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Document RajWriting and Scribes in Early Colonial South India$

Bhavani Raman

Print publication date: 2012

Print ISBN-13: 9780226703275

Published to Chicago Scholarship Online: September 2013

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226703299.001.0001

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(p.193) Conclusion
Document Raj

Bhavani Raman

University of Chicago Press

Abstract and Keywords

This final chapter argues that the East India Company's document raj was a dynamic textual polity that represented a new disposition to writing. Through analysis of the micro-practices of the textual polity, the book has demonstrated writing to be more conducive to the exercise of discretion than what is commonly assumed. It has demonstrated the juridical value of documents, the certificate regime of the early colonial state, and the prism of counterfeit.

Keywords:   textual polity, supplicatory petitions, historiography, judicial value, middling class, native agents, investigative early colonial state, documents

The arguments of this book have stressed that the East India Company’s document raj is best viewed as a dynamic textual polity that represented a new disposition to writing. Furthermore, through its analysis of the micro-practices of this textual polity, this book has shown writing to be more conducive to the exercise of discretion than is commonly assumed of written procedure. The desire for successful revenue collection and information flow made for the delegation of discretion at the lowest level in acts like recording taxes, collecting evidence, and meting out petty punishment. This tiered exemption from written accountability in the interests of preserving the state enabled a racialized and selective stereotype of native corruption and native duplicity to become the basis of colonial rule. Such operations of colonial rule worked alongside efforts to control juridical truth. Rather than viewing writing as a technology that fixes, codifies, and stores, this book has assessed how signing, stamping, registering, doctoring, and composing documents shaped juridical truth in early nineteenth-century Madras.

A model of political accountability based on continuous writing and geared to assuage the imperial demand of the British Parliament remade the life of documents in South India. Scribal recruits labored under the shadow of new expectations of textual skills, such as the ability to write grammatical prose legible to metropolitan overseers. Subject to distrust and regulation, scribes became key political players in a colonial information economy of surveillance driven by informers. Paperwork’s possibilities, in the meantime, swirling in a discourse of counterfeit, beckoned inhabitants to the cutcherry. Document raj grew out of the activities of informers and delinquent scribes, as well as the acts and products of (p.194) bribery, coerced confessions, supplicatory petitions, and piles of paper and palm leaf in Madras.

This study of the cutcherry’s lettered city walks a tightrope between two recent distinct approaches to inscription that have emerged from new historiographies on the official colonial archive and the texts of the scribe. At one end, scholars of colonial governance have begun to view writing and the archives as unsteady sites of statecraft where the historian can attend to the contradictory or ambivalent responses of rulers to a practical and semantic crisis in colonial governance.1 Ann Stoler’s work, for example, argues that the political rationality of colonial regimes was intimately tied to structures of feeling and to the management of affective states.

At the other end, a historiography invested in South Asia’s longue duréehistory has begun to trace the premodern intellectual and cultural past of a class of men—scribes—who became colonial intermediaries/collaborators. Studies of the colonial knowledge apparatus show how native assistants collaborated with their masters in an unequal partnership to build official knowledge about Indian society. In response, studies of the early modern scribe, the lettradoor munshi or karanam, flesh out an upwardly mobile “middling class” of knowledge mediators whose intellectual life prior to colonial political expansion reveals an interest in historically inflected prose, cultural translation, and ethical exegeses on statecraft. At least one of these studies argues that elite scribal entrepreneurs produced an intellectual tradition that under colonial suppression formed the subterranean wellsprings of a vernacular critique of colonial authority.2

At their most persuasive, one can see how both of these approaches might open new understandings of inscription. For example, by recentering inscription as an essentially affective act, Stoler’s work on the archive disrupts the institutional divide between the official/public narratives of the past and the private making of a racially superior colonial self. In the scholarship on early modern scribes, the scribe appears as an important cultural and intellectual figure who mediated the temporal divide between the early modern and the colonial modern; scribal texts open up the historical consideration of the suppressed past that appeared and reappeared on the margins of official narratives in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The genealogies of a modern vernacular historicality that sat in opposition to colonial official histories might thus be traced to older institutional fields that produced early modern textual genres.3

(p.195) The documentary capacities and practices of the early colonial state examined in this book offer a somewhat different perspective from these approaches. Document Rajhas focused on the practices of the documentary state in early colonial India to analyze the conditions under which paperwork and political rule came to be so intimately and peculiarly intertwined in the modern colony. It has attended to the remaking of a new terrain of evidentiary practice and attestation in order to adumbrate writing’s relationship to procedure and discretion in a colonial setting. By considering daily office work in the cutcherry, it takes seriously the juridical value of documents that make up the colonial archive. What, then, does this story of paperwork and the juridical value of documents tell us about the divisions between the official and unofficial past and scholarly assessments about the archive itself?

