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Caste and Power in Villages of Colonial Bengal

Anindita Mukhopadhyay ( teaches history at the University of Hyderabad.

An exposition of four court cases demonstrates that by the late 1920s, the educated middle classes wielded the colonial state apparatus. Moreover, the colonial state had partially delinked the premodern affiliation of local muscle to the local hubs of power. Therefore, at the village level, local malcontents were isolated and booked for lawbreaking. Villagers/village communities were located within a caste-based social structure, though caste hierarchies in Tamluk seemed more fluid. They also had the option to activate the (ideally) caste-neutral state apparatus, which sharpened their perceptions of legal subjectivity, and increased their stake in the government.

The fieldwork for this article was carried out in 2015–16 as part of fellowship granted by the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla. The author would like to gratefully acknowledge the extra funds made available to scholars for data collection, Sagnik Saha for assistance on the article, and the pertinent and critical insights made by the peer reviewer.

The postcolonial Indian state inherited the categories as well as the technologies of modern governance from the colonial state, especially its foundational discourse, law and order, and its analogous institutions, the legal and penal systems. These ranged from “law,” “law and order,” “rule of law,” “good governance,” to “justice.” All these categories, though their rationale and their political grammar sprang from the Western intellectual tradition, used the rhetoric of traditional indigenous claims to legitimacy—the ruler as the benevolent and generous donor of worldly goods, the universal protector, the just and even-handed patriarchal power which represented the popular expression of the ideal ruler—and the colonial state infused these into the phrase mai-baap government. These claims to legitimacy, singly or together, at some time or the other, had occupied the centre stage of colonial governance.

The Middle Class

The Indian educated classes caught on eagerly to all these categories while shaping themselves into the “ideal” political and legal subject, disenchanted with colonial rule but not with its legal and political institutions and administrative structures (Mukhopadhyay 2013). The sense of continuity even after 1947 was inevitable as far as the control of state institutions was concerned. Ranajit Guha (2009: 137–38) had pointed out the link between the educated middle classes, English rule and colonial law in an acidic analysis:

No wonder that the educated Bengali found in the law a great ally … Throughout much of the nineteenth century he … brainwashed himself and others in favour of what he believed to be its impartiality and its powers to defend the poor … He … set himself up to interpret and practise it in various roles as barrister, advocate, vakil, mukhtar and attorney …

The association between law and literacy is far from fortuitous. These are two of the more essential components of the culture, respectively, of the British ruling class and of their Indian collaborators … Education helps in schooling the bureaucracy that runs the colonial apparatus which it is the task of the law to define (by jurisprudence), regulate (by the judiciary), defend (by penalties), and rationalise (with the aid of the legal profession).

Thus, there were no suggestions of an alternative frame to the colonial judiciary that the colonial state had erected over the 18th and 19th centuries.1 Martin J Weiner (2008: 1) has observed that it was indeed the legal systems the British established across their empire that symbolised what the British would claim were their most important contribution in the global context.

The middle-class parameters of good citizenship were also officially and inextricably entwined at the popular level with the Indian traditional notions of dharma, which fed directly into the language of governance. As Weiner (2004: xi) had also perceptively pointed out, there were no rigid lines demarcating “cultural representations” and “public actions:”

In recent years historians have begun to appreciate how intertwined representations and actions are, how discourse is not just talk but structural action, a mode of action; how conversely, action always happens within some discursive frame.

As ideas must be located in a sociopolitical context; conversely, social activity must be grounded against an intellectual or sociocultural backdrop. While the dominant discourse of the bhadralok on the norms of good governance and good citizenship—visibly influenced by Western institutions, discourses and practices—classically demonstrates the way ideas nested within sociopolitical webs, the rural world does not reveal these connections readily.

This article simply notes the substitution of the British officialdom by the indigenous upper castes/classes, and focuses instead on the ground-level perceptions of power and authority in rural Tamluk (a subdivision in Midnapur district in West Bengal). The local interpretations of the parameters of governance through the manner in which they experienced authority in their everyday lives are teased out from the court cases under scrutiny (Toews 1987; Bauman 1987). As sources, criminal court records are invaluable, even though these partially recovered voices of the non-literate come filtered through a highly artificial legal language, and an officially rendered medium (Ginsburg 1992). Therefore, these provide one of the windows through which a historian can partially access the rural quotidian far removed from the historian in time and space. This article uses four court cases around property-related offences heard in the sessions courts, just before independence.

The cases are analysed in the following order: (i) criminal case no 59/12121 of 1938, u/s [under Section] 46(a) Excise Act, 1909 in the court of D C Dhar, sub-deputy magistrate, first class, Tamluk, Midnapore (henceforth Midnapur), Emperor v Amar Majhi (1938); (ii) criminal case no 40/TR93 of 1938, in the court of D C Dhar, Tamluk, Midnapur, u/s 457/380 IPC [Indian Penal Code], Emperor v Ramchandra Kar (1938); (iii) criminal case no TR/56 of 1938, 22.2.38, Kumarpur, P S Mahisadal, Khudiram Dhobi v Emperor (1938);2 and (iv) criminal case no 125 of 1935, u/s 22(b) CTA [Criminal Tribes Act, 1871], D C Dhar, Tamluk, Midnapur, Emperor v Shasi Tanti (1935). Clearly, as the names of the deputy magistrates suggest, the educated middle classes manning the system as “junior custodians” were already positioned behind the state apparatus, not against it or under it. Their faces had become the visible sources of authority to rural communities in the late 1930s and 1940s. These educated magistrates, sub-deputy magistrates, judges and lawyers might have been cogs in the wheel as far as the colonial state understood the delegation of duty and power, but they operated the local sluices of power. For the rural communities experiencing a government at this lower level of state authority, colonial rule wore a familiar, upper-caste face of power, authority and control, along with the modern state apparatus that allowed the colonial state to dig deep roots in both urban and rural India. As the following paragraphs will speculate: Was the parallel Congress government, set up during the Quit India Movement, integral to this trajectory of rural perception of power and authority?

