The Stigma Politics of Caste

This extract from ‘The Penal Tatoo’, chapter one of Stigma: the Machinery of Inequality, argues that the stigma politics of caste is particularly instructive for understanding how power is inscribed on the body, and the ways in which stigma power is entangled with histories of racial and colonial capitalism.

 ‘Even after two decades, the sound of a needle gun painfully scribbling Jeb Katri on my forehead is something that still haunts me and wakes me up in the middle of the night’.

Parmeshri Devi, a Sansi woman tortured by the Punjabi police[i]

On 8 December 1993, five women were arrested near the Harmandir Sahib (the Golden Temple) in the city of Amritsar, Punjab, India. They were accused of a stealing a purse. [ii] The women, Gurdev Kaur, Parmeshri Devi, Mohinder Kaur, Hamir Kaur and Surjit Kaur, were imprisoned for eight days before being released on bail. A few days later Surjit was picked up again, and police garlanded her with shoes and paraded her through a local market.[iii] After Surjit had been publicly shamed in the marketplace, she and the other four women were taken to a police station in the Rambagh area of Amirtsar where they were physically restrained by being tied to chairs. The police then sent for ‘a handheld needle gun, meant for marking utensils’ and proceeded to engrave the words Jeb Katri (pickpocket) on their foreheads.[iv] As Parmeshri recalls ‘as we writhed in pain, there was a power cut’, so the police chief ‘ordered his men to bring the battery of their official Gypsy [a police SUV vehicle], which they used to turn the machine back on and complete the permanent marking’.[v] 

The penal tattooing of the women came to light when they were presented in court some days later on charges of theft. The police brought the women into the courtroom with their foreheads covered with dupattas (head scarves), but Parmeshri Devi defiantly unveiled her penal tattoo in front of the Judge. At the time, nobody in the court seemed concerned by Devi’s revelation, however a newspaper report on the case in the Punjabi paper Ajit – crucially accompanied by a photograph of three of the women outside the court [see above for reproduction]– later made the pages of two national newspapers.[vi]

The women petitioned the Punjab and Haryana High Court for compensation for the torture and humiliation they had suffered and for plastic surgery to remove the tattoos.  Responding to the newspaper coverage of the case, the Indian National Human Rights Commission of India intervened and in 1994 the court awarded costs for the removal of the tattoos.[vii] However, the treatment offered to the women at a local hospital didn’t involve the removal of the tattoos but only their over-writing. In desperation, the five resorted to borrowing money for a course of laser treatment at a private clinic. One of the women, Hamir, died before her tattoo had been fully removed.[viii]

The police officers denied that they had tattooed the women, blaming others in the local community ‘fed up by their habit of pickpocketing’ who desired to ‘publicly shame them’.[ix] However, the surviving women continued in their struggle to bring the perpetrators to justice, and after a staggering 23 years an investigation by India’s Central Bureau of Investigation eventually led to some prosecutions. In October 2016, three of the policemen involved received prison sentences for forcibly tattooing the words Jeb Katri on the women’s foreheads.

Interviewed by journalists after the conviction of the police, the women and their families explained how they had suffered years of police harassment: ‘the police slapped many cases on all of us to pressurise us to not to give statement in court’.[x] Mohinder Kaur’s son Pappu described how he had been taunted at school as a consequence of his mother’s tattoo: schoolmates would stick paper notes with the words Mein jeb katri da beta han [I am the son of a pickpocket] on his back.[xi] Parmeshri Devi’s son committed suicide by self-immolation, a consequence, she vehemently believes, of the social stigma and years of police harassment provoked by the case.

In Hindi, the closest word to the English word stigma is godna – a word meaning ‘to prick, puncture, to dot, to mark the skin with dots, to tattoo’ and ‘to wound or lacerate a person’s feelings’. [xii] This dual meaning of godna as designating psychological and/or bodily inscription resonates in the women’s accounts of their torture at the hand of the police. As Devi told a journalist: ‘we had to undergo torture for the past 23 years’. [xiii] 


 Penal stigma in India 

In the mid-eighteenth century the British East India Company was morphing from trading company into a colonial power – ‘the Corporate Raj’. In this period, the British East India company was ‘a dangerously unregulated private company headquartered in one small office, five windows wide, in London, and managed in India by an unstable sociopath’ – a British Army Officer and privateer called Robert Clive.[i]  Clive drew on the resources of the East India Company to fund a vast private army with which to assume administrative control over large swathes of the Indian subcontinent. This campaign for the political and economic domination of India began in wealthy Bengal. As Thomas Paine wrote in 1775: ‘fear and terror march like pioneers before [Clive’s] camp, murder and rapine accompany it, famine and wretchedness follow in the rear’.[ii]  The Great Bengal Famine (1769–73) killed an estimated one-third of the population in the Bengal, around ten million people. It was the largest of a series of eighteenth-century famines in areas of India under the yoke of the Corporate Raj as it enclosed India, and bled the region dry.

