India's Denotified Tribes

A Rich Tapestry of Cultures and Struggles

Denotified Tribes (DNTs) represent a remarkable tapestry of India's marginalised communities, each thread woven with a unique set of cultures, occupations, and experiences.

This heterogeneous group engages in diverse activities such as transportation, key-making, animal husbandry, trading, fishing, hunting, salt trading, medicine, and entertainment. While some DNTs fall within the classifications of Scheduled Castes (SC), Scheduled Tribes (ST), or Other Backward Classes (OBC), not all fit neatly into these categories. Rellies, Lodha, Dhanwar, Kanjar, and many others constitute this rich tapestry.
With a population of around 110 million, DNTs confront extraordinary levels of discrimination that extend beyond the well-documented stigma and persecution faced by Dalits and Adivasis. South Asia is home to the world's largest nomadic population, with approximately 10% of India's population belonging to Denotified and Nomadic Tribes.

In this exploration of DNTs, we delve into their distinct cultures, customs, and belief systems, often misunderstood or marginalised by mainstream society. Maharashtra, in particular, stands as a stronghold of denotified and nomadic tribes in India. Their history is intertwined with the notorious Criminal Tribes Act, a chapter marked by classification as "criminals'' and the resulting social stigma and persecution. However, the turning point arrived on August 31, 1952, when the government of independent India repealed the Criminal Tribes Act, replacing it with the Habitual Offenders Act. This day is now celebrated annually as Vimukti Diwas, or Liberation Day, by DNT communities across the nation.

The Criminal Tribes Act, 1871, was one of several laws enacted by the British colonial authority that targeted Indians based on their religion and caste affiliation. The law labelled millions of semi-nomadic and nomadic tribes as criminals and placed them under constant observation. These tribes were said to be addicted to non-bailable acts such as stealing. 
The term Tribes was used in the Criminal Tribes Act and its regulations, which covered castes. 

Characteristics of Denotified Tribes (DNTs)

  1. Social Classification:

   - DNTs are categorised under scheduled tribes, scheduled castes, and other backward communities.

  - Within these communities, restrictions on inter-dining and inter-marriages are prevalent.

   - Historically, they have occupied the lowest rung of the social hierarchy and faced discrimination and persecution.

  1. Patriarchal Societies:

   - DNTs typically follow patriarchal structures where the authority of elder males is considered superior.

    - Women's status within DNTs is notably low, often subject to harsh treatment.

   - For instance, the Yerukula society in Andhra Pradesh is patriarchal, but women have gained some improved status over time.

  1. Caste or Tribal Panchayats:

  - DNTs have strong caste or tribal panchayats, such as Kula panchayats (Caste Councils).

   - These councils make decisions that significantly impact the social and domestic lives of DNTs.

   - Among the Yerukulas, the panchayat is composed of elderly individuals known as Berumanusom, whose decisions are respected and followed by the community.

  1. Ecological Dependence:

   - Many DNTs have strong ecological connections, with their means of subsistence tied closely to the environment.

   - Changes in ecology and the environment directly affect their livelihoods.

 - For example, the Waddars, also known as Katheras, Dasaries, and Aligaries, traditionally depended on forest produce for their income.

   - They were skilled in crafting baskets and ropes.

  1. Animal Husbandry:

   - Domestication of animals plays a vital role in the DNTs' economy.

  - They trap, hunt, sell, and utilise various animals, including donkeys, bullocks, pigs, 

     cows,sheep, monkeys, foxes, snakes, and hares in their daily lives.

   - These animals serve both as a source of sustenance and trade.

The situation of DNTs during pre and post-independence

The British criminalised nomadic tribes in India through the "Criminal Tribes Act of 1871," labelling them as "criminals" and members of "criminal tribes" who fought against British conquest. Between 1871 and 1944, Indian tribes were added to the list of "criminal tribes." After independence in 1952, the government denotified these tribes but did not provide rehabilitation facilities or work opportunities. Since 1961, state-by-state listings have been released, and police officers often exploit these tribes.