These cases open windows into the complex caste and community ties in rural Bengal, where the poor as well as the well-off remained knitted within caste networks and affects. All the four cases reveal “apparently” a certain internalisation of the colonial state’s systematic bracketing of property-related “illegal” activities as criminal. No doubt that partially this internalisation had to do with the conviction of the indigenous magistrates, judges, and lawyers, that the parameters of criminality defined by the colonial state were correct indices for determining deviant behaviour, which, however, through their ideological sleight of hand, had actually become theirs.

Historical Background

Moreover, as this article argues, from the 1930s the national movement had steadily created an ethos of resistance in Midnapur district in general and the Tamluk and Contai (Kanthi) divisions in particular. Peasants were mobilised—the Krishak Praja Party and the Forward Bloc were both active in these divisions. It was here that powerful peasant movements took place during the Quit India Movement in 1942, colonial rule was totally dismantled and a parallel Congress government, supported by the local communities, ran Tamralipta Jatiya Sarkar (Tamralipta National Government) from 17 December 1942. Surely, it was no accident that the groundswell of popular identification with the parallel Congress government lasted till 1944, when it was finally vanquished by a resurgent colonial state (Bandopadhyay 1944: 418–19).

Did this pre-independence memory of participating in a crucial phase of the national movement, building up since the 1930s, engender within village communities in the Tamluk region a sense of governmentality, that perceived their own political and administrative stakes within a “state” manned by “Indians?” In that case, what about local perceptions of “criminality” that gelled with the labels around criminality generated by the colonial state? Could one say that the discursive strategy developed by the bhadralok to mark off “political crimes” from “crimes” against life and property, was not part of an ethical core that village communities shared? Moreover, the ongoing national movement, which strategically excluded or included revolutionary nationalism in its deployment of patriotic sacrifice, had blurred clear lines of criminal and non-criminal behaviour for the nationally awakened elite, but the revolutionary swadeshi method of garnering funding for its noble cause through “armed robbery and murder” had been critiqued by Rabindranath Tagore, no less.3 Thus, any romanticisation of the violation of property rights would not be part of the ideological persuasions deployed by the Congress workers in the hinterland. One finds that sanctity of property—and elliptically, for “law and order”—is borne out by these petty court cases. Thus, as villagers with stakes in their “own” government, could they be persuaded to see “law and order” as a “national” requirement? Meanwhile, criminal behaviour could be decried as a deviant and anti-national practice, completely against the traditional ethos of “good conduct.”

In these bottommost microgrids of power established by the colonial state but taken over by the indigenous middle classes, the administrative machinery, police and courts had established systemic procedures to frame legal inquiries which would then be “heard” as a case in the court. The filing of the first information report (FIR), the magistrate or the deputy magistrate sending it for trial in the sessions courts, and the process of trial itself, revealed the state in the fullest form of its authority and power for the local people—colonial or post-independence labels were irrelevant to this perception. The state could even act on its own: the police dragnet had identified Amar Majhi as a person selling illegal liquor or Sashi Tanti as a person to be restrained under theCTA, 1871, and the colonial state was the prosecutor in each case. In the two other cases, local villagers had readily provided information and had even participated in the tracking down of the local thief using their own information network that operated through its own logic of caste ties. Thus, prosecutors were individual villagers.

In the late 1930s in Tamluk, the very diversity of caste occupations of the offenders, including a Brahmin petty thief, and the villagers’ readiness to bring all the miscreants to the local thana (police station) shows that a subtle shift of perceptions about caste hierarchies was under way. Perhaps, the proactive village communities were clearly demonstrating their readiness to share responsibilities for “local order” and to have a sense of their own “expectation” of security. While not wishing to romanticise the lower-caste identification with a “nationalistic” state during the climactic phase of the Quit India Movement in Tamluk and Kontai, there is nevertheless some indication that the village communities in the Tamluk region did indeed identify themselves as the gatekeepers of local law and order, and thereby positioned themselves as stakeholders within a stable administrative structure. Thus, on occasion, there is even an activation of the government machinery seeking “security of property,” a quintessential element of the mirage of micro empowerment at the level of everyday governance of the modern state.

Consequently and ironically, it is at this level that the criminal court records reveal no complications. The ordinary people, in their testimonies before the court, demonstrated unconsciously that they followed the logic of the state when they thought their property, however meagre, was under threat. Further, the involvement of the local communities to isolate and gather evidence against local lawbreakers that would hold in a court of law, might also imply that the Congress government—active in the area till 1944—had aroused a politico-cultural expectation of grass-roots participation in governance, capable of moving beyond local caste hierarchies. Perhaps, such a participative sense in the ultimate political, social and religious “good” became manifest when the “criminal,” however petty, became quickly isolated in a locality where familiarity produced a “certain” local knowledge about lawbreakers. Further, a systematic disarming of the population, systematic attempts to delink indigenous local power from their role as patrons of local muscle by defining it as illegal and punishable by law, had produced, by the 1930s, local village communities who turned to the local faces representing the state for the redress of their losses, if community mediations failed.

The Issues at Stake

The present set of criminal trials, minus the famous causes or famous people and clash of colonial and nationalist ideologies, echo with the beat of ordinary lives. These show ordinary people who were pulled into the limelight of legal procedures as the representatives of the prosecution or of the defence, as witnesses made to undergo the strain of having their statements recorded in writing, and then cross-checked through cross-examination; they come across as wary, nervous or resigned. Still, as records of ordinary lives, these convey a sense of the temporal moment and spatial location in which they lived and functioned, and because of the very nature of the records as “testimony,” their speech as they spoke is transmitted to us without grammatical corrections, editing or sanitisation. The official framing of their speech, the official questions to elicit their responses are visibly present. Yet, even if their speech is stilted, guarded or forced, their voices are heard now and then over the official formulas. Their sense of right and wrong, and anxieties is their own.

Above all, the trial depositions in great detail convey their own impression of their communities and their affects. They reflect simultaneously the dual quality of being both facts and mental constructs which are not middle class. The apparently eclectic identity of the criminals within these communities in Emperor v Amar Majhi (1938), Emperor v Ramchandra Kar (1938), Khudiram Dhobi v Emperor (1938), and Emperor v Sashi Tanti (1935), show that villagers were not inevitably bound by caste perceptions or socio-religious status. Caste or caste occupations did not preclude the locals from pointing out a thief to the local daffadar (constable), where the Brahmin purohit/purut (priest) came under direct accusation from a Mahishya villager, which was quickly confirmed by the Mahishya daffadar after making some inquiries (Emperor v Ramchandra Kar 1938).