Paine wasn’t alone amongst his contemporaries in decrying the murderous exploits of the British in India as ‘an extermination of mankind’.[iii] Reports about the Bengal famine caused such disconcertion amongst the British newspaper-reading public that an investigation into the East-India Company was undertaken by the British Government. In April 1773, a damning report by a House of Commons select committee was prefaced by the statement ‘that the reports contained accounts shocking to human nature, that the most infamous designs had been carried into execution by perfidy and murder’. [iv]  In actuality, the East India Company was a private-public partnership between state actors and business elites – indeed one quarter of British MPs ‘owned stock in the East India Company’ in this period. [v] Jeremey Bentham who, as detailed above [see longer chapter and here], proposed to base the government of his new panoptical welfare state on the East India Company, was also a shareholder.[vi]

In 1797, the Corporate Raj introduced penal tattooing within its judicial systems of punishment in Bengal, a practice it later extended to other areas in South India under company control.[vii] From this period onwards life convicts in Bengal ‘had their name, crime, dates of sentence and court by which convicted’ tattooed on their foreheads.[viii] It seems quite likely that a shortage of labour in wake of famines in Bengal contributed to the decision of the Corporate Raj to introduce tattooing in this period. Certainly, as the historian Claire Anderson details, colonial control and expansion necessitated ‘a cheap and, preferably controllable labour force’ to build the infrastructures of Empire, and ‘convicts had their identity as a prison labour force literally inscribed upon their person’.[ix]  This tattooed labour force was also transported to other East India Company territories and British owned plantations as ‘coolie’ labour.[x] Being tattooed or branded in India in this period effectively turned you in the property of the company. 

Penal tattooing wasn’t unheard of in pre-colonial India, where ‘the use of tattooing as a punishment’ was bound up with other caste-sanctions ‘of shame and humiliation’: including mutilation (amputation of nose, ears or hands) and public shaming (head shaving and face blackening). The introduction of penal tattooing by the British was also differentiated along caste lines.  For example, serious offenders from high caste groups, such as Brahmins, might be tattooed in place of execution.[xi]  These penal tattoos were of course deeply humiliating and a source of shame. Anderson notes the how strategies emerged to conceal penal tattoos: ‘turbans were worn low to hide godna [tattoo] marks’, hair was fashioned to conceal them, and practices of tattoo defacement and removal (through scarification) proliferated.[xii]  

By the time the British government took direct control of India (the British Raj, 1858–1947), penal tattooing was falling out of favour, as it was perceived as at odds with the British governments stated civilising colonial mission, and a new emphasis on reform in penal systems (led in part by utilitarian thinkers such as Jeremey Bentham). As Anderson notes, a debate took place in colonial India over the efficacy of flogging of convicts, as the scars left by whip marks on offenders bodies were a stigmata which made it harder for them unable to find gainful employment after their release.[xiii] Despite this new emphasis on reform (through indentured labour), as we have seen throughout this chapter, the suppression of one form of penal stigma is often accompanied by emergence of new stigmatising forms of classification and stigma practices. The British continued to exploit and innovative shaming punishments, legal sanctions and surveillance technologies, particularly by exploiting existing caste-hierarchies in India, to which they added their own stigmatising ‘prejudices and value judgements’. [xiv]

The stigma of genetic criminality 

In 1871, the British Raj passed the ‘Criminal Tribes Act’, which saw the introduction of punitive laws for ‘the registration, surveillance and control’ of Indian’s indigenous and traditionally nomadic tribal populations – often known today by the collective term Adivasi.[xv] Under the terms of this act, ‘criminality was viewed as hereditary’, and many Adivasi found themselves classified as ‘janam churas (criminals-by-birth)’.[xvi]  To assist in the implementation of this act a nation-wide survey and census of India’s castes and tribal groups was undertaken. Herbert Risley (1851 –1911), a British civil servant, anthropologist and race science enthusiast was appointed Census Commissioner for India in 1899, and undertook an ethnographic survey of the population of Bengal.[xvii] Inspired by the new European eugenicist social sciences, Risley employed phrenology, finger-printing and photography as methods for classifying criminal castes and tribes. Risley’s field workers were particularly instructed to document tattoos, as tattoos were understood, in the wake of Lombroso’s 1876 thesis, as evidence of ‘hereditary criminality’.[xviii]

Once registered as ‘criminals by birth’, the Adivasi became subject to punitive systems of administration and policing, which included the introduction of a pass system to control their movements. Under this pass system people were forced to register, sometimes daily, at local police stations and were frequently confined to specific villages. These forms of social and spatial segregation bore resemblances to the Jim Crow laws in the United States (introduced in 1877) and the pass systems developed in colonial South Africa to control black labour (for example, in 1896 black African men were required by law to wear on their upper arm a metal badge stamped with a number in order to enter labour districts in the Cape). 

