Criminal Tribes Act 1871 – Origin & Current Situation of Criminal Tribes Act

By BYJU'S Exam Prep

Updated on: November 14th, 2023

Criminal Tribes Act 1871 was one of the most draconian laws the British Colonial State passed. Under the law, millions of semi-nomadic and nomadic tribes were designated criminals and put under continuous surveillance. The Criminal Tribes Act 1871 was repealed in August 1949, and the so-called criminal tribes were de-notified in 1952. The Habitual Offenders Act 1952 replaced the erstwhile Criminal Tribes Act 1871.

The Criminal Tribes Act 1871 is an imperative topic from the UPSC Exam point of view. In this article, we are going to cover the information related to Criminal Tribes Act 1871, that would help the UPSC aspirants during their preparation.

What is Criminal Tribes Act 1871?

During British rule since the 1870s, there were various pieces of legislation in India. These pieces of legislation were collectively known as Criminal Tribes Act. This Act criminalised whole communities by keeping them in the criminal category, and due to Criminal Tribes Act 1871 there were some restrictions were imposed. The male members of the family were forced to report weekly to the local police station due to the imposition of the Criminal Tribes Act 1871. However, in August 1949, the Criminal Tribes Act was repealed.

Origin of the Criminal Tribes Act 1871

The origin of the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871 can be traced back to the mutiny of 1857. The progression has been briefly discussed below;

  • After the 1857 revolt, the colonial government found it difficult to demarcate between wandering criminals, vagrants, travelling tradespeople, nomads, and gipsies. So all of them, including eunuchs, were grouped and labelled as a threat to the law and order of the society.
  • Most of them were poor, low-caste, nomadic tribes who made their living through petty trades or animal husbandry. They did not involve themselves in settled agriculture or waged labour. The British considered such a nomadic lifestyle a menace to society.
  • The measure was a part of a broader attempt of the colonial government to reform the dangerous classes’ whose behaviour they thought was hereditary rather than learned.

Criminal Tribes Act 1871 Caste List – Labeling and Restrictions

A list of criminal castes’ was made under the Criminal Tribes Act 1871. The listed members were restricted in their movement and socialization process.

  • In some regions, the entire caste was presumed guilty at birth. The children were separated from their parents and held in penal colonies or quarantined. The adult males of the notified group were forced to report weekly to the police station.
  • The British officials justified the treatment by alluding to how the caste system works. Since people belonging to a caste pursued their forefather’s professions, the descendants of the offenders were destined to commit crimes.
  • The Criminal Tribes Act 1871 was posed widely as a measure to reform criminals socially through work. This got them a large amount of public support.
  • The major caste groups considered criminal by birth included Ahir, Gujjar, Lodhi, Chamars, Sanyasis, Bowreah, Budducks, Bedyas, Domes, Dorms, Rebari, Bhar, Pasi, etc. The transgender community was also targeted under Criminal Tribes Act 1871.

Criminal Tribes Act 1871 – Pre and Post-Independence Reforms

In 1936, Jawaharlal Nehru renounced the Criminal Tribes Act 1871, calling it a monstrous provision that negated civil liberty.

  • Post-independence, in 1947, the Bombay government set up a committee to look into criminal tribes.’ After a long campaign, the number of tribes listed under the act was reduced. Other provincial governments followed suit.
  • The Criminal Tribes Act 1871 was repealed in 1949, and twenty-three lakhs tribals were decriminalized. The Habitual Offender Act 1952 was enacted in place of the Criminal Tribes Act 1871.

Criminal Tribes Act 1871 – Current Situation

Today, the de-notified and nomadic tribes constitute approximately 60 million Indian population. Many of them continue to carry considerable stigma from the Criminal Tribes Act 1871.

  • The Habitual Offender Act(Criminal Tribes Act 1871) is also criticized because it simply relists the criminal tribe’ as a de-notified tribe, but the oppression of these marginalized people continues.
  • The National Commission for De-notified, Nomadic, and Semi-Nomadic Tribes recommended that reservations be made available to de-notified, nomadic, and semi-nomadic communities. They further recommended the applicability of the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act to these tribes.
  • Today, government and non-government bodies hold various schemes and programs to uplift the de-notified tribes.
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