During British era

  • Since the 19th century, millions of Indians from denotified and nomadic tribes (DNT-NTs) have faced prejudice, abuse, and social and economic marginalisation. The British labelled these communities as "born criminals" and created the Criminal Tribes Acts, beginning with the 1871 Act, which labelled about 150 tribes as having "criminal tendencies." Authorities now have the authority to arrest, monitor, and limit the movements of these tribes.
  • Subsequent Acts extended similar prohibitions throughout the entirety of British-controlled India, allowing local governments to label specific tribes as "addicted to the systematic commission of non-bailable offences." Members of these tribes were obliged to register with local magistrates or face criminal proceedings.
  • The Acts also allowed for the forcible removal of certain tribes to "permanent reformatory settlements," which functioned as virtual prisons and labour camps.
  • This historical setting reveals how these tribes were entangled in colonial land reform, the desire for cheap labour, and social change rhetoric, resulting in their long-term social and economic woes.

How were they labelled as “criminals”?

A lot of communities were stripped of their traditional rights to grazing, hunting, and gathering, as well as shifting cultivation in particular areas when forest laws were implemented in the middle of the nineteenth century. These groups "often found themselves on the wrong side of the law" because they were unaware of the new laws that made their very source of income illegal. When the British cut the woods for commercial use and required forest populations to help with work, some groups protested and were labelled "criminals."
"Once such communities had lost their legitimate means of livelihood, they must have been living by indulging in criminal activities," the British reasoned. There is abundant evidence that a substantial number of previously nomadic groups were caught up in the Criminal Tribes Act as a result of such an argument." Under the guise of 'law and order,' anyone who resisted the British or any "'respectable' village people (landlords, high castes, or those who paid taxes to the British)" were labelled as 'criminals.'

What happened to DNTs after independence?

Following India's independence, the Criminal Tribes Act was revoked, renaming communities as 'denotified' and relegating them to administrative categories like Schedule Castes, Schedule Tribes, and OBCs. The total population of the criminal tribe was estimated at 22,68,000 at the time of repeal. State governments introduced 'Habitual Offenders Acts', similar to the Criminal Tribes Acts, which have been used against DNT members in various states.
DNT communities must have hoped for an independent India that would safeguard them under the Indian Constitution's Fundamental Rights clause. 
However, the promises of Articles 14 (Equality before the Law), Article 15 (Prohibition of Discrimination), and Article 21 (Protection of Life and Personal Liberty) have yet to be fully realised in relation to DNT. 

Issues associated with DNTs

In terms of social inclusion, economic growth, education, health, identity, and dignity, DNTs encounter several hurdles.

Identity-related problems

    • Many DNTs lack formal identification documents such as voter ID cards, ration cards, Aadhaar cards, and so on, denying them access to various government initiatives and benefits.
    • They also have difficulty verifying their citizenship and residency status.

Absence of representation

    • DNTs are underrepresented in political institutions, bureaucracies, the court, the media, and civil society.
    • They are frequently excluded from decisions that impact their lives and rights.

Lack of education

    • DNTs have extremely low literacy and educational achievement rates.
    • Poverty, prejudice, language difficulty, a lack of infrastructure and amenities, a lack of instructors from their communities, and other challenges plague them.
    • Due to relocation or a lack of interest, many youngsters drop out of school.

Inadequate health

    • Poor health indices, such as a high newborn mortality rate, maternal mortality rate, malnutrition rate, and so on, characterise DNTs.
    • They encounter concerns such as a lack of access to health care, a lack of information about health issues, a lack of sanitation and cleanliness, and so on.
    • Many of them also practise traditional medical systems that the government does not recognize or regulate.

Lack of livelihood

    • DNTs have poor incomes and significant poverty rates.
    • The traditional livelihoods of these tribes are under threat for a variety of reasons, including the depletion of natural resources, competition from new technology, governmental constraints, and societal biases.
    • Many of them are compelled to work in low-wage or dangerous jobs like begging, rag-picking, or manual scavenging.

