The Victims who are labelled as Criminals: the plight of Denotified Tribes in India

Imagine without any fault of yours; you and your family were asked to register their names with the police. Now let’s say this penalty is extended to your whole community in perpetuity. Offended? You are right, in normal circumstances this can never happen to anyone of us but if it does we can always approach the courts. But there are some people who can’t as their fundamental rights have been encroached by a draconian British Law for centuries.

Denotified Tribes In India

Numerous tribes find their home in India. The plight of about 150 Indian tribes started way back in 1871 when the British decided to pass an Act against them. Under the Criminal Tribes Act, 1871 registration of all members of notified ‘tribes’ and eunuchs (irrespective of their criminal precedents) was made compulsory. Moreover, their movements were restricted. Penalties were further increased in the subsequent amendments to the Act. The act gave wide discretionary powers to the local government to decide which tribes should be notified as ‘criminal’.

Intentions of the British These tribes were labeled as criminal because they acted against the will of the British Government. The British who were unaware of the nomadic culture in India considered the tribal practices as barbaric and uncivilized. The tribes did not acquiesce to the unjust forest laws framed by the English. They continued to derive their livelihood from the woods and were thus named as “robbers and thief’s” by the state. The English believed that criminal characteristics could be inherited from one generation to other. Hence, the penalty was imposed in perpetuity. The commission of crime was no longer a criterion for punishment; birth in a particular tribe was sufficient to constitute an offence.

Situation after Independence

In 1952, the Act was finally repealed by the government and about 2,300,000 tribals were decriminalized. However, the Act was replaced by the Habitual Offenders Act, 1959 and Prevention of Anti Social Activity Act (PASA). The Act deals with the habitual (felony) criminals as those who pose a threat to the country.

Certainly, the Habitual Criminals Act is an oppressive piece of legislation often used by police and policy makers against the tribal. The Act empowers the police to question the members of the denotified tribes. The members of the denotified tribes are often socially ostracized and excluded from participating in census and other democractic procedures. The present act gives the legislators an opportunity to enact punitive laws against the tribes. Most new laws including forest conservation, wildlife protection, anti-beggary and cruelty to animal have been enacted to oppress them in one form or the other.

For centuries these tribes have been mentioned as “branded criminals” by everyone. The general acceptance among the people that these tribes have “criminal tendencies” has worsened the situation. The police often misuses it powers by harassing their woman. At times, the tribal men are arrested for various offences without any proof. Moreover, they are continuously targeted and labeled as criminals by the upper hindu castes of the society.

Lack of awareness and education has kept them away from political arena. Tribes like Kurava, Bawaries, Paridhis and Sansis are still treated as criminals by the society. These tribes not only find it difficult to make a decent living but are also constantly targeted by the police as prime suspects of crime.


We generally quote “Hate the Crime and not the Criminal” but the same is difficult to implement as complete segregation of the offender from the offence is impossible. However in this case; a person (male, women, child or eunuch) is targeted because he or she belongs to a certain clan. Isn’t the system promoting racial discrimination? Ironically, young police candidates are taught about these tribes in their police training. The judges in their areas see them as offenders too. Their genuine complaints are not registered. They live under a constant fear that they might be booked under a crime never committed by them.

Aren’t we depriving them the right to live with dignity (Article 21)? Aren’t we forcing them to be criminals? The answers of all above questions are in affirmative.

If we claim to be a civilized society we need to act as one too. The Habitual Offenders Act must be repealed. Moreover, these tribes must be offered alternative employments by utilizing their knowledge in the tourism, agricultural and ayurvedic industries. Spreading of education and awareness regarding their constitutional rights must be done. Most importantly, the police should be made more sympathetic towards these tribes.

Even being citizens of India they do not own any Voter ID cards, Birth or Death Certificates and other necessary documents. Entitlement to all these documents would pressurize the government to take necessary steps for their empowerment.

Above all the people should raise their voices against the injustice done to these people. Their voices remain unheard on every stage of judicial proceeding. These people are presumed guilty by almost everyone. If nothing is done soon we would have insurgents in the country; who would have taken up arms because of our ignorance.

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