In this path-breaking study, Meena Radhakrishna traces the history and implications of a piece of colonial legislation--the Criminal Tribes Act. She discusses the changing notions of crime and criminality over a period of time, and shows how the colonial administration's traditional prejudice against gypsies combined with realpolitik on the one hand, and with a need for wage workers on the other, to feed into the category 'hereditary criminal'.
Focussing on the itinerant trading community of Koravas in colonial Madras, Dr Radhakrishna studies in detail the process of its forced sedentarisation in a police and missionary-run settlement. Here the community was meant to be reformed, albeit more through wage work than evangelism. The study shows how inspite of severe and repeated ruptures from its past, the community survived and forged a strong trade union movement.
The archival sources used in this study establish the community to have been an honourable and useful part of sedentary society in the past. However, through a careful analysis of its present oral culture and folklore, Dr Radhakrishna shows that its members have lost memory of that history, and share the widespread belief of the community's earlier, dangerous criminality.