One of the most remarkable documents we encountered during the past two weeks immersed in the British colonial archives was the 1988 All India Anthropometric Survey, North Zone : Basic Anthropometric Data. Why, in 1988, did the late K. S. Singh oversee the publication of an anthropometric survey, full of tables listing the skull sizes and other features of the various “peoples” of India? Anthropometry has a long history in India, especially with regards to the “Criminal Tribes” we were investigating; but why was India still producing such documents in 1988?
One answer is that this was simply the last gasp of a colonial legacy. The anthropometric data was collected in the 1960s. No new data was collected for this survey. In an article explaining the survey, Singh explains that the survey was set up during the last days of British rule:
The Anthropological Survey of India was set up in December 1945, barely 20 months before the transfer of power. The reason for this has to be sought in the intensive lobbying by administrator-anthropologists – including J.P. Mills, J.H. Hutton, W.V. Grigson, W.G. Archer with anthropologists like Verrier Elwin and C. von Furer-Haimendorf – over 15 years to create a special dispensation for the tribes under the Government of India Act of 1935 and through various suggestions and proposals including those for the creation of a Crown Colony in the North East and a protectorate for the tribals.
Their special interest in the tribes derived from a romantic tradition that presented the tribes in pleasant contrast to castes, the ‘unravished’ hills and plateau where they lived which reminded the colonial rulers of their homeland, and from their appreciation of the strategic location of the tribes and the enormous resources that their lands contained. However, these proposals were shot down by the home office which felt that the British regime would be much too impoverished after the Second World War to commit its meagre resources to such ventures.
But I’m not sure Singh can get off the hook so easily. In the last chapter of her excellent book Legible Bodies: Race, Criminality and Colonialism in South Asia Clare Anderson points out several ways in which the survey relied upon unreliable colonial ethnography in its analysis. Indeed, Singh’s more recent Peoples of India from 1995 seems to rely almost entirely upon highly questionable colonial sources for its chapters on the various Denotified Tribes (former “Criminal Tribes”).
There is a significant literature on the tremendous confusion (and corresponding need to maintain the illusion of certitude) that pervades colonial ethnography in India. In later posts I will write more about this (as I begin to read through this literature myself), suffice to say that much of what we read in these documents seemed more akin to cheap detective fiction than to ethnography. One document would say that a particular group ate jackal and that their women tended to be faithful to their husbands, whereas another would say the opposite about the same group (even when seemingly relying on the former document). We never learn on what basis this information is gleaned. But more than simply inaccurate, I would not even consider a listing of ethnic “traits” as ethnography in the first place.
So why was the Indian government still giving credence to such materials as late as the 1990s? Is it simply colonial ethnography on auto-pilot, or might it be that such forms of knowledge production are still seen as a useful means of legitimating certain kinds of state interventions amongst indigenous populations, many of which remain “troublesome“?