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The Duplicity of Paper: Counterfeit, Discretion, and Bureaucratic Authority in Early Colonial Madras

  • Bhavani Raman (a1)

Shifts in writing technology are usually taken to mark a shift from discretionary to rule-bound, impersonal forms of government. Equating writing technology with rules, however, obscures how counterfeiting, both alleged and real, and the exertion of official discretion can consolidate a government of writing. In his important study of Yemeni scribal culture, The Calligraphic State: Textual Domination and History in a Muslim Society, Brinkley Messick modifies Weberian models of domination by calling for the study of textual domination that intersects in diverse ways with other dimensions of authority. Messick relates the demise of the calligraphic state to the advent of legal codification and print technology. With the arrival of impersonal documents of government and a form of rational law, he argues, writing itself ceased to be the “non-arbitrary mark of the person” and the relationship between the sign and signified was no longer connected by an intermediary figure. Similarly, the notion that the innovations of disciplinary writing constituted a new assemblage of control exercised through the “unavoidable visibility of subjects” has been extremely productive in delineating the colonial career of modern infrastructural power. Following the work of Bernard Cohn, the colonial state's “investigative modalities” have been shown to be integral to colonial command and the production of an ever-accumulating corpus of reports. Statistical surveys, reports, and censuses in colonies did not create a uniform template of rule but did enable the operation of inherently selective, targeted, and differentially articulated projects of governance. These gains notwithstanding, the debates over colonial governance have remained limited to differing estimations of the state's successful mastery of information, and whether its taxonomies were collaboratively authored by intermediaries or imposed upon the colonized. We need to give more attention to the complex articulation of records and reports with the law under conditions of exogenous rule.

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1 Messick Brinkley, The Calligraphic State: Textual Domination and History in a Muslim Society (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), 249. Michael T. Clanchy's classic study of medieval English documentary practices similarly argues that a technological shift from memory to writing accompanied the routinization of royal charisma: From Memory to Written Record, England, 1066–1307 (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993 [1979]), 67. For a recent departure from this perspective, see Clarke Morgan, “Neo-Calligraphy: Religious Authority and Media Technology in Contemporary Shiite Islam,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 52, 2 (2010): 351–83.

2 Foucault Michel, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, Sheridan Alan, trans. (New York: Vintage, 1977), 189–90.

3 Cohn Bernard, Colonialism and Its Forms of Knowledge: The British in India (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), 5; Dirks Nicholas, Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001).

4 Singha Radhika, “Colonial Law and Infrastructural Power: Reconstructing Community, Locating the Female Subject,” Studies in History (n.s.) 19, 1 (2003): 87126; and Settle, Mobilize, Verify: Identification Practices in British India,” Studies in History 16, 2 (2000): 151–98. On how colonial enterprise reconfigured modes of rule to encompass new contexts, see Smith Richard Saumarez, “Rule-by-Records and Rule-by-Reports: Complementary Aspects of the British Imperial Rule of Law,” Contributions to Indian Sociology (n.s.) 19, 1 (1985): 153–76; and Scott David, “Colonial Governmentality,” Social Text 43 (1995): 191220. A vast historiography on the colonial archive includes: Stoler Ann, Along the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010); and Burton Antoinette, Dwelling in the Archive: Women Writing House, Home and History in Late Colonial India (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).

5 For an account of the debates on colonial knowledge, see Wagoner Phillip, “Precolonial Intellectuals and the Production of Colonial Knowledge,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 45, 4 (2003): 783814; and Dirks Nicholas, “Coda,” in Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001).

6 Smith, “Rule-by-Records.”

7 Singha, “Colonial Law,” 99.

8 Vismann Cornelia, Files: Law and Media Technology, abridged and trans. by Winthrop-Young Geoffrey (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008); and Kafka Benjamin, “The Demon of Writing: Paperwork, Public Safety, and the Reign of Terror,” Representations 98 (2007): 124.

