A person who violates law for some personal end is called a criminal. And a person who habitually offends and defies the law and has made law- breaking the source of his livelihood and who feels little or no remorse for his misdeeds, in fact, ceases to regard them misdeeds, is a professional criminal.
There are certain tribes in India which had been considered habitual offenders or professional criminals for a pretty long time. A criminal tribe is one, the majority of whose members, earn their livelihood by practising crime. The members of these tribes do not look down upon or condemn crime but accept it as a part and parcel of their lives. As a matter of fact, right from the cradle they start teaching their children the tricks of trades and by the time they grow up they have become expert criminals and who, therefore, feel nothing to be easier than law breaking for personal profit.
Some criminologists believe that crime has become the hereditary property of these tribes and that whosoever is born in such a tribe automatically inherits the predisposition to crime. But there are many scholars of eminence who reject the hereditary theory to account for widespread tendency to crime among the members of criminal tribes.
As a matter of fact, it is not so much of a genetic heredity but is certainly a case of social heredity. As the parents of these children are practising crime and, since they feel no shame about what they do, their children are exposed at very impressionable age to crime and pick it up by imitation and learn through experience and trial and error the tricks of the trade.
As it is common knowledge that children generally adopt the professions of their parents, it is small wonder that children of the parents who are professionally criminal take to crime.
Origin of criminal tribes
There are a number of criminal tribes in India. The majority of these tribes are nomads and keep moving from place to place. Like Gypsies of Europe they have no fixed abode. It is due to this nomadism of these tribes that it is difficult to collect authentic information about the origin and development of these tribes. Therefore there are varieties of views among scholars about their origins.
The Indian tribes also belong to original Gypsies of Europe; the criminal Indian tribes also belong to Gypsies. According to these scholars the Gypsies of Europe spread all over the world and the Indian tribes are therefore European Gypsies who migrated to India. There are quite a few scholars who support this view; but there is little scientific evidence in its favour. This view is at best a conjecture.
2. Offshoots of the primitive Indian races.
Those tribes who found a fixed abode and kept pace with the development of civilization and successfully adjusted themselves to changes got amalgammated with the main current of national life. But those individuals, who, for some reasons, could not make adjustments and kept moving from place to place and failed to find a permanent home became nomads and that these nomads are the real ancestors of modern tribes. On account of economic hardships and social ostracisation these people gradually took to crime to keep themselves going and now this has become their habit.
3. Persecuted Seeking Revenge.
As a matter of fact, the ancestors of these people belonged to royal household but were forced into exile for some serious crime. In order to escape persecution they kept moving from place to place.
It is also claimed that they took to crime as revenge against their persecutors. In this connection there are many legends and romantic tales about tribes of Rajasthan. It is said that when Maharana Pratap was vanquished, he decided not to settle down anywhere permanently till the defeat was avenged and that his followers kept this vow till recently.
Historical evolution of criminal tribes
The declaration of a whole tribe as ‘criminal’ and the enactment of a separate law to deal with them was an unique feature of Indian legislation. It had no parallel in any part of the world. Such tribes had no semblance of criminality in them.
Their members were fairly adjusted persons who possessed a strong sense of loyalty and fidelity to their caste.They had their own social code of laws and rules, administered by their Panchayats whose orders were final and binding.
Even in the commission of crimes they had their own omens and some of them committed only dacoity, some burglary, some petty theft, some pick-pocketing and some counterfeiting of coins, etc.
They also had their own methods of dividing booty and of awarding compensation for loss of life or injury while committing the offence. Thus while they were well adjusted among themselves they were maladjusted in relation to the general society.
The members of the criminal tribes did not belong to a different race. The causes that led them to a criminal behaviour were mostly socioeconomic. They had no fixed place of abode, no land to cultivate, and no settled profession.
They wandered about the whole country with their families and chattel and practised different professions such as astrology, jugglery, acrobatic feats, smithy, carpentry, etc. Since these professions did not yield enough for subsistence, they supplemented their income by committing theft and other crimes.
Some of the so-called criminal tribes in Rajasthan left their abodes when Chittor was conquered by Allauddin Khilji in the 13th century. They took avow not to return to their dear land till they had conquered Delhi.