In India, those found in breach of pass laws were subject to fines, beatings and imprisonment in reformatories – places of confinement which, as the criminologist Preeti Nijhar argues, bore a strong resemblance to English workhouses.[xix]

In his research on the policing of ‘criminal tribes’ in Punjab, the historian Andrew Major reveals that in the early twentieth century large agricultural and industrial reformatories were established to intern, reform and skill Adivasi for the labour market, including cotton mills.[xx] In 1919, a reformatory prison-factory established at the site of Amritsar prison held 860 Adivasi men, women and children, these people were mainly from the so-called criminal tribe Sansi.  During the First World War this prison-factory complex effectively functioned as a sweatshop. [Jeremy Bentham would likely have described this carceral workplace as a utopia].

The political scientist Gopul Guru describes how caste was ‘chalked’ on people as a means of enabling and legitimating colonial era rule, including the enclosure of land, resources and labour.[xxi] Certainly, it is no coincidence that stigmatising punishments, punitive policing and internment measures employed against the Adivasi intensified during the same period when the British were actively enclosing the lands in which Adivasi had traditionally lived. For example, the passing of multiple Forest Acts saw the British government declare ownership over all forested land – as a means, amongst other things, to harvest wood for use in the manufacture of railway sleepers. These land enclosures saw Adivasi deprived of traditional ‘grazing, hunting and gathering rights’.[xxii] As with the enclosures of common land in England, the innovation of new penal systems of classification and surveillance were employed as a technologies of colonial capitalist enclosure. 

Indian democracy

When British rule ended in 1947, India became the largest democratic nation state in the world. The Constitution of India (1950) was explicit in prohibiting discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth. Untouchability became a criminal offence and Dalits were reclassified as Scheduled Castes, while Adivasi were reclassified as Scheduled Tribes.  Ostensibly these new governmental classifications sought to de-stigmatise the caste system, and to enable those disadvantaged by colonial-era social hierarchies to benefit from new redistributive social policies and legal protections, including programmes of ‘affirmative action’ which promised to offset generations of subordination.[xxiii] However, in the context of historically ‘entrenched social, economic, and political inequalities created and justified by the caste-based hierarchical social order’, and given the many elite interests invested in the maintenance of this order, these constitutional doctrines remained ‘paper principles’.[xxiv] As the Dalit Panthers (inspired by the US Black Panthers) stated in their 1973 manifesto:

Under pressure of the masses [the Indian Government] passed many laws but it cannot implement them. Because the entire state machinery is dominated by … the same hands who, for thousands of years, under religious sanctions, controlled all the wealth and power, today own most of the agricultural land, industry, economic resources and all other instruments of power.[xxv]

 The Criminal Tribes Act wasn’t repealed until 31 August 1952. From this date those registered as ‘born criminals’ were ostensibly freed ‘from their 80-year-old bondage’.[xxvi] However, as Sarah Gandee notes, the act was replaced ‘by a series of provincial Habitual Offenders legislation which effectively reproduced the colonial frameworks of surveillance and control.’[xxvii] The very same government officers and police forces who had supervised the ‘criminal tribes’ were now ‘responsible for implementing the ostensibly liberalised agenda of the postcolonial state’.[xxviii] Indeed these groups are still listed as criminal tribes in police training manuals.[xxix]  

As the researcher and activist C. J. Bijoy notes, the spectre of the so-called criminal tribes continues to haunt Adivasi people – the Sansi, Pardhi, Kanjar, Gujjar, Bawaria, Banjara and others – who ‘are still considered as the first natural suspects of all petty and sundry crimes’.[xxx] In their encounters police and other state actors, Adivasi still endure ritual humiliations, unfounded accusations, and threats against their family and friends.[xxxi]

Public humiliation remains a signal feature of the treatment of both Adivasi and Dalit populations. Social boycotts and sanctions against them extend from restricting access to drinking water, through destruction of property, beatings, sexual harassment, rape and lynchings. Particular kinds of violence are reserved for Adivasi and Dalit women, including ‘extreme filthy verbal abuse and sexual epithets, naked parading, dismemberment, being forced to drink urine and eat faeces, branding, pulling out of teeth, tongue and nails, and violence including murder after proclaiming witchcraft’.[xxxii] Feminist scholars have detailed how extreme caste violence, rape and public shaming rituals are often targeted at Dalit women in order to demonstrate caste control over Dalit men.[xxxiii] Through practices of gender-based violence, women’s bodies are effectively made depositories of the stigmatising violence of the caste system itself. This echoes the long gendered history of penal stigma explored in this chapter, and the ways in which misogyny combines with classism, casteism and racism. The history of racial capitalism cannot be separated from regimes of patriarchy — stigma power functions intersectionally. 

