Do I Stay or Do I Dare: A Brief History of Nomadic Exclusion in India

Sagnik Bhattacharya - Advisor, Rights and Partnership Program

Picture Credit: Michael Benanav


In Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s collection of essays entitled Kamalakant-er Daptar (1885), the reader finds a rather unfortunate government advocate cross-questioning the Brahmin Kamalakanta Chakraborty regarding a stolen cow. The interrogation is long, but this following bit will help illustrate my point—

Lawyer: ...residence?

Kamalakanta: None.

Lawyer: I mean where is your house?

Kamalakanta: Forget about a house! I don’t even have a hut.

Lawyer: Then where do you stay?

Kamalakanta: Wherever possible.

Lawyer: You have an adda [place of congregation], right?

Kamalakanta: Used to, when Nasi-babu was alive. Now there’s none.

Lawyer: [Frustrated] Then where are you now?

Kamalakanta: Why, I am in this courtroom!

Lawyer: [Angry] Where were you yesterday?

Kamalakanta: In a store.

Judge: Enough! This can go on forever, let the record show—“Residence, none.”

Although fictional and hilarious, this demonstrates a certain peculiarity with regard to how the State (in India) reckons its population—by their place of residence. Almost all transaction with the state-machinery in India calls into reference one or more ‘locative’ markers of an individual, be it the Post Office, the constituency (both of which necessitate permanent residence at a place) or the thana or police station in the jurisdiction of which one resides or an event has taken place. In such a state of affairs, what happens therefore, to the 8-10% of the population that can speak of no permanent residence due to their nomadic lifestyle? The short answer is, nothing.

It is surprising to note that until recently, pastoral nomads and other nomadic craftsmen such as the nomads from the Dafar community of Gujarat did not even exist on government records! This chronic invisibility translates into an inability to acquire among other things, ration-cards, identity-proofs, voter enrollment and school registration; effectively dooming them to a life of illiteracy and in most cases abject poverty roaming the lands as jesters etc., in exchange for the right and capacity to continue their ‘traditional’ mode of existence. But what happens when this ‘traditional’ mode is threatened and the state feigns inability to assist?

This is a regular fact of life for scores (if not hundreds) of mobile, nomadic or herding communities who practice transhumance (i.e., migrate with their herds periodically across multiple grazing fields) - an act that had been virtually criminalized by the colonial administration through the Indian Forest Act, 1878 [and 1927] which placed all forest and fallow lands in the ownership of the government for efficient development of extraction industries. These nomadic tribes were found to be ‘encroaching’ upon these lands and by extension, on State interests. After independence the laws remained virtually the same while the rationale changed to one of environmental protection (in the form of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972). For that cause, communities such as the Van Gujjars have been effectively excluded and ‘shut out’ of their traditional grazing fields in Uttarakhand causing economic hardships due to cattle-death.

In 2006, the Indian Parliament passed the ‘Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act,’ which recognized the rights of forest-dwellers alongside providing for their registration and welfare, but if the recent history of the Van Gujjars is any indication, they have not had much luck against administrative apathy for their welfare. As late as 2018, the Uttarakhand High Court observed that “the Van Gujjars are a constant threat to the wildlife” and long-drawn disputes regarding their eligibility under the ‘Recognition of Forest Rights Act, 2006’ particularly in the Jim Corbett National Park region, appear to be never-ending.

The Covid-19 pandemic has further jeopardised their livelihood and lifestyle as the stigma of being nomads generating popular antipathy and claims that their movement is responsible for the rising number of cases in Uttarakhand has forced them to virtually cease their businesses (mostly selling dairy and other pastoral products). While the pandemic-induced hardships are new, the real question is, why is there, in an increasingly mobile world, this banter surrounding permanent residence as a defining feature of one’s identity in the eyes of the state and popular imagination?

Picture Credit: ANI

A Long History

While it is fashionable or even tempting to blame colonial administrators for most of our present day problems, this one in particular, can be traced further back. The genesis of this malady can be chronologically divided into two distinct stages—precolonial and colonial. In its pre-colonial avatar, this chronic amnesia manifested itself in how the ‘State’ (say, the Mughal state) dealt with itinerant populations that dwelt within its territories. After all, the “menace of the nomads” is something that Mughal chronicles from the Babur Nama to the Tuzuk-i-Jahangiri record extensively. Chetan Singh’s research into this details active attempts by the administration to ‘sedentarize’ the pastoral communities (particularly the Gurjar or Gujjars and the Jats) residing within the Mughal heartland. A major instance of their ‘state-induced invisibility’ in this stage, can in fact be traced to what is arguably the most celebrated Mughal text—the Ain-i-Akbari of Abu’l Fazl.