9 Vismann, Files; Hull Matthew, “The File: Agency, Authority, and Autography in an Islamabad Bureaucracy,” Language & Communication 23 (2003): 287314; and Ruled by Records: The Expropriation of Land and the Misappropriation of Lists in Islamabad,” American Ethnologist 35, 4 (2003): 501–18.

10 Kalpagam U., “Counterfeit Consciousness and the Joy of Abandonment,” Sarai Reader 7 (Delhi: Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, 2007), 9099; Tarlo Emma, “Paper Truths: The Emergency and Slum Clearance through Forgotten Files,” in Fuller Christopher John and Bénéï Véronique, eds., The Everyday State and Society in Modern India (New Delhi: Social Science Press, 2000), 6890; Ticktin Miriam, “Where Ethics and Politics Meet: The Violence of Humanitarianism,” American Ethnologists 33, 1 (2007): 3349.

11 Das Veena, “Signature of the State: The Paradox of Illegibility,” in Das Veena and Poole Deborah, eds., Anthropology in the Margins of the State (Santa Fe: School of American Research Press; Oxford: James Curry, 2004), 225–52, here at 227.

12 Das, “Signature of the State,” 250.

13 Parliamentary Papers, 1852–53 (41), “Testimony of John Stuart Mill to a Select Committee of the House of Lords, 21 June 1852,” 301; Moir Martin, “Kaghazi Raj: Notes on the Documentary Basis of Company Rule, 1783–1858,” Indo-British Review 21, 2 (1993): 185–93.

14 Weber Max, Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology, Roth Guenther and Wittich Claus, trans. and eds. (New York: Bedminster Press, 1968), 992.

15 Ibid., 979.

16 Mongia Radhika, “Race, Nationality, Mobility: A History of the Passport.” Public Culture 11, 3 (1999): 527–55, here at 545.

17 Stern Philip, The Company-State: Corporate Sovereignty and the Early Modern Foundations of the British Empire in India (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

18 On the quotidian practice of exogenous rule, see Wilson Jon, The Domination of Strangers: Modern Governance in Eastern India, 1780–1835 (Basingstoke: Palgrave and McMillan, 2008); and Mantena Karuna, Alibis of Empire: Henry Maine and the Ends of Liberal Imperialism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010).

19 The Supreme Courts, established by royal charter in Calcutta in 1773 and in Madras in 1800, represented the crown and applied common law in addition to making decisions by equity. Each court had jurisdiction over all Europeans, and also the non-European residents of the presidency town and the territories of princes allied with the government. All other inhabitants were under the jurisdictions of Company-run adalat (adālat) courts that operated in the hinterlands (in the Madras hinterlands from 1802). The adalat court system had a tiered structure, and was presided over by judges assisted by Indian law officers. The system was headed by the criminal court (the Foujdaree Adalat) and civil court (Suddar Adalat), both based in Madras. Both applied regulations written by governors-in-council that provided for adjudication by personal law and customary usage.

20 “Memorandum from the Madras Board of Revenue to the Madras Judicial Department,” Judicial Consultations, 21 July 1857, Government Order No. 854, no. 52, Chennai: Tamil Nadu State Archives [henceforth TNSA].

21 Schneider Wendie, “‘Enfeebling the Arm of Justice’: Perjury and Prevarication in British India,” in Dubber Markus Dirk and Farmer Lindsay, eds., Modern Histories of Crime and Punishment (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007), 299328.

22 Kolsky Elizabeth, Colonial Justice in British India: White Violence and the Rule of Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010). The codification of evidence, Kolsky notes, was motivated by the official concern to control violence perpetuated by unofficial whites, but distributed evidentiary burdens unevenly along race and gender lines.

23 “Memorandum from the Madras Board of Revenue to the Madras Judicial Department,” Judicial Consultations, 21 July 1857, Government Order No. 854, no. 52, TNSA.

24 McGowan Randall, “From Pillory to Gallows: The Punishment of Forgery in the Age of the Financial Revolution,” Past and Present 165 (1995): 107–40.

