Document Raj: Writing and Scribes in Early Colonial South India

Document Raj: Writing and Scribes in Early Colonial South India

by Bhavani Raman

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Historians of British colonial rule in India have noted both the place of military might and the imposition of new cultural categories in the making of Empire, but Bhavani Raman, in Document Raj, uncovers a lesser-known story of power: the power of bureaucracy. Drawing on extensive archival research in the files of the East India Company’s administrative offices in Madras, she tells the story of a bureaucracy gone awry in a fever of documentation practices that grew ever more abstract—and the power, both economic and cultural, this created.   In order to assert its legitimacy and value within the British Empire, the East India Company was diligent about record keeping. Raman shows, however, that the sheer volume of their document production allowed colonial managers to subtly but substantively manipulate records for their own ends, increasingly drawing the real and the recorded further apart. While this administrative sleight of hand increased the company’s reach and power within the Empire, it also bolstered profoundly new orientations to language, writing, memory, and pedagogy for the officers and Indian subordinates involved. Immersed in a subterranean world of delinquent scribes, translators, village accountants, and entrepreneurial fixers, Document Raj maps the shifting boundaries of the legible and illegible, the legal and illegitimate, that would usher India into the modern world.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226703299
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 11/14/2012
Series: South Asia Across the Disciplines
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 296
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Bhavani Raman is assistant professor of South Asian history at Princeton University. 

Read an Excerpt

Document Raj

Writing and Scribes in Early Colonial South India


Copyright © 2012 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-70327-5

Chapter One

Cutcherry Scribes

The cutcherry or office became the nerve center of the British colonial empire in India at the turn of the nineteenth century. The emergence of this office form was associated with the English measuring rod of land settlement, the cat-o'-nine-tails, and piles of documents. A European revenue "collector" posted at the district headquarters and assisted by an assortment of subordinates and minions held assemblies in tents and in brick buildings. The collector was an emblematic figure, a man "on the spot" who represented the Company government to the inhabitants of a district. In the cutcherry, documents were written, revenue collated, and petty criminals flogged and fined. Supplicants arrived in droves only to find pen-wielding scribes and fixers managing their precious access to the distant European gentlemen (turai). Consider a typical account, this one from the Bombay Presidency, that appeared in the Asiatick Society and Monthly Miscellany, a widely read compendium of news from the colony:

A Collector's Cutcherry in India

In the cutcherry the offices are all below, and generally crowded with petitioners, omedwars [sic, hopefuls], loiterers, carcoons [clerks], peons, sibbundies [armed irregular peons], and rogues of all kinds and castes. The desks are like the common tables of a mercantile clerk's, from which orders are delivered on magisterial and revenue affairs. All is public, no one can be prevented from petitioning. The following are a few specimens which may serve to show the nature of complaints. On the 5th July 18—[sic] the following written petitions were read with an audible voice [sic] by the carcoon of Ratnagiri cutcherry.

1. From a poor old cultivator begging for the sirkar's hokum [command] to drive the devil out of a well.

2. From an old Brahmin, stating that his son had beaten him, turned him out of his house, stolen his property. Etc.

3. From a young woman alleging that her husband's first wife, no longer in possession of beauty, though still overawing her husband, had turned her out of doors, abused and beat her: the old hag and the man, in reply affirmed that the young wife had thrown the devil into her husband, and the latter deposed that he at times lay insensible for two or three days, possessed by the demon.

4. From an old Mahratta—calling the magistrate Vishnu's avatar, and the petitioner's god—requesting a situation for his young son as a peon, stating that Vishnu, in the magistrate's own shape, had appeared to him, and desired him to make this request.

5. From a Hindu, stating that his caste had expelled him for doing the work of a horse-keeper to an English gentleman, and would not re-admit him, unless he gave them an entertainment, which would ruin him.

6. From an old Brahmin, for leave to bury himself alive. Government allowed this man four rupees per month to hinder him from committing the act.

