Crime has been almost integral to history. The Lodha tribe, for instance, had hit the headlines when Chuni Kotal, the first woman graduate from this unfortunate community committed suicide because of social discrimination. A few Lodhas died of starvation in Amlasol village and a young Lodha, Budhan, died in police custody after alleged torture. Who are these Lodhas? Are they “born criminals”? How do civil society and the state look at them? What is their present condition? Along with my students, I once undertook an anthropological journey to conduct a survey of some government-funded research projects in West Midnapore. I will examine the label of criminality, with which the Lodhas were branded by the British.

The trend has continued since Independence. The image of the Lodhas as a criminal tribe has various connotations. There is a perception that the Lodhas can never become good farmers. They lead a sedentary life since they were once nomadic or semi-nomadic hunters. They were regarded as people who have suffered from frustration and extreme forms of timidity combined with criminal instincts. So, whenever government initiatives to improve the living conditions of Lodhas failed, the blame was passed on to the Lodhas.

Anthropological studies have also helped to perpetuate the negative image of the community which has been readily stereotyped. The fact that the Lodhas were first categorised as a ‘denotified’ community meant that they were previously regarded as ‘criminals’. The class group further classified as a ‘Primitive Tribal Group’ (PTG) and finally as ‘Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group’ (PVTG) which reaffirmed their lowest position among the country’s Scheduled Tribes.

In the absence of any systematic and comprehensive field survey and historical research on the Lodhas now living in varied environmental and socio-economic conditions, the stigma acquired a form of generalised textbook homogeneity and authenticity. Some of the empirical findings have however, challenged this generalised image of the Lodhas as ‘criminal’, ‘denotified’, ‘primitive’ and ‘vulnerable’ community. The Rajputs and Punjabis were regarded as brave people by British historians, pre-eminently James Tod.

They fought against the Mughals and although they killed many people, they were never designated by the colonial administration as ‘criminal communities’ probably because they were not poor hunters and marginalised like the Lodhas. The Criminal Tribes Act dates back to severale pieces of legislation enacted in India during British rule. The legislation was first enacted as the Criminal Tribes Act, 1871, which applied mainly to North India. The Act was extended to the Bengal Presidency and other areas in 1876, and, finally, with the Criminal Tribes Act, 1911, it was extended up to the Madras Presidency. The Act went through several amendments in the next decade and, finally, the Criminal Tribes Act, 1924 was legislated.

It incorporated all the provinces. In an article entitled ‘The Criminal Tribes of India’ published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Arts in 1923, a retired British administrative officer Frederick de L. Booth Tucker wrote: “Crime in most countries is committed by individuals, in India usually by tribes, communities and gangs, who are highly organised and trained in it from childhood as a profession. The entire family and the relatives of an Indian criminal, including the women and children, are usually associated with him in the commission of crime.

It is looked upon by these tribes very much as we regard the military profession, and is considered to be both honourable and lucrative”. According to Tucker, there were 18 settlements of criminal tribes in the then Bengal Presidency and the community which was recorded by him as criminal was not the Lodhas but ‘Karwal Nats’. Moreover, he stated in the same article that most of the families in those settlements were found to practise agriculture combined with commodity production and the rest were engaged in industrial occupations.

Tucker’s description did not fit in with the traditional occupation of the Lodhas, notably hunting as reported by anthropologists much later. The question is: How were the Lodhas included in the criminal tribe category and brought under the purview of the Criminal Tribes Act, 1911? In the same volume of the journal published after five months, another British police official, LP Faulkner, in his correspondence in connection with a remark made by Sir Edward Henry in the discussion on Commissioner Booth Tucker’s paper dealing with the Criminal Tribes Act observed: “The chief motive of the Act is to save criminal tribes from themselves; to reform and to reclaim them, so far as is humanly possible.

The Act, as it stands, supplies to the criminal classes a method by which they may be able to improve themselves and to lead decent lives. To the general public it affords a scheme of protection while it places at the disposal of the police a lawful means for keeping potential criminals under proper supervision”. This was written by Faulkner in 1923. He mentioned how the Lodhas of the then Bengal Presidency might have been designated as a criminal tribe by the local administration which was empowered by law to declare a tribe as criminal if a section of the community committed certain non-bailable offences. I quote Faulkner: “If only a part of the tribe is addicted to the systematic commission of non-bailable offences, then only that part of the tribe may be declared a criminal tribe for the purposes of the Act.

This was, to my knowledge, done in the case of certain gangs of the tribes of Lodhas in the district of Midnapore”. The correspondence between the two experienced British officials revealed the truth that the Lodhas as a community were not initially included under the designation of a criminal tribe like some other communities of India. However, some members of the community were definitely declared as ‘criminal’ as early as the first half of 20th century and over time the entire class group was classified as a criminal tribe.

Be that as it may, one thing was clear in the basic premise of the Criminal Tribe Act. It was clearly mentioned in the first quote from Booth Tucker’s article in which he remarked that crime in India was committed by “tribes, communities and gangs” which were “trained in it from childhood as a profession”. They regarded crimes an “honourable and lucrative” profession, much like the westerners who viewed military profession as admirable.

The discourse on the criminal tribes in Sociology and Anthropology continued in the postindependence period and can be traced back to an article by the famous sociologist KM Kapadia published in Sociological Bulletin as early as 1952, the year in which the Criminal Tribe Act was abolished and the former ‘criminal tribes’ were included in the new category named ‘Denotified Tribe’.

Kapadia criticized the rationale of the colonial administrators, specifically their support to the promulgation of the Criminal Tribes Act ~ “The approach of the Government was fundamentally wrong. It pos tulated that (i) the so-called criminal tribes represented a group of born criminals, that (ii) crime was hereditary with their members and that (iii) criminals could be reformed by ruthless punishment and lifelong harassment”.

In the rest of his paper, Kapadia showed how the different levels of the government and police administration along with the elite groups of society used the Criminal Tribes Act which marginalised and sometimes aggravated criminal activities among the members of the socalled ‘Criminal Tribes and Castes’. Kapadia, however, did not mention the Lodhas although the socio-political process of marginalisation of the ‘Criminal Tribes’ in other parts of India had many similarities with the Lodhas of West Bengal.

(The writer is a former Professor, Department of Anthropology, Vidyasagar University, Midnapore)