From Notified Criminals to Denotified Offenders

By Vikram Garg

Eviction and ‘Notification’

How do you subjugate a continent of humanity? For the British colonialists, the answer was ruthless aggression. Between 1774 and 1871, the British engaged the various Indian states in a sequence of brutal wars, known collectively as the Anglo-Indian wars [1]. These wars not only set the stage for the colonial occupation of India, but in many cases also resulted in vast, settled populations becoming nomads in their own land [2]. Displaced from the ‘mainstream’ of society, many of these nomads and tribes sought revenge. What was the British response? In 1871, the Criminal Tribes Act was passed. The Act notified certain tribes as being “addicted to the systematic commission of non-bailable offenses” [3]. Examples included, the Boyas and Dongas of Tamil Nadu, and the Bedras of Maharashtra, all of whom had risen up in rebellion against the occupation [2].

Two more Acts were passed in 1910 and 1920, leading to more than a hundred and fifty tribes and castes being ‘notified’ as criminal tribes [4]. Under the purview of these Acts, the colonial police was given sweeping powers to arrest, harass, extort and even kill the people that belonged to these tribes [4]. In fact, the Act was part of the police syllabus, so every police officer in colonial India knew who the ‘criminal tribes’ were. In a subjugated land, the notified tribals became the most watched people. Their movements were recorded and there were strict controls on where they could travel to and reside [5]. The plight of these tribals was seemingly not lost on the leaders of the independence movement. Pandit Nehru proclaimed [6], “The monstrous provisions of the Criminal Tribes Act constitute a negation of civil liberty. No tribe [can] be classed as criminal as such and the whole principle [is] out of consonance with all civilised principles.”

From notified criminals to habitual offenders

Independence came and India adopted its Constitution on the 26th of January, 1950. That day, all Indians became equal before the law, with equal rights and freedoms, in principle. A newly liberated India ‘denotified’ its criminal tribes through an act of Parliament in 1952. But far from delivering on the promise of equal rights and justice for all, the Indian government passed a ‘Habitual Offender’s Act’ in 1959 [4]. By defining a class of ‘habitual offenders who pose a threat to society’, the Act put the newly denotified tribes in a precarious position. Both the police and society had learnt to treat the notified tribals as criminals. Like the colonial police before them, the new Indian Police retained the Act as part of its syllabus and widespread abuse continues against the tribals [2, 4]. So far, the Indian government has paid no heed to calls by both the UN [7] and India’s own National Human Rights Commission [8] to repeal the law.

Denotified tribals also suffer from the broader implications of a system that either marginalizes or tries to assimilate the tribal population [9]. The state policies are confused and often contradictory. The same Forest Rights regime that gives the tribals ‘ownership’ of forest land prevents them from chopping bamboo wood, critical for their way of life [9]. Asked to unquestioningly assimilate, the tribal culture is either patronized or suppressed by the state. Dr. Ganesh Devy, an activist who works extensively with the tribals provides a particularly telling example [9], “The liquor they make is the only wine made of flowers in the world. Not only is it not patented by the Government but the process is considered illegal; there is a displaced notion that they get drunk.”

Resistance and Regeneration

Clearly, the oppressive laws and deep alienation from the mainstream society that the tribals face are rooted in their history. To break these shackles, civil society is waging a multi front struggle against some of the most cruel and insensitive aspects of the Indian state and society [10, 2]. To press the Government to repeal Acts like the ‘Habitual Offender’s Act’, social activists have formed the Denotified Tribals – Rights Action Group (DNT-RAG). Under the leadership of the Jnanpith award winner Mahasweta Devi, this group of dedicated activists works tirelessly to bring to light the numerous cases of police abuses against the tribals. The litany of cases that the group has filed in courts and with human rights commissions has brought sporadic justice to the families of many victims [2]. But their task remains a difficult one with the Act protecting the perpetrators of such atrocities and the mainstream society being ignorant of this issue.