British observers of the time satirized the cutcherry's contradictions as a theater of the absurd, giving full reign to the ambivalence with which they regarded their supplicants and their intermediaries. Scholars have tended to depict the contradictions of the cutcherry as the contrary pulls of bureaucratic imperial integration and local "influence." Robert Frykenberg, among the earliest to identify district administration or the Huzur cutcherry as a key node of the British Empire, argued that European officers and English paper knitted these offices into metropolitan circuits of bureaucratic rationality, but the cutcherry's native employees and its vernacular records constantly undermined these modes of integration.

Frykenberg's lens of localization and integration perpetuates an abiding vision of the colonial bureaucracy that depicts European officer-protagonists at their wits' end, unable to contend with an administrative structure that is silently eaten away by the white ants of caste solidarity, corruption, and secrecy among their native employees. Such a vision of "local influence," even while it draws attention to wealth accumulation by upper-caste cutcherry Brahmans and magnates, presents certain problems. The narrative of primordial Indian caste obscures how cutcherry management reinvigorated and nurtured caste. An undifferentiated terrain of local influence masks how the cutcherry produced and intensified the "locality" as a governable spatial entity on terms different from preceding administrations. Most importantly, Frykenberg's model says little about colonial recruitment structures and how authority was produced through the discursively and materially entangled domain of political corruption in which European officers were deeply implicated.

More recently, what Frykenberg characterized as centralizing versus localizing forces in administration has been analyzed as the tension between rational and vernacular processes of everyday state building. Sudipta Kaviraj's influential formulation that the colossal structures of colonial "rationalism" "had feet of vernacular clay" has provided one way to think of how a state built on exemptions conceptually separated a vast lower bureaucracy from a narrow band of European officers. Kaviraj suggests that because the enormous administrative underworld was considered too vast and, ultimately, too insignificant to be transformed, the British essentially underwrote the "precapitalist authority" that continues to cast its troubling shadow over postcolonial structures. Such labeling, however, does not quite attend to the insidious ways in which colonial rule was made to look self-evident and necessary. European officials, for example, did not necessarily regard the corruption of their subordinates as beyond reform, nor did they think that the corrupt scribe was an obstacle to reform. They had a sophisticated view of how their scribal elite could shore up the Company's sovereign right to rule. Consider what a prominent governor of Madras, Thomas Munro (1761–1827), wrote about the racialized exercise of colonial power:

If we are to have corruption, it is better that it should be among the natives than among ourselves, because the natives will throw the blame of the evil upon their countrymen [but] they will retain their high opinion of our superior integrity; and our character, which is one of the strongest supports of our power, will be maintained.

When coupled with the ubiquitous attempt to reform scribes, Munro's comments suggest that colonial officers actively generated their authority by simultaneously targeting the subordinate scribe as deviant and by incorporating him into an enduring frame of tutelage. This double movement was continuously productive for the political project of colonialism. Through this double move of naming and schooling, investigating and regulating, Company officers exempted themselves from the allegations of the abuse of power and displaced these onto their subordinates. In this manner, the important axiom of modern administrative law—the separation of public business from private profit—became the enduring ground on which Company occupation and its legal regime could be justifi ed and expanded, even as it allowed the other requirement of a colonial frontier—the swift penetration of finance capital through unregulated exchange—to thrive.

The Contradictions of Colonial Governance

The efforts intended to separate the government from networks of exchange—private trade, the sale of offices, kin relations—generated a set of enduring contradictions in the Madras cutcherry. Whiggish measures to break patrimonial privileges, in fact, entrenched familial ties among the cutcherry's non-European subordinates. These ties and exchanges were now glossed as a cultural trait, namely "asiatick" corruption, and made illegal, a glossing that expanded the purview of the bureaucratic state's legality.

