Issues around Denotified & Nomadic Tribes (DNTs) of India

Crime was never absent in human society and our country is no exception to this. Right since the Vedic period, we find ample references about crimes and anti-social behaviors. The Vedic literature mentions thieves as Taskars and Stayus.  The degeneration of the early religion and morals is recorded in later Vedic literature. According to Manusmriti, there was an age when Dharma prevailed in perfection but gradually Adharma made its headway giving rise to theft, falsehood and fraud. An ancient sage called Kamandaka wrote about the need of danda (punishment). He advocated that King should uphold the Dharma by means of danda for men of criminal tendencies.

Going ahead; Megasthenes while writing about the Maurya Empire says that theft was rare occurrence in India. However, even that period was not devoid of crimes. Kautilya has said that thieves and robbers are the pests of the society and suggested various steps to contain such criminal elements.  The Sanskrit dramas Mrichhkatika (of Sudraka), Charudatta (of Bhasa) and Dashkumarcharita (of Dandin) mention professional thieves called Sharvilaks. Similarly, Chauryashashtra (Art of Thievery) was assigned a place among the 18 Vidyas and 64 Kalas!

There were people who excelled in this Chauryashashtra and adopted it as passion. Similarly, The word “Thug” is derived from “Sthag” of Sanskrit, which means “sly”. The ancient Indian society was tolerating towards the petty crimes and there were regimes to punish the professional criminals in ancient India. However, by the time of colonial rule, the menace of professional crimes was costing too much to the society.

Hereditary Crimes

It is not clearly documented if some particular communities were habitually engaged in crimes. However, as we have been told, the Thugs in medieval / early modern India were the groups of (hereditary?) assassins whose profession was to deceive people and strangle them to death with their Pugree or scarf.

These thugs used to travel in Gangs, disguised as merchants or pilgrims. They were bound together by an oath on the rites of their deity goddess Kali. Rather than ordinary thieves, they were the bands of the people who were first recorded by Barni, when he mentions that Firoz Shah Tughlaq captured the Thugs. But none of them was killed and Sultan put them in boats and sent them to Lakhnauti where they were set free, so that they don’t trouble the elite “Delhites”.

The thugs were brutally suppressed in British India. In suppression of Thugs, along with Lord William Bentinck, one more name cherished is William Henry Sleeman. Sleeman was initially a soldier and later became the administrator. In 1835, the ‘Thugee and Dacoity Dept’ was created by William Bentinck and William Henry Sleeman was made its superintendent. He was later promoted as its Commissioner in 1839. The rigorous operations under Sleeman led to capture of 1400 Thugs who were hanged by the government or transported for life. A special prison was established at Jabalpur for Thugs. The reason of this success was the awareness creation by the Government. The department started disseminating information about the Thugee and at every Police Station or Thana, the information about the new techniques by the Thugs would be sent. The travelers were warned.

Since, Thugs could be recognized only by evidence, the department started “King’s Evidence Programme”. In this programme the Thugs, who turned evidences of the and provided into about the Gang members & peers would be provided protection and incentives. This was used by the government to break the code of silence, which kept the members of the gang silent.

Apart from Thugs, multi-ethinic bands of robbers, dacoits such as Pendharis, Uchale, Ghantichor etc. prevailed in India. These were multi-ethinc and not always people by birth took up crimes. But a fallacious British understanding of the Indian society particularly the caste system led to what may be called a dark chapter for the tribes of India.

The Criminal Tribes Act (CTA) of 1871

After the revolt of 1857, the British needed to take a number of preventive steps to keep India in their clutches. A foolish officer of Law and Order Commission recommended that certain communities in India were professionally criminal and their occupation as well as religion was to commit crimes. On such recommendations, the Criminal Tribes Act (CTA) of 1871 was enacted.

