for up to three years and so on (Sengupta 2009). These, and the methods by which these were enforced, stripped them of all social security and cultural capital, thus robbing them of mental empowerment.

This historical mental terror and oppression continues till today. For example, in May 2020, during the lockdown, 3 men of a Pardhi family were violently murdered by dominant caste members over a land dispute in Beed, Maharashtra (Shantha 2020a). This was after years of harassment, threats and violence faced by the family for protesting the encroachment on their land by this dominant caste family, and taking the legal route to get back their land. This is only one of innumerable caste atrocities faced by members of NT-DNT communities in India. On the same day that this family mustered courage to return to their village after having been forced to live elsewhere, they were attacked. As Shantha reports, “the victims were chased for over a kilometre, and then pushed under a tractor and finally stabbed multiple times with a knife and swords. Their severed bodies were found strewn at least a kilometre apart in different parts of the village.” The way that this murder was committed, the involvement of a mob of over 30 persons, and the insensitive response by the police, inflicts mental terror even on the reader. One can only imagine the kind of terror faced by not only this family, but the other few Pardhi families in the village, as well as the entire community of Pardhis in Maharashtra and even India. The same report (Shantha 2020a) goes on to say, “After the attack, the Pawar family says they dread staying in the village.” Owning land is anyway a rarity among NT-DNTs and land grabbing is commonly faced by them (Atish et al 2017). To those struggling against all obstacles to stop being landless, an extremely violent message was sent to all Pardhis and NT-DNT communities about this constitutional desire and right. 

The Lockdown and COVID Pandemic: A Double Emergency for the NT-DNTs

In this pandemic, it has been possible for mainstream society to  stay at home because of being digitally connected, being able to work from home, etc. However, these things are far removed from the NT-DNT communities, as observed acutely during relief work when it was found that people did not even own a simple phone, much less a smartphone with internet. A virus that has caused a global pandemic was brought to India from the “developed” world by “developed” people and it came and affected them worst, who are at the bottom of the pyramid, who had never heard about it. This sudden emergency created immense mental distress for the NT-DNTs, creating a situation of double emergency. This is because till today, these communities are living in an emergency created by the scarcity of primary resources. They have now been faced by this additional calamity of the coronavirus pandemic. This community does not have a culture of storage and hoarding, because they are nomadic. They need to live light because they need to pick up everything they own and move to the next spot. Therefore, it was observed during relief operations that they did not have any ration stored at home. In this constant migration, and with no television, radio or other media, they did not even get any news about the pandemic. 

Crisis of Primary Resources Caused More Mental Distress than Fear of the Virus

In this context of no support to the NT-DNT community, my organisation, Anubhuti has been working to provide dry ration and other support to families since the lockdown began. We have thus closely interacted with over 4,000 NT-DNT families across 15 districts of Maharashtra from whom the following data was collected. As we spoke to them to understand what were the main factors for mental distress of these communities, it was found that there is more fear of financial crisis than the actual virus. During our on-phone counselling, we received a lot of calls about job insecurity. Most of them lost their main work season. The Vaghya Murali (performers in religious functions), Lohar (ironsmiths), etc, cannot work in rains so they work in the summer months, which were completely lost during the lockdown. Additionally, people shared with us that they had no documents, phones or any medium to reach benefits or services that the government was announcing for the poor. In fact, their language is so different from even the regular Marathi that is spoken in communities in Maharashtra, that they did not have the confidence to call up on volunteer helplines. Added to this, there was fear of and actual police violence. Community leaders shared with us during interviews that they would be abused by villagers if they entered villages, and would be beaten by the police if found on the roads. “Are we not citizens of this country? Who is responsible for our shelter in a lockdown? We have no homes of our own, we set up camp wherever our nomadic life takes us, but now we are not even allowed to move around. Where will we stay then?” asked a community leader on a phone call. This leader represents more than 200 families of the Gadiya Lohar tribe, as an ex-president of their informal community committee. 

Impact of the Lockdown on NT-DNT Women and Girls

During this work, we observed that women are staying hungry the most. Since we made it a priority to speak to, hand over ration bags and make bank transfers to the women of the families—we interacted with almost 3,000 women from whom this data was collected. In communities where women already face severe issues of malnutrition, anemia, etc, the starvation due to lockdown is going to become a long-term public health issue. 

During our relief related interactions with women, we documented many such stories of starvation. Women shared with us that this is not just a health issue, but that this will directly affect their survival; because if “women find themselves weak, it will affect our economy badly, since our communities’ work depends on women’s labour.”

Women of NT-DNT communities carry out most of the tasks of our economy—blowing the bhata, repairing tools, doing road shows, etc. If they are made so mentally and physically weak during the lockdown, they will not be physically strong enough to start working at full force as the lockdown opens up.

Another big impact this pandemic has had is on education. This is the first generation who are finishing school—they have worked very hard over the years to stay even in Class 9–10. The economic calamity because of the lockdown has meant that they are dropping out even before completing school—especially  girls. This is leading to rising social insecurity, rising economic challenges and child marriages. The author and Anubhuti have been handling such cases throughout the lockdown where girls are being married off at very young ages. This will affect the intellectual revolution of NT-DNT youth—education is not just a medium to get into jobs but even more importantly it is necessary for intellectual revolution according to B R Ambedkar. This calamity cannot become an excuse for a lapse in the already very slowly moving intellectual revolution of these communities. 

