Last month, the Delhi High Court made an important observation while responding to two PILs which challenge the constitutionality of the law which prohibits beggary in Delhi. A bench of acting Chief Justice Gita Mittal and Justice C Hari Shankar asked the central government how begging could be an offence in a country where the government was unable to provide the people with sufficient food or jobs.
Begging is legally prohibited in most States and Union Territories in India. In Delhi, it is prohibited under the Delhi Prevention of Begging Rules, 1960 — an extension of the Bombay Prevention of Begging Act, 1959 (hereafter referred to as the Bombay Act), which serves as the model anti-beggary law for at least 15other states. Under the Bombay Act, begging constitutes asking for alms by way of “singing, dancing, fortune telling, performing, or offering any article for sale”; or by “exposing or exhibiting … any sore, wound injury, deformity of diseases”; or simply “appearing” to be a “wanderer” without any “visible means of subsistence.” The accused is taken to a local court for a summary inquiry, and if found guilty, is either released on a bond or detained in a “certified institution” — often called a “beggar home” — for a period ranging between one year and three years. If a person is found begging the second time, the detention period can be extended to ten years.
The legal definition of “begging” indicates that the anti-beggary laws do not only prohibit begging per se, i.e. simply asking for alms. It also prohibits vagrancy: people “wandering” without any visible means of subsistence, even if not asking for alms
The legal definition of “begging” indicates that the anti-beggary laws do not only prohibit begging per se, i.e. simply asking for alms. It also prohibits vagrancy: people“wandering” without any visible means of subsistence, even if not asking for alms. There is ample evidence to prove that this definition has been used by the local administration to harass the poor and the homeless. A glaring example of this was seen in the run up to the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi. A number of human rights activists highlighted multiple cases of the police arbitrarily arresting the poor and homeless from the streets on charges of begging. Mobile courts were formed for their prosecution, while several areas were declared as “zero-tolerance zones”.
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The anti-beggary laws have therefore been subject to fierce criticism — they have been rightly condemned as excessively draconian and being in violation of the fundamental rights of the poor. While these are important interventions, a point which seldom forms a part of public discussion on the issue is the colonial history of these laws, which goes back to 1869 with the promulgation of the first anti-vagrancy statute by the colonial British government. In the context of the Delhi High Court’s remark on the anti-beggary laws and the subsequent debate on the issue, I propose that it would be helpful to undertake a basic inquiry into this history of these laws. Here, I take up the history of the first colonial anti-vagrancy statue and the Bombay Act, since they serve as the model anti-beggary law for at least 15 other states.
Going back to the colonial era, the first full-fledged law to prohibit any form of beggary in India was the European Vagrancy Act, 1869, which was interestingly meant to identify beggars and vagrants only of European extraction and not of Indian. Under the Act, a “vagrant” was defined as “a person of European extraction … found asking for alms or wandering about without any employment or visible means of subsistence.”
Post the Revolt of 1857, the transfer of power from the East India Company (EIC) to the British Crown was followed by an immense expansion of industrial enterprise, especially railways. This resulted in a sudden influx of a European labouring class into colonial India
This Act had a specific aim. Post the Revolt of 1857, the transfer of power from the East India Company (EIC) to the British Crown was followed by an immense expansion of industrial enterprise, especially railways. This resulted in a sudden influx of a European labouring class into colonial India — mostly imported from Britain for construction works. Further, the EIC’s army and the naval forces, which were expanded by the administration in response to the Revolt, were respectively amalgamated with the royal forces and disbanded, discharging large number of European soldiers, navy men and sailors, without any reasonable means of sustenance in the long run.
From 1859 to 1862, the Navy and its other departments discharged some 2,703 men, leaving them without any pensions. Moreover, between 1860 and 1861, 329 soldiers were discharged by the Army in a similar manner, with little or no pensions. Adding to this, once it was realised that previously unconsidered native labour was cheaper than European workers, many lost their jobs and joined the ranks of ex-soldiers and ex-sailors. A combination of both these populations, later sliding into extreme poverty, emerged as a new class altogether: the “poor whites,” making a living from extortion and petty crime and soon attracting the labels of “vagrants,”“paupers,”“loafers,” etc.
For the colonial rulers, the “depravity” of the “poor whites” inviting the gaze of the natives brought stigma to the character of the British government. How could the rulers claim legitimacy to “civilise” the Indians if a section of the rulers lived a life of crime, vagrancy, and laziness (by not engaging in labour)?
