This article is written by Arryan Mohanty, a student from Symbiosis Law School, Nagpur. The article analyses the Criminal Tribes Act passed during British rule in India in 1871. Also, it highlights the reasons and circumstances leading to this act’s passing.

This article has been published by Sneha Mahawar.​​ 


In the past, there were numerous tribes and groups living in India who wandered about the country all year long and did not have a permanent home. They raised animals, played music, engaged in acrobatics, and exhibited various other talents to support themselves. But all that changed when the British began to dominate India. The British, who were always skeptical about these nomads, looked askance at their actions and made an effort to relocate them. Over time, the colonial state of India grew persuaded of these individuals’ criminality and attributed it to their ancestry. 

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Nomadic populations pose particular difficulties for colonial authorities. Nomads make it more difficult for these regimes to watch over and manage their citizens. The British colonial government in India dealt with this in many ways, the most notable of which was labelling some communities as “criminal tribes” to pressure them to settle. This is undoubtedly one of the most successful public policies of British India in terms of the long-term effects of a policy and the enduring pain it generated. The character of the “criminal tribal” is a crucial aspect of the narrative supporting this strategy. These persons were shown in the description as having inclining criminal behaviour.

Additionally, the individual tribal is depicted as functioning amid and receiving help from other tribe members. Therefore, criminality is both a personal flaw and a social flaw. Even by the standards of colonial administrations, such a portrayal in the narrative justified and facilitated unusually harsh control mechanisms. One of the worst laws the British Colonial Government passed was the Criminal Tribes Act, 1871. The British distrust of their actions was made official by the Criminal Tribes Act, 1871. Any investigation of criminal tribes must start by answering the simple question, “What is a criminal tribe?” Because it is a colonial construct, the phrase is rife with misunderstandings about the same group of people it purports to describe. Who should be included in the category of “criminal tribes” was unclear to the colonial policymakers. 

Millions of semi-nomadic and nomadic tribes were labelled criminals under the law and placed under constant watch. August 1949 saw the repeal of the 1871 Act, and February 1952 saw the de-notification of the so-called criminal tribes. The former Criminal Tribes Act, 1871 was replaced by the Habitual Offenders Act, 1952. 

History & origin of the Act

Before the British arrived, thuggees were freely operating throughout the Indian Subcontinent. According to some estimates, they had slaughtered and robbed millions of caravan travellers. The Criminal Tribes Act was created to counteract this threat. At first glance, it might appear that the colonial authorities implemented the Act to promote order and security. Still, modern historians now see the law as a component of a more considerable effort at social engineering that included, for instance, classifying castes as “agricultural” or “martial” or identifying which groups were obedient to the colonial government and, therefore, suitable for military recruitment, respectively. According to sociologist Meena Radhakrishna, the insurrection of 1857, in which several tribal chiefs, like Dhan Singh Gurjar, were labelled traitors and seen as belligerent, was the impetus for the establishment of the Act. According to some historians, including David Arnold, this may have happened because many of these tribes comprised impoverished, low-caste, and nomadic individuals who lived on the periphery of society. 

After the Mughal Empire was weakened, the Thug cult emerged around the 17th century. The Thuggees were an amorphous people. They organised themselves into a group, which may include Muslims and Hindus, and didn’t belong to any one location or district. They leave their country and travel a great distance before posing as a group, attacking the dealers, and then going themselves for a while before rejoining another group or community. They choose one of their offspring to be their devotee, and the family stays in the community where their lifestyle as thugs is concealed and masked. Such success over an unfavourable annoyance prompted the government to use comparable expertise to address relative problems on a national scale. Politically and socially valid theories were advanced in the Thugs’ concealment, which, in the decade that followed, amassed enough steam to fake credibility and open support. Soon after, similar meetings that the British government deemed dangerous and labelled as “inherited executioners” were discovered, which resulted in the enactment of the “Criminal Tribes Act.” 

