This article explores why victims of cattle theft in colonial north India avoided the police and courts, whose very purpose was to apprehend thieves and to restore stolen property. Throughout colonial rule, victims recovered stolen cattle themselves and with the help of khojis (trackers) and panchayat (indigenous systems). From the mid-nineteenth century onward, however, the British colonial government introduced criminal laws, like the Indian Penal Code and the Indian Evidence Act, and relied on colonial police to enforce those laws. These colonial laws and policing systems proved not only highly ineffective at dealing with theft, worsening the plight of victims while protecting thieves, but they also eroded the authority of indigenous institutions. By revisiting an important case, the Karnal Cattle Lifting Case (1913), the article shows how the institution of colonial police and courts oppressed rural Indian people and how and why Indian people, in turn, avoided colonial justice systems.

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