The stigma machine of caste

In 2016, a new annotated edition Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar’s seminal 1935 The Annihilation of Caste was published. Ambedkar (1891 –1956) was India’s first Law and Justice Minister following Independence, and in this role was largely responsible for drafting the new Constituion. Ambedkar was born into an untouchable Dalit caste. Extraordinarily, considering his background and the period, Ambedkar was university educated. In 1916, he began a PhD at the London School of Economics (completed in 1922) and also undertook his formative legal training in London. An economist, as well as politician, lawyer and social reformer, Ambedkar was a prolific writer and campaigner on Dalit and other issues of social justice. 

In a long essay that prefaces the new edition, Arundhati Roy asks why caste, unlike other ‘contemporary abominations like apartheid, racism, sexism, economic imperialism and religious fundamentalism’, hasn’t been ‘politically and intellectually challenged in intellectual forums’.[xxxiv]  As Roy argues, despite being ‘one of the most brutal modes of hierarchical social organisation that human society has known’, the Indian caste-system still eludes ‘scrutiny and censure’.[xxxv]  

Roy reflects on growing up as the daughter of a high-caste Hindu father and a Christian mother in post-Imperial India with ‘the fissures and cracks of caste’ all around her, a social context in which caste was implied and practised but rarely overtly stated. Reflecting on her childhood, Roy describes caste as everywhere, in ‘people’s names, in the way people referred to each other, in the work they did, in the clothes they wore, in the marriages that were arranged, in the language they spoke’, and yet, she says, ‘I never encountered the notion of caste in a single school textbook’.[xxxvi]   It is not only that caste ‘is not colour-coded’ and is therefore ‘not easy to see’, especially to untrained eyes, but rather that this erasure of the lived realities of caste discrimination is an integral element of post-Imperial India’s narrative of political modernity: a nationalist project which Roy describes as a ‘Project of Unseeing’.[xxxvii]

From an outsider’s perspective (such as my own), understanding caste, its origins, changing historical meanings and forms seems a dauntingly complex task; however, the ‘organising principles’ of caste are not difficult to grasp.[xxxviii]   At its simplest, we can understand the Indian caste system as ‘graded inequality’ grounded in an ‘ascending scale of reverence and a descending scale of contempt’.[xxxix] As Roy puts it, the ‘top of the caste pyramid is considered pure and has plenty of entitlements. The bottom is considered polluted and has no entitlements but plenty of duties. The pollution–purity matrix is correlated to an elaborate system of caste-based, ancestral occupation’.[xl]

 Ambedkar captures Indian social hierarchy in a ‘chilling metaphor’, as ‘a multi-storeyed tower with no staircase and no entrance’ in which everybody is doomed ‘to die in the storey they were born in’.[xli]  To keep people in their allotted place in this ‘hierarchical, sliding scale of entitlements and duties’, the caste system relies upon an ‘elaborate enforcement network in which everybody polices everybody else’ – the daily grinding of the stigma machine of caste.[xlii]

This chapter on the penal genealogy of stigma opened with five Adivasi women tortured and tattooed by police with the words Jeb Katri.  These women were all from a denotified tribe called Sansi, classified as a ‘hereditary thieving race’ under the British Criminal Tribes Act.[xliii] Recalling the Jeb Katri case, Justice Singhvi, one of High Court Judges who initially awarded the women (inadequate) compensation for their torture, stated: ‘It appears that the poor in this country are born with different tags on their heads while the law bends for the rich’.[xliv] However, we cannot understand this story through the lens of economic injustice and the inequalities of class. What these women were engraved with was the violent signature of caste. To borrow Arundhati Roy’s words, ‘for a court to acknowledge that caste prejudice continues to be a horrific reality in India would have counted as a gesture towards justice’.[xlv]Instead, here, as in so many other cases of caste violence in contemporary India, the judge ‘airbrushed caste out of the picture’.[xlvi]  