Singh notes that itinerant or pastoral populations are almost entirely absent in that celebrated work giving the impression that the empire was almost exclusively agrarian. Singh explained this exclusion by arguing that the Ain-i-Akbari’s primary purpose was to portray an empire with a unified and more importantly uniform socioeconomic system—resulting in a complete erasure of non-agrarian communities and parallel social or economic spheres from the historical record. The fact that this also meant erasing a significantly large population from history would not be very high on Abu’l Fazl’s list of concerns.

However, the second stage of this demographic affliction is of a slight greater significance and that begins in the 1790s with the English East India Company developing a genuine interest in ‘knowing’ the native population. A number of population surveys with a keen interest in understanding local demographic conditions can be found from this period such as the notes by Dr Francis Buchanan or those by Colin Mackenzie. Nicholas B. Dirks (2002) found Dr Buchanan, surveying the Madras Presidency in 1800 was in fact specifically required to record the “different sects and tribes of which the body of the people is composed [of].” What Buchanan produced however, can be called a very early European attempt at caste-classification along the lines of the four-fold caste system mentioned in the scriptures—a misconception resulting from an inordinate degree of trust on the local Brahmin population. But in simplifying the vast diversity of Indian ‘castes’ comprising hundreds of sub-castes, inter-castes and professional groups into the four-tiered structure, the seeds of a demographic catastrophe were laid—a dangerous precedent that, ‘India’ could be classified and understood in simple empirical terms was created.

A Colonial Romance

Apart from the hilariously failed attempts at caste-classification through a disproportionate reliance on elite sources such as Brahmin collaborators who were quick to dismiss most of the population as śūdra, both Buchanan and Mackenzie’s attempts demonstrate a pernicious desire to ‘know’ the Indian population through demographic categories used in Europe and particularly in Britain. These categories include ‘tribes,’ ‘sects,’ ‘clans’ and of course the most notorious of them—‘nations’. The disastrous results of the application of such alien categories to Indian society is not only limited to the accuracy of demographic data but is also operative at the level of the law and in fact, continues to plague the Indian republic to this day. A most clear example of this ‘misunderstanding’ can be seen in the implementation of the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871.

But if we keep specific cases aside for a moment and deliberate on ‘why’ the budding colonial administration tried to ‘know’ the population in the first place, we ask: what motives lie behind such a seemingly noble attempt that makes it worthy of our deliberations? Are the reasons similar to why Abu’l Fazl described the people and their practices—to project the image of a unified empire? On the contrary, Dirks (2002) found that the most consistent interest of Buchanan’s in conducting his survey was to understand land-holding and privilege patterns; and the Company’s desire in commissioning Dr Buchanan to perform this survey can also be interpreted as a desire to increase land-revenue and a search for potential collaborators for tax-farming. The dates for both Dr Buchanan’s (1800) and Mackenzie’s (1799) population surveys are key here—the juncture of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is precisely when the East India Company sought to implement newer, more efficient land-revenue arrangements – the most famous of them being the Permanent Settlement and the Ryotwari System whose suitability heavily depended on local social structures.

Of Taxes and Nomads

James C. Scott (2009) has in fact worked extensively in this field across South and Southeast Asia, to conclude that this desire of regimes (particularly colonial regimes) to act in accordance with land-revenue convenience is almost a universal behaviour among agrarian societies. Colonial governments are particularly notorious in this regard as their actions are not constrained by political considerations or the fear of losing popular mandate. Scott goes on to claim that the art of governance, in fact, depends on the ability of states to ‘pin-down’ their populations to precise locations which can then be assessed (in terms of land productivity etc.) and the people taxed. The Art of Not Being Governed, which is also the name of his 2009 monograph, thus comprises an evasion of this subjugation machinery that is the State.

This idea of action in order to enable land-revenue maximization is what I term a physiocratic rationale. Physiocracy being the late-eighteenth century notion ascribing all productive functions of civilization to the land and the emergent idea of ‘natural order’ as something that facilitates land productivity. It is this physiocratic rationale that sees the ‘state’ as something solely reliant on land and measures individual worth in terms of their revenue capacity. So how exactly can this State be avoided?

Scott (2009) finds two major historical tendencies in this matter—first, surviving on a subsistence level economy relying on forests, alms etc. and second, being constantly on the move. These actions effectively make pinning-down the population impossible and as producers of scarcely any revenue, they are of little value to the State. The remaining arguments of this article will become easier to understand if summarized into the following theorems:

  • People who rely on land (or industry) have value in the eyes of the State through their generative capacity in terms of revenue.

