Adivasis, tribals and scores of other castes come under the category of Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST) of present day India. British rulers, as a part of their divide and rule strategy and to help the Christian missionary conversions, introduced a law in 1871, known as the Criminal Tribes Act (CTA). That uncivil, discriminatory, and derogatory law had branded scores of castes and communities, steeped in grinding poverty, as ‘born criminals’ in India. The total headcount of the so-called criminal tribes branded as ‘pariahs’ by the British at that time was approximately 60 million constituting nearly 30 percent of the then Hindu population of 200 million. This piece discusses CTA, its extensions from Bengal to other states of the British Raj, and how the present day ‘Dalit’ movement keeps the SC-ST groups ignorant of the history, to exploit them for political power.
The guiding motto of serious historians throughout the ages has been to write history objectively, distancing themselves from the opinions and biases of the interested parties. However, more often than not, this ideal has been flouted by the twentieth century colonial powers. These colonial rulers commissioned or patronized historians to write or re-write the histories of the countries they colonized from the standpoint of their own ideologies. Some contemporary academic historians followed suit and wrote unashamedly biased accounts to project their masters in a favorable light and curry their favors.
However, after World War II, the intellectuals of independent nations of Asia and Africa discovered that their histories have been tampered with or distorted by the official historians of colonial rulers, who deliberately brushed aside the traditional accounts of their own past as myth and fairytale. Surprisingly, this distortion and misrepresentation of Indian history and traditions is being taught at major academic institutions both in India and the west, even today. This needs to be exposed and corrected by presenting the facts at appropriate academic forums.
This article is an attempt to trace the tragic history of scheduled castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST) in India that represent a helpless native population wronged by the Criminal Tribes Act (CTA) passed by British rulers, as a part of their divide and rule policy of India.
Criminal Tribes Act (CTA), India
In 1871 the British rulers passed a law known as Criminal Tribes Act (CTA) branding scores of castes and communities steeped in grinding poverty in India, as ‘born criminals’. This barbaric law was first notified and enforced in northern India that was subsequently extended to Bengal and other provinces as well. It notified 160 castes that constitute the core of present day ‘Dalit Samaj’ as hereditary criminals. As a community they were branded as criminals by birth, that receive training in professions like theft, burglary, house-breaking, robbery, dacoity, and counterfeiting from one generation to the next. The total head count of these criminal tribes was approximately 60 million constituting nearly 30% of the total population (according to 1871 census the total population of India was about 200 million). All the members of the so called ‘criminal-tribes’ were native Hindus. As such, with a single stroke of pen the British rulers declared 30% of the Hindu population as hereditary criminals, thereby condemning their unborn generations as ‘pariahs’ destined to work as hewers of wood and drawers of water.
It is important to note that the CTA made it lawful to perform genocide against a list of Indian tribes at different regions (Bhils, Kanjars, Sansis, Nats, Meenas, Charas, Satnamis, Gonds, Marias, Chenchus, etc., to name a few), deemed to be criminals by birth. Apparently, many of these tribes were deprived of basic human rights not because they were indulged in any criminal activity but because they were fighting against British destruction of their jungles and other habitats. Thugs were one such courageous tribe that valiantly fought against British rulers. As such, they were badly maligned via publicized atrocity literature and ‘Thug’ became a synonym for criminal in English language!
The physical movement of these so called criminal tribes was severely curtailed by the CT Act because the males in the tribe were required to report at local Police Stations, regularly. Consequently, they could not move out of their villages to seek education or economic opportunities elsewhere. The District Superintendents of Police were directed to track their movements almost on a day to day basis.
Thus, the bill introduced in 1871 by the British Jurist, James Fitzjames Stephen (who authored Indian Evidence Act), deprived these communities elementary human rights and dignity, permanently arresting their socioeconomic growth by restricting their mobility. This draconian law was based on an irrational assumption that people in India have been pursuing the ‘caste-system-defined-job-positions’ like weaving, carpentry that is passed on from one generation to the next, as a hereditary profession. Therefore, there must have been hereditary criminals as well who followed their forefathers’ profession! Elaborating on this atrocious logic he commented “when we speak of professional criminals we mean a tribe whose ancestors from time immemorial destined by the usage of caste to commit crime, and whose descendants will be offenders against law, until the whole tribe is exterminated in the manner of thugs’. Thus, this draconian law was evidently based on an irrational assumption rather than on any empirical research data. No attempt was made to investigate the causes that compelled these hapless tribes to take to crime for earning a livelihood-a phenomenon which apparently took shape during the long period of Islamic rule in India.
Mercifully, British rulers did not follow this advice, namely the extermination of these hapless tribes, as suggested by Sir James Fitzjames Stephen, follower of Anglican Church turned lawmaker for India!
Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST)
It is important to note that the inhuman Criminal Tribes Act (CTA) introduced and enforced by British rulers in India was rescinded, immediately after independence.