Due to their alleged “criminal propensities,” the tribes “told” under the Act were labelled “Criminal Tribes.” Therefore, regardless of their criminal backgrounds, everybody created in these roughly 160 groups around the country was regarded as a “conceived criminal.” The police clearing teams could monitor, manage, and capture their developments. After tribes received formal notification, their members could not rescind the notification, following the law. From then on, their progress was monitored by a system of required enrollment and passed that set restrictions on where the holders might go and stay. Local justices were obligated to maintain records of all such people. The northern regions of British India were the first to enforce the Criminal Tribes Act. It was extended to Bengal (1876) and other areas, with the Madras Presidency becoming the last to do so in 1911. According to the Act, 151 “innate offenders” who operate within a Hindu framework were to be kept under police surveillance. The rundown now includes more stations. 

These groups’ classification as “criminal” was not based on the idea of inheritance but rather on a group designation passed down from one generation to the next. In this way, the Act permitted the construction of villages and reformatory schools to rehabilitate these people. Their development was restricted to specific zones, and the Act allowed for their arrest without a warrant in the event of an infraction. The offences stopped included forging currency and coins, killing people, breaking into homes, stealing, and dacoity. Children between 6 and 18 were separated from their families and placed in reform institutions.

Rules & procedures of the Act

The Viceroy of India enacted the first Criminal Tribes Act in 1871. This rule had a wide range of applications, and local officials and village leaders were allowed a lot of latitude in determining who should be subject to it and how to impose penalties. Initially implemented in northern India, the Act was repeatedly expanded through 1924, by which time it had been implemented over most of the colonial territory. At its height, the law covered millions of individuals from more than 120 different groups.

Two things need to be said about how the colonial government treated Indian society that is important to the Act. The first was the notion that Indian society was lawless. In the 1860s, a member of the British Viceroy’s Council observed that India was a nation that was “singularly void of law.” The long-standing social norms, conventions, and laws that governed Indian culture for centuries before colonial rulers overlooked the British invasion. To facilitate taxation and control, colonial officials needed people to congregate in one location. According to social scientists, the colonial administration’s true goal was not to establish the rule of law but to firmly enforce its authority over everyone who lived on its territory. 

The Criminal Tribes Act permits the following laws and procedures:

  • According to Section 3 of the Act, local authorities can label any group with a systematic addiction to committing crimes not punishable by bail as a criminal tribe.
  • The Criminal tribes are now covered by Section 10(1)(b) of the Act, which states that “any registered member of the Criminal tribe who has been compelled by sub-Section (b) to notify his place of residence and any subsequent change of address.” He must immediately inform the village headman of his permanent residence and, if any, his temporary residence. This needs to be recorded in the village’s registry.
  • Every registered member of the Act must report to the police or village administration in the area where they happen to be at the time, either once per week or as required by the District Magistrate. This ailment limited their freedom of movement and their right to privacy.
  • As per Section 10(1)(a), a register including the names, left thumb impressions, and ages of all adult male members of each Kallar household, including children and dependents, must be kept by the neighbourhood police station or panchayat.
  • The names and left-thumb impressions of people who have been convicted of crimes and those who have disobeyed the terms of subSections (a) and (b) of Section  10(1).

The Criminal Tribes Act, 1871 created a list of criminal castes. The listed members had limitations on their freedom of movement and capacity for socialisation.

  • In some places, a caste’s members were automatically guilty from birth. The kids were confined or held in penal colonies apart from their parents. The adult males who had been notified were required to go to the police station once a week.
  • The British officials used references to the caste structure to defend their treatment. The descendants of the perpetrators committed crimes because members of a caste continued their ancestors’ occupations.
  • The Criminal Tribes Act, 1871 was widely promoted as a policy to rehabilitate convicts socially through employment. They received a lot of popular support as a result of this.
  • Ahir, Gujjar, Lodhi, Chamars, Sanyasis, Bowreah, Budducks, Bedyas, Domes, Dorms, Rebari, Bhar, Pasi, etc., were the main caste groupings that were viewed as criminals by birth. The Criminal Tribes Act, 1871 also targeted the transgender population. 