For the colonial rulers, the “depravity” of the “poor whites” inviting the gaze of the natives brought stigma to the character of the British government. How could the rulers claim legitimacy to “civilise” the Indians if a section of the rulers lived a life of crime, vagrancy, and laziness (by not engaging inlabour)?As Aravind Ganachari argues in his paper, White Man’s Embarrassment’: European Vagrancy in 19th Century Bombay, the European vagrants threatened to bridge that distance between the natives and the English class which became ever so necessary post the Revolt of 1857. Ganachari quotes one of the “minutes” of W R Mansfield, the then Commander-in-Chief of India, on the issue of vagrancy amongst Europeans, dated June 6, 1862:
“I have long been keenly alive to the shame and inconvenience to which we are exposed by the destitution of some of our countrymen in India … [This] involve[s] a serious stigma on the character of our government, which must suffer in native eyes accordingly, and that putting aside the question of charity, we lose in prestige as the dominant race in this country, by permitting such a state of things.”
It was this anxiety of “loss of prestige” that necessitated a legislation which would keep the “poor whites” away from the native subjects. In this direction, on August 11, 1869, a bill regarding European vagrancy was presented in the Executive Council of Lord Mayo, then Viceroy of India. Moved by Henry Maine, the law member of the Council, it was finally passed as the European Vagrancy Act XXI on September 18, 1869.
Bombay and the epidemics
For a long time in colonial India, there was an absence of any systematic, full-fledged legal intervention against the native vagrant or beggar. However, this lack of rigour sustained itself only till the late-19th century, starting which many regions — especially the presidency towns — were hit with a series of famines and epidemics. In his paper Malaria and Mortality in Bengal, 1840-1921, historian Ira Klein notes that during the mid 1890s-1920, “malaria, bubonic plague, influenza, and direct and indirect mortality from famine accounted for over fifty million deaths …” adding that, “epidemics and plague appear to have intensified in the nineteenth century, and to have reached a climax in the two decades after 1900”.
There was an increasing need amongst the colonial administrators and the elite classes of the town to control and restrict the movement of the refugees, lest they “scatter the germs of the diseases from which they suffer” through the town
One of the main towns that were affected was Bombay, which had by then grown into an important metropolis for the colonial government. The Great Famine of 1876-1878 had resulted in an unprecedented influx of famine refugees into Bombay. An analysis of the newspaper records from this period reveals that there was an increasing need amongst the colonial administrators and the elite classes of the town to control and restrict the movement of the refugees, lest they “scatter the germs of the diseases from which they suffer” through the town.
“… When we consider that these people [famine refugees] are so thoroughly exhausted from travel and starvation that not more than from three to four per cent can be described as capable of able-bodied labour; that there is no demand whatever for extra labour here; that many are already suffering from “famine fever,” and that nearly all are ripe for disease, we are compelled to foresee an epidemic, in which the great loss of life cannot be confined to the immigrants. We speak plainly; not as alarmists, but merely to urge the necessity of checking this dangerous movement by one means or another … These unfortunate people are vagrant paupers to a degree undreamt of in England, and they must either be treated as paupers are treated there, i.e., sent back to their original zillas, or Government must arm the officials with summary powers to seize them all as they come in – whether on foot, by rail, or by sea – and deport them to some large relief camp to be established, well outside the limits of the city.”
Similarly, reporting about a census undertaken by the health department in a famine camp, The Times of India in an editorial dated April 21, 1879, noted:
“… we have very grave doubts as to the wisdom of permitting suffering people more or less diseased to start from this focus every morning, and begging through every street of the city, to scatter the germs of the diseases from which they suffer broadcast through Bombay. Without being alarmists, we may suggest that small-pox is decidedly on the increase. These famine camps, if they must exist about Bombay, should be situated outside the town altogether.”
The panic-stricken colonial administration assumed the overpopulated slums to be the locus of the disease, and by extension, the people living in these densely populated quarters became for the authorities the primal carriers of the plague
The image of the famine-stricken, diseased beggars taking over the social space of the city’s elite residency and affecting public health was firmly established by now. Years later, the first series of plague deaths were recorded in Bombay in the months of August and September 1896. The panic-stricken colonial administration assumed the overpopulated slums to be the locus of the disease, and by extension, the people living in these densely populated quarters became for the authorities the primal carriers of the plague.
In his book The Making of an Indian Metropolis: Colonial Governance and Public Culture in Bombay, 1890-1920, historian Prashant Kidambi argues that the colonial state’s anti-plague policies were informed by a class bias that “Bombay’s poor, by virtue of being innately susceptible to the plague contagion nurtured in their insanitary ‘slums,’ would infect the city’s elites.” This was the case even after the Indian Plague Commission of 1898-99admitted to have not found any statistical evidence to confirm that insanitary conditions “exercise any marked favouring influence on the spread of plague.” But through the 1897 Epidemic Diseases Act, powers were already conferred upon the municipal authorities to declare any building deemed “insanitary” as “unfit for human habitation.” The authorities could compel landlords to turn out tenants, peremptorily evict the residents from these buildings, and even demolish these tenements.