There is a need to understand the local “expectations” implicitly voiced in the witnesses’ depositions. Étienne Balibar’s (2008) isolation of three open questions, which turn on the relationships of “justice and law, justice and subjectivity, justice and conflict,” are useful to this understanding.4 First, Balibar separates a “weak” logic of power from a “strong” one: the weak position would state that as it was impossible to give strength or power to the principle of justice, which, by its intrinsic nature, could not command these external props, justice could be conferred upon force or power, to “make the strong just.” The weak position, implicit in Pascal, holds out the conviction that “justice” as a principle is a rhetorical device in the deployment of power and authority by the “unjust” strong. Balibar (2008: 9) states,

Nowhere the claim of justice or the exigency of a just order of things can become realised, because it lacks the force, or it finds before itself powerful forces as an obstacle which prevents it from winning a victory, or even which have the capacity to reverse it and to appropriate its language. Conversely, no force or power, however materially overwhelming, can remain dominant without legitimacy, without justifying itself, appearing as the incarnation of justice in the eyes of the dominated and perhaps in its own eyes. Therefore not only it has to claim that it embodies and establishes justice, but it has to define justice in such terms as to appear as its instrument and embodiment. In modern terms such a reversal of the just order of justice and force can be called false consciousness or an ideology covering domination. Let us note in passing that, from a critical point of view, it is always useful to have a powerfully rhetorical—therefore short and brutal—expression of this essential aspect of the logic of domination.

This seems to be one way of placing Ranajit Guha, and his framework for the co-option of the Bengali (read Indian middle classes) into the colonial definition of the legitimacy of the “Rule of Law” with an apt parody, the “Rule of Awe.” The middle classes imbued the colonial rhetoric of “justice” and its principal weapon—the great equaliser—Rule of Law with precisely this logic. A contemporary, critical reading of the national movement from the margins has located the appropriation of this rhetoric of justice by the upper castes.

There is, however, a stronger logic, though more complicated, to the Pascalian analysis which Balibar brings out at some length. First, Balibar (2008: 7–8) points to “justice” as a concept which is impossible to link to power, and to quote him

One: to have justice as such endowed with force or power, or the just being also the strong (politically, socially, ideologically—Bruno Clement would add: rhetorically) represents exactly “the impossible,” which we can also understand as: it is the element of impossibility which will never be realised as such in the realm of politics, or in relations of power, but will also keep haunting them, will not become eliminated from them.

Balibar (2008: 8) then moves to the antinomical position, which involves a risk but which is in the realms of the possible:

Second, or conversely: to have what Pascal calls “force”—probably not so much anarchic or brutal force as a Hobbesian sovereign “monopoly of legitimate violence,” an institutionalised system of political power, therefore the law and the legal State—be or become “just,” therefore establish or impose justice among men, within society, this is possible, or this is the possible. In other terms, this is the political, understood as a challenge, a practical project, and also a risk. So the formula suggests that the implementation of justice (which may involve its correct definition, or redefinition) cannot be thought as deriving purely from its own idea, but can be envisaged, and attempted, through the intermediary of its own opposite, of what immediately contradicts it, namely power in the broadest sense (perhaps we should say in a general manner: empowerment). But this attempt is by its nature, risky.

Balibar (2008: 8) then explores what could be the range of play of such institutionalised form of “justice” within the law and the state:

To this description of a “realistic” understanding of Pascal’s phrase, which is also more dialectical, we can immediately associate two classical questions, which form its correlatives. The first question concerns the negative side of every endeavour at seeking justice by means of this strength, or empowerment: whatever the nature of its strength, its means, forms of organisation, etc, the “just” who seek justice for himself and for others, or the “victim of injustice who seeks redress, restoration of justice, and the establishment of a just order, therefore the destruction of the causes of injustice and the naturalisation of its doers, all must mobilise force, that is, must wage force against force (even the force of weakness).” But which kind of force, internal and external, can become the “impossible force of justice?” Which does not sooner or later, reproduce the injustice it attacks, or does not create symmetrically another injustice? Which force of justice remains “just”?

The second question, therefore, is the institutionalisation of justice into “law”—for this is the problem of translating “force” into a “just” force by the state, or the institutionalisation of law—even if it implies limitations, risks and contradictions. As Balibar (2008: 9) frames it:

Law is best defined in terms of a (transcendental) synthesis of force and justice … the synthesis can become effective only if it begins on the side of power (or its relations), but also that the life and the history of power that organises itself in the form of law (a rule of law, a legal system, a constitution) is governed by a dialectics of relationships—perhaps conflictual, why not conflictual?—with its internal principle of legitimacy, that is justice. This may become pushed to the idea that the internal or hidden weak point of any institution of force is its principle of legitimacy, its pretension to realise and embody justice. And the stronger, the weaker.

This claim to legitimacy through “justice” then becomes the chink in its armour, through which an accelerated democratisation of the state and its legal institutions can be forced. The history of the Indian national movement, then the constitutive elements of the national movement themselves that were challenged as too narrow, and a further clamour set up for a more genuine democratisation from further marginalised groups can be understood in this way. But, there is also the possibility of a mundane everydayness to the state’s bored performance of its routine maintenance of law and “justice” that functioned as its base of legitimacy—its constant visibility over and above the (limited) power of adjudication present within the village communities.

The state, by the 1930s, had, through the establishment of its own record-keeping official memory—a self-referential practice that had been extant for upwards of 250 years—inscribed itself into the imagination of the ordinary people. This method of writing itself into the consciousness of the people, the Congress-led national movement or indeed the post-independence Indian state followed when they had acquired power. Thus, the case files, where the particulars of the accused and what
they had stolen had been entered with clerical labour, demonstrate this routinised practice of the state. The name and position of the official discharging their duty as the judge, the name of the criminal, to which region they belonged and place of residence, the kind of crimes committed and under which section/s of the IPC andCrPC (Code of Criminal Procedure), if the criminal had previous convictions, identity of the prosecution and defence witnesses, together with records of the statements of the prosecutor, prosecutor and defence witnesses, the judge and the jury—such was the standardised template for recording both the extraordinary as well as the ordinary crime and criminal. This reified procedure of creating and docking information imprinted an “authentic” government red tapism on the minds of people, both urban and rural.

