The enactment of the Criminal Tribes Act (CTA), 1871.

About 200 communities, mostly Nomadic Tribes, were notified by the British Government as ‘Criminal Tribes’ through a notorious piece of legislation called the Criminal Tribes Act, 1871. The Criminal Tribes Act, 1871 was amended in 1911 and again in 1924. After Independence, the Criminal Tribes Act, 1924, was repealed by the Criminal Tribes Laws (Repeal) Act, 1952.

The Criminal Tribes Act, 1871 had identified the following six categories as belonging to ‘criminal tribes’:

  1. Petty traders who used to carry their merchandise on the back of animals and supplied villages with varied items like salt, forest produce, etc.
  2. Communities that entertained the public through performing arts. Among these were musicians, dancers, singers, storytellers, acrobats, gymnasts, puppeteers and tightrope walkers.

iii. Communities that entertained the public with the help of performing animals such as bears, monkeys, snakes, owls, birds, etc.

  1. Pastoral groups and the hunting, gathering, shifting cultivator communities within forests that traded not just in forest produce, but in animals as well. They were also herders, and traded in meat or milk products.
  2. Artisan communities that worked with bamboo, iron, clay etc. and made and repaired a variety of useful articles, implements and artifacts. They traded or sold them to settled villagers.


The Criminal Tribes Act (CTA) led to the creation of settlements of these tribes in various parts of the country to enable the police to exercise constant surveillance over the movement and behaviour of such tribes and thus prevent them from committing crime. The CTA gave powers to local governments to declare any tribe, section or class of people as a Criminal Tribe; to order registration of members of the Criminal Tribe and taking of their fingerprints; to direct that every such registered member would report himself at fixed intervals to a police officer of the village; report to the police officer or the headman any change of residence; and to restrict the movements of Criminal Tribe members to a particular area. It was not for any offence committed that all these punitive measures were employed, but only for ‘preventive action’ which was the professed purpose, albeit unofficially, of the Criminal Tribes Act. This could be done even though a Criminal Tribe member had no convictions, had never been imprisoned or even never sentenced to a fine. This was because all that was required for the notification of a community as a Criminal Tribe was the ‘reason to believe’ that the community was addicted to crime.


Amendment to the Criminal Tribes Act, 1871 under which children belonging to Criminal Tribes may be ordered to be separated from their parents and put in schools established for these children.

From 1924: “The Local Government may establish industrial, agricultural or reformatory schools for children, and may order the children of members of any criminal tribe or part of a criminal tribe, to be separated and removed from their parents or guardians and to be placed in any such school or schools in respect of which a notification has been issued.”


Criminal Tribes Act 1924 with effect from 31st August 1952 by the Criminal Tribes Laws (Repeal) Act, 1952 (Act No. XXLV of 1952)

The Ananthsayanam Ayyangar Committee Report (1949-1950) looked at the way the CTA had worked throughout India. The Report had a list of 116 Criminal Tribes in British territories and more than 200 in the Princely States which were effected by the CTA. The Government of India accepted some of the recommendations of the Ayyangar’s Committee. The Government of India repealed the Criminal Tribes Act 1924 with effect from 31st August 1952 by the Criminal Tribes Laws (Repeal) Act, 1952 (Act No. XXLV of 1952). But to keep effective control over the hardened criminals, the Habitual Offenders Act was placed in the statute books


First Backward Classes Commission was set up by a Presidential Order on 29th January, 1953 under the Chairmanship of Kaka Kalelkar.

The Kaka Kalelkar Commission suggested that the erstwhile ‘Criminal Tribes’ should not be called ‘Tribes’ nor should the names ‘Criminal’ or ‘Ex-criminal’ be attached to them. They should be simply called ‘Denotified Communities’. The Kalelkar Committee further recommended that “these groups may be distributed in small groups in towns and villages where they would come in contact with other people and get an opportunity for turning a new leaf. This would help in their eventual assimilation in society”. The Kalelkar Commission tried to end their isolation and promoted their assimilation into the mainstream. The terms of assimilation were not stated in clear language.

It takes special note of the ‘wandering communities’ in later part of the report: “There are a large number of small communities who eke out a precarious existence in the countryside. They have no fixed place of residence and they move from place to place in search of food or employment. They often rear pigs and poultry, hunt wild animals to satisfy their hunger and collect forest produce to make a living. They live in thatched sheds or gunny tents, and move in groups. They believe in witchcraft. Because of the insecurity of their life, some of these communities are given to crime. It should be special responsibility of Government to give them a settled life.” The report also discusses the ‘traditional beggars’ or ‘religious mendicants’ who were mostly covered under the Prevention of Begging Act, another appalling enactment by the British Government. The Kalelkar Commission considered that the problem of beggary in India is a social and religious malice and legislation is not an effective tool to solve this. He pointed out that glorification of the alms giving is found in almost all religious denominations living in India. Beggary in Indian context is regarded as a form of insurance against crime. The popular belief is that unless you give a decent living to the able-bodied persons, you must be prepared to give alms; otherwise people will take to crime.