This extremely oppressive act notified certain communities as criminal tribes. Once a tribe became “notified” as criminal, here is what it meant for its members:

  • Every member of the notified community was forced to register himself/herself at the local police station and had to give ‘Hazri’ (attendance) at a specified time of the day.
  • Their movements were curtailed. They could not shift their residence at will and had to take proper permission before any travel or movement.
  • Severe punishments were put in place for breaking these rules.
  • The local police could easily round up any member of the community upon mere suspicion.

First tribe that was notified under this act was Hur of Sindh. Gradually, as many as 198 tribes were brought in its ambit.

The act was amended in 1897 and more stringent penalties were brought in. The act was draconian and slowly started getting criticism from all around. With idea of their rehabilitation gaining ground, the British Government passed the Criminal Tribes Settlement Act, 1908. This act made provisions for settlements of these communities so that they could be reformed.

This was followed by a modification of the act in 1911 and a major modification in 1923-24 with objective to integrate the criminal tribes with the mainstream society. But these acts did not change the ground realities. The notified tribes became more and more oppressed by local administration and village officials / police etc.

In 1937, the Governor of Bombay Province appointed K M Munshi committee to review the act. The Munshi Committee thoroughly and comprehensively reviewed the situation and made a number of suggestions. The most notable contribution was that the committee, for the first time, defined various terms like tribe, gang, class, habitual offender, criminal and so on.

The act started getting repealed by the provincial governments. After independence, the Criminal Tribes Act was repealed in 1952. After the repeal, the tribal were denotified and thus were known as Denotified Tribes.

Habitual Offenders Act 1952

But revoking the CTA act did not end the misery of those who were affected by this act. The CTA act was replaced by Habitual Offenders Act 1952. The major difference between the previous act and new act was that the later targeted individuals and not communities. But on ground, the same procedure kept following.  The whole communities kept branded or stigmatized on the colonial model. Whenever a crime took place, the police round up all the male members of the community in the vicinity and apply third degree to extract information. It is being followed even till date. Such communities include Pardhis, Kanjars, Kanjarbhats etc. The problem is complicated because some members of these communities are still involved in crimes.

The act has attracted criticism from civil society as well as United Nations on the ground that it negates the principle of the criminal justice system – innocent until. The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) had asked India to repeal the Habitual Offenders Act (1952) and effectively rehabilitate the denotified and nomadic tribes. proven guilty.

National Commission for De-notified, Nomadic and Semi Nomadic tribes

There are 1500 Nomadic / Semi-Nomadic Tribes and around 150 Denotified Tribes, which make about 11 Crore of India’s population. Traditionally the tribes wander and therefore could not integrate into Indian society. These tribes also don’t have livelihood means. As mentioned above, some members of these tribes are still involved in a crime, which makes the problem more complicated.

The constitution of India identifies only scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and backwards. It does not make any special provision for denotified tribes as such. Some of the denotified and nomadic tribes got status of SCs in some states while others got status of STs. But many of them are neither SCs nor STs. In 2005, the Government of India established the National Commission for De-notified, Nomadic and Semi Nomadic Tribes (NCDNT) to study various developmental aspects of these Tribes.  The Commission made several recommendations, enumerated as follows:

  • Reservations as available to Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes should be extended to denotified, nomadic or semi-nomadic tribe categories.
  • Extension of Prevention of Atrocities Act to them. The Act currently applies to only SCs and STs.
  • Government should get a “tent to tent” survey done within the next six months and also a community-wise census so as to gather specific data about 1,500 nomadic and semi-nomadic tribes and 150 denotified tribes.
  • Initiation of a special housing scheme to ensure that families are provided with “small pucca houses” in the next five years. Provide permanent shelter by helping them settle down as villages. The Government should be facilitating the settlement of such tribes as villages by acquiring land for the purpose.
  • A Minimum Land Holding Act should be put in place to guarantee land to these tribes in case they want to settle down and engage in agriculture.
  • Suitable training should be provided to these tribals to develop their existing skills and develop livelihood options.


The DNTs being a transient and mobile group have always remained at the periphery of Indian society and have not received due attention. There is a need make efforts on a wider scale to bring them back to social mainstream.