Criminal Tribes Act

The term Criminal Tribes Act (CTA) applies to various successive pieces of legislation enforced in India during British rule; the first enacted in 1871 as Criminal Tribes Act (Act XXVII of 1871) applied mostly in North India[2] The Act was extended to Bengal Presidency and other areas in 1876, and finally with the Criminal Tribes Act 1911, it was extended to Madras Presidency as well. The Act went through several amendments in the next decade and finally the Criminal Tribes Act (VI of 1924) incorporated all of them.[3]

The Act came into force, with the assent of the Governor-General of India on 12 October 1871.[4] Under the act, ethnic or social communities in India which were defined as “addicted to the systematic commission of non-bailable offences” such as thefts, were systematically registered by the government. Since they were described as ‘habitually criminal’, restrictions on their movements were also imposed; adult male members of such groups were forced to report weekly to the local police.[5]

At the time of Indian independence in 1947, there were thirteen million people in 127 communities who faced constant surveillance, search and arrest without warrant if any member of the group was found outside the prescribed area.[6] The Act was repealed in August 1949 and former “criminal tribes” were denotified in 1952, when the Act was replaced with the Habitual Offenders Act 1952 of Government of India, and in 1961 state governments started releasing lists of such tribes.[7][8]

Today, there are 313 Nomadic Tribes and 198 Denotified tribes of India,[7][8] yet the legacy of the Act continues to haunt the majority of 60 million people belonging to these tribes, especially as their notification over a century ago has meant not just alienation and stereotyping by the police and the media, but also economic hardships. A large number of them can still only subscribe to a slightly altered label, “Vimukta jaatis” or the Ex-Criminal Tribes.[9][10][11]


Though ostensibly the law was created to bring into account groups like the Thugs which were successfully tackled in previous decades, and give the authorities better means to tackle the menace of ‘professional criminals’, many scholars believe, however, that this was also done due to their participation in the revolt of 1857, and many tribal chiefs were labelled traitors and caused constant trouble to the authorities through their frequent acts of rebellion.[13]

Some historians, like David Arnold, have suggested that it so happened because many of these tribes were simply small communities of low-caste and nomadic people living on the fringes of the society upon rudimentary subsistence, often wandering to survive as petty traders, pastoralists, gypsies, hill and forest dwelling tribes, which did not conform to the British colonial idea of civilised living, of settled agriculture and waged labour. The trouble came, however, when criminality or professional criminal behaviour was taken to be hereditary rather than habitual, that is when crime became ethnic, and what was merely social determinism till then became biological determinism.[14][15]

This shift in notion seems to have arisen out of the prevalent belief in 19th century Europe that peripatetic lifestyles usually meant a menace to the society, hence termed as ‘dangerous classes’ and best kept under control or at least surveillance. Elsewhere the concept of reformatory schools for such people had already been initiated by mid-19th century by social reformers[16][17]

Moreover, India posed a unique problem to the colonialists as demarcation between wandering criminal tribes (Thugs, vagrants, itinerants, travelling tradesmen, nomads and gypsies) seemed impossible, so they were all, even eunuchs (hijras), grouped together, and their subsequent generations were merely a “law and order problem” for the state [17][18]



The idea of Thuggees, who were known for murdering and robbing travellers in caravans, had started around the 17th century and had reached significant proportions by the time the British established themselves in India. As the death toll rose, so did the myths and legend around them, so much so that they became part of British lexicon, and popular culture with novels such as Confessions of a Thug (1839). In 1835, the British colonialists established the Thuggee and Dacoity Department to address the issue, with William Sleeman as its first Superintendent. Sleeman’s title was changed to Commissioner in 1839, when the suppression of Thugs came into full force. The department consisted of around 120 people, who captured[when?] around 3000 thugs, of whom 466 were hanged, 1564 transported and 933 imprisoned for life.[19] By the 1850s, the Thugs were mostly eradicated and the British determined to use similar methods to tackle other issues on a nationwide scale. They identified groups deemed to be dangerous and eventually introduced the Criminal Tribes Act.[12]

When the Bill was introduced in 1871 by jurist James Fitzjames Stephen, who also formulated the Indian Evidence Act 1872, stress was laid on various ethnological theories of caste which linked profession, upbringing and background, as he noted, “… people from time immemorial have been pursuing the caste system defined job-positions: weaving, carpentry and such were hereditary jobs. So there must have been hereditary criminals also who pursued their forefathers’ profession.”. On another occasion defining his theory he had commented, “When we speak of professional criminals, we…(mean) a tribe whose ancestors were criminals from time immemorial, who are themselves destined by the usage of caste to commit crime, and whose descendants will be offenders against the law, until the whole tribe is exterminated or accounts for in manner of thugs”.[6] The measure was a part of a wider attempt at social engineering which saw, for example, the categorisation of castes as being “agricultural” or “martial” as a means of facilitating the distribution of property or recognising which groups were loyal to the colonial government and therefore suitable for military recruitment, respectively.[5]

The British government was able to summon a large amount of public support, including the nationalist press, for the excesses committed on such communities. This is because the Criminal Tribes Act was posed widely as a social reform measure which reformed criminals through work. However, when they tried to make a living like everybody else, they did not find work outside the settlement because of public prejudice and ostracisation. The situation has continued to this day.[13]

