On the occasion of Vimukta Diwas, celebrated on August 31, Justice KV Viswanathan delivered a lecture at an event organised by the Criminal Justice & Police Accountability Project (CPA Project) to mark the anniversary of the repeal of draconian Criminal Tribes Act, 1861.
Citing Shri Bhiku Ramji Commission, Viswanathan elaborated how misconceptions about crime were passed down through generations, which were widespread in European nations, and how India’s caste system contributed to the conception of Criminal Tribes Act, 1871.
He further stated, “The creation of the category of criminals was a product of colonial modernity and the strengthening of the various apparatuses of the nation state. By the 1860s, the emergence of the new working class in post-industrial revolution (Britain), the state was at odds in trying to control its citizens. It was out of this necessity that the government began to differentiate between industrial working classes and criminal working classes,” and this gave birth to the draconian act.
The Act provided for branding of the entire communities as criminals and presumed criminality by the accident of birth. The fingerprints of the people belonging to the criminalised tribes were forcibly taken without any juridical oversight, which Viswanathan called as a “serious affront to the dignity of not only the tribe in question but to the dignity of every well-meaning and right-thinking individual who inhabits in a civilised territory.”
Though the CTA was repealed in 1952, Viswanathan regards the oppressing Act violative of the very spirit of the constitution of India. Talking about the social impact of the Act, he pointed out how the members of the tribes who were notified as criminals were turned in by the management of various establishments. Quoting the Ayyangar committee, he further stated, “The society as whole viewed them with suspicion and treated them with humiliation. Innocent members of the community were not allowed to integrate with other members of the society and several generations were made to carry this tag as a birthmark.”
Furthermore, Viswanathan quoted a few instances of the gruesome violence that was meted out to the members of the tribes. For example, executive machineries would go out in the middle of the night and two roll calls were called out to the members of the tribes. If the calls were not answered, that itself was treated as a violation of the Act. This restricted the movement of the tribes and in order to avoid the missing of the calls, the tribe members sought out to spend nights at the entrance of the police station in unimaginable conditions.
Discussing the post-repeal scenario of the Act, Viswanathan said that though the Act has been repealed, it has now been unofficially replaced by the Habitual Offenders Act, which does not define habitual offenders but some statutory manual deems original tribes as habitual offenders.
Concluding the lecture, Viswanathan suggested sensitising of the law enforcing machinery and District Legal Service Authority to play active role in checking the persecution of Nomadic Tribes at the pre-litigation stage, and the proactive role of Human Rights Commission in order to curb the targeted attacks on the Denotified Tribes.