The Juridical Value of Documents

In a now-classic essay on colonial recordkeeping, Richard Saumarez Smith begins by observing that historians and sociologists, like the British colonial officials, have viewed Indian village records like photographs. Like photographs, these records were judged to be true or false representations of reality. Smith’s essay argues—in contrast to this way of thinking—that reports and records were modes of governing and as such were two distinct but complementary instruments of British rule in India. Records of “rights” to resources were the basis of a system of rule wherein procedure gradually acquired the status of statutory law in colonial India. On the other hand, reports were the authorized versions of knowledge about Indian society in which statistics reassembled discrete individuals to make up social collectivities, allowing “status” to become the defining feature of the colonized.

The distinction between everyday records and regulations was not a seamless one, however. Even if records were prepared under the rubric of regulations, as Smith himself notes, a great deal of autonomy was given to each European settlement officer and his “native agents,” that is, petty officials. Furthermore, regulation itself changed and with it the function of records, which implies that records had differing capacities to guarantee truth.

Although Smith is alert to the shifting relationship of records to regulations and hence to law, he attributes this unevenness to the (p.196) vicissitudes of administrative practice, which he deems to be the a priori divide between English “reporting” at the district level and the recordkeeping of village administration in local Indian languages. European officers had leeway in dispensing with regulations in the interests of securing the truth, while petty officials were increasingly brought under the purview of regulations. Such observations on the everyday division of labor and discretion within the recordkeeping structures of the colonial state are certainly useful correctives to widely held views on the native agency in producing official “investigative modalities.” Smith’s attention to the differences between English reports and Indian language records, however, does not address why an early colonial state came to be so haunted by documentary attestation, forgery, perjury, and signature. Clearly, both the structures of disciplining scribes and the arbitrary discretion given to European officers exacerbated tension over textual practice and the evidentiary qualities of written documents.

The Company government in Madras desired greater disciplining of its subordinate employees, but it was well aware that it would benefit from managing the discourse of corruption such that the moral integrity of European officers remained protected. Furthermore, suspicions about “native duplicity” produced a new way of thinking about textual genre and the law. Older testimonial forms such as the kaifiyatbecame the key to a society’s past and came to acquire literary authority. The vakkumulambecame a text that was composed as a response to interrogative questions. Moreover, as we have seen in this book, the colonial state’s investment in the techniques of notation required that it extend its monopoly over the protocols by which writing could be deemed reliable. The forensic mode of viewing writing was introduced into cutcherry practice precisely when the Company began to rely even more deeply on the palm-leaf writing of the kanakkan and viewed his techniques with greater distrust. The delegitimation of kanakkuppillai records, thus was accompanied by a greater official reliance on the kanakkan’s signature. The signature of the kanakkan—and indeed the signature of individual petitioners and applicants—came to acquire a new place in the state’s evidentiary paradigm. Reliance on the signature, the petition, and the confession all spoke of the growing dependence of officials on attestation. In their attempt to create an evidentiary paradigm that sustained a mode of proof coeval with modern jurisprudence, the East India Company officials had created a textual economy of certification.

(p.197) The Certificate Regime of the Early Colonial State

Cornelia Vismann notes that certification relies on signature, endowing the formalities of attestation with legal force.4 The document raj that I have described in this book produced a certificatory paradigm. Documents become certificates when, in the absence of the legal anchors of registration, they work as precious trinkets binding the possessor to the authority of the issuer. The Company’s documentary regime did not turn around registration but stamp duties. This meant that a document’s very presence instantiated the authority of the issuer.