  • People who rely on land (or industry) therefore, have a ‘location’ or a ‘residence.’

The corollary that we might draw from these theorems is that the gross majority of those who do not have a place of permanent residence (aka. ‘vagabonds’), in the eyes of law-enforcement lack all productive capacity and are, to use the colloquial, ‘good for nothing’. It is not surprising that words such as ‘vagrant’ and ‘tramp’ have strongly negative connotations in the English language.

What does this translate to in terms of law-enforcement? A brief investigation of the Criminal Tribes Act, 1871 may yield a few answers.

Picture Credit: Down to Earth

Vagrancy as Crime

For a state that ‘knows’ its people in terms of settlements by their residence, a population that lives on the highway, and can neither be classified by religion, nor by language presents nothing short of a monster—unknown and unknowable. And as humans, we fear nothing more than that which is unknowable. This is what happened when the British government encountered the strange phenomenon of thuggee (highway robbery following murder by strangulation). Upon careful scrutiny it would become clear that the thug-suppression acts beginning with Act XXX of 1836 gradually increase their spheres of influence and tend to criminalize all groups that do not fit into known models of understanding populations – the most important of them being the ones lacking a place of residence!

So it is not surprising that when these laws culminated in the Criminal Tribes Act in 1871, the law particularly affected nomadic populations in Punjab and Western India who were quickly brought under their notification schedule as Mark Brown (2017) discovered in his survey. From Mughal invisibility to colonial criminality, over the centuries the pastoral nomads had paid a price for not conforming to a highly locative civilizational paradigm.

Freedom at…

The tale of the plight of itinerant populations is one that does not end with the Sunset of the British Empire. Their story is one of consistent alienation and a prohibition of participation in civil society that has gone almost entirely unnoticed by social and political activists (until recently). The regime that succeeded the British Raj also inherited its rationale, and continues to prescribe a locative identity for its citizens. Failure to provide identifiers of such locative identities have cost them their civil and political rights—including the right to vote, considered the most basic of political rights necessary for participating in a democracy.

When in 2008, activist Mittal Patel, after years of struggling and legal maneuvering arranged for nomads from Gujarat (most belonging to the Dafer community) to be registered for elections, she faced opposition from unexpected sources. Villages in the vicinity of where they camped were opposed to such measures. They argued that if these nomads were registered as residents of that village, then their descendants would claim permanent residence there and they were afraid of allowing ‘chor(s)’ [thieves] to take up residence in the hamlets. This only goes on to show the resilient power of colonial stereotypes and labels that continue to plague twenty-first century India.


While it does not seem likely that an easy solution to the underlying problems can be feasibly implemented. But certain small scale administrative decisions can and should in the short-run set these nomadic communities on a quicker path to development. The centuries of exclusion from broader society has contributed to their economic marginalization forcing them to live off the land and rely on forest resources; however, recent studies show that over the last decade or so, their livelihood has been further damaged by forest conservation efforts which fails to take into account the rights of the forest-dweller. The ‘Van Gujjars’ discussed in the beginning are among the worst affected by such policies.

The situation of the Van Gujjars, although disappointing, has shown small but significant improvement after the promulgation of the Recognition of Forest Rights Act, which granted them voting rights and the right for their children to enroll in schools. The possession of voting rights means increased abilities to lobby and not only participate but also pressure governments to adopt policies favorable to their interests. But the situation of the non-forest dwelling nomads still appears to be in the doldrums. Moreover, with the state of Mizoram revoking the said Act in 2019 due to stoppage of Union funds for the same since 2014-15, the future of such legislation does not seem to be very secure.

At a more structural level, this problem needs governments to come out of such strongly locative epistemologies or modes of knowing which have increasingly less meaning in an increasingly mobile and globalizing world. Even in urban societies with the IT revolution, the productivity of individuals is scarcely limited to their geographical locations and it is perhaps time that States come out of their physiocratic modes of governmentality. At the same time, it must be appreciated that this entails massive restructuring of almost every aspect of public life, from jurisdictions to the way elections are held and such change cannot be achieved in a day. Bankim Chandra’s Kamalakanta might have evaded criminality owing to his Brahmin surname, for the nomads to even think of following the Buddha’s advice (‘charaiveti charaiveti’ [move on, move on]) is paramount to sedition and criminal behaviour in post-colonial India.


Sagnik graduated from the University of Groningen, the Netherlands, specializing in transnational history and cultural anthropology; and is primarily interested in the field of State-tribe relationships with a focus on demographic knowledge production. He also regularly performs research on Global (Cultural) History and his primary area of interest is Eastern India. His research can be accessed here.

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