In the context of ongoing state, police and Hindu caste violence against Adivasi and Dalit people in India, what is remarkable about the Jeb Katri case wasn’t that it took 23 years for the policemen to be convicted, but that there was any measure of justice at all.[xlvii] That this case was prosecuted is a testament to the courage of these Sansi women, and particularly that of Parmeshri Devi who unveiled her penal tattoo before the judge’s bench. As Devi told journalists in 2016: ‘Let us assume that I was a thief. But the police had no right to brand me as Jeb Katri.’ [xlviii]

Hindu supremacy 

I began this chapter with the Jeb Katri case because the word stigma has its ancient roots in practices of penal tattooing which so clearly resonate with the humiliation and torture of these women at the hands of the police. I wanted to stress that violent material practices of stigmatisation are not only historically entrenched forms of race–class–caste dehumanisation but are ‘live’ practices in the contemporary world. What I particularly want to underscore here, is that the stigmatising classificatory systems which continue to undergird the Indian social hierarchy were ‘not based on the self-representation of the castes in question’ but rather derived ‘from the worldview of native elites and colonial ethnographers’. [xlix] 

The stigma politics of caste is particularly instructive for understanding the entanglement of stigma power within histories of colonial capitalism.

The caste system continues to have ‘buoyant admirers in high places’ who now argue that caste describes not discrimination but rather cultural differences that form a ‘social glue that binds as well as separates people and communities in interesting and, on the whole, positive ways’.[l] For example, when Dalits ‘tried to raise caste as an issue at the 2001 World Conference against Racism in Durban’, the Indian establishment ‘insisted that caste was an “internal matter”’, criticising ‘international do-gooders’ for ‘misconceptions’ and for interfering in Indian affairs.[li] In a statement to the BBC, India’s junior foreign minister, Omar Abdullah was quoted as saying that ‘condemning the caste system would equate casteism with racism, which makes India a racist country, which we are not’.[lii]   In defence of caste, the Indian government showcased ‘theses by well-known sociologists who argued at length that the practice of caste was not the same as racial discrimination, and that caste was not the same as race’.[liii] The ‘cultural thesis’ of caste continues to be employed by Indian elites, who argue that condemnations of the caste-system are ‘political correctness gone mad’.

In 2014, Hindu-nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi (2014- present) and the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) assumed control of the Indian government. Modi was re-elected in a landslide victory in 2019. The power base of BJP is firmly anchored in upper caste Hindu support, and pursues purist caste Hindu policies, an ideology of Hindutva (Hindu-ness). It is in effect the political arm of a proto-fascistic paramilitary organisation called the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).[liv] As Priyamvada Gopal notes, ‘Modi was a leading activist’ for the ‘secretive and militaristic’ RSS: an organisation that ‘on a good day, looks like the British National party but can operate more like Nazi militias’.[lv]  In ways akin to other 21st-century far-right and ethno-nationalist movements in Europe and North American, this stigma politics exploits and generates divisions between different factions of Indian’s poorest communities; this includes both ritual performances of Dalit inclusion in the project of Hindu nationalism, and the vilification of Muslims (and other non-Hindus).  It is well documented, for example, that the RSS ‘is responsible for vicious attacks on Christians, murdering missionaries and calling for Muslims to choose between Pakistan and the graveyard’.[lvi]

Since Modi came to power incidents of communal violence (violence across caste, religious or ethnic lines) has increased exponentially, especially against Muslims.[lvii] Notably, Modi was the Chief Minister of Gujarat in 2002, when widespread riots against Muslims broke out in the region, which saw the mass beatings, rapes, and killings of Muslims by Hindu extremists. It is estimated that 2000 people died and many more were injured in this violence.[lviii]Evidence of the involvement of police and government officials in these riots have led to claims that this was a state-sponsored pogrom against Muslims. Both RSS and BJP members were named in reports filed by eyewitnesses after the riots. 

As I completed this chapter in 2019, the Modi led Indian government was busy further tearing up the promises and protections enshrined in the Indian constitution of 1947. In August 2019, the India Government took direct administrative control over the predominately Muslim States of Jumma and Kashmir, a process which has seen seven million people effectively caged into the region, with all communications to the outside world cut off.[lix] In short, a massive new state-led colonial capitalist enclosure of land and people is underway. The long history of Hindu-supremacist caste stigma politics cemented under British rule continues to play a pivotal role in legitimating violence and dispossession in the India. 

To Cite: Imogen Tyler, (2020), ‘The Penal Tatoo’ in Stigma: The Machinery of Inequality, Bloomsbury.

[i] William Dalrymple, “The East India Company: The Original Corporate Raiders,” The Guardian, March 4, 2015,

[ii] Thomas Paine, “Reflections on the Life and Death of Lord Clive,” Pennsylvania Magazine, 1775,

[iii] Paine.

[iv] In Paine.