Another issue that came forth during FGDs is that there will be massive competition in the jobs market, especially in the informal job sector as the lockdown starts lifting. Women working in unorganised and informal sectors are getting affected worst by this, and in rising desperation they are becoming even more vulnerable to sexual exploitation at the workplace (Mehta 2020). Some women shared, "because our usual work has stopped, we are doing even more dangerous work like weeding farms. This work takes place only at night." While these jobs per se are not risky, they are being made unsafe for women, as they become more and more desperate for work. 

As can be seen, all of these crises are factors for mental imbalance and deep mental injuries  that can only be solved by working on these social, economic factors and not by individual treatment.

Impact of Sociopolitical Insecurity during COVID-19 on Mental Justice of NT-DNTs

The way ground communities, especially the NT-DNTs, are fighting tooth and nail against every possible calamity to emerge as survivors, is commendable. They have devised various strategies to cope and make collective demands, such as utilising their existing networks; for example, religious networks, or groups with which they had connected with for a function or event to raise resources during the lockdown. They also developed the strategy of presenting about the community in a way that would be appealing and would paint a picture of the unique condition of these communities in the pandemic and lockdown. We observed leaders developing their presentation content and documentation about their community on the go, so as to make a strong case for their people. For example, with Anubhuti’s mentoring, leaders of a community of 530 families in Ambernath, Thane district, surveyed and put together details of every family including number of members, women, children, disabled, documents owned by each and such other details in the span of a few days to present to a state minister of Maharashtra. Otherwise, leaders across Thane district, with Anubhuti’s training over phone managed to collect data of over 1,000 families with similar details. With limited literacy, this was a major achievement.   
 
They regularly used a collective and democratic approach. In every meeting that we observed or heard about, in which they appealed for help, the leader from one community who had brought about the meeting, would bring together representatives from nearby communities to  strengthen their appeal collectively and also ensure that the people connected to them would also raise resources. 

Despite these efforts, there is one question looming large. Most people we interacted with during FGDs had a common question: “What next?” This question includes many other questions such as what about jobs next? What about house rent?  What about going to our next destination from where we are stuck now? A NT leader said during the interview, “we cannot even ask for help from administrative systems like the police, who are helping others but we cannot expect the same because we share a very fraught relationship where the police see us as criminals.”

In a heartrending interview, a ground NT activist said
“It is not possible to bear any new calamity or emergency for these communities already in distress due to the coronavirus pandemic. If the rains this year also causes floods in some regions, and drought in other regions, NT-DNT communities will not be able to bear the consequences. It might become a question of our existence. It will be very important to respond to the needs of NT-DNTs by the government.” 

Going forward, the job opportunities that are opening up as the lockdown eases up, for example in the information technology (IT) sector, are far removed from the NT-DNTs. The solutions that are being put forth by policymakers for the poor in general, do not take into account the different situations of the NT-DNTs, who are far more vulnerable among the poor. There is no NT-DNT specific response to their problems because members of these communities are not part of the solution, seeing as they have no political representatives or very few national or even state level social leaders. 

NT-DNTs have no strong elected political representatives (Madane 2016) who can take their issues to the decision-makers, where it matters. The impact of this can be seen in this coronavirus pandemic too, where there is no strong voice bridging the gap between their needs and the government and administration. This is unlike other vulnerable communities, such as the Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs), who do have political representation. In some cases, where NT-DNTs have reached similar socio-economic status as SCs or STs, they live near each other or in the same basti. In these cases, we observed that there were connections between the NT-DNTs and others, but that it was the NT-DNT community leaders who shared the resources they had raised with their SC/ST brothers and sisters. For example, they connected Anubhuti to leaders of SC/ST groups even though there was a risk that the organisation would divide its relief work among the added groups. Not only did they connect, but they also involved SC/ST leaders in meetings with us, and collected and presented documentation about them along with their own people. 

Recommendations for Mental Justice of NT-DNTs during Disasters

In our experience during relief and subsequent interviews and FGDs, a resounding observation time and again was that it was these highly neglected communities who kept themselves alive. They surmounted massive challenges and administrative apathy, to not only raise resources for themselves but also took great efforts to reach out to one another and make sure that whatever meagre resources they managed to raise reached their poorest brothers and sisters. In fact, this is how it has been throughout history—the NT-DNTs take care of themselves because there is no one else they can fall back upon. It was because of this resolute networking among themselves, that Anubhuti too managed to reach families across Maharashtra state. It therefore only makes sense to ask the communities themselves what would help them achieve their mental justice—their mental dignity, balance, empowerment and development. While these recommendations are from people living in Maharashtra, they can be applicable to all over India because they travel outside the state too as per their nomadic lifestyle and have experiences from outside too. This paper has tried to put forth these in context of disasters like the current pandemic:

  • NT-DNTs who live on roadsides, village outskirts, or in kaccha settlements in the city, do not always have their own home. Public spaces like vihars, temples, mosques, community halls, etc, can be made accessible for their shelter.
  • Citizens should not repeat or believe in wrong information or rumours being spread about the NT-DNTs, and immediately inform the same to the government.
  • In case of any kind of mental, physical or economic exploitation being done during emergency situations with these communities, nearest police stations need to be aware and take prompt action.
  • Like there are community health workers for physical health, so should there be for mental health who can provide basic literacy and counselling door-to-door to the most vulnerable populations.
  • Offensive, stigmatising perceptions about NT-DNTs that still label them as criminals need to be combated; a first step can be correcting such wrong depictions in college textbooks about these tribes.

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