Vimukta – Freedom Stories

Edited by Dakxin Bajrange and Henry Schwarz, New Delhi: Navayana Publishing, 2021

Reviewed by Shweta Goswami

Vimukta – Freedom Stories is a collaborative effort to weave in diverse yet shared experiences of being a Vimukta1 in contemporary Indian society. While there are many books on the experience of criminalisation of Vimukta communities, the novelty of this book is that it reflects the sense of collective agitation and organising that has been growing in fractals in India.

The book’s title Vimukta is a term used to refer to more than 200 nomadic/semi-nomadic communities who were labelled as hereditary criminals in 1871 by the British government of India. The editors of the anthology, Dakxin Bajrange and Henry Schwarz, provide an erudite summary of the phenomena of making the ‘carceral society’ (p. 9), scripted on Vimukta bodies – the de-notified nomadic communities. They map answers to critical questions such as why the British rulers considered Vimuktas a threat; why the colonial regime used legal apparatus against millions of people; and what were the ethical and philosophical convictions that made mass incarceration possible.

The volume consists of three concise autobiographical vignettes, three plays written and performed by community members, and three translated extracts. Each text delves into a meaning-making exercise to ground human dignity. In a literal sense, Vimukta means ‘free’ or ‘set free’. Vimukta, as ‘free’, were social groups who resisted the violent system of caste and chose a nomadic way of life. They made a living by transporting forest goods, performing arts, acrobatics, selling tools, salt, crafts, and indigenous medicine, and also by preaching spirituality led by iconoclast figures such as Gorakhnath and Kabir. As such, their dissent was considered a threat. Vimukta in the latter sense, ‘set free’, is ambiguous. After five years of India’s independence, in 1952, the Government of India decriminalised Vimukta communities; they were set free on paper. However, the question is where do the Vimukta belong, being ‘set free’ after 150 years of incarceration? The social world that Vimukta communities inhabited before the seemingly perpetual incarceration does not exist anymore. Their access to forests is curtailed by wildlife protection laws; their movement within cities or villages is policed by the settled caste communities and administrative authorities. Vimukta, as ‘set free’, is thrown into a world of systemic caste-based violence. Forced labour, police brutality, custodial death, rape, custodial rape, precarious existence around barbed wires, and systemic erasure characterise the Vimukta experience. ‘These storytellers bear witness to the historical experience of their ancestors and point us towards an uncertain but hopeful future’ (p. 21). The Indian story of the colonial prison industrial complex gets further complicated as it becomes a site for the reproduction of caste. Each text narrates how caste society keeps Vimukta communities captive behind bars and beyond, through codified violence.

Vimukta communities are in a unique situation of derailment in relation to society, and their lived situation poses a challenge to the notion of social justice. As such, Vimukta freedom stories are a timely intervention to the literature on the global movement towards decarceration, prison abolition, and transformative healing justice. What options do communities have if they are given limited options to survive and what they do is criminalised? In such a situation, choosing life is choosing crime or death. So, the choice is between crime and death; there is no life. The ascription of criminality leaves no possibility of a soft landing or bridgehead for the Vimukta communities to participate in the moral realm of society.

The first two creative texts in the anthology, Budan Bolta Hai (Budan Speaks) and Bulldozer, are written by Bajrange. The former is an excerpt from his autobiography and functions as a careful auxiliary to the latter. Both texts are connected through the presence of Bulldozers in the precarious Vimukta lives. Kaushal Batunge’s personal narrative draws attention to how structural situatedness at the intersection of caste and criminality contributes to the making of a dysfunctional fractious family. Subba Rao Mali Rao, who can be called a breathing encyclopaedia on Vimukta lives, has contributed one such story from his ethnographic research in this book. His contribution, titled The Life, Livelihood and Aspirations of a DNT Couple, maps the crucial moments in the lives of a couple belonging to two different Vimukta communities, their challenges and aspirations for a dignified life. An excerpt from Dhruv Bhatt’s novel Children of Darkness brings out the limits of the proposal to anchor empathy as an effective tool to ethically develop anti-caste institutions. It makes us question the role of empathy in building an anti-caste society because empathy can be invoked through lies and deception. Instead we need to cultivate a culture of belonging that enables fearless existence. The excerpt beautifully captures a fragile moment of belonging where a girl child rejects the sense of self-incrimination, which most Vimukta communities embody due to constant criminal profiling. She embraces her oneness with nature as she collects millets from the fields owned by settled caste communities. In such intangible joy of freedom, the little girl reclaims her humanity.

