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An unfortunate legacy

The colonial category of “criminal tribes” may have been “denotified” but many communities remain unclassified

Written by Bibek Debroy
Updated: January 5, 2017 12:02:15 am
crime, criminal act,  Criminal Tribes Act , CTA, non-bailable offences, government, government on criminal act, nomadic tribes, semi-nomadic tribes, Ananthsayanam Ayyangar Committee, UN report, racial discrimination, india news, indian express news, indian express columns 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. (Representational photo)

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.”

Subsequently, there were some enquiry/inquiry committees that were region-specific — Bombay (1939), United Provinces (Agra and Oudh, 1947). 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. Unless I made a mistake, I could count only 116.)

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.

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. The earliest is Punjab/Haryana (1918), followed by Madras/Tamil Nadu (1948). Others followed in 1950s/1960s. Some states didn’t bother.

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A few enacted a law, but didn’t enforce it. UP is one of those that enacted such a statute, but repealed it later. Unless I have got it completely wrong, contrary to popular perception, there never was a Union-level statute. After the CTA repeal, the Union government had a model bill. States used this as a template and for “habitual offenders”, there were principles of registration, restrictions on movement and provisions for corrective training. These principles
followed the CTA, but the emphasis was on the individual, not the collective. But let’s leave aside the habitual offender issue and return to the unfortunate legacy.

A quote from a 2016 Report of the NCDNT sums it up: “After Independence, the erstwhile aborigines were classified as scheduled tribes, the untouchables were classified as scheduled castes and others included in the backward classes. Although, many of the denotified, nomadic and semi-nomadic tribes are spread among SC/ST/OBC, many are still not classified anywhere and have no access to socio-economic benefits, whether education, health, housing or otherwise… Except a few states like Maharashtra, Gujarat, etc, some of these communities figure in various classifications in the states such as Backward Tribe (Puducherry), Most Backward Classes (Tamil Nadu), Extremely Backward Classes (Bihar), “original settlers” in Arunachal Pradesh, Primitive Tribes (Jharkhand/ Odisha), Hill Tribes (Assam) etc. In some states they are called “tribal settlers”. In some states they are called “hidden tribes” etc… There are many anomalies in terms of identification of these communities, from state to state. Many people also do not know what is denotified tribe and which authority is looking after their grievances. Recently, this Commission made a recommendation to the Government of India to write to all state governments to form a district-level Grievances Redressal Committee under the District Collector to hear the grievances of these communities/groups/tribes.”

“These communities/tribes account for nearly 10 per cent of community’s population as has been mentioned in
some writings and there are nearly 820 communities and tribes in India, although some of the community leaders assess that their number would be more with 198 denotified tribes and nearly 1,500 nomadic tribes and their population may be even more than 10 per cent.”


This is partly a positive affirmation/ reservation issue. But if you go through the annexures in the 2016 NCDNT report, some communities want to be recognised as SCs, STs or OBCs. But there are also those who want recognition as DNTs/NTs.

The writer is member, Niti Aayog. Views are personal

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First published on: 05-01-2017 at 12:02:14 am
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