Essential features of the Act

Profiling and segregation

Throughout the 1920s, the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871, which through expansion of its scope, targeted many castes in British India. According to Simon Cole, a professor of criminology, law, and society at Cornell University in New York, the legislation said that everyone who belonged to a particular caste was born with criminal tendencies. 

According to Ramnarayan Rawat, a history professor specialising in social exclusion in the Indian subcontinent, the criminal-by-birth castes under this Act initially included Gujjars, Harni (a sub-clan of Rajput), and Lodhi (a sub-clan of Rajput). Still, by the end of the 19th century, it covered most Shudras and “untouchables,” such as Chamars, as well as Sanyasis and hill tribes. The colonial authorities compiled a lengthy list of the criminal castes across India. Members of these tribes had limited options for social interaction and freedom of travel. In some parts of British India, entire caste groups were imprisoned without trial or due process. Children were taken away from their parents and put in penal colonies or quarantines. From the beginning of the 19th century until the middle of the 20th, criminal-by-birth laws applied to certain castes. From the 1900s to the 1930s, the list of criminal castes grew in the west and south of India. The Criminal Tribes Act was applied to hundreds of Hindu tribes. In the Madras Presidency alone, the colonial authorities identified 237 criminal castes and tribes under the statute by 1931.

The Narrative on ‘criminal tribes’

The colonial administration’s narrative aimed to delegitimise nomadic tribal people and impose a strict policy solution on them, which were two opposing objectives. The targeted tribals were delegitimised using various techniques, and the imposed policy solution obliged them to relocate to the periphery of already-existing cities and villages. 

The justification for a draconian policy like the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871’s targets’ deservingness must be thoroughly explained. The policy cites these tribal nomads’ “addiction to the persistent commission of non-bailable offences” as the issue. This claim merits examination on many different fronts. First, it is claimed that the nomads are “addicted” to crime. The approach makes it seem as though punishing and regulating the subjects is only inevitable because it frames the issue as an innate malfunction and further attributes it to a whole population.

Second, they are accused of acting criminally in a “systematic way.” For the policy to tie the collective to individual shortcomings, the nomads must be described this way. The coordination and assistance of multiple people are necessary for the systematic commission of crimes. Furthermore, according to historical beliefs, several of these nomadic communities are said to have specialties and distinctive markings regarding their crimes. For instance, some were purportedly livestock lifters, while others preferred train robberies. Policymakers decided to categorise and punish entire groups of people because these nomadic groups are purportedly addicted to committing crimes, and such crimes include cooperation at the group level. Third, the organisations purportedly commit “non-bailable” felonies, emphasising to the public that the crimes are serious in bureaucratic terminology. 

The claim made by an imperial writer that members of these roving tribes are “broken men and fallen women” is clear evidence of the idea that there is something fundamentally wrong with entire groups of people. In a culture where family honour is highly symbolic, the metaphor of the fallen woman carries a lot of weight. This is another way the policy narrative undermines any potential demand for respect for human dignity made by the targeted groups of individuals. 

The Criminal Tribes Act’s adoption and execution were discussed by colonial officials, which supports the idea that these tribal members are corrupt and should be subdued and punished. A specific tribe’s members were described as “dirty, tattered, (and) walked with a stealthy gait” by one official. George MacMunn, a different colonial military official, referred to members of “criminal tribes” as “absolute slime” and “beasts of the field.” 

