by Vinay Lal

[Originally published as my introduction to the reprint edition (Gurgaon, Haryana: Vintage Press, 1995, pp. i-xxvii, of Rai Bahadur M. Pauparao Naidu, The History of Railway Thieves, with Illustrations and Hints on Detection, 4th ed. (Madras: Higginbothams Limited, 1915).]

This rather unusual work, bearing the curious title of “A History of Railway Thieves”, appears to have been of sufficient interest to the reading public to warrant a fourth edition in 1915. Its author, M. Pauparao Naidu, joined the Madras Police in 1888, and quickly rose through the ranks. He was described by the Governor of Madras, who conferred the title of Rai Bahadur upon Naidu in 1914, as having “succeeded in putting down dacoity” merely two years after joining the force, and in this endeavor he appears to have “severely injured [himself] in a hand-to-hand encounter with dacoits.” At what time Naidu became associated with the Special Branch of the Madras Police it is not known, but upon the establishment of the Criminal Intelligence Department in 1906, he was attached to this department. That same year he received “the thanks of the Director for work in connection with counterfeiting coins and again in 1910 for good work in Pondicherry.” Naidu was one of the earliest recipients of the King’s Police Medal for distinguished service, which had been inaugurated by royal warrant in 1909, and in 1914 he was presented the Sanad of Rai Bahadur.

Though Naidu’s name is not mentioned in the History of the Madras Police, published in 1959 on the occasion of its centenary, he had clearly established something of a reputation for himself. The title page of The History of Railway Thieves indicates that he also authored the three previous volumes in the “Criminal Tribes of India Series”, and it cannot be doubted that, in the long years of his service, he had come to acquire an intimate acquaintance with the ‘characteristics’ of the so-called criminal tribes and classes. His ‘expertise’, though not uncontested by his contemporaries, was widely acknowledged. Thus, for example, W. J. Hatch, in his account of the Kuravers, allegedly a class of “hereditary criminals”, was to describe Naidu as having preceded him in offering a “valuable” description of the Kuravers.

What might interest us about the History of Railway Thieves today? The Government of India has persisted with the dubious, not to mention odious, classification of ‘criminal’ tribes and castes, and works like these might help us understand better the sociological and political thinking to which bureaucrats, civil servants, and indeed many Indian penologists remain bound. Even more so, large chunks of the Indian middle classes swear by the idea of ‘habitual’, ‘hereditary’, and ‘congenital’ criminals. Someone could even well claim that the modus operandi of railway thieves remains astonishingly similar one hundred years later, and indeed the adept ways of swindlers at Mughal Serai, one of the largest railway junctions in the world, are reminiscent of the machinations used by the railway thieves described by Naidu. But these can scarcely be the reasons that commend the History of Railway Thieves to our attention. Naidu’s little work owed a great deal to the colonial anthropology and to what we could describe as the ‘epistemological imperatives’ of the colonial state. Naidu’s “history” stands at the intersection of several developments that have engaged the student of colonialism and that might interest the student of independent India, and it provides a curious and engaging narrative touching upon the history of the police, the development and uses of fingerprinting, the colonial systems of classification, the colonial apparatus and machinery of ‘law and order’, notions of criminality, the advent of photography, and the development of the railways. It is to some of these matters that I shall be adverting in this introduction, though very briefly and only by way of pointing to some of the more arresting associations raised by Naidu’s book.


Though British rule was founded on naked power, and India continued to be ruled by the sword, the British also achieved in India a conquest of knowledge. It was by means of this conquest that the British governed India and held it subject to their whims. There were numerous theories on how India might be governed: while some colonial rulers advocated a Platonic model of guardianship, and the evangelicals conceived it as Britain’s preeminent mission to civilise and Christianise the heathen, the utilitarians sought mainly to introduce an efficient administration and encourage habits of scientific and rational thinking among the ‘superstitious’ people of the land. The so-called romantics fought for the preservation of Indian customs and institutions, in the belief that these were most appropriate for Indians at their stage of development, and that any attempt to tamper with indigenous customs and beliefs would be received with hostility. There were advocates of despotism too, except that the enlightened despotism of the British was to be substituted for Oriental Despotism. What was common to all these schools of thought was the supposition that it was Britain’s mission to rule, and India’s duty to submit; and that just as Indians were incapable of governing themselves, much less anyone else, so the British had been gifted with eminently good sense, courage, manliness, a sense of action, and active habits of thought to preside over the destinies of a nation far removed from their shores.