Social Justice

    • Denotified, nomadic, and semi-nomadic tribes endure different types of social injustice, such as violence, exploitation, abuse, and people trafficking.
    • They are frequently targeted by the police or criminal groups owing to their perceived 'criminality' or vulnerability.
    • They are also subjected to prejudice and exclusion from mainstream society because of their caste, class, or gender.

Development plans for DNTs

  • The Indian Planning Commission included a provision of Rs. 3.5 crores in the Five Year Plan to Rehabilitate Denotified Tribes to ensure the relocation of ex-criminal tribes and programmes to aid them in integrating into Indian communal life. There have been three further attempts to rehabilitate the tribes after the initial Five Year Plan. 
    • However, racist attitudes to these endeavours persist, and the consequences are unavoidable failures. The administration moved to repeal the Habitual Offenders Acts in the late 1990s.

Schemes for DNTs

  • DNTs can apply for the Dr. Ambedkar Pre-Matric and Post-Matric Scholarships.
    • This Centrally Sponsored Scheme was implemented in 2014-15 for the benefit of DNT students who are not covered by SC, ST, or OBC.
  • Nanaji Deshmukh Scheme for Building DNT Boys and Girls Hostels.
    • This Centrally Sponsored Scheme, which began in 2014-15, is carried out by State Governments, UT Administrations, and Central Universities.
  • The initiative "Assistance to Voluntary Organizations Working for the Welfare of OBCs" has been expanded for DNTs beginning in 2017-18.

Commissions and committees constituted for DNTs

Before Independence

  •  The Indian Police Commission
    1. In 1902-03, the committee made various ideas, including that police officers should be familiar with criminal groups and should oversee gangs who are addicted to crime. 
    2. In reality, it asked that the police be given additional authority in order to control the criminal tribes. This Commission offered many proposals for amending the 1897 Criminal Tribes Act(CTA). 
    3. As a result, the CTA 1897 was repealed by judicial review. However, another Act was passed in 1911 with further restrictions, such as members of the Criminal Tribes being required to register themselves and provide fingerprints, to record their daily activities and changes of abode, and so on. 
  • The All India Jail Committee
    1. It was formed in 1919. 
    2. It identified gaps in the CTA 1911 and offered additional reformatory measures. 
    3. It emphasised that the settlement should not resemble another jail. The Criminal Tribe settlements were reformatory, and economic growth should be one of their goals. Economic progress is impossible without enthusiasm, commitment, and religious teachings, according to the committee. 
    4. The committee clearly recommended that the settlement be favourable. Only in a few situations did the committee criticise the separation of children from their parents. 
    5. CTA 1923 was passed based on the committee's recommendations. 
  •  The Indian Jail Enquiry Committee
    1. The CTA 1923 was revised and replaced with the CTA 1924 on the advice of the Indian Jail Enquiry Committee. 
    2. The CTA 1911 has flaws, according to this Committee report, and it was suggested that it was preventative rather than corrective. 
    3. According to the CTA of 1924, Christian missionaries were given control over the settlement's management as well as police and magisterial authority.

It is evident that different Committees and Commissions prior to Independence gave priority to major issues pertaining to Criminal Tribes that were related to transferring power to authorities, making the notification process simpler, planning reformatory and corrective measures through settlements, planning economic development of the Criminal tribes, etc. 