There is an important split-level perceptual development at the lowest grids of power intersecting the villages—for the same structure could also be projected as weapons of colonial oppression—depending on the political context. The local villagers might not appreciate that they were located within an inner ring of a series of concentric circles that was the colonial/nation state, but the cases reveal a local working of the legal and penal state apparatus (with justice and order/stability as the popular expectation), by the village communities. Surely this imparts the required democratising spin to a participatory sense of legal subjectivity amongst them, especially if one keeps in mind that the national movement had developed deep roots in these subdivisions, which also retained the explosive potential to become critical of the state’s justice-delivery system and its laws.

The cases discussed in the article acquire depth when read against the two frames of the weak and the strong logic that sustain the relationships between law and justice that Balibar explored. The educated elite—the substitute colonial ruling classes—had been seduced by the first logic, and would strenuously resist the democratisation of the internal principle of justice and the inherently conflictual dialectics of power that would force the legal frame to expand in a more inclusive direction. The non-elite, in their participatory working of the system, using their own rationale of “expectation” from state authority, and their relative position of power/powerlessness within their community, thus represent the marginalised subjects’ quest for justice through institutionalised law. The community’s failure to adjudicate their grievance through institutionalised law would open up possibilities of alternative formulations of justice.

In this set of cases, one sees echoes of how ordinary village people would work the state apparatus for their understanding of “institutionalised law” and “justice,” which meant something as small (or as big) as recovering their stolen property, or challenging a claim to a she-goat. The cases show that ordinary villagers had accepted the legitimate position of the state and its laws in respect to criminal behaviour (this is where the hegemony of the state seemed indisputable in ordinary minds), with the villagers themselves cranking the creaky legal and penal system of the colonial state to protect their own interests. It is, thus, not only resistance offered to the state that makes the dragnet of state force visible; it is also through people’s participation at the microgrids of power that renders the legitimacy of the state ubiquitous. It allows ordinary people to turn the handles of the institutions of power, and thus feel empowered by its operation.

Laying Out the Evidence

The petty cases under analysis provide invaluable data to the historian: the kind of valuables the villagers thought irreplaceable, village networks generating information, exclusion/inclusion in village communities on the basis of caste, the local perceptions of what was “wrong” or “right,” as also the location of the agent who had first moved the state to action. The last could be varied.

Emperor v Amar Majhi (1938): The analysis of the imprisonment of the Mahishya cultivator, Amar Majhi—“Accused Amar Majhi produced under arrest u/s 46(a) excise act, 1909. Accused to give bail of Rs 50/- in default to hajat [imprisonment] till 11 March 1938. Prosecution to reach court before that date”—shows the role of the colonial state in framing a case against a bootlegger, the prime prosecution witness being
yet another Mahishya in state employment, the daffadar Sriharicharan Betal.

The reportage of “illegal” activities of prosecution witness 1 (PW1), “Amar Majhi, aged about 50 years,” narrated in Betal’s deposition that was “taken on oath as solemn affirmation before D C Dhar, magistrate, first class of Tamluk, 21 March 1938” shows polarised social worlds within the same caste.5 Betal is at once officious and endowed with the agency that the state has conferred on him to protect its abkari revenues,

My name is Sriharicharan Betal, father’s name late Yudhisthircharan Betal, by caste Mahishya, home at Mauza Mahisadal, P S Mahisadal, district Midnapore, I reside at Mauza Icchapur P S Mahisadal, district Midnapore. I am the daffadar of P S Mahisadal. On 7 March 1938 at about 8.30–9.00 pm, I arrested this accused in dock with two bottles containingID liquor 45 oz (Ounces). I arrested the accused with the booty, which he was selling without license.6

The deposition of prosecution witness two, who was “aged about 40 years,” upper-caste ex-sub-inspector, Sudhir Chandra Ghose who corroborated the deposition of Betal, provided a further bit of evidence about a previous conviction over the same crime.

My name is Sudhir Chandra Ghose, father’s name Ramlal Ghose, by caste Kayastha, home at Mauza Bairaganta, P S Serajdilcha, district Dacca, I reside at Mauza Mahisadal P S Mahisadal, district Midnapore. I am the ex-sub inspector, and on 8 March 1938, PW1, Sriharicharan Betal caught before us this accused in the dock with two bottles containing 45 oz of ID liquor. The accused had no license. On 24 April 1935 accused was convicted u/s 46 (a) and (f), ex-Act and sentenced toRI (rigorous imprisonment) for three months by A K Dutt Tamluk, SDM (subdivisional magistrate).

This was sufficient to nail Majhi yet again. Majhi was committed to trial in the court on this evidence and was formally asked if he had indeed been guilty of bootlegging. The presiding judge recorded:

The examination of the Accused under Section 364 of theCrPC Majhi, aged about 41 years, brought before me D C Dhar. The Accused said “I am by caste a Mahishya, and by occupation cultivator, my home is at Kashmirnagar, P S Sutahata, district Midnapore, I reside at Raghurampur.” Majhi was asked “on the date of 7 March 1938, you were arrested with ID which is illegal to possess by law—two bottles weighed 45 ounce, and you were caught in possession of it or not?”

Majhi answered, “Yes, I am so guilty (hyan, ami dosh korechhi).” The magistrate then asked him of his previous conviction of the same crime two years earlier: Were you sentenced to one and a half months of imprisonment on 28 April 1935 in the court of Tamluk, and Majhi confirmed it with a simple “yes” (hyan). Majhi was then given a fresh sentence of three months of imprisonment, which he accepted, “I have been at fault” (amar dosh hoyechhey). The accused, by acquiescing to his punishment, after acknowledging his “illegal” activities, has also tightened the state’s claims of legitimacy.