The colonial certificate regime, however, was in some ways distinct both from normative certificatory regimes and from the Persianate world it disassembled. Recall that registers were not unknown to the Mughal munshi or the kanakkan, but their modes of registration operated as part of a system of mnemonic techniques. This orientation was by no means peculiar. European chancery registries in the seventeenth century did not arrange records or documents in calendar time but according to subject. As we saw in chapter 2, organizing information by subject rather than calendar resonated with kanakkuppillai practice in the Tamil region. This attitude toward recordkeeping could produce a sophisticated understanding of forgery. Discerning authentic documents and considering “facts” was not necessarily opposed to a vision of an ideal textual polity in which the king’s command over his dominion was indexed by his ability to command his secretaries to compose letters and to run his eye over written texts. It was perfectly possible that disciplines such as diplomatics—that would propel a “source criticism” that laid the grounds for a new understanding of an objective or a true past as well as registries to manage files—could exist without necessarily embedding records in calendar time. Indeed, these older taxonomies were pulled apart by the Company cutcherry. So it is also not difficult to see why village palm-leaf records—when not recorded on stone or copperplate, not stored in palace treasuries under guard or registered—were made completely vulnerable to charges of duplicity and an imagination of counterfeit. Again and again, judicial consultations are filled with the words of officials unable to trust the village accountants who brought in palm-leaf records that they stored at home, in the rafters of their roofs or in wooden chests.

Two elements of Company recordkeeping are relevant to its (p.198) certificatory regime. First, Company regulation made the Company collector and other European officials the sole arbitrators of legally valid attestation. This means that the dismantling of attestation protocols operated to render truth-telling practices subordinate to the official signature while denuding the truth-guaranteeing capacities of Indian records, by completely destroying the older logic of recall, organization, and collection. In effect, the destruction of older taxonomies was an epistemic move because the Company requiredtaxonomic indeterminacy to assert its sovereignty while retaining older textual forms that inhabitants would find familiar. Such deliberate indetermination of documents, which required official approval to be juridically valid, rendered kanakkan documents such as conveyances nominally valid but vulnerable to charges of forgery. It was in this context that attempts to centralize attestation enabled the personal signature to acquire a new legal force but denuded the status of Indian language records.

Second, chronologically arranged English correspondence, or “consultations,” became the template of governance. This was a legacy peculiar to colonial rule. The volumes of English consultations are essentially transcriptions of the issues discussed by the committees appointed to supervise public affairs, judicial affairs, revenue, and so on. The correspondence, arranged by date, month, and year cross-referenced and indexed, formed the pillar of the Company’s early colonial archive. Until the appearance of discrete files in the 1850s, the volumes of fair-copied English correspondence were the media technology by which the state became a permanent entity. The peculiar demands of transport and legibility—a copy was shipped to London for metropolitan scrutiny— meant that the originals were destroyed and Indian language documents, when they entered this realm, entered as translations. The registration efforts of the Company, in the meantime, emphasized the regular circulation and maintenance of “English correspondence” and did not register individual documents in English registers. This meant that the everyday world of petty transactions around inscription were literally unsupervised and the legal provenance of everyday documents remained open to question. Although the documentary state expanded apace, relatively little was done to render Indian language documents into records or render them legally accountable. The official archive documents the daily conversations at Madras, as well as the calendar of correspondence between Madras and district collectors and judges. It does not document the everyday transactions around writing that marked document raj. (p.199) Everyday documents could haunt law. Why was this the case? Epistemic domination went along with summary practices that enhanced discretionary authority.

To “reduce” paperwork and make administration cheaper and more efficient, Company reforms delegated power to powerful players such as caste notables, village accountants and native revenue officers, and judicial men. Although all these men’s activities were subject to the ultimate supervision of the European collectors and judges, they were not required to maintain detailed records, which meant that their activities and individual acts of tyranny were rendered invisible. The delegation of discretionary authority marked by the withdrawal of writing from the petty levels of administration under a regime ostensibly dedicated to “perfect recordation” made these native officers not only all-powerful, but massively corrupt. It was these petty officials obviously who handled the documentary state. They wrote out tax slips and lease deeds; they issued court orders; they were in charge of petty crime; they could hold inhabitants without warrant in lockup. How, then, did the Company deal with the problem of the corrupt official? As we saw in chapters 1and 6, they relied on written complaints and on the creation of an informer economy based on writing. It is not surprising that in a scribal society there was a marked ambivalence toward writing. The kanakkan was a master of all he surveyed. But it is under a certificatory state that upheld the signature that the mediator-accountant becomes an all-important figure subject to no checks from inhabits but the collectorate office.

