The Criminal Tribes of Madras Presidency

by Thomas Manuel

Irulas1871In Dishonoured by History: ‘Criminal Tribes' and British Colonial Policy, Meena Radhakrishna presents rare scholarship on some of the worst excesses of the British Empire. The Criminal Tribes Act, 1871 was passed with intention of demarcating certain tribes in India as being "hereditary criminals". This wasn't necessarily genetic but rather occupational. The colonial interventions of the 19th century had invalidated a lot of hereditary occupations and the British were extremely aware of the dangers of the resulting mass unemployment. In their eyes, there was no other choice for these poor, wandering nomads but to take up a life of crime. What else could they do?

Radhakrishna's scholarship focuses on the erstwhile Madras Presidency where the Criminal Tribes Act, 1871 did not apply at first. It was resisted by the Madras administration who argued (using statistics!) that there was no crime problem in general and crime was actually lower in districts where these tribes operated. There were other objections voiced including questions of implementation and practicality but the real reason seemed to be because the wandering tribes were useful.

Historically, the Koravas of the Madras Presidency were salt and grain traders. They travelled from the coast with salt, taking it along regular trade routes to villages that were deep inland. Many of these remote villages were not connected by road and had no other access to salt. The Koravas, who carried these goods on the backs of their herds of cattle, would be able to sell salt in these areas at prices lower than any ordinary merchant. The Madras administration knew this and acknowledged it. This was the case with a number of tribes, each of them seen as beneficial as they ensured the movement of particular goods across the presidency.

But in the year 1911, the new Criminal Tribes Act was passed and this one applied to the entire territory of India. In the four decades since the first Act, new economic policies had played havoc with the traditional trading system. The salt trade was centralized with the government acting as clearing house. Coupled with the introduction of the railways, the entire face of the salt supply chain changed.

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