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.

The government and the large trading houses earned huge revenues but it made the price shoot up. And the Koravas were now only needed to operate the routes between the railway towns and the outlying villages. Similar market policies let grain merchants hoard grain and manipulate prices. Their old way of life was gone and so the new ‘unemployed’ tribes were included under the ambit of the new Act. Which was vicious.

Radhakrishna writes, “Under the provisions of the Act, the government could deport any number of persons any distance from the homes, could employ them in any form of labour, could hire them out to employers, punish them with fine and imprisonment if they refused to work, bring them back if they attempted to escape, and subject them to additional disciplinary measures. These measures were not limited to persons against whom a conviction had been registered, or even those who had no ostensible means of livelihood or who could not give a satisfactory account of themselves. They applied to all members of the group concerned – men, women and children.” Unlike convicts or actual criminals, this law had no concept of release.

The 1871 Act provided that a tribe could not be notified as ‘criminal’ until land and employment had already been provided to them. The 1911 Act found this unnecessary.

Very soon, the Act became a way of generating a powerless, commoditized labour force. Initially, the village headman (who was typically a land-owning, upper caste Hindu) abused the Act to force the tribals to work as labourers in his field. Or even to commit crimes on their behalf, including the murder of rivals. But finally, factories, mines, mills and plantations got wise to this new method of finding pliable labour. When a community of Kathiars refused to work in a mica mine, they, along with about 1500 members of other tribal communities, were declared criminal tribes and forced to work. There are records of Yerkulas being sent from Madras Presidency all the way to Assam to work in plantations there. An association of South Indian plantation owners remarked on the benefits of the children being settled along with the adults as the chance of a new generation of settled workers was “the most attractive part of the whole thing”.

The Salvation Army played a major role in this tragedy, being “put in almost exclusive charge of Indian itinerant communities” notified under the Act. Radhakrishna even argues that they were partly responsible for the idea of settlements and the reformatory value of employment making it into the Act in the first place. Her account of their human rights abuses, exploitation and profiteering is gut-wrenching. She quotes an article in a Salvation Army newspaper describing quite cheerfully how a man was whipped 15 times and was then “happily at work in our Salvation Army factory”.

In a detailed study of one settlement, Stuartpuram, Radhakrishna discusses the Salvation Army’s self-declared “experiment in criminocurology” which seemed to revolve around a thoughtless, uncaring reorganisation of all pre-existing social relations. They divided the community into discrete families. They separated the children from their parents, letting them meet only on Sundays. They inserted themselves in the marital process, granting “permissions” for people to marry whereas before women had the freedom to choose their spouses. They were apparently appalled at the practice of men paying a bride price and instead introduced the idea of dowry, paying for it themselves. The litany of sins goes on for much longer – this is but a taste.

Today, the residents of Stuartpuram do not remember their own history. The current generation has only the Salvation Army’s version of their past and identity. The colonial project is complete. They have finally become a criminal tribe.

Photo Credit:

1. Irula men from the Nilgiri Hills 1871, Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)

2. Salvation Army Logo, Ryan McFarland, (CC-BY 2.0)