To effect the conquest of knowledge that would gain them the acquiescence of their subjects and enable their rule, the British put into place a set of epistemological imperatives. The battles of Plassey and Buxar had no sooner been fought than that the British sought to consolidate their gains in the realm of knowledge. As the collection of revenue became the responsibility of the East India Company, it became perforce necessary to chart and survey the land. So came into birth the Survey of India, and henceforth the surveyors were to do invaluable work for the colonial state in opening up the land, introducing new methods of surveillance, and mapping sacred and profane territories. But the enterprise of mapping India stood at the conjunction of time and space, and alongside the surveyors the historians were set to work. In 1763 Robert Orme had already published the first volume of his History of the Military Transactions of the British Nation in Indostan; and as James Rennell, Surveyor General of the East India Company Territories of Bengal, was to become the father of English geography, so Robert Orme was in time to become one of the first professional historians in England, and Historiographer to the East India Company. By 1770, there had also appeared the first part of John Zephaniah Holwell’s Interesting Historical Events relative to the Provinces of Bengal and the Empire of Indostan, and Alexander Dow’s History of Indostan.

History and geography were only two domains which the British sought to shape. The governance of India having become their responsibility, they were compelled to acquaint themselves with the myriad languages spoken by Indians, and throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries there appeared a stream of grammars and dictionaries of Tamil, Bengali, Telugu, Hindi, Marathi, Punjabi, Kannada, and other Indian languages. These tasks assumed a particular importance in the years of the expansion and strengthening of colonial rule; and as the Company gave way to the Crown, and the conquest of territories yielded to the necessity of settling them, endowing them with proper administrations, and introducing the regime of law and order, so by the late nineteenth century numerous mechanisms that would enable the state to know, measure, count, and control its subjects were brought to the fore. Though every Indian could not be known, that was scarcely necessary, as the individual among them did not exist; in the British conception of Indian society, only collectivities existed, and of these communities in which membership was gained by virtue of religion were primordial. It was sufficient, then, to know every type of Indian, an aspiration attempted to be fulfilled in the massive project, undertaken at the behest of the Government of India shortly after the Rebellion of 1857-58, entitled The People of India. That fetish for numbers which had overtaken England and Europe earlier in the nineteenth century was soon to inflect the work of the colonial administrator, who was joined in his pursuits by the anthropometrist and the anthropologist. In 1882 the Census Commissioner proposed that “steps should be taken to collect full information regarding castes and occupations throughout British India”, and over the next twenty to thirty years, a massive series of tomes, containing an ethnographic inquiry into all the important castes and tribes, and an anthropometric survey of the physical characteristics of tribesmen, were to serve as testimony to the assiduous if mistaken labour of colonial officials and their ‘native informants’.

What was derived from all these projects of the state, from the establishment of the Trigonometrical Survey and the Botanical Survey to the Census of India and the Ethnographic Survey, was a certain conception of Indian society. Some of these tropes by which India was to understood, indeed ossified, were already present in the writings of seventeenth-century travellers, but in the writings of Dow, Orme, and others a century later they received a fresh impetus from their nexus with colonial adventurism, and finally in the nineteenth century they received a more elaborate, complex, politically insidious, and epistemologically bound representation. The first elements of an Orientalist grammar of India were ‘despotism’ and ‘effeminacy’; to these were added the idea of the ‘lazy native’, the scheming and villainous ‘Brahmin’, ‘unchanging India’, the primordial ‘village community’, and the invidious distinction between ‘martial’ and ‘non-martial’ races. The ‘thuggee and dacoity’ department under Colonel William Sleeman and his successors had already fixed upon the idea of ‘hereditary criminals’, and this was to be the partial backdrop for the emergence of ‘criminal tribes’ and ‘criminal castes’, whose conduct and movements would then be regulated through legislation. By the middle of the nineteenth century, ‘caste’ was beginning to emerge as the central organizing principle of Indian society, something that no Indian was without, something that fixed the occupation of each generation, and to this would be added the notion that there were in India such irreconcilable religious communities of people such as ‘Hindus’, ‘Muslims’, and ‘Sikhs’. These representations were to form the backdrop to almost every work of colonial ethnography, anthropology, and history, and were just as present, as we shall see, in Naidu’s History of Railway Thieves.