The racial logic that drove such discussions of venality was remarkable in another manner. Patron-client relationships, familial ties, and the purchase of offices, all of which came to mark the subordinate scribes in the Company cutcherry, had, in fact, dominated the familial states of early modern Europe. Since the seventeenth century, for example, wealthy British families had purchased commissions in the army for their sons. Colonial frontiers had long provided opportunities to Europeans of all stripes—mercenaries, missionaries, and traders—to improve or make their family fortunes. The institutional arrangements of European trading companies drew on familial networks. By the eighteenth century, middling families of shopkeepers and traders, especially from Scotland, took to East India Company service to rapidly enter into wealth and acquire political prominence. The privileged sent their younger sons, nephews, and black-sheep relatives to find their fortunes and make political careers. The entourage of intermediaries—the "two-tongued" brokers (dubashes), and scribes and accountants of all sorts—who served these Europeans from the seventeenth century also expanded their influence through family ties. In the years before 1800, these go-betweens had managed Company merchants' investments and brokered their deals with other traders, sometimes from rival Companies or private traders. The records of the eighteenth-century Company's Mayor's Court in Madras, an institution that opened its doors to trader-residents of the town seeking to sort out their disputes, are replete with such examples. Dubashi links to the revenue-farming and mercantile world were invaluable for financing the British East India Company's military and commercial concerns, and expanding the lucrative private business of its officers in cloth, grain, revenue farming, and money lending. Everyone involved amassed large fortunes. Company officers went home like uncrowned nabobs; dubashes lavishly patronized temples, Sanskrit learning, and poetry in Company port enclaves like Madras and French Pondicherry.

After the British East India Company prevailed over its European rivals in India in the mid-eighteenth century, the symbiotic relationship between its European employees and their brokers reached ever more financial sophistication. The "private" money lending undertaken by Company officers and various "private creditors" or entrepreneurs with dubashi brokerage facilitated the Company's territorial expansion, Madras being no exception. However, this system of financial brokerage, so important for Company colonization, fell into political disfavor. At the end of eighteenth century, the increasingly visible bourgeoisie in Britain fueled by gains of private enterprise, began to oppose patrimonial privilege. Financial irregularities, in the meantime, forced the Company to consider regularizing revenue collection. Various acts increased parliamentary oversight in the late eighteenth century to check the abuse of power. A backlash against the dubashes in Madras ensued.

The condemnation of the dubashes and the rise of the Madras revenue servant did not end the lucrative tie of kin and cash at the administrative frontier. Such ties extended beyond the Madras Presidency as the British began to administer Ceylon (modern Sri Lanka) and Singapore in the early nineteenth century, taking with them the cycle of corruption and reform and discussions of clerical deviance. When the British took over the island of Ceylon, they consolidated their own authority by replacing extant Ceylonese officials with South Indian revenue servants. The new cutcherries empowered to investigate resources and collect revenue unleashed these subordinates and the adventurers who accompanied them in the countryside where they became tax farmers to offset their precarious tenures. As the administrative frontier kept moving, something certainly changed in its wake. Examples from Company correspondence suggests that dubashes, feeling the heat of political controversy, eagerly distanced themselves from the private business of the gentlemen. As a testimony from 1792 shows, those who had used their personal connections to land Company contracts in the Northern Circars now presented themselves as loyal servants to the institution. "It is not my intention," wrote a former dubash now contractor of a lucrative Company monopoly on arrack, "to serve any individual gentleman but remain disinterestedly as an inhabitant in the Honorable Company's service and obtain their favour till my exit [sic]."

The never-ending cycle of scandal and reform set up a new dynamic. European officers trained in the newly established East India College in Hertfordshire, England, were entreated to be morally upright and prohibited from engaging in private trade, but the rapid expansion of Company cutcherries in the hinterland consciously rested on the patrimonial recruitment of "uncovenanted" subordinate employees. As the years wore on and utilitarian ideologues forced the Company to undertake further bureaucratic reform to break patrimonial ties, kin bonds became ever more crucial to securing subordinate employment in the cutcherry.