The tribes “notified” under the Act were labelled as Criminal Tribes for their so-called “criminal tendencies”. As a result anyone born in these approximately 160 communities across the country was presumed as a “born criminal”, irrespective of their criminal precedents. This gave the police sweeping powers to arrest them, control them, and monitor their movements. Once a tribe was officially notified, its members had no recourse to repeal such notices under the judicial system. From then on, their movements were monitored through a system of compulsory registration and passes, which specified where the holders could travel and reside, and district magistrates were required to maintain records of all such people [14]

An inquiry was set up in 1883, to investigate the need for extending the Act to the rest of India, and received an affirmative response. 1897 saw another amendment to the Act, wherein local governments were empowered to establish separate “reformatory” settlements, for tribal boys from age four to eighteen years, away from their parents.

Eventually, in 1911, it was enacted in Madras Presidency as well, bringing entire India into the jurisdiction of this law [20], in 1908, special ‘settlements’ were constructed for the notified tribes where they had to perform hard labour. With subsequent amendments to the Act, punitive penalties were increased, and fingerprinting of all members of the criminal tribe was made compulsory, such tight control according to many scholars was placed to ensure that no future revolts could take place [14].

Many of the tribes were “settled” in villages under the police guard, whose job was to ensure that no registered member of the tribe was absent with notice. Also imposition of punitive police posts on the villages with history of “misconduct” was also common [21].

In the coming decades, as a fallout of this act, a large section of the these notified tribes took up nomadic existence, living on the fringes of the society.

In 1936, Nehru denouncing the Act commented, “The monstrous provisions of the Criminal Tribes Act constitute a negation of civil liberty. No tribe [can] be classed as criminal as such and the whole principle [is] out of consonance with all civilised principles.” [3][22]


Post-independence reforms

In January 1947, Government of Bombay set up a committee which included B.G. Kher, then Chief Minister Morarji Desai, and Gulzarilal Nanda to look into the matter of ‘criminal tribes’, this set into motion the final repeal of the Act in August 1949, which resulted in 2,300,000 tribals were being decriminalised.[23]

Post independence, the Act was ultimately repealed, first in Madras Province in 1949 as the result of struggles led by Communist leaders such as P. Ramamurthi and P. Jeevanandam, and Forward Bloc leader U. Muthuramalingam Thevar, who had led many agitations in the villages starting 1929, urging the people to defy the CTA, as result the number of tribes under CTA was reduced. Other provincial governments soon followed suit.

Subsequently, the Committee appointed in the same year by the Central government, to study the utility of the existence of this law, reported in 1950 that the system violated the spirit of the Indian constitution. The Habitual Offenders Act (HOA) (1952) was enacted in the place of CTA, which states that an habitual offender is one who has been a victim of subjective and objective influences and has manifested a set practice in crime, and also presents a danger to society, though effectively re-stigmatized the already marginalised “criminal tribes”. Since the stigma continues around the previously criminalised tribes, because of the ineffective nature of the new Act, which in effect meant relisting of the supposed Denotified tribes, and today the social category generally known as the denotified and nomadic tribes of India has a population of approximately 60 million in India.[24]

However many these denotified tribes continued to carry considerable social stigma of the Act and come under the purview of the ‘Prevention of Anti-Social Activity Act’ (PASA). Many of them have been denied the status of Scheduled Castes (SC), Scheduled Tribes (ST) or Other Backward Classes (OBC), which would have allowed them avail Reservation under Indian law, which reserves seats for them in government jobs and educational institutions, thus most of them are still living below poverty line and sub-human condition [3] Over the course of the century since its passing, the criminal identity attached to certain tribes by the Act, was internalised not just by the society, but also by the police, whose official methodology, even after repeal of the Act, often reflected the characteristics of manifestation of an era initiated by the Act, a century ago, where characteristic of crimes committed by certain tribes were closely watched, studied and documented.[25]

National Human Rights Commission, in February, 2000 recommended repeal of the Habitual Offenders Act, 1952.[13] Later in March 2007, the UN’s anti-discrimination body Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), noted that “the so-called denotified and nomadic which are 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)), and asked India to repeal the Habitual Offenders Act (1952) and effectively rehabilitate the denotified and nomadic tribes. According to the body, since much of ‘Habitual Offenders Act (1952)’ is derived from the earlier ‘Criminal Tribes Act 1871’, it doesn’t show a marked departure in its intent, only gives the formed notified tribes a new name i.e. Denotified tribes, hence the stigma continues so does the oppression, as the law is being denounced on two counts, first that “all human beings are born free and equal“, and second that it negates a valuable principle of the criminal justice system – innocent until proven guilty.[26]

In 2008, the National Commission for Denotified, Nomadic and Semi-Nomadic Tribes (NCDNSNT) of Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment recommended that same reservations as available to Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes be extended to around 11 crore people of denotified, nomadic or semi-nomadic tribes in India; the commission further recommended that the provisions of the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 be applicable to these tribes also.[27] Today, many governmental and non-governmental bodies are involved in the betterment of these denotified tribes through various schemes and educational programs.[28]

Criminal Tribes Act. (2012, September 22). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 13:18, November 20, 2012, from


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