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Revisiting the Laws on Tribes

Criminal Tribes Act 1871 (Repealed) and Habitual Offenders Act 1952

Origins and Objective:
Following the Destruction and Uproar that ensued in the First War of Independence (Revolt of 1857), the Britishers decided to bring up Laws which could divide the Indians, on the basis of Caste and Religion Identities such that the possibility of Next Uprising could be quelled.

In the Years that followed, several pieces of legislation were rolled out and collectively put under the Umbrella Term of Criminal Tribes Act, which outlawed whole communities by labeling them as serial offenders. This was an indication that they were a Law-and-Order threat to Society and State alike.

"People from time immemorial have been pursuing the caste system defined job-positions: weaving, carpentry and such were hereditary jobs. So, there must have been hereditary criminals also who pursued their forefathers' profession" was the justification provided by T. V Stephens, a British Official.

The Criminal Tribes Act paved the way for extreme Control and Supervision of tribes which were notified as "Criminal Tribes" by the government. About 250 castes were notified and put under the spectrum of this act.

The castes and tribes labeled under the Act were designated as Criminal Tribes for their perceived criminal tendencies. As a result, anyone born in these communities across the subcontinent was presumed as a born criminal, irrespective of their criminal precedents. This gave the police landslide powers to detain them, control them, and monitor their movements.

Once a tribe was officially designated, its members had no legal recourse to repeal such notices under the judicial purview. From then on, their movements were supervised through a system of mandatory registration and passes, which specified where the holders could travel and reside, and district magistrates were required to maintain records of such people.

Many of such tribes were settled in villages under police watch whose job was to ensure that no member was absent without Notice.

Even the third gender community were not spared under this draconian law, as Eunuchs were also targeted and colonizers claimed that this was necessary as they believed that they were responsible for kidnapping, castration and several other immoral practices that had an adverse effect on the society.

This act received several amendments over the years and later, as a result the Act received sweeping powers, some as draconian as separating a six-year-old child away from the parents who were classified as "Criminal Tribes" and finally, was applied to the whole of India; and tormented the Tribes further.

Repeal and Continued Ripples:
In 1949, the Indian government repealed this draconian act and this led to 2,300,000 Tribals getting decriminalized. A committee, set in the same year by the central government, studied the utility of the existence of this law, and later reported that this Act violated the very spirit of the Indian constitution.

It is alleged that after this move, there was an upsurge in Crime which prompted massive outcry among the General Public. Therefore, the Indian Government rolled out the Habitual Offenders Act in 1952, and it stated that a habitual offender is one who has been a victim of subjective and objective influences and has manifested a set practice in crime, and also presents a danger to society.

Nevertheless, this act is deemed to be a mere extension of the very act it replaced, and the Tribes which were decriminalized were shifted to the category known as De-Notified Tribes (DNT).

However, the black spot for DNTs, consisting of prejudices, conceptions and hatred, had been rooted in the hearts of the public stood the Test of Time. Many of these tribes continue to carry immense social backlash from the Act and later came under the ambit of the 'Prevention of Anti-Social Activity Act' (PASA).

Most of them have been rejected the status of Scheduled Castes (SC), Scheduled Tribes (ST) or Other Backward Classes (OBC), which would otherwise have allowed them to enjoy the benefits of reservation under Indian law, due to which seats are reserved for them in government jobs and educational institutions.

Over the course of the next century since its passing, the criminal recognition attached to certain tribes by the Act was not only internalized by the society but also by the police forces, whose official methodology, even after the repeal of the Act, was frequently reflected in the characteristics of manifestation of an age initiated by the Act, where characteristics of a crime committed by certain tribes were carefully studied and later documented.

Today this social category, De-Notified and Nomadic tribes, although 60 million strong in India, continues to be ostracized by the Public, has scarce access to Education, Healthcare, Government Schemes, Housing, Legal Rights and so much more.

In 2008, it was recommended that similar reservations must be available to DNTs, which were also enjoyed by the SCs and STs, this was recommended by the National Commission for De-Notified, Nomadic and Semi-Nomadic Tribes (NCDNSNT) of the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment. However, no action was taken.

The commission, further, recommended that the provisions of the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 must also be applicable to these tribes. Today, many governmental and non-governmental bodies are involved in the betterment of these De-Notified tribes through various schemes and educational programs.

It is clearly evident that the purpose for which this act was brought has been left unfulfilled, instead, it has aggravated the situation, by not reducing the social stigma these tribes face and also, very few cases have been registered under this act doubting its efficacy in the 21st Century. Although, it is inarguable that these Tribes continue to face immense Discrimination and hatred from the Public, and also that the HoA 1952, is also responsible for this abhorrent disparagement of Human Rights and Dignity.

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