Other than the racial logic of patrimonial ties, the unevenness of the cutcherry form was the second enduring contradiction of cutcherry rule. The cutcherry form radically reconstituted the colony as a tiered space by hierarchically ordering the remit of cutcherries along districts, subdistricts, and village administrations. Cutcherry employees and record-keeping languages within these institutions were highly differentiated and unevenly distributed. Scribal offices could morph quickly, expand, contract, or sometimes disappear according to demand, region, or political scandal.

Company recruitment practices, which favored brokerage rather than some precapitalist cotinuity, sustained and produced both these contradictions, namely, the racialized entrenchment of patrimonial ties and the unevenness of the Company cutcherry. Whereas regulations separated public business from private profit by breaking patrimonial ties, recruitment practices actively used and reshaped these ties. In this manner, Company recruitment strategies reworked venal ties into a master-servant idiom in ways that deepened ties of descent and inheritance and intensified personal loyalty.

Scribes were generally upper-caste men, especially if they were Hindu, but they came from varied commercial, ritual, sectarian, and social backgrounds depending on the region, the scripts favored by their employers, and the type of work involved. The social demographic of scribal manpower sometimes changed with new patrons. Scribal skills also changed, as some groups learned to work more than one script or acquire new facilities with languages. This is why a simple social history of scribes cannot sufficiently show how writing acquired value or reveal how scribal office articulated with processes of accumulation and mobility. To this end, rather than posit a contradiction between rational and vernacular processes of state building, this chapter revisits the ways in which cutcherry rule reformatted the world of the scribe by actively recasting older administrative cadre and information circuits attached to the domain of the household to new ends.

The Scribal Office and Familial Circulation in the Eighteenth Century

Office holding is not an individual enterprise but is tied to social processes of accumulation and family mobility. This means that scribal office holding in the subcontinent was a field of jati, or caste-kin formation. Prior to the establishment of Company administration, South Indian scribes, like soldiers of the military labor market, were central to warrior polities. They made up the sinews of finance, diplomacy, and record-keeping in Peninsular and South Indian courts from about the sixteenth century. Scribes used opportunities offered by royal patronage, expanding religious sects, and family ties to build networks across imperial polities and regional courts while in some cases consolidating themselves in regional pockets. In turn, their mobility and rising fortunes provided the template for a variety of genealogical narratives that made nominal and normative claims to jati group status. Consider, for example, "the narrative of the accountants," a text of uncertain date and part of the orientalist and surveyor general, Colonel Mackenzie's collection. The text tells the story of how the Ka runikars (accountants) came to settle in the Tamil region.

The "narrative of the accountants" stages the moment of the arrival of the accountants into the Tamil country by inserting them into a series of iconic tropes already familiar to the mytho-historical memory of the region. The story is set in the Tamil town of Madurai, described in conventional terms as the cosmological landscape of God Shiva's play. The text claims Atreya, a legendary sage, as a patrilineal head. Such mythological alignments are followed by recounting the accountants' illustrious ties to the Peninsular kingdoms of Kampili (a thirteenth-century polity on the banks of the Tungabhadra) and Vijayanagara (established in the fourteenth century), and to a Saivite minister (pradhani) at the South Indian court of the Pandyan king, Kulasekara Pandyan (who ruled Madurai in the early fourteenth century). Following these historical links, the text aligns the accountants to the trope of sectarian violence, namely, the Saivite suppression of the Jains. The arrival of the accountants in the Tamil country is marked by their entry into the Tamil language: the Saivite Pandyan minister is supposed to have commissioned a translation of the Karunikar story from Sanskrit into Tamil. Although texts like this elude simple analyses, it is possible to consider a few resonant themes that appear to undergird this narrative.


Excerpted from Document Raj by BHAVANI RAMAN Copyright © 2012 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Abbreviations
Note on Transliteration and Conventions

PART I. Scribal Practice

Chapter 1. Cutcherry Scribes
Chapter 2. Scribal Skills

PART II. Writing and Pedagogy

Chapter 3. Cutcherry Tamil
Chapter 4. Schools and Writing

PART III. Document Raj

Chapter 5. Duplicity and Evidence
Chapter 6. Addressing the Raj



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