A beggar found asking for alms on a road, footway, building, tent, race-course, circus, theatre, eating house, coffee-house, etc., was liable to a maximum term of one-month of prison with an added fine of Rs 50
The increase in the power of the local administration was concomitant with a radical transformation of Bombay’s public space — and thereby, that of the street, which was home to the vast beggar population. In his book, Prashant Kidambi quotes the then Police Commissioner of Bombay as arguing that the native beggars were “as a rule extremely filthy in their habits,” “afflicted with loathsome deformities,” and as repositories of “infectious diseases.” To tackle these beggars, the Bombay government in 1902 promulgated the Bombay City Police Act, which carried provisions to monitor the movement of the city’s beggars. A beggar found asking for alms on a road, footway, building, tent, race-course, circus, theatre, eating house, coffee-house, etc., was liable to a maximum term of one-month of prison with an added fine of Rs 50.
But even after such an expansive definition of the “street,” the 1902 Act proved insufficient from the point of view of the administration. In the annual report to the Government of Bombay on the work of the City Police for the year 1918, the Bombay Commissioner of Police, while praising the police’s “sustained effort … throughout the year to deal with the beggar problem,” also noted:
“… sustained police activity … can only touch the fringe of the problem … and until [the] district maintains its alms houses and Bombay city keeps up a clearing house into which beggars are put pending transfer to the district alms houses [for beggars from other towns, called as “pauper immigrants”], or to workhouses for those who are physically capable of working, there will be no permanent improvement.”
The absence of workhouses for beggars was reiterated in 1920, when a Committee to “consider and formulate proposals for the purpose of preventing professional beggary in the Bombay Presidency,” submitted its final report to the Government of Bombay. In Chapter 5 of the report, the Committee acknowledged that the 1902 Act did not “afford adequate power to the police and the magistracy” and suggested drafting a new “Beggars Act” which provides for establishing suitable homes/workhouses, infirmaries or orphanages for the detention of the beggars. It also suggested that begging in public streets be made a cognisable offence in a manner in which the police can arrest the accused without a warrant.
Years later, a draft Bill to provide for the prevention of begging was published for comments from the public in the Bombay Government Gazette on April 12, 1945. The statementaccompanying the draft noted that while the “problem” of beggary was frequently considered in the past, “it cannot be effectively and systematically tackled without a Beggars’ Act”. This Bill was passed later as the Bombay Beggars Act, 1945, and was put into operation in March 1946. This Act was modified and re-enacted several times before it was finally passed on December 8, 1959 as the Bombay Prevention of Begging Act, providing for the establishment of “certified institutions” to confine beggars.
Continuation of colonial anxieties
The process of law making does not take place in isolation, but is a product of the prevalent socio-political realities of the day and is shaped by the dynamics of class, race, gender, caste, etc. The components of each statute source their content from these dynamics. For instance, with the emergence of the “poor whites”— whose presence in the public space was a threat to the virtuous European identity which provided a legitimacy to the British rule in India — emerged the need to detain and confine the beggars into “beggar homes”, excluding them from their social environment, keeping them inside prison-like-enclosures, with little or no contact with the outside world.
Post the Great Famine of 1876-1878 and the Bombay Plague, the imagery of the native epidemic victims asking for alms, selling articles on the streets, using public conveyances, “occupying” the public space of the elite, was perceived not only as a threat to the medical health of the town, but also to its social health
Further, post the Great Famine of 1876-1878 and the Bombay Plague, the imagery of the native epidemic victims asking for alms, selling articles on the streets, using public conveyances, “occupying” the public space of the elite, was perceived not only as a threat to the medical health of the town, but also to its social health. These anxieties of the colonial state were later materialised into the 1902 Police Act, only to find a later continuation in the postcolonial beggary laws, by including within the definition of “begging,” activities such as “singing, dancing, fortune telling, performing, or offering any article for sale.”
This history suggests that the legal categories of “vagrant” and “beggar” were synthesised by the colonial administration to protect the false edifice of racial superiority and a misplaced idea of public health in colonial India. Once we take this history into account, it becomes clear that the categorisation of beggars as “offenders” — and thus, as socially undesirable — is rooted in colonial jurisprudence that our postcolonial society carries forward through the anti-beggary laws.