Moreover, the official machinery, by absorbing into its lowest echelons locals like Betal, a Mahishya, who had arrested “the accused” Amar Majhi, yet another Mahishya, could offset perceptions of power and authority amongst the lower castes. Clearly, the daffadar had identified himself with the power of the colonial state, while Amar Majhi was at its receiving end. Furthermore, the colonial state’s abkari policy which had criminalised Majhi held no meaning for the villagers: their definition of “criminal” behaviour did not coincide with the state, nor do they appear as informants in Majhi’s apprehension. The state and the village communities were in opposite camps, where offence against the resources of the state—invisible, abstract and legally enforceable—were defined by law-enforcing officers of the state as “criminal.”

Emperor v Ramchandra Kar (1938): The next case shows that petty criminals, whether they are Brahmins or Brahmin priests, are tracked down by the local population in tandem with officials of the state. The same locals are then called as witnesses against “the accused.” The local petty thief, whom everyone knew to be one, could be quickly cornered. A Brahmin pjri (priest), who by the dint of his position, had access to houses for smoking and chatting with locals provides an example of such upper-caste accountability. The proverb prt s̟ējy th̟ākur chri (stealing deities disguised as a priest), is a cultural and linguistic acknowledgement of the perfidy of Brahmin priests who made off with their patrons’ valuables kept safe in the sanctum sanctorum of the deity which only they could access, apart from the family.

The attitudinal change of a village community regarding the criminality of Brahmins is in their willingness to turn them over to the law. The accused was Ramchandra Kar, son of Jnanada Chandra Kar, police station Mahisadal, and had been sent up once before in case no 3891/379/411 in 1935.7 That, even after a conviction and subsequent imprisonment, he continued to visit households for performing rituals and to have a smoke could be because he was a Brahmin priest and this privilege allowed him to commit a second round of theft from Krishto Maity’s house.8 Maity, a Mahishya, who lived in Basudevpur, Mauza Kalisab, “told” the daffadar Jagamitranath Maity (referred familiarly as “Jogender Maity” in the deposition), yet another local face of power from the Mahishya caste, that his warm shawl worth₹14 had “been stolen” from “the verandah of his house” on the previous day, the 19th of Magh (January–February), where “the accused” (always “the accused” in the records) had smoked tobacco with his host around 3–4 pm. After the priest’s departure, Maity looked for his warm shawl as he was unwell, and found that it had disappeared. Maity immediately suspected Kar, and the fact that Kar was nowhere to be found made his suspicions a certainty.9

It is clear that the caste network was ordering the flow of information and accusation. Jagamitranath Maity was listening as a more empowered member of the Mahishya community, not as the local daffadar. From this point on, there is a complex weave of people and places, as the Brahmin, because of his caste occupation as a priest, had patrons scattered across various mauzas (an administrative unit of land) of Midnapur, and some of whom affirmed his habit of thieving. The daffadar Maity, in his turn, approached the local shopkeeper Nagendranath Das, who had a shop in Mauza Kolsar, and who also resided in the same locality. The daffadar obviously felt reasonably certain that “Nagen Das,” located in the information hub of his shop, would be able to collect information about the missing shawl. This hunch paid off.

From the deposition of the shopkeeper, Das,10 it is known that Das had confronted Kar with the accusation of theft of the shawl, upon which “the accused” admitted the crime. However, he had disposed of it by giving it to a woman named Kanthi, whom he knew, for 10 pice. Das’s deposition was succinct:

I live in Kolsar. I got certain information about the theft of a chador (warm shawl) of Kristo Maity. Kristo suspected the accused in dock. On being questioned, the accused admitted having stolen the chador, but he took it to the house of a woman called Kanthi of Kanjarberia, which is about half mile from Basudevpur ... he had left the chador with her for 10 pice. (see note 8)

Das took Kar with him, retrieved the shawl from Kanthi after paying her 10 pice, brought back both the shawl and thief to his shop, and informed Krishto Maity. Maity came along and identified his shawl. Das testified thus:

I took over 10 pice to the house of this woman to get back this chador (exhibit 1, henceforth ex.1), and gave her 10 pice. I took the accused with ex.1 to my shop, Kristo Maity came through and identified the chador as belonging to him.

As Krishto Maity was ill and could not personally visit the thana to file the FIR, the daffadar himself went and lodged an FIR, which he even signed (see note 8). In Maity’s deposition, a corroboration of both Das’s and the daffadar’s narratives is found (see note 9).

These dramatic discoveries involving a shawl led Das to connect yet another local villager’s (Rajani Mishra, a Brahmin) complaint of theft which had happened at the dead of night on the 2nd of Magh,11 when his thakurghar (sanctum sanctorum) was broken into and his little shiva linga (the sacred Shiva phallus symbol), salgram shila (a stone respresenting Vishnu), a brass thali (plate), and a copper kosha (utensil used in rituals) for the bathing of household deities, were all stolen. Rajani Mishra had already lodged an FIR. Das charged “the accused” of the previous theft too, and Kar owned up to that as well. However, like the shawl, he had sold all the stolen items to different people in the surrounding localities. There are two names from Das’s deposition—Ram Das and Bhuvan Das, both from Basudevpur—who had received the stolen property, and from whom now the accused went and retrieved the articles and produced them before Nagendranath Das. Why was this recovery so quick? Was it the caste network of “Nagen Das” functioning here? The deposition hints at this perhaps:

Five–seven days previous to them, Rajani Misra of Uttar Rastari had said, salgram sila, brass thali, copper kosha (required for washing thakur) was stolen from his thakurghar. On being questioned the accused admitted having stolen these things also. But brought out this Shiva (exhibit ii), from his jholi (a kind of cloth bag) in the house of Bhuban Das of Basudevpur. Accused brought out a brass thali (exhibit iii), “jhaapy” (exhibit iv), and a kosha (exhibit V), from the house of Ram Das in the same village, with whom they had sold these things for Rs ¼ (4 annas). I got these released on payment of this amount. Accused said he had stolen the salgram from the house of Rajani Mishra.