In 1965, an Advisory Committee was constituted for the revision of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes lists by Government of India under the chairmanship of Mr. Lokur. In revising the list of Scheduled Tribes the Lokur Committee looked for indications of primitive traits, distinctive culture, geographical isolation, shyness of contact with the community at large and backwardness. The committee also considered that the tribes whose members have by and large mixed up with the general population are not eligible to be in the list of Scheduled Tribes. The Lokur Committee took a stricter view in the matter of fresh inclusions in the list of Scheduled Tribes and stuck to the criteria fixed in the Government of India Act 1935.

In the matter of defining them as Denotified and Nomadic Tribes, the Lokur Committee observed that it would be more scientific to refer to them as communities. It further writes that “members of the Denotified and Nomadic Tribes possess a complex combination of tribal characteristics, traditional untouchability, nomadic traits, and an anti-social heritage.” The Lokur committee furthermore observed that their ‘discussion with the state governments reveal that the type of developmental schemes usually designed for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes have not benefited the Denotified and Nomadic tribes to any significant extent because of their relatively small numbers, and their tendency to be constantly on move. It is also clear that while these communities may possess some of the characteristics usually associated with the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, the dominant factors which govern their life are their anti-social heritage and tendency to move from place to place in small groups.

The Lokur committee was so convinced about the distinct characteristics of the Denotified Tribes and Nomads that it felt “it would be in the best interest of these communities if they are taken out from the lists of Scheduled castes and Scheduled Tribes and treated exclusively as a distinct group, with development schemes specially designed to suit their dominant characteristics. However, the Lokur Committee decided to maintain the status quo as, due to the limitation of time and absence of adequate information they could not decide the cases of individual communities belonging to Denotified and Nomadic Tribes.


Later, in 1978, Shri Morarjibhai Desai, the then Prime Minister of India, declared the constitution of another Backward Classes Commission under the chairmanship of B. P. Mandal. This commission submitted its report to the president Shri Neelam Sanjiva Reddy on 31st December 1980.P. Mandal brought the nation’s focus back to the caste based oppression and social disabilities inherent in the system to be considered as a relevant criteria for welfare activities by the State. However, it failed to define other dimensions of ‘social discrimination’ and ‘social prejudices’ which were not covered at the time of the making of Indian Constitution. Mandal construed the caste hierarchy having two distinct divisions, i.e. forward and backward. This two-tiered division fails to capture shades of complicity within social hierarchy within Indian society. The practices of ‘social discrimination’ and ‘impacts of social prejudices’ operate at multiple levels and result into an array of ‘social disabilities’. B. P. Mandal was reluctant to accept this multiplicity of social discrimination. This attitude is reflected in Mandal’s report in response to a fellow committee member, Mr. L. R. Naik’s suggestion to divide the list of OBCs into two sections, i.e. ‘Intermediate Backward Class’ and ‘Depressed Backward Class’. This suggestion was summarily rejected by the chairman of the committee, however a separate minute of dissent was admitted and included in the report. Mr. L. R. Naik wrote a separate minute of dissent with reference to this suggested bifurcation in the categorization of the socially and educationally backward classes of citizens. In his classification, the definitions of the ‘intermediate’ and ‘depressed’ backward classes are as follows.

The intermediate backward classes are those who have co-existed since time immemorial with upper castes and had, therefore, some scope to imbibe better association. The ‘Depressed Backward Classes’ are those communities ‘whose intermingling with the Indian society was either denied, prohibited or segregated on account of stigma of nomadism or criminality’. Thus, L. R. Naik had clearly brought nomadism and criminal stigma as two unattended dimensions of discrimination practiced in Indian society into the discourse.

  1. R. Naik believed that “these unfortunate class of people, i.e. ‘Depressed Backward Classes’, seeped as they are in massive backwardness, would take time for their enlightenment and advancement, unless, of course, concerted efforts, at national level, are made by way of sagacious inputs of safeguards the benefits of which should be percolated to them in a large measure. So there is a compelling need to shift them carefully from the main common list and create a separate entity of equals or near-equals to bring about a healthy competition among them for the benefits of safeguards. The rest of the communities in the common list should then form a distinct category for the same reason of creating an atmosphere for competition among equals for the safeguards. This device is necessary in the interest of the nation as a whole.
  2. R. Naik made yet another important observation on a more recent dynamics in the caste system. He wrote: “During the course of my extensive tours throughout the length and breadth of India, I observed that a tendency is fast developing among ‘Intermediate Backward classes’ to repeat the treatments or rather ill-treatments they themselves have received from time immemorial at the hands of the upper castes, against their brethren. I mean, the Depressed Backward Classes. In an unequal society like ours, it is necessary that the commission takes all precautions so that the more helpless and needy segments are not deprived of the benefits of the various safeguards by avoiding cut-throat competition among unequals.” L. R. Naik here exposes inconsistency in the social policy of being selective about only a certain kind of social discrimination to provide preferential treatment by the State.