[v]Amartya Sen, “Imperial Illusions,” The New Republic, December 31, 2007,

[vi] Bentham’s views on slavery, forced labour and colonialism shifted and changed during his lifetime. He had a friendship with ardent utilitarian imperialist and company employee James Mill — author of the highly influential racist tract The History of British India (1817). Both Bentham and Mill are often described as anti-colonialist thinkers – an assessment which I profoundly disagree with. What Bentham saw in the East-India company was the multiple advantages of a privately-owned company subsidised by, but at an arms-length from government. A private-public partnership which allowed the company to circumnavigate legal and other systems of accountability—while also having recourse to public funds (including the support of the British army and navy). Today, this kind of state-corporate partnership is often described or imagined as new, novel or neoliberal but was actually the model through which the modern liberal British state was founded. In short, the history of the English democratic state, the history of ‘the mother of all parliaments’, is a corporate history of Empire and colonialism.

[vii] Arundhati Roy, “The Doctor and the Saint,” in Annihilation of Caste. The Annotated Critical Edition, ebook (London; New York: Verso, 2014), 107.

[viii] Clare Anderson, “Godna: Inscribing Indian Convicts in the Nineteenth Century,” in Written on the Body: The Tattoo in European and American History, ed. Jane Caplan (London: Reaktion, 2000), 108. See also Clare Anderson, Legible Bodies. Race, Criminality and Colonialism in South Asia (Oxford; New York: Berg, 2004).

[ix] Anderson, “Godna: Inscribing Indian Convicts in the Nineteenth Century,” 2000, 108.

[x] The mass movement of labour intensified after the formal end of slavery in the Americas and West Indies, with more than one million Indian’s transported as bonded labour to plantations in places such as British Guiana. On this see, for example, Gaiutra Bahadur, Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture (London: Hurst & Company, 2016).

[xi] See Anderson, “Godna: Inscribing Indian Convicts in the Nineteenth Century,” 2000.

[xii] Anderson, “Godna: Inscribing Indian Convicts in the Nineteenth Century,” 2000, 115–16.

[xiii] Anderson, 113.

[xiv] Roy, “The Doctor and the Saint,” 91.

[xv] In contemporary India, the words Dalit and Adivasi are the collective terms most often used for those who reside on the bottom storey of Indian social hierarchies. Adivasi translates as indigenous, and refers to traditionally nomadic peoples. There are at least 100 million Adivasi people in India. Adivasi populations have been displaced over centuries, by the enclosure of land inaugurated during colonialism, and the continuing enclosures and forced evictions from land which have been a signal feature of the Indian capitalist state. See, for example Alf Gunvald Nilsen’s important work on Adivasis and the State, including Alf Gunvald Nilsen, Adivasis and the State: Subalternity and Citizenship in India’s Bhil Heartland, South Asia in the Social Sciences 7 (Cambridge ; New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2018).

Dalits account for circa 200 millions of India’s 1.3 billion people. The word ‘Dalit’ is a literal translation of a Marathi word meaning broken people. Dalit signifies ‘those who have been broken, ground down by those above them in a deliberate and active way. There is in the word itself an inherent denial of pollution, karma, and justified caste’ (Zelliot in Hugo Gorringe, “Subaltern Politics and Dalit Studies,” The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 37, no. 1 (2009): 152. It is used to describe those previously classified as either ‘untouchables’ in the Hindu Caste system. The capitalised use of the term ‘Dalit’ emerged out of Ambedkaian anti-caste politics, social movements such as the Dalit Panthers (1972-1980s) and more recent movements such as #dalitlivesmatter. 

[xvi] Anderson, “Godna: Inscribing Indian Convicts in the Nineteenth Century,” 2000, 105., The Criminal Tribes Act had its roots in a 1830s campaign by an East-Indian company administrator William Sleeman against “the Thugee”– believed to be professional gang of murders and robbers. By 1840 Sleeman’s war against the Thugs had largely dissipated, with those imagined as belonging to this group either hung or transported to other British colonies as convict labour. Those who were transported often had the words ‘Convicted Thug’ tattooed on their forehead.

[xvii] In 1902 Risley wrote from India to the anthropologist T.S. Sinclair describing tattooing amongst ‘Gypsy-like classes’ in Bengal. In 1901 Risley was appointed Director of Ethnography for India. In 1910, when he was based back in England, he became President of the Royal Anthropological Institute Of Great Britain and Ireland. His career is a case study in the colonial histories of social science disciplines and methods. For some background on Risley’s publications see C.J. Fuller, “Ethnographic Inquiry in Colonial India: Herbert Risley, William Crooke, and the Study of Tribes and Castes: Ethnographic Inquiry in Colonial India,” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 23, no. 3 (2017): 603–21.

