Supreme Court judge S Ravindra Bhat delivered a lecture on Wednesday, August 31, on the topic of ‘Denotified Tribes and Criminal Justice System’ at an event organised by the CPA Project on the occasion of Vimukta Day, marking 70 years of scrapping of the colonial Criminal Tribes Act, 1871.
Bhat, pointing out the factors that resulted in the formulation of the draconian Criminal Tribes Act, said, “The CTA sought to suppress what the British termed as predatory castes who were ‘hereditary criminals,’ that is, criminals by birth. The traction of suppressing certain communities was not unique to India, in fact it mirrored a growth in such policies back in England as well. The belief that crimes and the propensity to commit it was genetic gained prominence under the garb of science, with the rise of eugenics.”
However, he added, “In India rather than relying on genetics and devolving into biological determinism, colonial administrators saw crime as a profession passed across generations as hereditary. This is because they saw criminality from the prism of the caste system and interpreted crime to be an inheritable occupation.”
Highlighting the discriminatory nature of the act, he also noted that the Denotified Tribes (DNTs) fell outside the scope of the graded caste system, “yet it is for specifically this reason that they fell outside the known framework or structure, the colonial officers and policymakers criminalised their identity merely based on caste itself.”
He also emphasised how terming these communities as ‘hereditary criminals’ provided a rather neat justification for mass surveillance, wide discretion, and excessive use of force and power.
After the repeal of the CTA, some prejudiced notions have undergone notable changes, however, Bhat stated, “This shift in approach failed to percolate to the law enforcement personnel who rely on concepts of habitual offenders to routinely persecute already vulnerable, stigmatised DNTs. For these reasons the DNTs failed to see any material changes.”
Justice Bhat also criticised the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 “for expecting tribal communities depending on hunting to change century-old livelihood practices overnight.”
Towards the end of the lecture, Bhat remarked, “When people in casual derogatory statements attribute commission of crime to DNT communities to deflect attention from glaring inefficiency of governance, the cascading effect is inevitable.”
The Criminal Justice and Police Accountability Project (CPA Project) is an intervention focused on the decriminalisation of certain communities by the Police and the criminal justice system and on decarceration. The project is a grassroots litigation and research based initiative based in Bhopal, working in specific locations, and with particular communities across the State of Madhya Pradesh.