25 McGowan Randall, “Knowing the Hand: Forgery and the Proof of Writing in Eighteenth-Century England,” Historical Reflections 24, 3 (1998): 385414.

26 Langbein John H., “Shaping the English Criminal Trial: A View from the Ryder Sources,” University of Chicago Law Review 50 (1983): 1136; and Historical Foundations of the Law of Evidence: A View from the Ryder Sources, Yale Law School Faculty Scholarship Series, paper 551 (1996): 1168–202; also at: (accessed 25 Jan. 2012); and Twinning W. L., Rethinking Evidence: Exploratory Essays (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

27 McGowan Randall, “Managing the Gallows: The Bank of England and the Death Penalty, 1797–1821,” Law and History Review 25, 2 (2007): 241–82; Handler Philip, “Forgery and the End of the ‘Bloody Code’ in Early Nineteenth-Century England,” Historical Journal 48, 3 (2005): 683702; and “The Limits of Discretion: Forgery and the Jury at the Old Bailey, 1818–1821,” in Cairns John W. and McLeod Grant, eds., The Dearest Birth-Right of the People of England: The Jury in the History of the Common Law (Oxford and Portland: Hart Publishing, 2002), 155–72.

28 Schneider, “Enfeebling the Arm of Justice.”

29 Thomas Munro, governor of Madras from 1820 to 1826, was the architect of the direct settlement with small cultivators called ryotwari, which he developed in opposition to Bengal's revenue officials, who favored large landed proprietors as agents of agricultural improvement.

30 Jain Mahabir Prashad, Outlines of Legal History (n.p.: N. M. Tripathim, 1976), 42.

31 Trial of Lakshmana Rao, Captain Graham's Peshkar for Sundry Charges Preferred against Him by the Inhabitants of the Barahmahal by Order of Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Read, Superintendent,” Barahmahal Records (1907), 138.

32 In Board of Revenue [henceforth BOR] Consultations, 2 Nov. 1786, vol. 4, no. 7, pp. 1342–73, TNSA, we find references to the board summoning a village kaṇakkuppiḷḷai to obtain evidence in a land dispute between Brahmans and Agambadiyars. On the Company undermining mediators, see Mukund Kankalatha, The Trading World of the Tamil Merchant: The Evolution of Merchant Capitalism in the Coromandal (Hyderabad: Orient Longman, 1999), 150–52; and Brimnes Niels, Constructing the Colonial Encounter: Right and Left Hand Castes in Colonial South India (Richmond, UK: Curzon Press, 1999).

33 “Note on Justice in the District,” Records of the Chingleput District, vol. 441, 12 July 1784, pp. 30–32; BOR Consultations, 5 Mar. 1787, vol. 6, no. 16–17, pp. 250–57, TNSA. Eugene Irschick's study of the settlement of Chingleput shows that notables nāṭṭār were, until 1790, important in adjudicating issues of inheritance: Dialogue and History: Constructing South India, 1795–1895 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994). “Letter to the Board Regarding Civil Justice in Chingleput, BOR Consultations, 1 Mar. 1790, vol. 34, no. 19, pp. 666–69, TNSA.

34 Merchants, brokers, and translators close to Company traders frequently led multi-caste mahānāṭu assemblies that included low-caste headmen. In response to a request from the police superintendent of Madras, the local police office produced a register that listed respectable inhabitants of the city indicating that this body of men also petitioned the Company regularly. These patterns were also found in French and Danish ports in the Coromandel. See Brimnes, Constructing the Colonial Encounter, 43, 148, 250.

35 On the temporal powers of assemblies for South India, see Davis Donald, “Intermediate Realms of Law: Corporate Groups and Rulers in Medieval India,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 48, 1 (2005): 92117. On the notarial powers of the Islamic judge, the Qazi, see Grewal J. S., In the By-Lanes of History: Some Persian Documents from a Punjab Town (Simla: Indian Institute of Advanced Study, 1975).