[xviii] Anderson, “Godna: Inscribing Indian Convicts in the Nineteenth Century,” 2000, 105. Anderson draws our attention to a 1915 directive issued to the police in Punjab which instructs them to recognise one particular criminal tribe through specific tattoo marks on the hands and face. She adds that ‘such groups resisted this stigmatization, enlarging or changing their tattoos in order to counter the marks of identification recorded by the police’.

[xix] See Preeti Nijhar, Law and Imperalism: Crimnality and Constitution In Colonial India and Victorian England(Routledge, 2009). As Nijhar argues there are many similarities in this period between government through caste in colonial India, and the government of the poor within Europe. 

[xx] Andrew Major, “State and Criminal Tribes in Colonial Punjab: Surveillance, Control and Reclamation of the Dangerous Classes,” Modern Asian Studies 33, no. 3 (1999): 657–88. See also Nijhar, Law and Imperalism: Crimnality and Constitution In Colonial India and Victorian England.

[xxi] Gopal Guru, “The Language of Dalit-Bahujan Political Discourse,” in Dalit Identity and Politics: Cultural Subordination and the Dalit Challenge, ed. Ghanshyam Shah (New Delhi: Sage, 2001), 97. See also Guru’s important book on caste stigma and politics, Gopal Guru, Humiliation: Claims and Context (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2011).

[xxii] Varsha Torgalkar, “69 Years After Independence, There Are Still Tribes That Are Considered ‘Born Criminal,’” Youth Ki Awaaz (blog), 2016,

[xxiii] Hugo Gorringe, “Subaltern Politics and Dalit Studies,” The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 37, no. 1 (March 1, 2009): 151–55,

[xxiv] Sambaiah Gundimeda, Dalit Politics in Contemporary India (New York: Routledge, 2016), 7.

[xxv] see Dalit Panthers, “Dalit Panthers Manifesto” (Bombay, 1973), On the history of the Dalit Panthers see Ja Vi Pavāra, Dalit Panthers: An Authoritative History, trans. Rakshit Sonawane (New Delhi: Forward Press, 2017).

[xxvi] Sarah Gandee, “August 2017 Marks More than One Independence Day in India,” History Workshop (blog), August 8, 2017,

[xxvii] Gandee.

[xxviii] Gandee.

[xxix] Torgalkar, “69 Years After Independence, There Are Still Tribes That Are Considered ‘Born Criminal.’”

[xxx] C R Bijoy, “Adivasis of India: A History of Discrimination, Conflict and Resistance,” in This Is Our Homeland: A Collection of Essays on the Betrayal of Adivasi Rights in India (Bangalore: Equations, 2007), 22.

[xxxi] Friederycke Haijer, “Human Rights and Dignity of Dalit Women” (Netherlands: Report of the Conference in The Hague, 2006),

[xxxii] Ruth Manorama of the National Federation of Dalit Women in Laura Brueck, Writing Resistance; The Rhetorical Imagination of Hindi Dalit Literature (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014), 56.

[xxxiii] On Dalit women’s accounts of the use of sexual violence and rape as a mechanism to terrorise communities see, for example, Brueck, Writing Resistance; The Rhetorical Imagination of Hindi Dalit Literature.

[xxxiv] Roy, “The Doctor and the Saint,” 33.

[xxxv] Roy, 33.

[xxxvi] Roy, 24.

[xxxvii] Roy, 35.

[xxxviii] Roy, 35.

[xxxix] Roy, “The Doctor and the Saint,” 36.

[xl] Roy, 35.

[xli] Roy, “The Doctor and the Saint,” 183.

[xlii] Roy, 35.85.

[xliii] On the history of criminal tribes see Anand Yang, “Dangerous Castes and Tribes: The Criminal Tribes Act and the Magahiya Doms of Northeast India,” in Crime and Criminality in British India, ed. Anand Yang (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1986), 108–27; Sanjay Nigam, “Disciplining and Policing The ‘Criminals By Birth’, Part 1: The Making of a Colonial Stereotype – The Criminal Tribes and Castes of North India,” The Indian Economic & Social History Review 27, no. 2 (1990): 131–64.

[xliv] Utkarash Anand, “Police Brutality: SC Asks Punjab,Bihar to Explain,” The Indian Express (blog), March 7, 2013,

[xlv] Roy, “The Doctor and the Saint,” 29.

