*By P Avinash Reddy
The Bombay prevention of Begging Act (1959), The Karnataka prohibition of Beggary Act (1975) and twenty other Anti-Beggary laws have been enforced as a way of criminalizing the act of begging in India. These acts define ‘beggar’ as anyone who “solicits or receives alms in a public place whether or not under any pretense such as singing, dancing, fortune telling, performing tricks or selling articles.” In so doing, they essentially prohibit individuals or groups from earning their livelihoods by performing in public places.
The Anti-beggary laws criminalize a particular way of life and have adversely affected the livelihoods of many communities, especially that of the traditional street performers. Busking is equated with begging in most Indian States and as a consequence, the traditional street performers are deprived of the opportunity to earn their livelihood. The provisions of Anti-Beggary laws are arguably in conflict with Article 23 (1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 6 (1) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, both of which explicitly recognize the right to work, which also includes the right to freely choose the kind of work an individual pursues.
Traditional street performances have been an integral part of Indian society for a very long time and anti-beggary laws have degraded them by bringing them under the ambit of begging. Individuals involved in these professions predominantly belong to certain tribal communities and it is the way of life that these communities have known, practiced and banked upon to earn their livelihood. Whenever they try to earn their livelihood through their performances, they face the wrath of the policing authorities . These laws are effectively wiping out certain cultures, traditions, practices and are imposing the dominant way of life on these communities.
The ‘Prohibition of Beggary Acts’ closely resemble laws passed between 1757 and 1871, that were enacted with the objective of suppressing thugs (dacoity and banditry) in India. More than trying to address the acts of banditry and dacoity, these laws focused on criminalizing the communities to which such individuals belonged. In effect, they propagated guilt by association and penalized individuals for being born into a certain group. In the pursuit of strengthening their position in India, the colonizers employed various tactics to subjugate and neutralize individuals or groups that were perceived to be a threat to their position in the hierarchy of power. While sheer physical violence was one of the most commonly employed tactics to subjugate the Indians, laws were used as the tool to legitimize and authorize such tactics.
The task of governing India had never been easy for anyone, especially due to the existence of varied cultures, languages, religions, sects and tribes. India has been and is home to groups which are constantly moving from one place to another without settling in any one particular place. This marked difference between the dominant and the nomadic groups proved to be vital in criminalizing the identity of certain tribes. The tribal way of life was seen to be barbaric by the Colonizers and as such, they enforced laws which criminalized it. This same tendency to perceive individuals or groups that do not conform to the dominant way of life as criminals, has perpetuated into the legislation of contemporary India.
While the Colonizers conceptualized crime as a profession of certain communities, the Anti-Beggary laws branded certain professions as criminal in nature. These Anti-Beggary laws are detrimental, on multiple levels, to the lives of the communities practicing these professions. By criminalizing their identities the colonizers forced the tribal communities to give up their nomadic way of life and similarly, the Anti-beggary laws are forcing the traditional street performers to settle in one particular place and adopt a way of life which is completely alien to them. This imposed transition, coupled with the absence of any sort of arrangements to ensure that these communities do not struggle to earn their livelihood, pushes them into destitution and deprives them of the opportunity to lead dignified lives.
Criminalizing traditional professions is no different than criminalizing the identity of the people practicing it, as these professions and identities are intertwined in such a manner that each one of them determines the value attributed to the other in society. Criminalizing certain professions can be conceptualized as a mode of establishing control over the individuals involved in such professions, by making them move away from their traditional professions and forcing them to adopt the dominant way of living. As such, there is a dire need to amend The Bombay Prevention of Begging Act, The Karnataka Prohibition of Beggary Act and other similar laws, in order to decriminalize traditional street performances and to ensure that such traditions, professions and cultures find their due place and space in the society without succumbing to the dominant culture.
- Section 2 (2) (a), The Karnataka Prohibition of Beggary Act, 1975, http://dpal.kar.nic.in/.%5C27%20of%201975%20%28E%29.pdf.
- Swati Janu, Wealthy Indians and colonial-era laws have wiped out snake charmers and street magicians, Quartz India, 8th May 2017, https://qz.com/978116/wealthy-indians-and-colonial-era-laws-have-wiped-out-snake-charmers-and-street-magicians/.
- Shoma A. Chatterji, A balancing act, One India One People, 1st January 2017, https://oneindiaonepeople.com/a-balancing-act/.
- Swati Janu, Where have all the snake-charmers and street magicians gone? A Raj-era law might be to blame, in, 4th May 2017, https://scroll.in/newsrepublic/832448?s=cm.
- Henry Schwarz, Constructing the Criminal Tribe in India, Introduction, p.3, https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B1_bt1xcwr-IRXZsN2xITTVyWms/view?usp=sharing.
*P Avinash Reddy is a third year LLB student at NALSAR University of Law in Hyderabad, India and Co-Founder of DEVISE (Developing Inclusive Education).