ECSAS 2023 – Turin 26-29 July

Still “Criminal” After All These Years: Criminal and Denotified Tribes in Colonial and Postcolonial India


Yang Anand - University of Washington, History, Seattle, United States


36 – Interrogating Deviance and ‘Crime’ in Colonial and Postcolonial South Asia


This paper will highlight the colonial and postcolonial incarnations and iterations of a law that began life in 1871 as the Criminal Tribes Act (CTA).  That legislation authorized the British colonial government in India the right to notify some 150 different tribes across the country as criminal and, if so notified as per the provisions of the CTA, granted local judicial and police administrators extraordinary powers over them.  The underlying premise of the Act was that certain groups in India were inherently criminal, their “criminal tendencies” in the colonial imagination ascribed to their caste and tribal identities. 

Although the postcolonial Indian state repealed the Criminal Tribes Act in 1952 and reclassified the criminal tribes as Denotified (and Nomadic) Tribes or Vimukta Jatis, it also enacted the Habitual Offenders Act that continued to identify and process criminality as a function of “habitual offenders” or “career criminals,” the new targets, however, conceived of as individuals and not groups.  That emphasis, notwithstanding, the new legislation has, in effect, continued to criminalize and stigmatize precisely those groups previously branded by colonial laws as criminal tribes and castes.