The History of Railway Thieves, let us recall, appeared as a monograph in a series on “The Criminal Tribes of India”, and throughout Naidu is at pains to establish that the railway thieves are hereditary criminals, who follow “no other occupation that of crime for a livelihood” (p. ii). Of each of these tribes he says that they were declared to be criminal tribes under the Criminal Tribes Act (Act III of 1911), and their designation no doubt appeared to have vindicated Naidu in the belief that these thieves, being criminals by birth or nature, were beyond the pale of redemption (pp. 97, 119, 126, 131). Writing of the Telaga Pachipollus, a division of the Takku Waddars, Naidu says that jail “has no terror or share for them.” Four boys of this class were trained at a reformatory school, and taught how to read and write, but upon their release they at once “resumed their hereditary thieving” (p. 131). Elsewhere, as he remarks, these thieves associated with each other “for the purpose of habitual theft” (p. 88), and that evidence of previous conviction was important in illustrating their proclivity towards “habitual theft” (p. 23). Though confessions that Naidu himself recorded revealed that many thieves came from broken homes, or had lost their father in early childhood, and were in either case actuated by “‘chill penury’” (p. 174), he seldom allows himself to be deflected into taking a sociological view of crime (pp. 150, 153, and 158). Throughout Naidu appears to endorse the colonial view that their habit of thieving was derived from the fact of their birth itself. Though this is the view that the judge refused to take in the case of a gang of Bhamptas, saying they could not be “convicted merely because they were born into a certain class of people”, the judge went on to say, as though there was no contradiction, that “their connection with this particular tribe is a fact in favour of the prosecution” (p. 21). Why should the connection of the accused with the tribe of Bhamptas have ipso facto been deemed to pronounce their guilt, but not for the assumption that as a class of people, the Bhamptas were criminally inclined? Their very names, Naidu strongly suggests, often condemned these railway thieves: thus the Waddars, to whom the epithet Takku (meaning “tricky”) is attached, are “false, cunning and deceitful” (p. 120), “the word Kepmari means a cheat or thief” and adequately describes the tribe so named (p. 42), and Barwars are by definition “men of violence” (p. 70). In another case that Naidu commends to the reader’s attention, the judge observed that the accused were Barwars, and that a Barwar, in his very “own country”, “means a thief by profession” (p. 88). Though the judge was cognizant of the fact that the accused could not stand condemned merely by virtue of belonging to a gang of thieves “by birth and early training”, and that proof of “habit” was never easily established, why then was it necessary to impose a certain purported semantic ‘truth’?

Though Naidu assumes the naturalness of received categories of knowledge, and takes for granted that one could speak of ‘criminal tribes’ and ‘criminal castes’, that very assumption must constitute the point of departure for any sustained interrogation of the colonial sociology of knowledge and the colonial apparatus of law. Who and what were the ‘criminal tribes’, and what gave rise to such a system of enumeration and classification? The codification of law under the British began to take place under the inspiration of Warren Hastings, who ordained that in suits pertaining to marriages, religious customs, inheritance, and other “native usages”, “the laws of the Koran with respect to Mahometans, and those of the Shaster [i.e., shastras] with respect to the Gentoos [i.e., Hindus] shall invariably be adhered to.” The difficulty consisted in determining what constituted Hindu law, and what was the law appertaining to the Muslims, for in this domain as in all others the British encountered a bewildering array of texts, contaminated by — as the British believed — later accretions and interpolations, whose responsibility lay in the hands of pandits and maulvis moved by no greater aspiration than that of deceiving their ignorant laity. Thus it became necessary to codify the law and produce compendiums of laws which were believed to hearken back to the remote customs of Indians. But though the keen desire was to avoid the imposition of an English legal system, the entrenching of “English law as the law of India”, colonial law had an inexorable force of its own. The Evangelicals and Utilitarians had been agitating for the imposition of an English system of law in India, and after the Rebellion of 1857-58, this impulse could no longer be resisted. The uniformity that had been the cornerstone behind the tendency to codify Hindu and Islamic law led to enhanced steps for the achievement of a single system of law. The Civil Code was adopted in 1859, the Criminal Code in 1860, and the Code of Criminal Procedure and Police Act in 1861; and so, it was believed, the nefarious influence of the Brahmins and maulvis was decisively removed.

