The colonial category of “criminal tribes”

  • History has a way of leaving unfortunate legacies. “If the Local Government has reason to believe that any tribe, gang or class of persons is addicted to the systematic commission of non-bailable offences, it may report the case to the Governor General in Council, and may request his permission to declare such tribe, gang or class to be a criminal tribe.”
  • Hence, a register for Criminal Tribes, not to forget eunuchs. I quoted from the Criminal Tribes Act (CTA) of 1871, though there was a consolidated Criminal Tribes Act of 1924.
  • From 1924: “The Local Government may establish industrial, agricultural or reformatory schools for children, and may order to be separated and removed from their parents or guardians and to be placed in any such school or schools the children of members of any criminal tribe or part of a criminal tribe, in respect of which a notification has been issued.”
  • The Ananthsayanam Ayyangar Committee (1949-50) report was more comprehensive, which looked at the way the CTA had worked throughout India.
  • This had a list of 116 criminal tribes in British territories and more than 200 in the Princely States. (For British territories, a number of 163 floats around. I don’t know where that comes from. 

The Ayyangar Committee’s recommendations led to the repeal of the CTA in August 1952.

  • In 2008, the National Commission for Denotified, Nomadic and Semi-Nomadic Tribes (NCDNT) produced a report.
  • In continuation of a discussion on CTA repeal, it added, “But, to keep effective control over the so-called hardened criminals, the Habitual Offenders Act was placed in the statute book.”
  • The Ayyangar Committee did recommend, “The Criminal Tribes Act, 1924, should be replaced by a Central legislation applicable to all habitual offenders without any distinction based on caste, creed or birth.”
  • Thus, the provisions were meant to be similar to the CTA, but identification shifted to the individual, rather than the collective category.
  • In March 2007, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination did a report on India and stated, “The Committee is concerned that the so-called denotified and nomadic tribes, which were listed for their alleged “criminal tendencies” under the former Criminal Tribes Act (1871), continue to be stigmatised under the Habitual Offenders Act (1952). (art. 2 (1) (c)).
  • The Committee recommends that the State party repeal the Habitual Offenders Act and effectively rehabilitate the denotified and nomadic tribes concerned.”
  • Because this is a UN body, this has been picked up by a lot of people and has been quoted almost ubiquitously in papers and articles. Everyone seems to suggest there was a 1952 “Central” statute, though the UN Report didn’t quite say that explicitly.
  1. Entry 15 in the Concurrent List (seventh schedule) mentions “vagrancy; nomadic and migratory tribes”. Don’t get me wrong. There are certainly state-level statutes on habitual offenders.
  2. The earliest is Punjab/Haryana (1918), followed by Madras/Tamil Nadu (1948). Others followed in 1950s/1960s. Some states didn’t bother.

  • Denotified Tribes (DNTs), also known as Vimukta Jati, are the tribes that were originally listed under the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871, as “Criminal Tribes” and “addicted to the systematic commission of non-bailable offences.”
  • Once a tribe became “notified” as criminal, all its members were required to register with the local magistrate, failing which they would be charged with a “crime” under the Indian Penal Code.
  • The Criminal Tribes Act of 1952 repealed the notification, i.e. ‘de-notified’ the tribal communities.
  • This Act, however, was replaced by a series of Habitual Offenders Acts, that asked police to investigate a “suspect’s” “criminal tendencies” and whether their occupation is “conducive to settled way of life.”
  • The denotified tribes were reclassified as “habitual offenders” in 1959.
  • The name “Criminal Tribes” is itself a misnomer as no definition of tribe denotes occupation, but they were identified as tribes “performing” their primary occupation.
  • The first census was in 1871 and at that time there was no consensus nor any definition of what constitutes a “tribe”. The terms “tribe” and “caste” were used interchangeably for these communities.

  • The Nomadic Tribes and Denotified Tribes consist of about 60 million people in India, out of which about five million live in the state of Maharashtra.
  • There are 315 Nomadic Tribes and 198 Denotified Tribes.
  • A large section of these tribes are known as vimukta jatis or ‘ex-criminal castes’ because they were classed as such under the Criminal Tribes Act 1871, enacted under British rule in India.
  • After Indian Independence, this act was repealed by the Government of India in 1952.
  • In Maharashtra, these people are not been included in the list of Scheduled Tribes due to historical circumstances, but are listed as Scheduled Castes or “Nomadic Tribes”.
  • The tribes designated as “Denotified”, “Nomadic” or “Semi-Nomadic” are eligible for reservation in India.
  • The Government of India established the National Commission for De-notified, Nomadic and Semi Nomadic tribes in 2005 to study the developmental aspects of such tribes.


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