36 Wagoner, “Precolonial Intellectuals,” 802.

37 Counterfeiting coins and writing forgeries appear as crimes in many manuals of statecraft in Sanskrit and Persian. A farmān (royal letter) in Amir Khusrau's I‘jāz-i Khusravī, a fourteenth-century text of Persian letters, commands the prince not to be defrauded by writers and accountants and warns him to be careful about those scribes whose “inverted script” disrupted the affairs of Muslims. Askari Syed Hasan, “Material of Historical Interest in I‘jāz-i Khusravī,” in Medieval India-A Miscellany, vol. I (Delhi: Asia Publishing House, 1969), 9.

38 Derrett J. Duncan M., “Nandakumar's Forgery,” in Essays in Classical and Modern Hindu Law, vol. 2 (Leiden: Brill, 1977), 232.

39 In the eighteenth century, forgery and perjury were prosecuted in the Madras town; see Jain, Outlines, 20. We have no evidence, however, that the regulation of forgery and perjury was at this time a systematic means of monopolizing and tightening attestation practice or introducing new norms of written credibility in Madras.

40 Anonymous, A Short Narrative of the Circumstances Attending to the Late Trials in the Supreme Court of Judicature at Madras for Forgery, Perjury and Conspiracy to Cheat with Some Comments on the Unjustifiable Allusion Made to Them in the Recent Official Pamphlet in Defense of the Madras Government (London: Printed for J. Ridgway, 1810).

41 On scandal and empire, see Dirks Nicholas, The Scandal of Empire: India and the Creation of Imperial Britain (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2006).

42 BOR Consultations, 14 Dec. 1813, vol. 627, nos. 52–53, pp. 12922–42, TNSA.

43 “A Regulation to Provide More Effectually for the Punishment of Perjury, Subornation of Perjury, and Forgery,” Regulation VI, 1811, The Regulations of the Government of Fort St. George, in Force at the End of 1847 to which are Added the Acts of the Government of India in Force in that Presidency, Clarke Richard, ed. (London: J. & H. Cox, 1848), 235–37.

44 Ibid.

45 Stamp regulations represented an empire-wide move to stabilize authentic documents. In Madras, the stamp regulations did not preclude the admission of unstamped documents. See Regulation VIII, 1808, Regulation XIII, 1816, Regulations of the Government, 204–6; 326–39. Also see numerous modifications to stamp regulations in ibid., 876–77.

46 On the destruction of pāḷaiyakkārar sovereignty, see Rajayyan K., Rise and Fall of the Poligars of Tamilnadu (Madras: University of Madras, 1974); Yang Anand, “Bandits and Kings: Moral Authority and Resistance in Early Colonial India,” Journal of Asian Studies 66, 4 (2007): 881–96.

47 The 1809 disputes between Dalit and the Lingayat Panchalar caste groups mark this shift. A Company-appointed commission adjudicated them. The multi-caste assembly members were summoned to give evidence as “heads of caste” and instructed to broker agreements under Company direction and supervision. On the police committee system in force in the settlement, see Ahuja Ravi, “Labour Unsettled: Mobility and Protest in the Madras Region, 1750–1800,” Indian Economic and Social History Review 35, 4 (1998): 381404.

48 Fraenkel Béatrice, La Signature: Genèse d'un Signe (Paris: Gallimard, 1992).

49 Mohiuddin Momin, The Chancellery and Persian Epistolography under the Mughals, from Bábur to Sháh Jahán, 1526–1658: A Study on Insháʼ, Dár al-Insháʼ, and Munshís, based on Original Documents (Calcutta: Iran Society, 1971).

50 Kavi Śrīnivāsa (and Raghavan V.), Ānandaraṅga vijayacampuḥ (Teppakkulam, Tiruchirapalli: Palaniyappa Brothers, 1948). Persian Inshā manuals describe a similar set of ritual conventions for receiving royal documents.