The highly proactive Nagendranath Das asked Rajani Mishra to come to his shop to identify the stolen items. From the deposition of Rajani Mishra, who was the penultimate prosecution witness or PW4, this part of Nagendranath Das’s narrative was corroborated.

I live at Uttar Rastari, P S Mahisadal, on the 2nd of Magh on a Sunday, there was a theft of Salgram with three gold tops, Shiva-linga, kosha, jhaapi, brass thali—worth about Rs 8 from my thakurghar at Uttar Rastari. The paddock of the door was broken. Next morning I came to know of it. I related the incidence to PW3.

On 22nd Magh, on receipt of certain information, I went to the shop of “Nagen Das” and I found my things. Ex[hibit]s ii–vi, which had been stolen.12

It was only after Das had used the informal centre of his shop to bring together the thief, the stolen goods, the two complainants, and the daffadar, that the case could be processed through the police station and the courts at all. The daffadar himself knew that the shopkeeper could do better than himself when it came to tracing the stolen goods.

When the case came to the court of D C Dhar, sub-deputy magistrate first class of Tamluk, district Midnapur, he noted while admitting it into the court:

I certify that I have carefully examined the registers of persons convicted (village notebook) and have in all other respects made full enquiry whether the accused person/absconders against whom the charge has been proved have been given false names and addresses and have been previously convicted and I find that the names and addresses given are true.

(a) I also certify that the accused has resided in this jurisdiction for a period more than 10 years.

(b) The antecedents of the accused are as follows.

He has got no reference.

He is a goodly swindler.

The sub-inspector, police station Mahisadal, the last witness or PW5, Radhika Mohan Bannerjee,13 in his deposition declared that he had conducted the investigation and “submitted charge sheets in both the cases” and the case against Kar was foolproof. This combined effort of the village Sherlock Holmes and the ponderous official machinery produced the following “Record of Examination of the Accused” signed by the magistrate himself:14

The examination of the accused Ramachandra Kar, age about 26 years, taken before me D C Dhar, magistrate first class of Tamluk, district Midnapore, on 1 March, 1938 in the Bengali language …

My name is Ramchander Kar. My father’s name is Jnanada Chandra Kar. I am by caste Brahmin, and by occupation priest. My home is at Mauza Baharampur, P S Mahisadal, district Midnapur, I reside at Baharampur.

To the magistrate’s questions as to his guilt in stealing Maity’s shawl and Mishra’s household deities, Kar meekly affirmed his crimes, signed the magistrate’s record, and received the sentence:

I find the accused guilty and convict him u/s 379, 457, 380 IPC. I sentence him to RI [rigorous imprisonment] for four months under each of Sections 457 and 380 IPC, and also RI for two months u/s 379 IPC. All the sentences to run concurrently.

Here, as indicated at the beginning of the article, the village community networks as well as the state apparatus worked in tandem. The microgrids of power and authority are revealed at their clearest operational mode, for there are no big movers and shakers. The Mahishya villager who suffered the theft of a warm shawl in winter, a Brahmin villager whose gold inlaid household deities were stolen considered these losses big enough to want them back. Local networks were worked for the tracking of the criminal, and the state apparatus for justice for nailing him.

Khudiram Dhobi v Emperor (1938): The ordinary in the third case comes with a touch of tragedy for Khudiram Dhobi, son of the late Gobinda Dhobi, Kamarpur, police station Mahisadal, district Midnapur. There is a strong sense of entitlement to a she-goat that Dhobi considered legitimately his property: “I have forcibly got the goat from said cowshed. I had lent it for adoption. As he did not return (it), I got it myself.”15 However, the “he” in Khudiram Dhobi’s evidence, the PW1 Pramathanath Staih, said in his deposition,

On the 9th of Falgun last, at about 9 PM when I drove to the field west of Kumarpur, I saw the accused in dock with the same she-goat (produced before the court worth Rs 2/- or Rs 2 8 annas). This was witnessed by Dukhi Patra, Gangadhar Staih and others. Dukhi said the accused was carrying the goat wrapped in a chador. We all challenged the accused ... we all took the accused with us and the goat to the house of Mahendra Balra and then to the house of Bipin Thakur. Then theSI [sub-inspector] and the daffadar came. We took the accused to the thana.

The villagers had identified two local community members who might have been successful in arbitrating the question of the rights of the two claimants to the she-goat. However, they realised that arbitration would not be effective, for Khudiram was claiming the right to the goat, and that he had not stolen it. It is at this point that the thana, the daffadar, the sub-inspector and the courts entered the dispute. In the third case, sharp disputes about ownership are seen, where local informal arbitration systems have failed to resolve the problem of the ownership of a she-goat, a capital that would automatically grow, subject to biological laws.

The court decided in favour of Pramathanath Staih, and bound Khudiram Dhobi to good behaviour. The presiding officer delivers the order,

The accused Khudiram Dhobi is convicted u/s 380 IPC. He is required to execute a bond of Rs 100/- as surety and to be of good behaviour for the year u/s 562CrPC.

In all three cases, there is a semblance of empowerment at the level of the microgrids of power created by the modern state that could guarantee the legitimacy of a mere rhetoric
of justice deployed by the state, whether colonial or post-independent India. The players were all small fry and there were no vested interests to protect. Therefore, the state machinery also could assert its everyday “justice” delivery system to be effective and empowering, and ordinary people participated in this myth. They are all unarmed and non-dangerous, the petty lawbreakers as well as their accusers.

