The term Criminal Tribes Act (CTA) applies to various successive pieces of legislation enforced in India during British rule; the first enacted in 1871 as Criminal Tribes Act (Act XXVII of 1871) applied mostly in North India. The Act was extended to Bengal Presidency and other areas in 1876, and finally with the Criminal Tribes Act 1911, it was extended to Madras Presidency as well. The Act went through several amendments in the next decade and finally the Criminal Tribes Act (VI of 1924) incorporated all of them.
The Act came into force, with the assent of the Governor-General of India on 12 October 1871. Under the act, ethnic or social communities in India which were defined as "addicted to the systematic commission of non-bailable offences" such as thefts, were systematically registered by the government. Since they were described as 'habitually criminal', restrictions on their movements were also imposed; adult male members of such groups were forced to report weekly to the local police.
At the time of Indian independence in 1947, there were thirteen million people in 127 communities who faced constant surveillance, search and arrest without warrant if any member of the group was found outside the prescribed area. The Act was repealed in August 1949 and former "criminal tribes" were denotified in 1952, when the Act was replaced with the Habitual Offenders Act 1952 of Government of India, and in 1961 state governments started releasing lists of such tribes.
Today, there are 313 Nomadic Tribes and 198 Denotified tribes of India, yet the legacy of the Act continues to haunt the majority of 60 million people belonging to these tribes, especially as their notification over a century ago has meant not just alienation and stereotyping by the police and the media, but also economic hardships. A large number of them can still only subscribe to a slightly altered label, "Vimukta jaatis" or the Ex-Criminal Tribes.
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