The Criminal Tribes Act of 1871

Since the 1870s, various pieces of colonial legislation were passed in India during British rule. These were collectively called the Criminal Tribes Act (CTA). This act criminalized entire communities by designating them as habitual criminals. The ethnic or social communities in India were defined as “addicted to the systematic commission of the non-bailable offense”. These examples of these were thefts and these crimes were registered by the government. The groups which consisted of local males were forced to report on a weekly basis to the local police. They also had restrictions on their movement imposed.

According to history, the first CTA, the Criminal Tribal Act 1871, applied mostly in North India. Then it was extended to the Bengal Presidency and other areas in 1876. This updated to the Criminal Tribes Act 1911. This act included the Madras Presidency. The Criminal Act went through several amendments. Finally the Criminal Tribes Act 1924 was established which incorporated all of them. When India became independent in 1947, about 12 million people in about 127 communities faced search and arrest. This happened only if the group contained any member who belonged outside the prescribed area.

The government revoked the Act in August 1949. Along with it, it denotified many former “criminal tribes” in 1952. This happened when the Act was replaced by the Habitual Offenders Act in 1952. In 1961. The state governments started releasing lists of such tribes. As of today, there are 313 Nomadic Tribes and 198 Denotified Tribes of India. Still, the legacy of the past continues to affect the majority of 60 million people belonging to these tribes. It is because their historical associations have meant continuous alienation and stereotyping by the police and the media. It also meant economic hardships. People still describe many of them as Vimukta Jaatis or “Ex Criminal Tribes”.

Thugees were a cult devoted to the worship of the goddess Kali, who had been operating with impunity in the Indian Subcontinent long before the arrival of the British. They had robbed and murdered travelers in caravans by the millions according to some estimates. In order to combat this menace, the Criminal Tribes Act was formed.

If a glance is taken, it might seem like the CTA was brought about to instill order and security by the colonial authorities. But now, contemporary historians are now seeing the measure as a part of a wider attempt at social engineering which, for example, saw the categorization of castes as being “agricultural” or “martial”. The example might also be like recognizing which groups were loyal to the colonial government and therefore suitable for military recruitment, respectively.

Sociologist Meena Radhakrishna writes that the origins behind the creation of the act concerned the revolt of 1857 where there were many tribal chiefs. They included Dhan Singh Gurjar who were labeled traitors and considered rebellious. There are many historians, such as David Arnold, who have suggested that this happened because many of these tribes were small communities of poor, low-caste, and nomadic people who were living on the fringes of the society.

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