Faced with such odds, it has been a tall order for India’s tribals to preserve and propogate their culture. Here again the vaccum left by an insensitive state has been filled to an extent by a vibrant NGO movement and dedicated individuals like Dr. Ganesh Devy. Dr. Devy’s Sahitya Academy, located in Tejgadh, Gujarat has become a leading resource center for the tribal cultures of India [11]. The centre documents the languages, cuisine and art of India’s tribals. The academy has also published a volume of literature in fifty tribal languages ranging in origin from Gujarat to Mizoram [9]. Academies like these are not only preserving tribal culture but also infusing a new generation of young tribals with the confidence to take on the mainstream and have a sense of worth in themselves and their culture.

The road ahead for India’s tribals, especially the denotified tribals, remains challenging. How they are treated by the Indian state will tell us a lot about whether the equal and free society envisaged by the Constitution becomes a reality. We all have a stake in their future.


1. “Anglo-Indian wars”. Wikimedia Foundation Inc.

2. Devi, Mahasveta (October 12, 2010), “An Act Was Born”, Personal Correspondence

3. “Readings – Criminal Tribes Act (XXVII of 1871)”. Y.C. Simhadri. Columbia University.

4. Devi, Mahasweta (March 2002). “Year of Birth – 1871”. Civil Society Information Exchange Pvt. Ltd.

5. Raj and Born Criminals Crime, gender, and sexuality in criminal prosecutions, by Louis A. Knafla. Published by Greenwood Publishing Group, 2002. ISBN 0313310130. Page 124.

6. Suspects forever: Members of the “denotified tribes” continue to bear the brunt of police brutality Frontline, The Hindu, Volume 19 – Issue 12, June 8–21, 2002.

7 . Repeal the Habitual Offenders Act and affectively rehabilitate the denotified tribes, UN to India Asian Tribune, Mon, March 19, 2007.

8. Meena Radhakrishna (2006-07-16). “Dishonoured by history”. Special issue with the Sunday Magazine. The Hindu.

9 .Kausalya Santhanam (2002-8-22). “A gentle crusader”. Metro Plus Chennai. The      Hindu.

10. Ganesh N. Devy (2004). “The adivasi Mahasweta”. India Seminar.

11.  Anand Giridhardas (2008-11-10). “Rescuing Cultures of India, From A to Z”. The New York Times.

Vikram Garg is a PhD student at the University of Texas. He blogs at


  • Vinod
    Posted at 14:17h, 27 October Reply

    Vikram, if only I knew you were in UT I would have visited you when I was in Houston.

    Thanks for this article. It has made me that bit more aware and also increased my upper middle class guilt.

    • Vikram
      Posted at 23:39h, 27 October

      Vinod, next time please email me when you are nearby.

      As for the article, more than guilt we should ask exactly what motivates the Indian state to act like this towards its tribal population.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 10:38h, 10 November Reply

    The post is complemented by the information in the following article:

    “Dispossess them first and then hunt them down as criminals”

    The article is also relevant to the parallel discussion of the attitude of the middle class towards the indigenous people and the development of resources in tribal lands.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 01:38h, 31 December Reply

    Vikram: There is a reference to the British designated “criminal caste” in this article from the last issue of the Economist. The story is worth reading for many more reasons and should give us a number of issues to discuss:

    India’s Languishing Countryside: A Village in a Million

  • dinanath waghmare
    Posted at 14:07h, 01 June Reply

    read the news about barbaric torture on dnts

  • Bhargavi Davar
    Posted at 08:06h, 11 October Reply

    Do you know anything about a “Suspects Forever Act”? Thanks.

    • Vikram
      Posted at 15:45h, 11 October

      Bhargavi, I have never heard of that act. Could you share some resources if you find any ?

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 16:08h, 11 October

      Bhargavi/Vikram: See the linked article. The Criminal Tribes Act of 1871 labeled people belonging to 160 communities as “born criminals”. Anyone who is a born criminal is suspect forever, so the “Suspects Forever Act” might just be another name for the Criminal Tribes Act:

      For more references, see the following:

  • Deekonda NarsingRao
    Posted at 11:49h, 05 August Reply

    International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples is observed on August 9th. The focus of the year 2013 International Day is “Indigenous peoples building alliances: Honoring treaties, agreements and other constructive arrangements.”