The Indian Constitution Order 1950 lists 1,108 castes across 25 states in its First Schedule as Scheduled Castes and lists 744 tribes across 22 states as Scheduled Tribes. People belonging to SC communities are spread all over the country, with 80% of them living in rural areas. The constitution incorporated various provisions for the socio-economic development of these marginalized groups, for instance, Article 341 for SCs, Article 342 for STs, and Article 340 for Other Backward Castes.
Also, to improve the socioeconomic condition of SCs and STs who have been ostracized and economically exploited by denying human dignity and a sense of self-respect for almost 200 years, the Constitution provided a framework for a three pronged strategy outlined below:
1. Protective Arrangements - Such measures as are required to enforce equality, to provide punitive measures for transgressions, to eliminate established practices that perpetuate inequities, etc. A number of laws were enacted to operationalize the provisions in the Constitution. Examples of such laws include Untouchability Practices Act, 1955, Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, The Employment of Manual scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993, etc.
2. Affirmative action – To provide positive preferential treatment in allotment of jobs and access to higher education, as a means to accelerate the integration of the SCs and STs with mainstream society. Affirmative action is also popularly referred to as Reservation.
3. Development - Provide for resources and benefits to SCs/STs to bridge the wide gap in social and economic condition between them and other communities.
It is important to point out that due to inherent dynamics of Hindu religion, centuries before independence various religious and social reformers have tirelessly campaigned against the practice of untouchability in India. For example, Saint Ramanuja (1017-1137 A D), Veera Brahmendra Swamy (10th century), Basaveswara (1131-1167 AD), Brahma Naidu (14th century) and numerous saints and savants such as Guru Ravidas, Guru Nanak, and Guru Gobind Singh and founder of Arya Samaj Swami Dayanand Saraswati relentlessly worked for the eradication of untouchability in India. The practice was stoutly opposed by social reformers, G. K. Ranade (1842-1901), Jyotirao Phule (1827-1890). The great freedom fighter Lokamanya Tilak once publicly declared that he would denounce even God if he stood for untouchability! Veer Savarkar had personally led the so-called untouchables into the temples to denounce this obnoxious social evil. Mahatma Gandhi carried forward the campaign started by Tilak and Savarkar against untouchability. He named untouchables as “Harijans” (children of God!).
Thus, a review of the history of SCs and STs in India reveals the following points:
- The fault line of creating discord in India is the legacy of British rule. As a part of their divide and rule strategy, the British introduced the Criminal Tribes Act (CTA 1871) that continued till independence depriving about 30% of the indigenous Hindu population elementary human rights and dignity, permanently arresting their socio-economic progress by restricting their mobility.
- It is to the credit of the leaders of free India, that soon after independence, they not only abolished the CTA but also incorporated strong provisions in the constitution for the socio-economic development of these marginalized groups and implemented a three pronged strategy to achieve these goals, evaluating their impact from time to time.
- Untouchability is not part of Hindu religion or its scriptures. On the contrary, the highly revered saints Valmiki (author of the first epic Ramayana in Sanskrit) and Vyasa (author of the great epic Mahabharata and 18 Puranas who is revered as Vishnu), belong to present day ST, SC communities.
- The people that praise British as just and egalitarian and blame high caste Hindus for social evils in India (Kancha Ilaiah) should answer as to why the British did not ban untouchability during their 200-years long rule of India? Also, these critics should recognize the fact that people who agitated for the abolition of untouchability and facilitated the untouchability prevention act of 1955, were mostly high caste Hindus.
The Government of India abolished the inhuman Criminal Tribes Act (CTA) soon after independence. Also, in order to bring these socially ostracized and economically exploited communities that were denied human dignity and a sense of self-respect into mainstream the government designated them under SC, ST categories and provided special privileges for their advancement.
However the history books do not talk about the CTA or its abominable human rights violations of British Raj. Consequently the Dalit Samaj of today holds deep grudge against the so-called ‘high castes’ and the caste warfare rhetoric goes on relentlessly, even after six decades after the independence. The leftist and pseudo-secular writers find no time to find the truth, and unfortunately, the vote-bank politics and caste warfare continue unabated.
Most of these people seem to have mastered the technique and power of Propaganda rhetoric from Adolf Hitler who says in Mein Kampf: “Propaganda must not investigate the truth objectively-----and present only that aspect of the truth which is favorable to its own side-----the receptive powers of the masses are very restricted, and their understanding is very feeble-------they [also] quickly forget------effective propaganda must be confined to a few bare essentials and those must be expressed as far as possible in stereotyped formulas--------slogans should be persistently repeated until the very last individual has come to grasp the idea that has been put forward…….”
Fortunately some intellectuals in Independent India have recognized that their history has been tampered with or deliberately distorted by the official historians of colonial rulers, as well as by our own leftist pseudo secular forces in India to propagate their agenda. Significant strides have been made in correcting these deliberate distortions of India’s historical past through a meticulous research. Certainly lot more needs to be done to unearth the nexus between the forces that are behind these diabolical distortions, their ulterior motives, and exposing them through scholarly publications from time to time.
By Dr. T.R.N Rao and Dr. Murali Ahobila