Christians And Spices: The Civilizing Mission: Cultural Constructivism and Social Control in British Colonial India

HIST – 480 Western Impacts on Asia: Christians and Spices     Dr. Jonathan Porter              3/27/08

The Civilizing Mission: Cultural Constructivism and Social Control in British Colonial India

The British stated that they didn’t want to interfere with the indigenous cultures or religions in India(Dirks, p.183), but they ended up having to implement some very rigid social structures in order to maintain control of the colonies. Regardless of stated intent, imposing imperial will on a complex colonial society produced difficulties, not the least of which was justifying authoritative control in liberal terms of the “rule of law”.(Freitag. p.228)

The British sought intimate knowledge of the intricate dynamics of dominant Indian culture, major sub-cultures and the existing hierarchical structures that drove Indian society and could help maintain a profitable peace. It became clear early on that most friction between castes occurred during religious processions or festivals that took place in contested public spaces.(Dirks. p. 184)

The very nature of some of these rituals, sati and hookswinging in particular, became the subjects of heated debate over free will and cultural coercion. The appropriateness and cultural relevance of these apparently barbaric customs and their sanction as sacred became the eventual lightning rod for expressing imperial authority through dominant culture in southern India.

In northern India, the British were more concerned with transforming an ancient rural culture of land barons and roving tribes of highly skilled militants that acted as hired “protection” and “enforcement” into a sedentary agrarian culture not unlike that of the English gentry. In order to achieve this end the British had to manage the perceptions of the population and change the nature of the debate as well as that of the people.

 Throughout the 19th century the debates regarding the practice of sati and hookswinging took precedence over much of the discussion of civilizing southern India. It seems that these two customs appeared to the British to be inconsistent with rational choice, as defined by western minds, as well as an affront to Victorian Protestant sensibilities.(Dirks. p.189) Therefore, the British suspected ulterior motives were at work. In the case of sati, it was assumed that, even if a woman wasn’t looking forward to the likely misery of being a widow, tradition and/or drugs compelled her to commit ritual suicide or be shamed and suffer at the hands of the community.(Dirks. p.) The practice was summarily suppressed, but not without consequences. The issue of individual agency and legislated state protection had been introduced and a precedent set.

Regarding hookswinging, the fact that a majority of the crowds that turned out to witness the event were of the lowest caste, often thagis, and attracted to baser expressions of faith on the sensational fringes of canonized Hinduism facilitated the marginalization of these masses and their rites. The several different explanations for the existence of hookswinging that varied from region to region, and the fact that some swingers were paid provided the Raj with sufficient room to maneuver in pursuit of its suppression.  However, the British could not find a clear mandate under which to restrict it legally or abolish it entirely. Again the “rule of law” was brought to bare, but found no traction under the auspices of preventing torture or physical harm. The only justification for controlling this ritual was the moral high ground of an imperial will intent on policing public space and public perceptions.

 In northern India we see the British desire to remake the rural elites in their own image. To this end the British realized the need to ostracize the militant tribes who up until then were considered a valid part of the social structure. These Sansiah and Kallar peoples, collectively referred to as thagis, were once respected as military leaders and brave fighters living in a symbiotic relationship with the landed elite while retaining their freedom of movement as nomadic peoples(Dirks. p.187). The British saw these nomadic warrior clans as a threat to the imperial monopoly on authority and violence.(Freitag. p.230)

In order to control these people effectively and prevent the possibility of a nationalist insurgency, a system had to be developed that would simultaneously alienate and isolate these wanderers and ingratiate the landlords to the Raj. This understanding became the impetus behind the false enumeration of ‘Criminal Tribes’ and the introduction of anthropology, anthropometry, racism and racial profiling as tools of social engineering in a post-Enlightenment Anglo-imperium.

This covert systemic approach to controlling large groups, deemed potentially deviant or as we’ll see later, outright criminal, existed in parallel to the overt “rule of law” as a ‘temporary’ measure to combat a specific perceived threat. This threat was promulgated by the Raj in response to the economic downturn and subsequent political crises of the 1830’s(Freitag. pp.232-233) The resurgence of organized crime at this time lent itself to the emergence of strategic policing, or the use of highly trained law enforcement resources to counter a limited threat (defined by group membership) determined to be of increased importance to stability.