Professor Kanji Patel’s Pata (Rail Tracks), a collection of three scenarios, has three dissenting Vimukta protagonists who are rooted in their dignity and ask for legitimate wages, the right to use forest produce, and the passage to move. However, their voices remain unheard; they are made to face the brute force of caste and are pushed out to the margin of the village. The three protagonists meet at the railway track, which is a metaphorical reminder that the Vimukta communities are forced to dwell at the margins. Their anger towards rail tracks suggests that the shared history of incarceration is a point of solidarity for culturally different Vimukta communities. The excerpt from Bhimrao Jadhav’s Story of a Hero Who Broke the Fence holds heartening hope that the abolition of carceral society and a life-centric transformation of India’s social dynamic is possible. Despite many odds, the Vimukta community members are reaching for the sky; Kalpana Gagdekhar shares her story of persistence and triumph. The volume concludes with the play Budhan. The script is based on Budhan Sabar’s custodial torture and death. The play brings out the role of community effort for justice that brought the concerns of police brutality against Vimukta communities to the nation’s attention.

Although the book does not get graphical at any stage, a trigger warning would be helpful since the readership includes first-generation readers belonging to oppressed communities. Other publications that publish similar content should also consider this. There can be moments when the inter-generational trauma may manifest in the reader’s body, and therefore, a message of care can be useful. This book is a critical text in building a discourse on Vimukta studies and social-political organising for the realisation of full citizenship of all Vimukta communities.


1. The resistance against the caste system is as old as the presence of the caste system. In India, the resistance against the caste system led many social groups to adopt nomadic ways of life (Bhukey and Surapally 2021). However, the British government of India perceived the nomadic way of life as a threat to the formation of a liberal state. In order to exercise control of the nomadic population, the British rulers enacted the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871 (CTA 1871 henceforth). From 1871 till India’s independence in 1947, approximately 200 nomadic and semi-nomadic communities (Gandee 2020, 72), 3.5 million people, were labelled as hereditary criminals (Piliavsky 2015, 327), tending to commit crime as hereditary and a habit. Piliavasky argues that the labelling of communities as congenital criminals was not a British colonial phenomenon; she maps the roots of labelling in Vedic texts, including Kautilya’s Arthshastra and Manusmriti (Piliavsky 2015, 329–32). Under CTA, members of notified nomadic communities were required to register their fingerprints and addresses with the local police or the panchayat head (Renke 2008, 22). Every time they moved from one place to another, they were required to inform the police about their arrival and departure (Bajrange and Schwarz 2021, 10). The police had discretionary powers to curtail the movement of the communities (Kumar 2020, 304). Some communities were kept in open prisons (Renke 2008, 9), fenced with barbed wires, where they were forced to be slave labourers (Bajrange and Schwarz 2021, 15; Kumar 2020, 305; Renke 2008, 9). On 31 August 1952, the Government of India repealed the CTA 1871 by de-notifying the communities. However, the government brought in the Habitual Offenders Act 1952 (Bajrange and Schwarz 2021, 14). The Habitual Offenders Act 1952 retained provisions of the CTA 1871 (Radhakrishna 2008, 11; Simhadri and Ramagoud 2021, 537). The police and the caste society continue to hold stereotypes about Vimukta communities (Renke 2008, 21). This stereotyping leads to police surveillance (Renke 2008, 34) and vigilante justice of caste society (Renke 2008, 66), leading to lynching, kidnapping, and rape of people belonging to Vimukta communities.


  • Bajrange, Dakxin and Henry Schwarz (2021) Vimukta: Freedom stories, New Delhi: Navayana.
  • Bhukya, Bhangya and Sujatha Surepally (2021) ‘Unveiling the World of the Nomadic Tribes and Denotified Tribes: An Introduction’, EPW Engage,, (accessed 23 July 2023).
  • Gandee, Sarah (2020) ‘(Re-)Defining disadvantage: Untouchability, criminality and ‘tribe’ in India, c. the 1910s–1950s’, Studies in History 36(1): 71–97.
  • Kumar, Ambuj. (2020) ‘Denotified tribes in India: A sociological study’, Research Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences 11(4): 303–6.
  • Piliavsky, Anastasia (2015) ‘The “criminal tribe” in India before the British’, Comparative Studies in Society and History 57(2): 323–54.
  • Radhakrishna, Meena. (2008) ‘Laws of metamorphosis: From nomad to offender in Kannabiran. in Challenging The Rules(s) of Law Colonialism, Criminology and Human Rights in India (First Edition), Kalpana Kannabiran and Ranbir Singh (eds.), India: Sage India, 3–27.
  • Renke, Balakrishna Sidram (2008) ‘National Commission for De-notified, Nomadic and Semi-nomadic Tribes Report,’ Vol I, Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, Government of India, June 30, Retrieved from:
  • Simhadri, Somanaboina and Akhileshwari Ramagoud (2021) The Routledge Handbook of the Other Backward Classes in India: Thought Movements and Development, Milton: Taylor & Francis Group.

© 2023 Shweta Goswami