Caste-based discrimination in India was codified into law in 1871 by the British colonial authorities when they enacted the Criminal Tribes Act branding several nomadic and indigenous communities as “hereditary criminals” – criminals by birth, enforced through the institution of policing. Though this law was repealed in 1952, the devastating taint of criminality for these “Denotified Tribes” (DNTs or “Vimukta“) has persisted through vague laws and caste-based policing. Lawyer and social entrepreneur Nikita Sonavane founded the Criminal Justice and Police Accountability Project in Bhopal, India to end the disproportionate targeting of oppressed caste communities by the criminal justice system. Ashoka’s Angelou Ezeilo sat down with Nikita to learn more.

Angelou Ezeilo: Nikita, your initiative, which aims to increase transparency in policing, is challenging some long-held forms of discrimination in India. Could you give us a brief overview of your country’s caste system?

Nikita Sonavane: Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, the founding father of our constitution, called it a system of graded inequality. In this system, occupation is assigned by birth. First there are the Brahmins, the intellectual class; then the Kshatriyas, the warrior caste; then the Vaishyas, the merchant class. At the bottom of it are the Shudras, the “menial” laborers. And then, of course, there are communities who fall outside of the caste system, such as the Denotified Tribes, who are deemed criminal at birth. Once you are born into a caste group, you’re only allowed to associate with people belonging to that caste. Any kind of intermixing is a violation.

Ezeilo: Thank you for that, Nikita. As an African American woman, it’s hard for me not to draw parallels between the legislation 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Crow laws of the American South–and in both cases, police discrimination has continued long after those laws have been repealed. What inspired you to do this work? Because it’s not comfortable work to be doing.

Sonavane: No, not at all. But for me, doing this work is a way to make sense of my lived experience. I belong to a community known as the Dalits, or “untouchables”. I remember working on a project in law school that mapped the socio-economic profiles of death row convicts in India and seeing that most of these people were Dalits. I became curious: why are only certain kinds of people ending up on death row? Why is a certain set of people disproportionately incarcerated?

Ezeilo: This idea of hereditary criminality is deeply disturbing, yet we’re seeing it play out in both of our communities. Tell me, how do the police show up in your work?

Sonavane: Police are the first point of contact in the criminal justice system. They decide who’s arrested and who ends up in prison. So, I was very interested in how and why they were exercising these discretionary powers.

To zoom out for a moment: one recurring critique of the Indian criminal justice system is that it’s a colonial body. It’s a critique that has allowed us to place 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 upon which they built their discriminatory legal system and the institution of policing.

Many are now calling for police reforms. But when we look at the origin of the police, we see that its standard operating procedure is to maintain caste hierarchy by keeping the “low castes” in their place. So, to me, it is absurd to be talking about reforming the police without talking about dismantling the caste system.

Ezeilo: So many parallels to the U.S. 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”.

Sonavane: Indian law defined “custodial rape” way back in the early 1980s as sexual violence in police custody by police personnel. The term emerged when two policemen raped a minor girl from a tribal community (also known as “Adivasi”) while she was in custody. Of course, the Supreme Court acquitted them.

I’m instantly drawn to a parallel, Angelou, from your context: the way that Black feminists first challenged the idea of a monolithic “womanhood.” Here we’re fighting to show that women who belong to tribal communities are experiencing violence as tribal women, not just as women. When Denotified tribal women, for example, are at the receiving end of police violence, it is argued that they are lying in order to hide the crime that they’ve committed. Deeming these women ‘criminal’ is a way to hide or even excuse the harm done to them, in a way that would never happen to higher-caste women.

Ezeilo: Nikita, can you tell us about how big tech seems to be reinforcing this system of caste discrimination?

Sonavane: It’s happening in the American criminal justice system, as well, right? The police are building these huge databases, digitizing the criminal records of different people, and pushing for predictive policing that will determine who’s more likely to be committing a crime. Saying that technology is going to make policing neutral is a complete hoax, because the bias in policing is not just happening on an individual level. It’s structural. And technology is simply digitizing that.

Ezeilo: Right, it’s accelerating a flawed system. Nikita, tell us why your organization is supporting the legal education of two students from the Denotified community.

Sonavane: Having lawyers from our own community is very, very important for us. Coming from our background, we are able to see the law as a product of the society that it was formulated in, and not the sort of objective tool that many see it as. So, educating students from the community who have historically been silenced is a way to center their voices in the legal system. They will be able to take a system that inflicted violence on them for so long and use it to pursue justice.

Ezeilo: Could you share a recent case that you worked on, and the role that members of the Denotified tribes have played in leading change with you?

Sonavane: A recent case that we worked on was a 14-year-old child from a Denotified tribal community who was targeted by the police, and we managed to get him acquitted. There were people from the community there every step of the way, documenting the time that he was being illegally detained and subjected to torture, and social workers helping him to cope with the trauma of incarceration. It’s been a hugely affirming experience for us.

Ezeilo: Thank you so much for that work. But before we go, I’d like to ask, what gives you the energy to continue the work? What brings you joy?

Sonavane: I don’t want my community to be viewed solely as victims of oppression. Dr. Ambedkar, a very important voice in the struggle of oppressed castes, said that this is ultimately a struggle for us to reclaim our humanity. And seeing our people hold that space for each other, pushing each other to live that kind of well-rounded existence, brings me immense joy.

This interview has been condensed for length and clarity.

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