[xlvi] Roy, 29. It is notable that the policemen convicted of forcibly tattooing the women were not convicted under the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act (1989) which is ostensibly intended to protect people against caste based violence.  In what they describe as a hidden apartheid against Adivasi and Dalit people, a 2007 Human Rights Watch report states that Indian police ‘detain, torture, and extort money from Dalits without fear of punishment’, detailing the extent to which ‘the custodial torture and killing of Dalits, rape and sexual assault of Dalit women, and looting of Dalit property by the police ‘are condoned, or at best ignored’. Human Rights Watch, “Hidden Apartheid: Caste Discrimination against India’s ‘Untouchables’” (Human Rights Watch, February 12, 2007),

[xlvii] See Human Rights Watch | 350 Fifth Avenue, 34th Floor | New York, and NY 10118-3299 USA | t, “Hidden Apartheid,” Human Rights Watch, February 12, 2007,

[xlviii] Rambani and Singh, “‘Assume I Am a Thief, a Jeb Katri; Why Tattoo It on My Forehead?’”. Devi’s stubborn articulation of her rights refuses the reduction of Adivasi women to passive victimhood. Indeed, the persistence of Devi and the other surviving women in their fight for justice is a testament to ways in which a century of anti-caste struggles have led to a new political understanding of caste stigma and violence as political injustices and a human rights issue.

[xlix] Gundimeda, Dalit Politics in Contemporary India, 203.

[l] Roy, “The Doctor and the Saint,” 33.

[li] Roy, 34.

[lii] BBC News, “Indian Groups Raise Caste Question,” BBC News Website, September 6, 2001,

[liii] Roy, 34.

[liv] Nathuram Godse, the man who assassinated Gandhi in 1948, was a member of the RSS.

[lv] Priyamvada Gopal, “Narendra Modi: Britain Can’t Simply Shrug off This Hindu Extremist,” The Guardian, April 14, 2014,

[lvi] Gopal.

[lvii] An organisation called tracks hate crimes in India and began collating a database in 2008. 

[lviii] See Raheel Dhattiwala and Michael Biggs, “The Political Logic of Ethnic Violence: The Anti-Muslim Pogrom in Gujarat 2002,” Politics and Society 40, no. 4 (2012): 483–516.

[lix] Arundhati Roy, “The Silence Is the Loudest Sound,” New York Times, August 15, 2019,

[i] Aman Sood, “‘Jeb Katri’ Tattoo Gone, but Scarred for Life,” The Tribune, October 10, 2016.

[ii] I have woven together these events from several different news, legal and academic sources and my account is necessarily partial.

[iii] Aman Sood, “‘Jeb Katri’ Tattoo Gone, but Scarred for Life,” The Tribune, October 10, 2016.

Shoe garlanding is an antiquated form of caste humiliation in India, widely practiced against Dalits by privileged caste Hindus. In Jai Bhim Comrade (2012), the documentary filmmaker Anand Patwardhan examines events which involved the desecration of a statue of Ambedkar with a garland of shoes in a Dalit community in Mumbai in 1997, and led to street demonstrations, and the murder of 10 protestors by police. Patwardhan’s film tells the story of Vilas Ghogre, a left wing poet and Dalit activist who hung himself in protest and despair in the aftermath of this violence. 

[iv] Kanchan Vasdev, “For 5 Women Branded on Their Foreheads, Verdict Too Little after 23 Years of Humiliation,” The Indian Express, October 16, 2016, .

[v] Sood, “‘Jeb Katri’ Tattoo Gone, but Scarred for Life,” October 10, 2016.

[vi] Baljit Balli, “How Jebkatri Tattooing Case Became Headlines in 1993.. ?,” Babushahi, October 10, 2016.

[vii] Arun Ray, National Human Rights Commission of India: Formation, Functioning and Future Prospects, Volume 1 (New Delhi: Khama, 2004), 158–59.

[viii] Vasdev, “For 5 Women Branded on Their Foreheads, Verdict Too Little after 23 Years of Humiliation.”

[ix] Vipin Puppy, “Brand of Shame,” India Legal, November 9, 2016. 

[x] Vishal Rambani and Avtar Singh, “‘Assume I Am a Thief, a Jeb Katri; Why Tattoo It on My Forehead?’” 

[xi] Sangrur Baghrian, “Three Cops Get 3 Years Jail for ‘Jeb Katri’ Tattoo on Forehead – Times of India,” The Times of India, October 9, 2016.

[xii] Clare Anderson, “Godna: Inscribing Indian Convicts in the Nineteenth Century,” in Written on the Body: The Tattoo in European and American History (London: Reaktion, 2000), 108.

[xiii] Vishal Rambani and Avtar Singh, “‘Assume I Am a Thief, a Jeb Katri; Why Tattoo It on My Forehead?,’” Hindustan Times, October 9, 2016.

[xiv] De Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, 141.

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