Colonial Ethnography

Orientalist critique can sometimes seem like an intellectual game of “gotcha,” but for India’s Denotified and Nomadic Tribes (DNTs), orientalist colonial policies, and the regimes of knowledge upon which they were built, are a very real burden which informs nearly every aspect of their daily life. The stigma of criminality that prevents, for example, someone with a masters degree in English literature from finding a job as a schoolteacher, or makes it imperative for a professional photographer to carry his camera receipts with him so he can prove he bought his own camera, or makes DNTs afraid to talk in their own language when traveling by train, are a direct result of colonial practices.

When doing research last summer in the British colonial archives I read numerous colonial ethnographies of the so-called “Criminal Tribes” (as DNTs were then known). Many were written by policemen, and the information in them was written for the express purpose of identifying such criminals. Gunthorpe’s 1882. Notes on Criminal Tribes Residing in, or Frequenting the Bombay Presidency, Berar and the Central Provinces, Lemarchand’s 1915, A Guide to Criminal Tribes, and, also from 1915, Naidu’s The History of Railway Thieves : With Illustrations & Hints on Detection are all in many ways the same book with slight variations. They freely stole from each other and the style was essentially the same. Numerous other such guides were circulated among the various colonial agencies.

They are like bird watching guides, identifying common habits and markings which will help you spot a criminal among the crowds. From Lemarchand:

Bhampta: Working in lots of three. Often disguise themselves as Marwadi or Hindu traiders, Lingayats, Jangam, Brahmans or shepherds. They are sometimes seen as minstrels, Sanadikorwas or Dakkhani Bhats. They are most commonly met with as Marathas. When posing as Gosains they add the suffix “das” to their names.

Barwar: Accompanied by women who pose as Brahmains and keep their faces veiled.

Sanoria: Gang consists of 2 to 15 or 20. Never accompanied by women.

Chandravedi: Gang comprises 10 or 20 half men, half boys. They alwasys work with a boy between 8 and 12 years of age called the “Chawa”, the man being styled Upaidar. They work by signs and secret vocabulary.

Some of the information was gathered from the confessions of convicts, but much of it seems to have been the result of embellishments and variations of previous works (“remixing” might be a polite way of describing it). A fair amount has been written about such colonial practices, but it wasn’t until I immersed myself in descriptions of which tribe ate jackal meat and which did not and which community’s women were faithful to their men (with each book contradicting the previous one) that I became aware of the true absurdity of this literature.

What is really shocking is just how little has changed a hundred years later. I was motivated to write this post when I stumbled upon this 1999 article from the Indian Express News Service:

The Modus Operandi branch of the police force, which works under the DCB, based on the evidence and eyewitness accounts can thus exactly point out the gang involved in the crime, sometimes even making it possible to identify gang members based on information provided and previous records.

Among the main gangs active in South Gujarat are the Chaddi Banian Dhari, Dafer, Kevat, Waghris, Bawaris, Nats, Sansis, Shikliyar, Jhaver Thutho, Chharras and other gangs. Police records made available to Express Newsline list distinguishing features of various gangs that help the police identify and track them down.

For example, the Bawari gang is known to camp at railway stations before striking. They use the `rumali’ method, where they bend grills of houses to force their way inside. Other gangs like the Dafers and Chaddi Banian Dharis survey possible targets by posing as beggars, vendors and the like. Dafers are known to possess firearms but use these only when challenged. The Chaddi Banian Dhari gang, as the name suggests, are dressed in shorts and banians and have their faces masked. They strike only on highways and of late, have been known to raid houses on the outskirts of cities and towns. The Shikliyars are known to manufacture country made firearms and sell these to gangs with whom they are connected.

Of course, the continuation of these practices requires explanation. There is no reason the past must necessarily burden the present. A proper critique cannot be content at simply pointing out the crimes of the past, but must also ask why colonial practices are still so prevalent in modern India. (It would also be interesting to compare this to other forms of “racial profiling.”) Still, pointing to these continuities is at least a start.


8 thoughts on “Colonial Ethnography

  1. As part of the question about why these practices continue, does anyone out there know if or to what extent the colonial ethnography derives derives from the opinions and prejudices of pre-British-colonial Indian ruling groups? Forms of “othering” similar to Orientalism are hardly confined to European practices, and India’s linguistic diversity and complexity would seem to make it a like place for such regimes of knowledge.

