Fingerprinting, Thievery, and Bob Marley

One of the most difficult issues we have had to confront in making a film about the Chharas is that of thievery. It is a fact that a sizable minority of the community still make their living from petty theft. Understandably, they are reluctant to talk about this on camera. It is important, however, in talking about the theater (the subject of our film), because the Chharas themselves see a link between their skill at acting and their skill at thieving. It is also historically important, since the Chharas (or, more precisely, the Sansis who speak the same language) were the first group to be labeled as “Criminal Tribes” after the passing of the Criminal Tribes Act in 1871.

It was in the course of searching for some more information about the topic that I came across Vinay Lal’s review of Rai Bahadur M. Pauparao Naidu’s 1915 book: The History of Railway Thieves, with Illustrations and Hints on Detection. Lal’s article discusses the role of colonial anthropology in creating the category of “criminal tribes”, but since I am already well aware of this story, my attention was caught by his tangential account of the origins of fingerprinting in colonial India:

Naidu’s matter-of-fact references to fingerprinting scarcely reveal the manner in which fingerprinting came to be developed and the extraordinary role of the Indian police in enabling its use as the most reliable method for the detection of criminals the world over. It is just shortly after the Rebellion of 1857-58 that William Herschel, Magistrate at Jungipoor on the upper reaches of the Hooghly, realized its uses as a method of identification. … Herschel then left for England, but in India fingerprinting had another proponent, Edward Henry, who in 1891 was appointed Inspector-General of Police for the Lower Provinces, Bengal. Henry first experimented with the anthropometric system, but was not satisfied with the accuracy of the measurements. In a report submitted to the Government of Bengal in 1896, Henry detailed the experiments he had conducted with fingerprints, which he observed were not only inexpensive to obtain, but also a surer means of detecting and confirming the identity of any given person. Henry is then said, with the aid of a team of Indian assistants, to have developed a system of classification under which 1,024 primary positions were identified, which when considered along with secondary and tertiary subdivisions, made fingerprinting a fool-proof form of fixing identity.

Lal goes on to explicate the vital role played by of two of Henry’s subordinates: Azizul Haq and Hem Chandra Bose, as well as to discuss how the Indian origins of fingerprinting came to be suppressed.

If the English police in England had been unable to devise such a system, clearly fingerprinting could be of no great use. This was put bluntly in a letter appearing in an English newspaper, signed by one “disgusted Magistrate”: “Scotland Yard, once known as the world’s finest police organization, will be the laughing stock of Europe if it insisted on trying to trace criminals by odd ridges on their own skins. I, for one, am firmly convinced that no British jury will ever convict a man on ‘evidence’ produced by the half-baked theories some officials happened to pick up in India.”

What redeems this foray into forensic anthropology from being completely tangential is the a comment Lal makes about the lack of any empirical evidence in the prosecution of members of criminal tribes:

Much like the thugs, the criminal tribes were said to be endowed with an innate criminality, and as another official stated apropos the Bawarias, one could easily gain an estimate of the “conditions under which their natural aptitude for thieving has been fostered until the practice of it has become ingrained into their daily life as to assume the features of a hereditary and criminal profession.” Colonial officials had little more to do than to assert this genealogy for the criminal tribes, and as Sanjay Nigam has aptly noted, once the incidence of crime associated with the criminal tribes had been understood “as a species of a well-known, dangerous genus, empirical detail counted for little.” So much for the much-vaunted regime of fact, the dedication to empiricism, on which the English prided themselves.

This is still very much the case. Just today we interviewed a man who was arrested, horribly beaten, and sentenced to ten years in jail just because he was a Chhara. He eventually won his case on appeal and got out of prison after two years. True, he makes his living as a thief, but he was not caught thieving. Moreover, he was charged with “armed robbery,” a much more serious crime, far outside the modus operandi of the Chhara. As he recounted his story, I couldn’t help but think of this famous Bob Marley song.

5 thoughts on “Fingerprinting, Thievery, and Bob Marley

  1. what you have written on so-called criminal tribes is quite true, but i will accept ur arguments partly. The category of so-called criminal tribes was not invented or created by Britishers but discovered and labbled them as criminal tribes in census and through act. These communites were exiting before Britishers arrived.

    And the concept of heriditary crime was created by britishers by keeping the caste system in mind, with the consensus of the so-called high castes.


  2. A more comprehensive history of fingerprinting can be found here. It shows that while there were earlier precedents, there was a direct line from India to Scotland Yard with their adoption of the Henry System in 1901.

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