In addition to investigating and arresting thagis, the Thagi and Dacoity Department (the special police force) began co-opting the local thagi chiefs as intermediaries. At the same time that the police were attempting to gain footholds in the thagi community the judicial system was altering due process in the courts to streamline convictions. “Another accommodation was the judicial finding that although a particular gang had to be proved to have committed a particular crime, it was then sufficient to prove that an accused man belonged to the gang, not that he committed a specific crime.”(Freitag. p.237) No longer was the “rule of law” about justice, “Instead, what mattered was a convincing demonstration of the strength and capacity of British authority, as exercised over groups of criminals.”(Freitag. p. 237)

The introduction of the “approver” system of informers further refined this alternate justice to incorporate the establishment of witness credibility and physical evidence. Establishing the credibility of a thagi witness for the prosecution was as simple as retrieving a piece of physical evidence known only to the witness that was left at a crime scene. Once this credibility had been established, any and all testimony given in regards to a specific case and the perpetrators was regarded as concrete and admissible for the purposes of conviction.(Freitag. p.239) This was the next step in criminalizing genetic code.

Once deviance from socially acceptable norms had been established it was only a matter of time and will to instill new perceptions about the nature of criminality. The reshaped social order was now centralized around a sedentary agrarian elite and an agricultural economy. “Groups still operating outside this base, particularly those relying on a peripatetic lifestyle and the values that implied, became increasingly marginalized. Suffering social, economic and, hence, political irrelevance, these groups now became criminalized at the hands of a state power…”(Freitag. p.243)

Pseudo-science played a major role in the restructuring of Indian affairs under British rule. Redefining cultural relevance and social acceptability of various portions of Indian society wasn’t done by the British in a vacuum. Much of British thought regarding sub-cultures in India was inherited from their chosen liaisons, the Brahmans and the landed elite, and their prejudices, but it was informed by a European intellectual fad, Social Darwinism. Once the opinions of the local elites were recorded they became used as reference and within decades were accorded scholarly attribute. The Criminal Tribes Act of 1871 was the product of this biased accounting and the application of pseudo-scientific Social Darwinism which “proved the most prominent influence, explaining criminality in genetic terms, accompanied by such trappings as the ‘anthropometric’ measurement of criminals by the police.”(Freitag. p.247)     

As a result of this “breakthrough in science” whole families, clans and castes were determined to be criminal by nature and rounded up to prevent the infection of society at large with their deficient genes and tendencies. Anyone that was a member of a peripatetic group that was found outside of the predetermined borders for their group was charged  as a  criminal and sentenced without trial.(Freitag. p.249)

Three main classes of Sansiah are cataloged in accordance with these new metrics: the least harmful were ‘planted out’ to local zamindars as laborers(a type of work release program), the children under 18 were sent to reform schools intended to re-educate and re-culture them and adults, men and women, considered to be born criminals with no hope of reclamation were sent to a penal colony at Sultanpur.(Freitag. p.250) A decade later the new Lt. Governor protested their treatment and sought to free the reclaimable ones. But not without instituting a means of controlling the criminal genes they carried. The government became proponents of 19th century eugenics as social control, and as such became official matchmakers in a society that preferred arranged marriage. Despite these extensive authoritarian measures to change the nature of a people, given the opportunity, the Sansiah absconded into their countryside to take up their lives, never to be counted or discounted again.

With extremely harsh penalties dispensed through biased channels based on gross generalizations of caste culture and pseudo-scientific genetic determination, a re-defining of deviance, while garnering elite local support, subsequently engendered an abusive social control structure that failed in its long term goals of reconditioning entire subaltern cultures and preserving imperial power. Additionally, the enumeration of specific caste rituals as non-religious, by local informants for whom these particular rituals held no significance, allowed the British to contain and closely monitor large groups of subjects in the hopes of preventing insurgent tendencies in the lower castes, while simultaneously responding to the Victorian missionaries’ unease with such “barbaric spectacles” (Dirks. p.191).

It is this dichotomy of ‘rule of law’ for individuals but authoritarian intervention for groups that sets British Colonial India aside from previous social engineering experiments. Informed by post-Enlightenment liberalism, but faced with practical concerns, the 19th century British Raj innovated several new methods and subsequent academic disciplines in the pursuit of empire. These artifacts of empire, these technologies, bare the hallmarks of authoritarian control, raising several questions about parallels in subsequent socio-cultural settings informed by their precedence, e.g. American Racism, Modernity, the Panopticon and fascist liberalism as neo-colonialism, a.k.a. Globalization.


Comparative Studies in Society and History: The Policing of Tradition: Colonialism and Anthropology in Southern India by Nicholas B. Dirks. 1997

Crime in the Social Order of Colonial North India by Sandra B. Freitag. 1991

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