General Studies IIACTS AND AMENDMENTSHistorical Background

Criminal Tribes Act of 1871

The Criminal Tribes Act, also known as the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871 or the Act XXVII of 1871, was a controversial piece of legislation enacted during the British colonial rule in India. The act was primarily aimed at controlling and regulating certain communities, often referred to as “criminal tribes,” that the colonial authorities considered prone to criminal activities. The act was in effect until it was repealed and replaced by the Habitual Offenders Act in 1952, shortly after India gained independence.


Key provisions and features of the Criminal Tribes Act:


1. Classification of Communities: The act classified certain communities as “criminal tribes” or “habitual offenders” based on the assumption that these communities were inherently prone to criminal behavior. These classifications were often based on stereotypes and prejudices rather than actual evidence of criminal activity.

2. Registration and Surveillance: Under the act, members of the identified communities were required to register with the local authorities. They were issued identity cards, and their movements were closely monitored by the police.

3. Settlements and Resettlement: The act often led to the forced resettlement of these communities in specific areas or colonies, which were often called “reservations” or “settlements.” This segregation was intended to keep these communities isolated from the general population.

4. Restricted Movement: Members of these communities were restricted in their movements outside their designated settlements. Leaving the settlement without permission was a criminal offense.

5. Stigmatization and Discrimination: The act stigmatized and discriminated against individuals belonging to these communities, making it difficult for them to find employment or lead a life outside the designated settlements.

6. Forced Labor: In some cases, members of these communities were subjected to forced labor as a form of punishment or rehabilitation.

7. Punitive Measures: The act allowed the police and authorities to use various punitive measures, including flogging and imprisonment, as a means of controlling and rehabilitating individuals from these communities.

Criticism and Repeal:

The Criminal Tribes Act has been widely criticized for its inherent discrimination and the unjust treatment of certain communities. Critics argue that the act perpetuated stereotypes, violated basic human rights, and failed to address the underlying social and economic issues that might have contributed to criminal activities.

With the end of British colonial rule and the adoption of the Indian Constitution in 1950, the act came under increasing scrutiny, and efforts were made to repeal it. Finally, in 1952, the Criminal Tribes Act was replaced by the Habitual Offenders Act, which shifted the focus from the communities themselves to individual offenders, thus ending the institutionalized discrimination against specific groups.

The Criminal Tribes Act of 1871 was a deeply controversial and discriminatory piece of legislation that classified certain communities as “criminal tribes” based on stereotypes and prejudices. It subjected members of these communities to registration, surveillance, and forced resettlement, resulting in severe social and economic discrimination. The act was ultimately repealed and replaced by more just and equitable legislation after India gained independence in 1947.

Today, there are 313 Nomadic Tribes and 198 Denotified Tribes of India, yet the legacy of the past continues to affect the majority of 60 million people belonging to these tribes, as their historical associations have meant continued alienation and stereotyping by the police and the media as well as economic hardships. Many of them are still described as “Ex-Criminal Tribes”.


Professor of history Ramnarayan Rawat states that the criminal-by-birth castes under this Act included initially Gujjar but expanded by the late 19th century to include most of Chamars, as well as Sanyasis and hill tribes. Other major British census based caste groups that were included as criminal-by-birth under this Act included Bowreah, Budducks, Bedyas, Domes, Dormas, Gujjar, Rebari, Pasi, Dasads, Nonias, Moosaheers, Rajwars, Gahsees Boayas, Dharees, Sowakhyas.and One such measure was the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871, under the provisions of which Meenas (Mina)were placed in the first list of the Act in 1872 in Patiala and East Punjab States Union, Rajasthan and Punjab

Hundreds of Hindu communities were brought under the Criminal Tribes Act. By 1931, the colonial government listed 237 criminal castes and tribes under the act in the Madras Presidency alone.

Criticism and Action: 

In January 1947, Government of Bombay set up a committee, which included B.G. Kher, then Chief Minister Morarji Desai, and Gulzarilal Nanda, to look into the matter of ‘criminal tribes’. In 1949, after a long campaign led by Communist leaders such as P. Ramamurthi and P. Jeevanandham, and Forward Bloc leader U. Muthuramalingam Thevar, who had led many agitations in the villages since 1929 urging the people to defy the CTA, the number of tribes listed under the CTA was reduced. Other provincial governments soon followed suit.

The Act was repealed in August 1949, which resulted in 2,300,000 tribals being decriminalised.The committee appointed in the same year by the central government to study the utility of the existence of this law, reported in 1950 that the system violated the spirit of the Indian constitution.

The National Human Rights Commission recommended repeal of the 1952 Habitual Offenders Act in February 2000. Later in March 2007, the UN’s anti-discrimination body Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), noted that “the so-called denotified and nomadic which are 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)), and asked India to repeal the Habitual Offenders Act (1952) and effectively rehabilitate the denotified and nomadic tribes.

In 2008, the National Commission for Denotified, Nomadic and Semi-Nomadic Tribes (NCDNSNT) of Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment recommended that same reservations as available to Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes be extended to around 110 million people of denotified, nomadic or semi-nomadic tribes in India; the commission further recommended that the provisions of the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 be applicable to these tribes also. 

Reference: Wikipedia/ OUTLOOK


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