This Day in History (12-Oct-1871) – The First Criminal Tribes Act Takes Effect in India

During British era, whoever opposed the British colonial expansion was perceived as a potential criminal. Particularly, if any attempts were made to oppose the government by the use of the arms, the charge of criminality was a certainty. Many of the wandering minstrels, fakirs, petty traders, rustic transporters and disbanded groups of soldiers were included by the British in their list of criminal groups. A particular cult, the Thuggee, gained a reputation for mingling with traveling nomads and killing them in order to get hold of valuables.  During the first half of the nineteenth century, the tribes in the North West frontier had been declared ‘criminal tribes’. This category became increasingly open ended and by 1871 the British had prepared an official list of Criminal Tribes.

An act to regulate criminal tribes was passed that year. For instance, Bhils who had fought the British rule in Kandesh and on the banks of Narmada and were convicted under section 110 of the IPC were to be recognised as criminal tribes. The CT Act made provisions for establishing reformatory settlements where the criminal tribals could be kept in confinement and subjected to low paid work. They were required to report to the guardrooms several times every day, so that they did not escape the oppressive settlements. By 1921, the CT Act had been extended to cover numerous other tribes in Madras Presidency, Hyderabad and Mysore.

Soon after Independence, the communities notified as criminal tribals were denotified by the Government. This notification was followed by substitution of a series of Acts, generally entitled ‘Habitual Offenders Act! The HOAs preserved most of the provisions of the former CT Acts, except the premise implicit in it that an entire community can be ‘born’ criminal. Apparently, the denotification and the passing of the HOAs should have ended the misery of the communities penalised under the CT Act. But that has not happened. The police force as well as the people in general were taught to look upon the ‘Criminal Tribes’ as born criminals during the colonial times. That attitude continues to persist even today.



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