Emperor v Sashi Tanti (1935): This article underlines the fact that though it is obvious that educated classes were interpreting and reproducing the categories of the colonial state through their discursive strategies and their practical hands-on approach as colonial officers, the lower castes/classes were also deploying the same categories to steer clear of trouble. Therefore, “criminals” were not just a category for the higher castes, it held true for the lower castes themselves, even though this is ignored by the bhadralok. This is observable in Emperor v Sashi Tanti (1935), with Tanti labelled under theCTA of 1871 as a “criminal.” Three witnesses, two of them high-caste Brahmins, Ramgopal Chatterjee, the sub-inspector at Mahisadal police station, and Radhika Ranjan Bannerjee, were knowledgeable as to his status: a registered member under the act, and therefore he had to be a confirmed “criminal.” His crime was compounded as he had not reported in the thana on the night a pair of bullocks belonging to one bepari (businessman) had been stolen, and doubtless he was the most obvious thief. Shaikh Sashi Tanti was already in jail, serving out a sentence of imprisonment after being convicted in case no 329 u/s 429/380 IPC on 23 December 1937, and he was therefore to be issued “a requisition to secure his attendance in this court on 27 January 1938.” During the framing of the charge, D C Dhar’s bias against registered members under the CTA was obvious:

That you, being a registered member of the CTA, remained absent from your residence at Keshabpur, P S Mahisadal, on 10 October 1937 at night without taking permission from the local police, and that you, on 21 Feburary 1935 had been convicted and sentenced withRI for two and a half months u/s 22(2)(b) CTA by Mr G A Norsata SDO [sub-divisional officer], Tamluk and thereby committed an offence punishable u/s 22(2) (b) CTA and within my cognisance.

The inevitable conviction followed. Tanti appealed against the order of Babu D C Dhar (appeal no 41 of 1938), but the appeal was dismissed.

But the evidence of a Mahis̩hya cultivator (a fairly low caste), Madhav Maity, of the village Kandalha revealed another dimension to Tanti’s identity, who lived in a different village Keshabpur. This implied that Tanti was known to the other Mahis̩hya cultivators, and perhaps to the community generally as well, by his bad reputation. Tanti was a dagi (branded), and as such, was feared by Mahesh Maity. Thus, though he witnessed Tanti committing a crime, he did not question Tanti at that point: “I did not dare. I am not watched by the police as a ‘dagi.’”

Therefore, among the lower castes themselves, there probably existed, created by the police by marking certain people in the communities as dagis, a separate category altogether. This category the lower castes shunned, as objects of fear, as they treaded the borderline between suspicion and similar reputation themselves. This process of communities reacting to the pressure of criminalisation from their ranks forms an important consequence of the technologies of government that colonial rule put into place.


The question that is intriguing for the historian is the degree of interaction between the indigenous officials from some lower castes, and the village communities themselves, for the identification of criminality and criminals. The four trial cases in this article show that at the lower depths, where the village communities manifested their daily rhythm of lived life, the categories of the indices of petty criminality generated by the colonial state had penetrated into their mental parameters.

We have seen that “local knowledge” isolated the “criminal.” In that case, what face of the colonial government did the lower-caste village communities perceive at this level? How real was the white European official to them? Yet, the technologies of governance, which had systematically deprived ordinary people from the right to carry weapons and had also made illegal the premodern nexus between the local landlord and his “men” from the low-caste communities, had surely changed the way in which these village communities perceived power, authority and justice. The “white” official might not be present, but the state structures and the institutions that the colonial rule had put in place, especially the source of authority, which made each and every case valid in the remotest village, was that of the “Emperor.” The colonial state had turned into a ubiquitous presence with its modern state apparatus and modern technologies of governance.

One wonders, however, if the village communities cranking the state apparatus were aware of the shift in the logic of governance. The local villagers seemed to straddle the world of caste and community networks to bring pressure on the “thieves,” while the police and the law were used to nail them. Moreover, the national movement through the 1930s and 1940s had transformed the colonial state into “our” government. Political elections and political parties in these fairly representative Bengal villages deployed nationalist and anti-colonial rhetoric, typically reflected in the nomenclature “Tamralipti Jatiya Sarkar.” When elections took place in postcolonial India, the anti-colonial sloganeering gave way to ballot battles. Inevitably, what the colonial state had partially phased out, that is the “illegality” of the local power making use of the local muscle, made a reappearance, riding piggyback on the electoral process and the vote and the apparatus of the modern nation state.

The late 1930s reveal the possibilities of the manner in which ordinary people expected “justice,” the delivery of it by the state, and their own location and empowerment within the grids of power. At the same time, the state, working through indigenous upper-class/caste officialdom, conveys a sense of routinised legitimacy for the “community,” a routine that the Tamralipta Jatiya Sarkar had appropriated for itself. One can sense that it can function on an even keel when the village communities have been separated from arms, local malcontents have been isolated, and caste identities are not consolidating lines of solidarity across regional and linguistic divides, while the aspirants to legal redress are individuated villagers. However, implicit in these limited parameters of effective functioning are also visible the fault lines that will hamstring the state even at the level of the village. Thus, strong vested local interests will identify regional or even national political parties, and latch onto its protective shell, while reconfiguring the nexus between local malcontents and local muscle, which will render the colonial control structure, operating on the assumption of disarmed populations at the level of the village, ineffectual.

Against this future inevitability, visible in contemporary developments, these petty cases of 1938 seem to affirm a state that was largely fictive. Its weak logic of rhetorically representing “justice” seemed the source of its legitimacy at the base of the “social” which functioned on the logic of a disarmed population that functioned through colonial categories. The moment these categories of docketing and controlling large sections of the population were replaced by
the electoral process bringing back the premodern nexus of local power hubs with their private armies, the colonial governance mechanisms became overloaded and, therefore, dysfunctional. The court cases here indicate the rigid parameters within which the colonial state was successful. The small expectations of the communities ensured that the legitimacy of the colonial state was not challenged at the level of the mundane everyday.


1 Gandhi might be partially exempt from this charge.

2 No information on who was conducting court proceedings in the Khudiram Dhobi case is available as many pages are missing from the records.

3 Rabindranath Tagore, Rabindra Rachanabali, Vol 7, Sulabha Sanskaran on 125 Rabindrajanmajayanti, 1395 (1402) Visvabharati, Kolkata, “Char Adhyay:” “I have fallen beyond the last limit. Our band has robbed a helpless widow of all her possessions … the old woman was not allowed to live. The money has reached the place which we call the necessity of the nation through this very hand. I actually broke my fast with that money.” This shows that “political crimes” were seen as personal sacrifices (possibly of dearly held moral norms) by the nationalists, and therefore signified a huge nationalist effort, which Atindra, the protagonist, in this quote had identified as loot and robbery (p 417).

4 Here Balibar (2008) uses Pascal’s notion of power (Pensees 1528 AD) to construct the “weak” and “strong” positions of justice.