After Independence

  • Criminal Tribes Inquiry Committee, 1947
    1. The 1947 committee in Uttar Pradesh recommended settling nomadic communities, predicting continued crime. It suggested educating them on industry skills and legal methods for settlement. The committee also suggested teaching the 53 De-Notified Tribes a life of honesty and industry, reducing their susceptibility to crime.
  • Ananthasayanam Ayyangar Committee, 1949
    1. In 1949, a committee led by Ananthsaynam Ayyangar recommended the repeal of the Criminal Tribe Act of 1924, which was later abolished in 1952 with the Criminal Tribes Laws (Repeal) Act. However, the Habitual Offenders Act weakened the stigma against Disabled Nationalities (DNTs) and recommended adequate government funding for welfare and rehabilitation programs.
  • Kaka kalelkar commission
    1. On January 29, 1953, the first Backward Class Commission, known as the Kalelkar Commission was constituted. 
    2. The Commission's main recommendation was that the formerly 'criminal tribes' not be designated a 'Tribe' or be referred to as 'Criminal Tribes' or 'ex-criminal tribes'. 
      1. In fact, the Commission proposed that they be referred to as "Denotified Communities." 
    3. The panel proposed the integration of these groups with settled communities and, in effect, recommended the settlement of these communities.
  • The Lokur Committee
    1. In 1965, a Committee was formed by the Indian Government to review the lists of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. 
    2. The Committee found that the development programs for these groups had not effectively helped them due to their nomadic nature and small numbers. 
    3. The committee recommended treating these communities as separate groups with tailored development plans.
  • Mandal Commission
    1. The Second Backward Class Commission in 1978. 
    2. The Commission adopted a critical stance, and 54 tribes in India proposed that caste be used as a criterion to assess social and educational backwardness rather than economic backwardness.
    3. It was proposed that the OBCs be separated into two categories:
      1.  "Intermediate Backward Class" and 
      2. "Depressed Backward Class." 
    4. The Commission rejected the recommendation, but it was argued that intermediate backward classes have historically coexisted with upper castes, allowing them to benefit from better association and social status.
  • Justice Venkatachaliah Commission
    1. In 2002, the Government of India established this Commission to evaluate the operation of the Constitution. 
    2. The Commission made several key findings on the DNT, NT, and SNT groups. 
      1. It first and foremost raised the subject of incorrect stigmatisation of Denotified Tribes/Communities at all levels, whether by government or society. 
      2. It also said unequivocally that incorporating these groups on the current SC, ST, and OBC lists has harmed the DNTs. 
    3. The Commission suggested that the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment and the Ministry of Tribal Welfare should implement programs for economic, educational, job creation, social freedom, and rehabilitation of denotified communities.
  • National Commission for Denotified, Nomadic and Semi-Nomadic Tribes
    1. On February 6, 2006, the Government of India established the National Commission for Denotified, Nomadic, and Semi-Nomadic Tribes, chaired by Mr Balkrishna Sidaram Renke.
    2. The commission aimed to establish standards for identifying, categorising, and benefiting Denotified, Nomadic, and Semi-Nomadic Tribes, develop a reservation plan, and promote their rights and image in civil society.
  • Renke Commission
    1. It is recommended that a commission be formed for the welfare of these tribes, which are made up of about 11 crore people. 
    2. It also recommended that given the socio-economic backwardness of people of these tribes, there should be a 10% reservation provision as well.
    3. According to its report, 86% of the Nomadic Tribes and 97% of the Denotified Tribes fall under the SC, ST, or OBC categories.
    4. The report highlights the stigma faced by Denotified and Nomadic communities due to their lack of ration cards, voting privileges, Caste and identity certificates, and residential addresses. They are often viewed with suspicion and harassed by the "Conventional Society" and government officials.
    1. An acronym for the Scheme for Welfare of Denotified, Nomadic, and Semi-Nomadic Communities.
    2. The DWBDNC was established in 2019.
    3. A permanent commission should be established for these areas, according to the 2018 commission report.
    4. However, because the majority of DNTs are classified as SC, ST, or OBC, the government decided to establish a permanent panel to handle issues.
    5. The Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment was given responsibility for the DWBDNCs, which were established by the government under the Societies Registration Act, 1860.


DNTs are distinguishable by their ancestry and colour; this discrimination limits their access to several human rights, including the right to life, liberty, and security, the right to equality before the law, and the right not to be discriminated against. It is also critical that the State account for specific human rights violations committed by state authorities, including police, against these tribes, and that the colonial view that DNTs have "criminal tendencies" is not used to scapegoat these victims or deny them justice for human rights violations they have suffered. There is also a need to implement policy measures and repeal India's current racial legislation. Members of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination should raise these concerns with the Indian government and request a concerted effort to end all racial discrimination against Denotified and Nomadic Tribes by ensuring the country's commitment to international human rights standards and principles.