It is partially against this backdrop that we must view the codification of the category ‘criminal tribes’ contained in the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871. Two other considerations, however, demand our attention. First, though the criminal tribes and castes were held to be criminally inclined by birth, it is notable that, in the colonial view, India was as a whole a country devoid of ‘law and order’ until the coming of the British, and Indians could not be described as a people given to a respect for law, or animated by a profound respect for the spirit (if not the letter) of law. Sir Henry Sumner Maine, Law Member of the Viceroy’s Council in the 1860s, went so far as to describe India, before the coming of the British, as “a country singularly empty of law.” India needed no laws as customs and religious observances were sufficient to provide all the regulations that Indians required; and, in any case, India being the preeminent land of ‘Oriental Despotism’, the only law that had ever prevailed was the law of the despot, which was no law at all. It became, in these circumstances, England’s special mission to instill in India the ‘rule of law’, to impregnate an ’empty’ country with the seed of the ‘rule of law’ (and thus ‘civilization), and throughout the claim that they had provided India, an endemically anarchic land, with the only semblance of ‘law and order’ that she had ever known (and never more was a nation a feminine entity), was to serve the British as the bedrock of their rule. The Government of India would always be characterized as a government “duly established by law”. It is, of course, as part of this endeavor to bring the ‘rule of law’ to India that the British justified their attempts to suppress crime and other forms of public disorder, and it is within the ambit of this enterprise that we must locate the quest to identify those alleged to be habituated to crime by birth. What greater service could be performed by a colonial state than suppressing crime and criminality?

Secondly, in certain respects the idea of ‘criminal tribes’ was already contained in the notion of thuggee, the elimination of which first received the concerted attention of the Governor-General, William Bentinck, in 1830. Thugs were described as ‘hereditary criminals’, largely of “Hindoo origins” who worshipped at the altar of the goddess, and they were believed to be members of a cult spread throughout the land. Their modus operandi consisted in befriending travellers on the high road; when their trust had been gained, they were, usually at night, ritually throttled or strangulated, and the thugs then decamped with whatever booty they could find. One contemporary journal, taking note of the phenomenon of thuggee as described in one work, said that “the revelation of actual deeds done by these remorseless villains, so strikingly embodied by the author under the form of the confessions of a leader, are enough to freeze the blood in our veins.” Colonial officials gave a figure of 40,000 strangulations every year over the last three centuries. In 1835, Captain Sleeman was placed in charge of anti-thuggee operations, and anti-dacoity operations were added to his mandate in 1839; and such “was the success achieved”, noted one official, “that in a comparatively short space of time thagi ceased to exist as an organized and widely spread crime.” The operations of the Thuggee and Dacoity Department in British India ceased in 1863, and the department henceforth functioned only in the Native States under the Foreign Department; twenty years later, its operations were further confined to Rajputana, Central India, and Hyderabad, but by this time the notion of ‘criminal tribes’ and ‘criminal castes’ had taken the place, not coincidentally, of thugs and dacoits. Finally, in 1904, the Thuggee and Dacoity Department was altogether abolished, making way for a central Criminal Intelligence Department (CID). It is for the CID in Madras that Naidu worked for much of his life.

In referring to the castes and tribes whose identity had been encoded in the Criminal Tribes Act, colonial officials almost invariably traced their origins to the thugs. The Commissioner of East Berar, whose views were embraced by the Home Member in the Government of India, gave it as his considered opinion in 1871 that “professional criminals” referred to “a tribe whose ancestors were criminals from time immemorials [sic] who are themselves destined by the usage of caste to commit crime and whose dependents will be offenders against the law, until the whole tribe is exterminated or accounted for in the manner of the thugs.” One other official noted that though the crimes committed by the criminal tribes and castes were less “murderous than that of the thugs”, they were “more insidious, more universal and equally demoralising to themselves.” Much like the thugs, the criminal tribes were said to be endowed with an innate criminality, and as another official stated apropos the Bawarias, one could easily gain an estimate of the “conditions under which their natural aptitude for thieving has been fostered until the practice of it has become ingrained into their daily life as to assume the features of a hereditary and criminal profession.” Colonial officials had little more to do than to assert this genealogy for the criminal tribes, and as Sanjay Nigam has aptly noted, once the incidence of crime associated with the criminal tribes had been understood “as a species of a well-known, dangerous genus, empirical detail counted for little.” So much for the much-vaunted regime of fact, the dedication to empiricism, on which the English prided themselves. Consequent to the criminal tribes and castes being conflated with the thugs, it was also possible to see them as a confederation of inestimably large number of people spread throughout the land, whose activities commensurably took on huge and forbidding dimensions.