5 Deposition of Prosecution Witness 1: for standardisation, wherever there are two parts of a name, Hari Charan and Yudhistir Charan in this instance, have been clubbed together as Haricharan and Yudhistircharan.

6 Emperor v Amar Majhi (1938).

7 The previous conviction was also mentioned on the file cover along with the details of Emperor v Ramchandra Kar (1938).

8 Emperor v Ramchandra Kar (1938):Deposition of PW1, Jagamitranath Maity, s/o late Chaitanya Charan Maity, caste Mahisya, Home Mauza Kalisab (also spelt Kolsar), P S Mahisadal, district Midnapur, Residence Kolsar. On 20th Magh Thursday Krishto Maity told him of the theft. In the Record of the examination of the Accused, D C Dhar, the magistrate substituted Anno Domini 2 February 1938 instead of the Bangiya Satapdi. The Deposition of PW1, aged about 38 years, In the court of D C Dhar, magistrate, first class of Tamluk, district Midnapur, Jagmitranath Maity, father’s name, Late Chaitanya Charan Maity. By caste Mahisya. Home mauza Kalisab, P S Mahisadal, district Midnapur, reside at present in Mauza Kalisab … where I am a daffadar of No 4—P S Mahisadal, I live at Kolsar … Basudevpur is side by side with Kolsar. On a Thursday of 20th Magh in the morning, Krishno Maity told me that his chador (warm shawl) had been stolen from the verandah of his home at Basudevpur, on the previous day. On Friday next in I had—of ‘Nagen’ Das of Kolsar, we found this accused in the dock under arrest with this chador—Exhibit1. Nagen had said the accused had bought it from … he had Kristo Maity came and identified his chador. Kristo could not go to the thana as he was ill. I went to P S Mahisadal and lodged this FIR and on which I signed.”

9 Deposition of PW2: “Krishto Maity, age 52 years, in the court of D C Dhar. I live at Basudevpur. On the 15th of Magh last, on a Wednesday during day-time, my chador (shawl) was stolen from the open verandah of my house (worth Rs 14) of Basudevpur. On the same day on 3–4 pm this accused in dock came to my house and smoked tobacco and went away. Immediately after I wanted my chador … and found my chador missing. I suspected the accused and I searched for him but he was not found. I related the incident to daffadar Jogender the next morning. In search of certain information on Friday, I went to the house of ‘Nagen’ Das of Kalsor and saw the accused in dock under arrest with my chador (Exhibit 1). ‘Nagen’ Das had said he had received it from a beggar woman called ‘Kanthi’ with whom the accused had had relations. Kanthi is an invalid owing to her beggary. I could not go to the thana because of my illness.”

10 Deposition of PW3: “Nagendranath Das, son of late Madhusudan Das, by caste Baishnav, age about 44 years, in the court of D C Dhar, magistrate first class of Tamluk, district Midnapur, home at Mauza Kolsar, resident and village, police station Mahisadal district Midnapur, Reside at present in Mauza Kolsar, P S do, district do, where he is a shopkeeper.”

11 The record of the examination of the accused by the magistrate shows D C Dhar substituting Anno Domini 23 January 1938 for 2nd Magh.

12 The deposition of PW4: “Age about 30 years, In the court of D C Dhar, magistrate first class of Tamluk, district Midnapur, Rajni Kanta Moitra, S/o [son of] late Nilkantha Mishra, by caste Brahmin, home at mauza Uttar Rastari, Resident and village, P S Mahisadal district Midnapore, reside at present in Mauza … where he is a Brahmin: “I live at Uttar Rastari, P S Mahisadal, on the 2nd of Magh on a Sunday, there was a theft of Salgram with three gold tops, Shiva-linga, Kosha, jhaapi, brass thali—worth about Rs 8 from my thakurghar at Uttar Rastari. The paddock of the door was broken. Next morning I came to know of it. I related the incidence to PW3. … On 22nd Magh, on receipt of certain information, I went to the shop of ‘Nagen’ Das and I found my things. Ex[hibit]s ii–vi, which had been stolen along and I also brought the salgram, exhibit VI. Rajani Mishra was called and he identified Exhibits II–VI as belonging to him and which had been stolen. The SI came to the village to investigate the case of the theft of the chador, when I produced all those things, and prepared a list of these things.”

13 Deposition of PW5: “Age about 50 years, in the court of D C Dhar, magistrate first class of Tamluk, district Midnapur, S/o late Monimohan Bannerjee, by caste Brahmin, home at mauza Panchga, resident and village, P S Thugibari, district Dacca (Dhaka), reside at present in Mauza Mahisadal, police station Thugibari … I am the second sub inspector P S Mahisadal. I recorded the FIRs 1 and 2, Exhibit 1 was produced by the daffadar—PW1 of the time of lodging of exhibit 1, the accused in dock was also produced. I came to investigate the case, when ex[hibit]s II–VI were produced before me by Nagendranath Das I—in the presence of witnesses, 6.2.38, Rajani Misra came to the P S and lodged the FIR Exhibit 2. After investigation I submitted charge sheets in both the cases. On 9.38 I saw the open paddock of the thakur ghar of Rajani Kanta Mishra.”

14 “Q[uestion]: On the night of 2 February 1938, did you or did you not steal from the verandah of Kristo Maity his shawl? Ans: Yes respected sir. Q: On the night of 23 January 1938 did you or did you not steal from the Thakurghar of Rajani Mishra all these things? Ans: Yes, I took them. Q: How did you get into the thakurghar? Ans: I broke the lock and entered (signed Ramchandra Kar).”

15 Khudiram Dhobi v Emperor (1938): “Accused Khudiram Dhobi, s/o Late Gobinda Dhobi, Kamarpur, P S Mahisadal, district Midnapur. The offence complained of, and date of its alleged commission: Theft of a she-goat worth Rs 2/ from the cow shed of PW1 Pramathanath Staih on 2 February 1938, u/s 380 IPC and section 342 CrPC. The accused pleads guilty, stating ‘I have forcibly got the goat from said cow-shed. I had lent it for adoption. As he did not return (it) I got it myself.’ ”


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Updated On : 12th Feb, 2018


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