The narrative puts a lot of effort into supporting the idea of group guilt and setting the stage for group retribution. Caste is a tactic those who support the programme use to argue that all people from certain tribes are criminals. According to a simplistic view of the caste system, each caste is subdivided according to the professions of its members. According to this simple concept, a child born into a caste (particularly a male child) will eventually take up the work of his father and grandfather. Advocates of the policy narrative argued that all members of “criminal tribes” are criminals and will pass on the “profession” to their offspring by using the analogy of caste. According to this flawed logic, even if a child has never committed a crime, they automatically become criminals the moment they are born into one of these tribes. “The caste structure in India is unique,” according to colonial jurist TV Stephens. “Currently, trades are based on caste, so if a carpenter family survives for a century or five, they will continue to be carpenters. In light of this, the definition of a professional criminal is obvious. It refers to a tribe whose members have been breaking the law since the dawn of time, who are predisposed to do so due to caste customs, and whose descendants will continue to do so until the tribe as a whole is eliminated or dealt with in the manner of the Thugs. When a man informs you that he has broken the law, he has done so from the start and will continue to do so. Reform is not feasible because committing crimes is part of his profession, caste, and religion”, he said.

Another step towards delegitimisation taken by the policy statement is the inclusion of these tribals with other marginal and low-status social groupings. The phrase “tribes and gangs” is commonly used in policy documents to allude to criminal gangs that prowl rural areas. The Criminal Tribes Act of 1871 is split into two parts; the first part discusses “criminal tribes,” and the second section addresses eunuchs. By tackling the “issues” of eunuchs, criminal gangs, and nomadic tribes all at once, the strategy aims to highlight how outcast and abnormal everyone is. 

In a proactive approach, the policy notes that even if a tribe seems to have a specific occupation (thereby initially giving the impression that they are not criminals), such an occupation may be a front.

Policy solution

The Criminal Tribes Act suggests strong measures to deal with the travelling tribes because it claims that they are addicted to crime, commit crimes in gangs, are born criminals, and cannot be trusted even if they have lawful employment. Forcing nomadic tribes to settle and assuring control and supervision over these settled tribes are the two main elements of the remedies suggested. According to James Scott, colonial leaders hate and distrust individuals who live off the land. For the sake of taxes and political control, they must be aware of the location of their subjects. Additionally, colonial regimes favour settled populations over nomadic ones since the latter offers a consistent labour supply to colonial businesses while the former are unreliable labourers.

The colonial government in India did not yet have a comprehensive (much less nuanced) understanding of Indian society at the time this strategy was adopted. As a result, individuals writing the law were unaware of the specific tribes that this policy was intended to harm. Authorities at the local level, such as village headmen (always men) and police officers, were allowed wide latitude in determining who should be subject to this policy’s monitoring and punishment. As per the guidelines, local officials must compile a list of every criminal tribesperson in their jurisdiction. Once a person’s name is on such a list, there is no way for that person to get it taken off. The regulation prohibits legal challenges to an official’s list, eliminating even purely symbolic checks and balances. Members of the tribe are obligated to remain in the region where authorities forcibly registered them. If they must travel, a pass granted by the local police will be required. They must make another police report when they reach their location.

Considering how these nomads lived for so many years, it is worthwhile to pause and consider how harsh these regulations are. They are prohibited from travelling for personal, religious, or professional reasons unless local law enforcement officials have given their permission. The provincial government established “reform communities” in several places where the nomads were instructed in “legitimate occupations.” For “reform” and evangelising objectives, missionaries were given control of several of these towns. The policy’s harshness is further demonstrated by the harsh penalties — jail and flogging — that are meted out to individuals who break the rules of being watched.

The policy’s implementation could have been better than its terrible intentions. Those tasked with keeping an eye on the tribals ultimately took advantage of them. The indigenous people were deprived of access to their traditional ways of life because they were compelled to settle frequently in new locations and on the outskirts of towns and villages that already existed. Their need for work produced openings that could be taken advantage of. In certain instances, village chiefs employed the tribe members to rob or assault rivals. If the tribal members were arrested, it would be convenient for their reputation as thieves and thugs. In other instances, the freshly settled tribals were made to clean the homes of the upper caste residents by hand scavengers.

Forcing individuals to relocate benefited new enterprises like jute mills because it produced a worker force bound to that location and required “honourable labour.” Similarly, railway firms used freshly settled males from “criminal tribes” as bonded labour.