Thus they continued to wander, and in the absence of any settled profession they took to thieving to supplement their meagre lawful income. Banjaras were incharge of the Mughal army and when they lost their profession after the development of the railways they began to indulge in petty crimes as an alternate means of livelihood.
Dusodhs were a marshal race of the army of Nawab Siraj-Ud-Daula and fought the English at the battle of Plassey. When the British won the battle they declared ihem ineligible for recruitment to army. Having no other means of livelihood, they took to criminality.
In the interim period between the disintegration of the Mughal Empire and the consolidation of the British Rule, these tribes committed many offences.
Some of the criminal tribes also owe their origin to ex-communication by their caste. Faced by social boycott, they started living in exile and thus took to criminality as a means of livelihood.
The British Government, white dealing with these tribes, found that ordinary jail sentences had no effect on them and it was difficult to arrest them red-handed or to get approves out of their class. So special methods were evolved to deal with them.
The Criminal Tribes Act
It may be recalled that before the enactment of Indian Penal Code in 1860 and the Criminal Procedure Code in 1861, certain specified tribes, which were committing systematic crimes in North India were dealt with under Regulation XXII of 1798 by which the magistrates under summary powers could put such persons to work on roads, and if they escaped, send them to prison for six months or more.
When the Indian Penal Laws were enacted, the summary powers came to an end and in order to keep an eye over the movements of these tribes a system of registration and roll-call was adopted in the Punjab, Oudh and the N.W.F.P. The Punjab High Court declared such rules illegal, and hence the order of registration could not be enforced.
When the number of dacoities increased and it was found that it was mainly the criminal tribes that were involved in them, the Government of India passed the first Criminal Tribes Act in 1871 to keep control over the movements of these tribes.
According to this Act, the Local Government could declare a tribe as criminal and bring it under the operation of the Criminal Tribes Act. Before, however, doing so, it had to obtain the concurrence of the Governor-General-in-Council after explaining to him the reasons for regarding the gang, tribe or class of persons as criminal, the nature of crime that they were suspected of committing and if the tribe was a wandering one, the reason showing that the lawful occupation which it was following, was merely a pretence for committing crimes.
It had also to explain what arrangement was envisaged for enabling the tribe to earn a living when it had settled down in any place of residence. Much use of this Act could not be made as it was impossible to make satisfactory arrangements for the tribes to earn their living.
On the recommendation of the Police Committee the Act was amended in 1897. The amended Act provided for enhanced punishment for second and third offence and for separating children between the age of 4 to 18 years from their irreclaimable parents and placing them in reformatory settlements.
The Act was again amended in 1911 to empower the Local Government to notify a tribe as criminal without requiring its settlement or provision for means of livelihood. After due notification, the members of the tribe could be registered and their finger impressions taken. The persistent offenders could be restricted to some specified areas or interned in settlements specially established for them.
A further review of the working of criminal tribe’s settlement was made by the Indian Jails Enquiry Committee in 1919-20. This Committee recommended that aformal enquiry was necessary before any individual was registered as a member of criminal tribe.
It also recommended that the aim of settlement should be the ultimate reclamation of the criminals and their absorption into the general body of the society. These recommendations were accepted and the Criminal Tribes Act was further amended in 1923.
Repeal of the Act
The Criminal Tribes Act remained in force for about 80 years. The working of this Act disclosed that it was applied arbitrarily and in the case of several tribes it acted as an instrument of oppression. It labelled al! Members belonging to a notified tribe as criminal for the simple reason that they were born in a particular community.
The states imposed many restrictions on such people and they were not allowed to move freely except under police surveillance. In view of the critical public opinion against the labelling of entire tribes as criminal, the states of U.P., Madras, Bombay and Bihar repealed the Criminal Tribes Act in its application to their states and replaced it by Habitual Offender’s Act applicable to all persons irrespective of caste, or tribe.
In 1949, the Government of India appointed a committee to review the Criminal Tribes Act. The Committee recommended the repeal of the Act and its replacement by a Habitual Offender’s Act.