51 See Dumont Louis, A South Indian Subcaste: Social Organization and Religion of the Pramalai Kallar, Moffatt M., Morton L., and Morton A., trans. (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1986), plate 17.

52 Official paper documents in the households of Maratha chiefs in the Deccan were authenticated by seals and lexical phrases written by specific office-bearers who had to write in their own hand. At least one account of signature practices, collected circa 1811, says that it was relatively late before the rajah began to sign in his own hand. See A Statement of the Different Forms and Signatures Required to Authenticate Public Documents,” Madras Journal of Literature and Science 12 (New Series) (Dec. 1861): 225.

53 Records of the Tanjavur District, 6 Sept. 1809, vol. 3420, pp. 59–61, TNSA.

54 “Remarks by Mr. Jackson on Letter Received through Vencataswamy Nayaka,” BOR Consultations, 19 Oct. 1797, vol. 187, no. 32, pp. 6602–14, TNSA; Glossary of the Madras Presidency, C. D. Maclean, ed. (Repr. Delhi: Asian Educational Services, 1982 [1893]). See also M. N. Srinivas on village arbitration in twentieth-century Mysore, regarding the continued use of muchalikas: A Caste Dispute among the Washermen of Mysore,” Eastern Anthropologist 7, 3 & 4 (1954): 148–68; repr. in Srinivas M. N., Collected Essays (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2002), 100–21.

55 “Remarks by Mr. Jackson on letter received through Vencataswamy Nayaka,” BOR Cons., 19 Oct. 1797, vol. 187, no. 33, pp. 6602–14, TNSA, here 6604.

56 “From F. W. Ellis, Collector of Madras to the Board of Revenue,” BOR Consultations, 14 Dec. 1813, vol. 627, nos. 52–53, pp. 12931–34, TNSA.

57 “Improper Use of Collector Garrow's Facsimile,” Coimbatore District Records, 27 June 1816, vol. 584, TNSA.

58 “Letter from I. Hepburn, Tanjavur Collector to the Madras Board of Revenue,” 12 Sept. 1816, Records of the Tanjavur District, vol. 3279, pp. 54–61, TNSA.

59 Ibid.

60 “Letter from I. Hepburn, Tanjavur Collector to the Madras Board of Revenue,” 30 July 1817, Records of the Tanjavur District, vol. 3281, p. 21, TNSA.

61 Sen Sudipta, The Empire of Free Trade: The East India Company and the Making of the Colonial Marketplace (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998), 31.

62 See Dumont, South Indian Subcaste, “Appendix: The Headman's Charter.” When the Company took over South India and inhabitants began to flood them with claims about their privileges, the Company's concern in preserving these privileges as hereditary rights led it to reorient these documents to be “gift deeds” of status and inheritance, at the expense of their renewable character.

63 Fisch Jörg, Cheap Lives and Dear Limbs: The British Transformation of the Bengal Criminal Law, 1769–1817 (Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner Verlag; 1983); Singha Radhika, Despotism of Law: Crime and Justice in Early Colonial India (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1998); Kugle Scott, “Framed, Blamed, and Renamed: The Recasting of Islamic Jurisprudence in Colonial South Asia,” Modern Asian Studies 35, 2 (2001): 257313.

64 Modifications to Mahomedan Criminal Law,” Regulations of the Government, 837–38; Schneider, “Enfeebling the Arm of Justice,” 313, 319. Schneider observes that the Bengal administrators remained more attached than did Madras officials to the idea of administering Islamic law.

65 Maitland Julia, Letters from Madras during the Years 1836–39 (London: William Clowes & Sons, 1846), 82.

66 Regarding how revenue collection dominated concerns of law, see Peers Douglas M.Torture, the Police, and the Colonial State in the Madras Presidency, 1816–1855,” Criminal Justice History 12 (1991): 2956.

67 Cited in Beaglehole T. H., Thomas Munro and the Development of Administrative Policy in Madras, 1792–1818 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1966), 109.