Effects of the Act

Pre-independence effect

The Criminal Tribe Act’s application impacted the “criminal tribes.” The fact that none of the group’s members were criminals led to the condemnation of this Act. It cannot be disputed that each group contained a small number of criminals. The government shouldn’t label the entire organisation criminals because a few members were involved in criminal activity. These tribes relied on the deliberate conduct of crimes that were not punishable by bail, and once they were told, their members had little interest in appearing in court. As a result, the Notified Criminal Tribes experienced severe suffering and were denied their right to freedom. People belonging to the designated Criminal Tribe were forced to operate outside the legal system’s confines and under intense but fruitless police surveillance. 

The Act was just one of the regulations the British colonial authority created that applied to Indians according to their caste and religion. The word “Tribes” was employed in its regulations, and castes were included in its purview. For various reasons, this nomenclature was favoured, including Muslim sensibilities that castes were by definition Hindu and a preference for Tribes as a more inclusive phrase that included Muslims.

Post-independence effect

Politicians and activists began campaigning against the different Criminal Tribes Acts after India gained independence from British control in 1947. The Colonial Government Acts were repealed by the Criminal Tribes Act, 1952, which also “denotified” the tribes that they were no longer regarded as criminals. But various Habitual Offenders Acts, intended for groups allegedly committing crimes regularly, have been passed since 1952. Some of the same people targeted by the colonial criminal tribal laws ended up being subject to the new rules. Numerous countries have established committees to investigate the “issue” of denotified tribes. Although intermittent welfare initiatives were started, these tribal peoples’ lives haven’t changed all that much. These individuals continue to be stigmatised as “born criminals,” and local authorities and social elites focus more negatively on them than positively. The fact that some indigenous people internalised and accepted the label of “born criminal” as their identity makes the policy extremely damaging.

Because it made a false comparison to the caste system in Hindu civilisation, the idea of “criminal tribes” gained traction and endured. As previously stated, British colonialists thought caste to be India’s fundamental social structuring element. They perceived caste as being based on a particular vocation. People preserved the caste and profession they inherited for the rest of their lives. This rationale regarding caste was unrelenting. The narrative opened the ground for a ruthless policy solution by asserting that nomadic tribes are similar to castes and that criminality is both inherent and unavoidable for members of these tribes. The narrative became one that most people could grasp readily as a result of the erroneous likeness created between tribes and castes. The belief that members of the “criminal tribes” were born into criminality and would pass it on to their offspring persisted even after the strategy was discontinued after India gained independence from Britain. This belief was shared by administrators at the local level as well.

The Act’s implementation was severe. It resulted in the considerable restriction of long-term nomads’ freedom of movement. When the policy was discontinued in 1952, these folks’ circumstances did not change. Local government representatives continued to harass and discriminate against members of these tribes. Police frequently accuse and detain members of these tribes during criminal investigations, even without solid proof. The stigma attached to being called “born criminals” allowed the exploitation of the tribal people to continue. Some attempted to flee to urban areas, where they started begging in bus terminals and public places. There are many instances of preconceptions being reinforced and the sad consequences for those belonging to the so-called denotified tribes, but this one is particularly tragic.

Long after the official criminal tribes’ policy has ended, these people continue to be exploited because of the stigma attached to their connection to the Criminal Tribes Act, the widespread acceptance of the myth that members of these tribes routinely and collectively practise crime, and because they are helpful to village level police and other elites.


To investigate the issue of “criminal tribes,” the Government of Bombay established a commission in January 1947 that included B.G. Kher, Morarji Desai, and Gulzarilal Nanda. This sparked the final repeal of the Act in August 1949, which led to the decriminalisation of 2,300,000 tribe members. Ultimately, the Act was revoked upon independence. After a protracted struggle led by Communist figures like P. Ramamurthi and P. Jeevanandham, as well as the leader of the Forward Bloc, U. Muthuramalingam Thevar, it was first repealed in Madras Province in 1949. Since 1929, Thevar had spearheaded many agitations in the villages, encouraging the populace to oppose the Criminal Tribes Act, 1871. The number of tribes included in the Act was thus decreased. Soon after, other provincial administrations did the same. The committee established by the Central Government to examine the necessity of this statute went on to report in 1950 that the system violated the spirit of the Indian Constitution.