B. P. Mandal in his covering letter addressed to the President acknowledges the relevance of these arguments introduced by Mr. L. R. Naik. He wrote, “Whereas the commission sees the point of Shri Naik’s contention, the acceptance of his approach will result in a situation which is repugnant to Article 15(4) of the Constitution. In the case of Balaji vs State of Mysore, the Supreme Court has clearly held: “In introducing two categories of Backward Classes what the impugned order, in substance, purports to do is to devise measures for all the classes of citizens who are less advanced compared to the most advanced classes in the State, and that, in our opinion, is not the scope of the Article 15(4).”

2003 - 08

The National Commission for Denotified, Nomadic and Semi-Nomadic Tribes (NCDNSNT) is a national commission constituted under the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, Government of India, to study various developmental aspects of denotified and nomadic or semi-nomadic tribes in India.

The Commission was first was set up on 22nd November 2003 and reconstituted on 16th March 2005 as the earlier commission could not make much headway for a number of reasons. Mr. Balkrishna Sidram Renke, Laxmanbhai Kalidas Patni and Laxmi Chand were appointed as the Chairperson, Member and Member Secretary of the commission, respectively.

The commission had following terms of reference:

  1. To specify the economic interventions required for raising the living standards of Denotified, Nomadic and Semi Nomadic Tribes by asset creation and self-employment opportunities;
  2. To recommend measures to utilize the existing channeling agencies set up for the economic development of SC/STs and OBCs for extending an economic development package to these groups, keeping in view their specific requirements; and
  3. To identify programmes required for their education, development and health;
  4. To make any other connected or incidental recommendation, that the Commission deems necessary.

Gist of Recommendations of the Renke Commission

∙••••••••• Union Government should initiate steps to enumerate DNTs in the next census due in 2011

∙••••••••• For implemention of welfare Schemes for DNTs State-wise list of such tribes should be prepared.

∙••••••••• Advisory Committees may be made at District and State level to assist the socio-economic condition of the DNTs, so that an action plan can be drawn for their welfare.

∙••••••••• State Governments may take special steps to issue Caste Certificates and ration cards to every member of DNT, and BPL Certificates to the concerned members, expeditiously.

∙••••••••• Union of India may undertake a special campaign for issue of voter IDs to the eligible members of DNT.

∙••••••••• Basic civic amenities be provided to the DNTs living in colonies and clusters.

∙••••••••• Ministry of SJ&E may earmark outlay for the welfare of DNTs.

∙••••••••• Central government should modify the existing Housing Schemes in urban/rural areas specifically for DNTs.

∙••••••••• Special drive be made for awareness of DNTs particularly among women to avail the benefit of various schemes for educational empowerment. Special Residential Schools for DNT Boys and Girls be made to encourage education among them.

∙••••••••• Skill Development Programmes be taken up for DNTs to improve their self employability and wage employment, in collaboration with National Small Industries Corporation (NSIC), Khadi & Village Industries Commission (KVIC), the Central Cottage Industries Corporation of India Limited, the Handicrafts and Handlooms Exports Corporations of India Limited.

∙••••••••• States/UTs and Central Ministries should formulate and implement DNT Sub-Plan for DNTs

∙••••••••• Separate Finance and Development Corporation for DNTs, like National Scheduled Castes Finance & Development Corporation, may be set up at the centre.

∙••••••••• Considering the gravity of their plight, there is a need for a separate department for the welfare of DNTs at the State level and separate Ministry/Department for the welfare of DNTs at the Centre.

∙••••••••• It is necessary that the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 be, mutatis mutandis, made applicable to DNTs, and the implementation of the same be reviewed and monitored from time to time.

∙••••••••• Constitution may be amended to include “Scheduled Communities” under Article 330 and Article 332 to enable these communities to be eligible for reservation of seats in the Houses of the People and in the Legislative Assemblies of the States.

∙••••••••• Seats may be reserved in Block/Taluka Panchayats and Zila Pandhayats/Zila Parishads, and the Urban Local Bodies for DNTs wherever there population is concentrated.

∙••••••••• To mobilise additional resources to improve the socio-economic conditions of DNTS, it is suggested that 10% of the funds be earmarked from the M.P. Local Area Development Fund.

∙••••••••• It is suggested that the DNTs be given 10% reservation in Government jobs even if the total reservation exceeds 50%.

∙••••••••• Research Institutes should be set up by the States/UTs for DNTs.

∙••••••••• A multicultural complex/Academy may be set up in every State/UT to develop, preserve and exhibit the diverse and rich cultural heritage of DNTs.