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The “Criminal Tribe” in India before the British

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 March 2015

Anastasia Piliavsky*
Girton College, Cambridge


This paper challenges the broad consensus in current historiography that holds the Indian stereotype of criminal tribe to be a myth of colonial making. Drawing on a selection of precolonial descriptions of robber castes—ancient legal texts and folktales; Jain, Buddhist and Brahmanic narratives; Mughal sources; and Early Modern European travel accounts—I show that the idea of castes of congenital robbers was not a British import, but instead a label of much older vintage on the subcontinent. Enjoying pride of place in the postcolonial critics' pageant of “colonial stereotypes,” the case of criminal tribes is representative and it bears on broader questions about colonial knowledge and its relation to power. The study contributes to the literature that challenges the still widespread tendency to view colonial social categories, and indeed the bulk of colonial knowledge, as the imaginative residue of imperial politics. I argue that while colonial uses of the idea of a criminal tribe comprises a lurid history of violence against communities branded as born criminals in British law, the stereotype itself has indigenous roots. The case is representative and it bears on larger problems of method and analysis in “post-Orientalist” historiography.

Research Article
Copyright © Society for the Comparative Study of Society and History 2015 

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