There are a number of criminal tribes in India. Some of them are exclusively engaged in criminal activity, while others are doing some odd jobs but also miss no opportunity to steal and cheat.
The latter may be called Partially Criminal and the first Wholly Criminal. The wholly criminal tribes do no honourable job for making a living. They are most of the time committing crimes or else planning for future crimes.
They are always on a lookout for potential centres of crime and are mostly found on crowded railway platforms, fairs and other crowded places to pursue their ends. But partially criminal tribes are either engaged in entertaining by song or dance and animal circus. They also make musical drums, bamboo baskets or small iron wares.
There is a legislation regarding all these people, known as The Criminal Tribes Act. In India an ordinance known as Indian Penal code was first promulgatedin the year 1760, in which crimes and respective punishment was given in detail. Shortly afterwards Regulation was passed by the East India Company which pertained to criminal tribes.
By virtue of this regulation the so-called criminal tribals could be engaged against payment in the construction of roads; and in case any of them deserted duty, he could be sentenced to imprisonment for 6 month. During these days Pindari Thugs were very active and posed serious menace to travellers. In 1839, Govt of India established a department known as Thugee and Dacoity department. At the same time the activities of criminal tribes came to official notice and various laws regarding them were passed from time to time. The important acts are listed below:
1. Criminal Tribes Act 1871,
2. Criminal Tribes Act 1911,
3. Criminal Tribes Act 1924,
4. Habitual Offenders act 1958.
1. Criminal Tribes Act 1871.
The main aim of the 1871 Act was to keep an eye on the activities of the criminal tribes. A constant surveillance over and vigilance about their activity was planned; but it was not the intention or object of this act to check the nomadism of these people, as that nomadism or moving from one place to another was not regarded in any way objectionable and harmful by the society.
It was considered as normal a way of life as is the settlement at same fixed abode. The aim of the act was to control the crime and help the members of criminal tribes to reform and rehabilitate themselves. This act gave wide-ranging powers to the provincial government. The provincial government were authorized to declare any group of people who were incorrigible criminals a Criminal Tribe. This act provided for maintenance of register in which the names and other particulars of all the adult members of a tribe were written. Further, they were required to register the information about births and deaths.
Some of them were required to report at regular intervals to the police station. From time to time a policeman used to take a round of their colonies and take roll-call of all the members. The 1871 Act had no specific plans for the reform of these people.
In 1879 this act was amended and it was provided for that government could take the custody of all children of the age 4 and keep them in governments schools, away from the pollutant atmosphere of the tribe, upto the age of 18. There, however, were many flaws and loopholes in the Act. Therefore, in the year 1911, it was replaced by a new Act known as Criminal Tribes Act 1911.
2. Criminal Tribes Act 1911.
On account of the lack of success in the control of crime by the criminal tribes and the lack of any improvement in the state of affairs inspite of the 1879 amendment in the Act, the government set up a committee to go into the matters afresh and review the whole thing from all possible aspects.
In 1902-3 a high powered Police Commission went into the matters in minute details. On the basis of the report submitted by the commission, the Government of India passed a new Act regarding Criminal Tribes in the year 1911. In accordance with this Act schedules were prepared for various criminal tribes and these schedules were complete in each respect.
In these, there were personal identification marks and the thumb impressions of each of the members of the Tribe.
This was done with a view to track down the criminals with ease. Besides the more notorious members of the tribe were put under very strict observation; their activities were minutely watched. Besides, government could remove any child of the age 6 or above from the criminal parents and give them education and training in governmental institutions.
Under this act provincial governments were given special instructions for the control of these tribes. The provincial governments were given powers to make suitable amendments in the Act in the light of their experiences.
3. Criminal Tribes Act 1924.
From many aspects the 1911 act was defective and contained many loop holes. Basically in aim and intent it was preventive and not corrective. There were virtually no attempts in it to reform and rehabilitate the present criminals. Of course there was provision for taking away children and giving them proper education. But there were practical difficulties here, too.
Therefore the 1911 Act was replaced by a new Act in 1924. The 1924 act empowered the provincial governments to declare criminal tribes and prepare a list of their members, having identification mark and thumb impression of each member. Besides, a check was put on the migratory instinct of the tribals. They were not to leave their place without prior permission of the police.
However the most significant part of the 1924 Act was the provision of the reform and rehabilitation of the criminals.
The provincial governments were issued express instruction to draw up elaborate plans to provide relief and rehabilitation to the tribals. They were to be attracted to useful profession and attempts were made to preserve the integrity of their traditional profession and skills.
4. Habitual Offenders Restriction Act 1952.
Beginning from the year 1871 to the dawn of independence, a number of Acts regarding Criminal Tribes were passed and many amendments there to made to make them effective and help in checking the crime and control of the activities of the tribals.
However, they met with little success and the criminality of the tribes instead of being controlled or eliminated, was perpetuated and the number of crime and criminals went up with population growth of tribals. The idea of checking birth rate among them was alien at that time. After 1947, the national government paid serious attention to the problem and a number of committees were set up to go into the matter.
The basic theoretical and practical drawback in all previous thinking on the matter was the fact that these persons were deemed criminal by birth and it was believed that no matter what their opportunities or facilities they could not help being criminal. Therefore nothing could be done to bring them back to normal life and wean them away from criminality.
In this connection U.P. Government set up a high power Committee under the Chairmanship of Shri V.N. Tewari to go into the various aspects of the life of criminal tribes. After discussing the pros and cons of various proposals it came to the conclusion that the first and foremost imperative for any possible improvement in the condition of tribals is that the appellation ‘criminal’ should be dropped.
This unnecessarily stigmatized these people and prejudiced others to them. In the words of the Committee: “The removal of the appellation criminal will have salubrious psycho-social impact upon the children of these tribes.
This will help to eliminate from the minds of these people antisocial feelings and sentiments, because they will be relieved of the stigma and evil of considering themselves criminals and also relieved of the painful obligation of registering themselves with the police as soon as they attained the age of 15.”
On the basis of this and many other reports of the committee and recommendations of social scientists and criminologists, the Bombay Criminal Tribes Act was repealed in 1949. This proved a pace-setter and soon all states repealed Criminal Tribes Acts from the respective jurisdictions.
Consequent upon the repeal of the Criminal Tribes Act, a lacuna rather vacuum was felt. It was found that the police were unable to track the criminals on the basis of their records, because these were outdated and the sources of fresh information had dried up. Therefore, the Criminal Tribes Act was replaced by Habitual Offenders Restrictions Act 1952.
This filled the gap left by the repeal of Criminal Tribes Act. But this also removed the most glaring deficiency of the previous Act insofar as the term “criminal” which was a source of stigma against many people and tended to unfairly prejudge them was removed: and yet a mechanism was evolved to maintain strict supervision over the activities of those who, for historical and psycho- socio-economic reasons, were predisposed to criminality.
With the repeal of the Criminal Tribes Act 1924, on August 31, 1952, 22, 68,348 persons known as members of the criminal tribes in India were freed of the stigma of born criminality. Their status in society in terms of Article 15 of our Constitution, prohibiting discrimination on ground of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth, was recognised as co-equal with other communities. Ex-criminal tribes now enjoy all fundamental rights and their movements are not restricted to any settlement.
They are not subjected to any enhanced punishment for an offence simply because they belong to a certain tribe. The constitution lays down that the State shail promote with special care the educational and economic interests of the weaker sections of the people and in particular of the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes and protect them from social injustice and all forms of exploitation. In terms of this directive the Government of India, State Governments and some Welfare Organisations are making every effort to settle the members of ex- criminal tribes as honest, peaceful and law-abiding citizens.