The Prism of Counterfeit

This book has explained how the official search for knowledge about South India’s past and the search for authentic texts was accompanied by the shaping of juridical truth around the signature. The consolidation of this evidentiary paradigm around the signature generated the dominant notion of the colonial document’s counterfeit quality and an inability of subjects to tell credible stories.

By the mid-nineteenth century, the plotline of Ponnambalam’s story had become a familiar one akin to a parable, a moral tale, or a lesson in which the kanakkuppillai, the tahsildar, the distant European collector, and the helpful Christian missionary all played a role. In response to periodic famine and heavy taxes, Tamil agriculturists had begun to (p.200) migrate from the countryside in fair numbers to find work as indentured labor in the plantation economy sired by the British Empire, which needed to replace its system of slave labor.5 Numerous petitions had reiterated the suffering of the tiller at the hands of subordinate government officials acting in the name of European officials. The unfair demands of local officials and the enormous power that tahsildars and kanakkuppillais had accrued from Company rule had attracted a lot of attention, most loudly in the controversy surrounding the investigation into the systematic torture that accompanied revenue collection.6 Several important attention-grabbing petitions had circulated under Company rule opposing the activities of Protestant missionaries to convert laborers. In fact, missionaries and catechists had begun to play a large role in these inquiries as whistleblowers or eyewitnesses, sometimes carrying their stories back to their correspondents in Britain.

Each time the Company charter came up for renewal, critics in Britain who opposed Company rights to rule India made much of its doublespeak—its “oriental” practices on the ground, its corruption, and its venality—and questioned its claims to be a credible or morally just ruler. When these moments of unmasking led to stringent calls for reform, the Company government increasingly deflected the need for reform onto its Indian subordinates. This was evident in the way that Company officers increasingly viewed the issue of corruption as a “native” problem and considered the unchecked power of Indian subordinates to torture inhabitants as a manifestation of “native” incivility (a lack of “modern” education) or an inherent proclivity to despotism.

To be sure, we could attribute the Company’s coercive documentary regime to its accommodation of traditional institutions like the local police necessitated by a paucity of resources—an incomplete bureaucratization, if you will Douglas Peers argues that the Company ushered in a new notion of de jure sovereignty based on right but was unable to sustain it; it was thereby forced to “compromise” with native institutions. In this manner, the Company incorporated torture unofficially into the quotidian working of its revenue and judicial systems.7 As I have argued, however, the unofficial incorporation of petty coercion—although convenient to the working of the Company’s expanding empire—was in fact simultaneously a product of Company notions of intermediation. Certification that snaked outward from the cutcherry rendered officers unaccountable but made stories subject to new measures of credibility (p.201) and created an obsession with signature among both the rulers and the ruled. (p.202)

In this new world, the supplicant was drawn into a documentary world in which his abilities to generate a credible story were heavily constrained. The East India Company government had successfully created a lasting double vision: a colonial archive of copied correspondence and a certificatory state whose signature was primarily preserved in the individual original documents held in possession. Documents held in individual custody, collected in tin trunks, and carefully preserved came to adhere to a new form of collective memory formed in the penumbra of courtrooms and cutcherries. New narratives of the state emerged that indexed the diminished ability of inhabitants to tell a credible story in courts and offices, and yet inhabitants remained enmeshed in the possibilities opened up by paper. Company cutcherry practices created a world of rule that was different from metropolitan Britain and a world substantially different from its predecessors.


(1) . Ann Stoler, Along the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Commonsense (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009); Wilson, Domination of Strangers.

(2) . Partha Chatterjeeand RaziuddinAquil, eds., Introduction to History in the Vernacular (Ranikhet: Permanent Black, 2008), 3–11.

(3) . Ibid.

(4) . Vismann, Files.

(5) . Slavery was legally abolished in the British Empire in1833. Hugh Tinker, A New System of Slavery: The Export of Indian Labour Overseas, 18301920 (London: Oxford University Press, 1974).

(6) . The Madras Torture Commission Report created a huge storm in Britain in 1855. In Madras, the report generated an extraordinary burst of petitioning, writing, and testifying from inhabitants, usually petty land cultivators. For an overview of the commission’s role in interrupting the liberal discourse of colonial rule, see Anupama Rao, “Problems of Violence.” On the police powers of the Madras government, see Peers, “Torture.”

(7) . Peers, “Torture.”