68 Board of Revenue to Government of Madras, Revenue Consultations, 22 Mar. 1816, vol. 218, no. 1, pp. 2361–62, TNSA.

69 Beaglehole, Thomas Munro.

70 For an excellent account of how the 1816 regulations enhanced the police powers of specific subordinate offices, see Peers, “Torture.”

71 Regulation IV, 1821, x, Regulations of the Government, 416.

72 Regulation IV, 1816, x, Regulations of the Government, 254–55.

73 Many circular orders were issued on the subject. The Circular Orders of the Court of Foujdaree Udalut, from 1803 up to 30th June 1834 (Madras: Church Mission Press, 1835).

74 Regulation III, 1826, Regulations of the Government, 454–55.

75 Singha, Despotism, 304–7. See also Peers, “Torture.”

76 SirArbuthnot Alexander, Major-General Sir Thomas Munro: Selections from His Minutes and other Official Writings, vol. II (London: Kegan Paul, 1881), 47. See Rao Anupama, “Problems of Violence, States of Terror,” Economic and Political Weekly of India 36, 43 (2001): 4125–33; and Bhuwania Anuj, “‘Very Wicked Children’—‘Indian Torture’ and the Madras Torture Commission Report of 1855,” Sur Journal on Human Rights 6, 10, (2009): 727; also at: (accessed 25 Jan. 2012).

77 The regulations introducing jury trials simultaneously empowered judges to dispense with writing down depositions and rely on their notes of the evidence. Regulation X, 1827, ii, Regulations of the Government, 474.

78 A Native Revenue Officer, on Bribery as Practiced in the Revenue Administration of the Madras Presidency (Madras: Hindu Press, 1858), 25.

79 Ibid., 24.

80 Eventually, the Company had to accommodate the refusals to take oaths. In 1840, it changed its laws to permit individuals to take an “affirmation” rather than an “oath.” Regulation V, 1840, Regulations of the Government, 614.

81 There were many regulations issued on the summoning of witnesses. In 1816, special powers were given to Indian judges, like the district munsiff, to force witnesses to attend court and give evidence. See Regulation VI, 1816, xxviii and xxix, Regulations of the Government, 272–73. In 1841, new rules were introduced to take the evidence of “absent witnesses”: Regulation VII, 1841, Regulations of the Government, 621–24.

82 I borrow this phrase from Kalpagam U., “Counterfeit Consciousness and the Joy of Abandonment,” Sarai Reader 7 (Delhi: Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, 2007), 92.

83 Singha tells of instances of stamped paper used in intimate transactions among commercial and literate groups, in “Colonial Law,” 89. Rosalind O'Hanlon writes that the anti-caste radical Jotiba Phule critiqued the practice of Brahmans mediating and manipulating transactions around petitions and deeds in western India, in Caste, Conflict and Ideology: Mahatma Jotirao Phule and Low Caste in Nineteenth-Century Western India (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 211–12. In the early twentieth century, western Indian historians concerned with demarcating original manuscripts sometimes published them with legal affidavits attesting that they possessed that status. See Deshpande Prachi, “The Making of an Indian Nationalist Archive: Lakshmi Bai, Jhansi and 1857,” Journal of Asian Studies 67, 3 (2008): 855–79, here at 874.

84 Bayly used the term “information panic” to refer to the ad hoc realm of information crises that marked the early nineteenth century, in Empire and Information: Intelligence Gathering and Social Communication in India, 1780–1870 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

Acknowledgments: The University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, The Social Science Research Council, The American Institute of Indian Studies, and Princeton University supported the research for and writing of this essay. Audiences in Baltimore, Ann Arbor, Princeton, Pune, Toronto, Boston, and Madison provided important feedback. Of great help to me in revising the essay were Aparna Balachandran, Francis Cody, Prachi Deshpande, Sumathi Ramaswamy, Radhika Singha, Thomas Trautmann, CSSH Editor Andrew Shryock, and four anonymous CSSH reviewers. I thank them all. Any errors are my own.

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