  2. Is it wrong of me to think “The History of Railway Thieves: With Illustrations & Hints on Detection” is one of the most delightful book titles I’ve read in a long time, regardless of the contents.

  3. Comet Jo: There is a difference between “prejudices” and “regimes of knowledge.” It is, in my mind, a question about state formation and modernity, both of which happened under the British. So while it is certainly true that these processes were informed by the prejudices of local elites, these were not turned into what was essentially an Apartheid system until the 1871 Criminal Tribes Act.

    There is also a difference between “prejudices” and theories of genetic criminality. The British imported eugenic theories of criminality which had informed England’s poor laws. These did not have simple parallels in the Indian context.

    I think a good example is the process of creating the modern caste system as described by Nick Dirks in his excellent book Casts of Mind. The British certainly worked with the Brahmin elite in doing this, but the process of institutionalization radically altered the system and imposed it upon the population in ways completely unlike what had existed before. Nick Dirks argues that the the vast majority of Indians had been outside the caste system before the colonial era. He also shows how the process of institutionalizing it led to various groups petitioning the colonial government to be listed in a more advantageous way in the census records.

  4. “Comet Jo: There is a difference between “prejudices” and “regimes of knowledge.” It is, in my mind, a question about state formation and modernity, both of which happened under the British”

    In other words social protection against criminals will differ in modality dependent upon the degree of organization of the society in question. The fact that there is no attempt made to explore to what extent these measures were justified by the behaviour of the tribes in question is indicative of your all pervasive Occidentalism.

    Your position is that any non-European group, or entity single out for suspicion by any European, or European inspired authoritative body is to be accorded the mantle of victimhood without any examination of the behaviour of the non-European subject. One must assume that your presumed innocence of brown skinned people and presumed guilt of white skinned people is informed by cultural resentment and unconscious anti-White racism.

  5. Calvin,

    I assume you live in a society where you are “innocent until proven guilty” and are free from from having to worry that you will be placed in a force-labor camp for life purely on the basis of your ethnicity? Nor do I know of any contemporary society where such practices would be condoned.

  6. Kerim

    I assume that your assumption of innocence on the part of the tribes in question is based on their race, rather than an investigation of their involvement in criminal activity? As a matter of fact my ancestors were placed in forced labour camps during the industrial holocaust of Victorian Britain, and were consigned to a form of subsistence slavery until well into the nineteen forties, but obviously none of my ancestors felt the pain of enslavement in the mines and saltpans of East Lothian, because their insensitive White skin protected them against the humiliation and pain of de facto slavery.

  7. Calvin,

    You’re missing Kerim’s point. He is trying to show you that a system where the individual’s freedom of action is held to be sacrosanct is better than the British colonial system. Let me explain this. The concept of a ‘criminal tribe’ is inherently unjust. It is completely incompatible with the liberal principle of freedom and responsibility for all individuals, because it entails control over some individuals based on circumstances out of their control (their birth).

    Therefore, the question of whether or not the ‘criminal tribes’ were actually criminal is strictly irrelevant, because it is not a legitimate basis on which to make any judgments.

    If you disagree with that whole framework, say so. It will give us a better picture of where you are coming from (particularly since the website you linked to doesn’t load). But right now, you are talking straight over our heads.

  8. Various groups of adivasis (hill peoples) trying to save their homelands and their lives from conflicting exploiters, including the top officials of states where they are located (Orissa and others nearby); invading multi-national industries in mining and steel (industries in which some Indian millionaires hold large shares); police; CPI-M party; Maoists; and assorted rebel and capitalist collaborators groups.
    Anthropologist, Nandini Sundar, wrtoe about it here:

    Chhattisgarh: An Anthropologist In A Police State
    Is there no limit to the state’s paranoia? Why is it so scared of those who do nothing more dangerous than teach and write that it feels they should be denied lodging, detained, provided ‘protection’, intimidated, ‘escorted’ out of the state?
    Nandini Sundar, authored: Subalterns and Sovereigns: An Anthropological History of Bastar (1854-2006).OUP 1998; 2d ed., 2008.
    [read the article]

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