Following a significant rise in crime after the criminal tribes were denotified, the Criminal Tribes Act was replaced by the Habitual Offenders Act 1952, which defines a habitual offender as someone who has been the victim of both subjective and objective influences, has displayed a set pattern of criminal behaviour, and also poses a danger to society. The already marginalised “criminal tribes” were effectively re-stigmatised by the Habitual Offenders Act. Due to the new Act’s inefficiency, which effectively resulted in the relisting of the purportedly denotified tribes, the formerly criminalised tribes continue to bear a stigma. Approximately 60 million people in India currently fall under the sociological groups denotified and “nomadic tribes”.

Around 110 million members of denotified, nomadic, or semi-nomadic tribes in India were recommended to receive the same reservations as those available to Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes by the National Commission for Denotified, Nomadic, and Semi-Nomadic Tribes (NCDNSNT) of the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment in 2008. The commission also suggested that the provisions of the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities Act, 1989) be used by many governmental and non-governmental organisations that are now working to improve the lives of these denotified tribes through various initiatives and educational initiatives.


Numerous insights into the colonial legal system can be gained by studying the criminal tribes of nineteenth-century India concerning the Criminal Tribes Act. The need to provide a stable image was profoundly behind how the British understood “crime” and how to deal with it. Such a forecast required the colonial government to publicise its triumphs in maintaining law and order. The so-called criminal tribes were the focus of a powerful and persistent colonial narrative. Its employment of symbols and metaphors resonating with the social elites and government officials is a significant factor. One example is referring to the tribe’s members as “broken men and fallen women.” When used in a societal context where “honour” for oneself and one’s family is explicitly valued, persons are unavoidably condemned to low rank and dignity. The erroneous assertion that criminal tribes are similar to castes is another, more effective tactic. This made it easier for non-tribal people to accept criminality as a hereditary trait in the communities where these tribes were forcibly relocated.

Unfortunately, despite the policy against such tribes being abolished, people made it nearly impossible for members of these tribes to reject their reputation as “criminal tribes.” Similar to how their caste permanently identifies the majority of Hindus, these tribal members could not shed the label of “criminal tribe.” The criminal tribes’ policy’s most ingenious ruse included forging a link between the so-called criminal tribes and the caste structure that predominated Hindu culture. The colonial government created this connection even though many tribal people are outside the caste system and do not identify as Hindus.

Furthermore, those who benefited from the colonial regime found powerful defenders. The approach produced cheap labour for village leaders and burgeoning industries like jute mills by compelling the indigenous people to settle, frequently on the outskirts of villages. The tribe members had to carry out physical scavenging and other activities that the area’s elites would never accomplish. This programme effectively reinforced the superiority of the village elites in the regional social hierarchies.

Frequently asked questions (FAQs)

Who was termed criminal tribes, and why?

The British created the word to describe the most violent subset of roving criminals known as thugs. It was intended to give them a permanent home and aid in improving their socioeconomic status by classifying them as criminal tribes.

What did the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871 cover?

The Criminal Tribes Act was One of the numerous regulations the British colonial authority created that applied to Indians based on their caste and religion. Castes were included in the definition of tribes as used in the Criminal Tribes Act and its regulations. For several reasons, such as Muslim sensibilities that saw castes as inherently Hindu and favoured Tribes as a more general term that encompassed Muslims, this terminology was preferred.

What was the Criminal Tribes Act List?

A list of criminal tribes known as the Criminal Tribes Act List was created under the Criminal Tribes Act, 1871. The listed members’ freedom to move around and interact with others was limited, making their lives difficult and miserable.


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