ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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‘Criminal Tribes’ and the Mechanism of Power

Probing into Historical Perspectives

While there is general consensus about the fact that “criminal tribe” was a stereotypical category created by the British, it has also been argued that this categorisation has its basis in India’s ancient past. A close examination of ancient Indian scriptures and colonial archival texts reveals how both had very different views about the so-called “criminal tribes,” which in turn affected the ways in which power hierarchies were constructed and maintained. Nevertheless, these marginalised groups put forth their own counter-discourse, which becomes evident through the analysis of two photographs from colonial archives.

(Figures 1 and 2 accompanying this article are available on the EPW website.)

The author would like to thank the referee of EPW who gave necessary suggestions, as also Kishor Gaikwad, her PhD guide, and her friend Suchetana Chattopadhyay who teaches at Jadavpur University, for their valuable suggestions.

When the prisoners began to speak, they possessed an individual theory of prisons the penal system of justice. It is this form of discourse which ultimately matters, a discourse against power, the counter-discourse of prisoners and those we call delinquent and not a theory about delinquency

— Michel Foucault as quoted in McHoul and Grace 1993: 19

The current study on criminal tribes is a response to Cambridge scholar Anastasia Piliavsky’s (2015) article “The ‘Criminal Tribe’ in India before the British.” In the said paper, she investigates India’s so-called criminal tribes and their status in the ancient period. In postcolonial studies, the criminal tribe is considered as one of the colonial stereotypes. According to Piliavsky,

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Updated On : 23rd Apr, 2019
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