    Denotified Nomadic Tribes Meeting at Jantar Mantar New Delhi on 31st August 2013 (Vimukti Diwas)
    Denotified and Nomadic tribes are the most vulnerable of social groups. They would be eligible for educational and economic benefits at par with SC/STs like scholarships, skill development, coaching and loans among others. The Centre has to roll out programmes of economic and educational empowerment of these Communities. As well the Union Government should even give special reservation regime for these communities on the lines of SCs/STs.
    With these tribes forming a chunk of population in Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Telangana, Gujarat, the Congress Party hopes to attract their votes in 2014 elections. Constituting 11% of the national population, these tribes form a significant voting bloc but have been swamped by stronger dalits and backwards with whom they compete for affirmative action. Around 85% of them have either been clubbed among OBCs or SCs/STs.
    A “national commission”, like the National Commissions for SCs and STs, may be created for their identification as also for suggesting measures required for their uplift. A “national development corporation” may also be constituted for funding their entrepreneurial initiatives.
    The nomadic and denotified tribes may immediately be identified across states so that initiatives can be launched for their welfare, recognizing the existence of these groups on national scale.
    The Ministry of Social Justice & Empowerment, headed by Kumari Selja, would soon seek the Cabinet nod for new welfare regime targeting these tribes. It is a much-required initiative for the holistic development of these weak groups. The panel, mandated to identify measures to address the socio-economic needs of these tribes, suggested that they be culled out of SC/ST/OBC lists and be put together in a “scheduled group” with special quota of 10%.

    The People of DNTs have hopes on UPA Government, on creation of new category “Scheduled group for DNTs” like SC/ST, with 10% reservations. It may require a constitutional amendment, but even BJP is very much favorable in case of DNTs.
    Mean time, the SJE Ministry may launch a national commission for denotified tribes with the mandate to identify them across states and in SC/ST/OBC lists, and to recommend measures for their welfare. The Commission would also pursue the case of tribes who have not yet been put in SC/ST or OBC lists. The national commission would also make the maiden assessment of the progress made by these tribes and suggest measures to be launched for their development.
    In Andhra Pradesh, Balasantu, Bahurupi, Medari, Jalari, Jogi, Jangama, Oddara, Budibudukala, Gangireddula, Pitchikuntla, Boya, Kaikadi, Pardhi, Pittala, Pamula, Kothula, etc Communities will covered under this regime. The State of Andhra Pradesh should also follow the Union Government in appointing a State DNT Commission and a DNT Development Finance Corporation.
    ~Deekonda NarsingRao, Hyderabad. 09849552877.

  • Deekonda NarsingaRao
    Posted at 11:28h, 19 January Reply

    Bhiku Ramji Idate appointed as Chairman of Commission for Denotified Nomadic Tribes (2015): The Government of India has constituted a commission on Denotified and Nomadic Tribes for a period of three years, from the date of gazette notification or appointment of chairperson. The terms of reference of the commission include preparation of a state-wise list of castes belonging to Denotified and Nomadic Tribes and suggest appropriate measures in respect of Denotified and Nomadic Tribes to be undertaken by the central government or the state government. The commission consist of one chairperson, one member and one member secretary. Accordingly, government has notified the name of Bhiku Ramji Idate as chairperson and name of Shravan Singh Rathore as member secretary of the National Commission of DNTs. Bhiku Ramji Idate and Shravan Singh Rathore have taken charge as chairperson and member respectively. The term of the commission will be three years from 9 January 2015. >Deekonda NarsingaRao, Hyderabad.

  • dinanath Waghmare
    Posted at 16:05h, 22 July Reply

    Ex-Criminal Tribes of India is totally deprived since independance and no one govt had seen their problems even though they knows conditions of them india.

    White british become out but black indians are also in same condition. who will think about these people ? it’s big question.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 15:20h, 23 June Reply
  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 11:43h, 17 September Reply

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