The members of such a confederation were to be closely watched, regulated, and monitored, disciplined, and — insofar as that was possible — reclaimed for society. Nigam points out that once the standardization of the idea of criminal tribes had taken place, “each subsequent phenomenon of large-scale criminality was viewed through the epistemes and policing procedures fashioned to ‘account for’ the thugs”, except that by the last quarter of the nineteenth century, methods of classification and enumeration, surveillance techniques, and disciplinary mechanisms were all considerably advanced. He further states that the establishment of a school of industry for thug approvers at Jabalpur and an agricultural society for the Buddhuks at Gorakhpur were two such attempts “to control and reshape these groups into hardworking subjects.” Whereas the thugs were sought to be completely eliminated, an objective more easily achieved by their demonization, the criminal tribes were mainly hounded and pursued, and following the passage of the Criminal Tribes Act in 1871, subjected to a strict regime of discipline, which required them to register with official authorities, report for roll-call, and be in possession of passes without which they were almost certainly liable to arrest and punishment. Shortly thereafter, such innovations as photography and fingerprinting would further aid in the identification, surveillance, and monitoring of the habitually criminal classes, and it is to the place of these developments in Naidu’s history of “railway thieves”, whose apparently ‘natural’ proclivities towards crime were displayed in trains and railway stations and platforms, and who as a consequence were brought under the provisions of the Criminal Tribes Act, as amended and modified in 1911, that we now turn.


Every now and then, Naidu adverts to the place of fingerprinting in determining the identity and criminal record of apprehended suspects, and in establishing their propensity towards a life of habitual crime. Naidu notes that among the Telaga Pachipollus, each convict changed his name after release from prison, and some men had been convicted so often and consequently adopted so many aliases, that their identity would have been all but impossible to establish but for the efforts of the Finger Print Bureau (p. 131). Most frequently, fingerprints were used by the police to procure an enhanced punishment for convicted criminals. One Deen Mahomed alias Sheik Abdullah, “a noted railway thief” living in Madras who was caught with a stolen bag of money, was brought before a First Class Magistrate, for Naidu thought that the maximum term of six months that could have been given to him by a Sub-Magistrate would have been inadequate for him. His fingerprints revealed, in any case, that the man had been convicted thrice before, and the Magistrate proceeded to award him a sentence of eighteen months’ rigorous imprisonment (pp. 147-48). In the case of another suspect, who went by thirteen different names, a reference to the Finger Print Bureau established that the same man had six other convictions standing against him. He was sentenced to two years’ rigorous imprisonment, and as Naidu notes placidly, “this is another confirmed criminal” (p. 157).

Naidu’s matter-of-fact references to fingerprinting scarcely reveal the manner in which fingerprinting came to be developed and the extraordinary role of the Indian police in enabling its use as the most reliable method for the detection of criminals the world over. It is just shortly after the Rebellion of 1857-58 that William Herschel, Magistrate at Jungipoor on the upper reaches of the Hooghly, realized its uses as a method of identification. When Herschel was transferred to Nuddea in 1860, he found that the decline of the indigo trade and the consequent loss of employment had led to an increase in violence, increased litigation, and impersonation in courts. “Faced with this situation”, says one text, “Herschel accelerated his fingerprint studies.” As Magistrate and Collector at Hooghly in 1877-78, Herschel introduced fingerprints in the criminal courts and prisons. Herschel then left for England, but in India fingerprinting had another proponent, Edward Henry, who in 1891 was appointed Inspector-General of Police for the Lower Provinces, Bengal. Henry first experimented with the anthropometric system, but was not satisfied with the accuracy of the measurements. In a report submitted to the Government of Bengal in 1896, Henry detailed the experiments he had conducted with fingerprints, which he observed were not only inexpensive to obtain, but also a surer means of detecting and confirming the identity of any given person. Henry is then said, with the aid of a team of Indian assistants, to have developed a system of classification under which 1,024 primary positions were identified, which when considered along with secondary and tertiary subdivisions, made fingerprinting a fool-proof form of fixing identity. At Henry’s behest, the Government of India appointed a committee of inquiry to report on the relative merits of the anthropometric and fingerprinting systems. The Committee came to the conclusion that “the method of identification of habitual criminals by means of finger-prints . . . may be safely adopted as being superior to the anthropometric method”, and by a resolution of the Government of India on 12 June 1897, the system of fingerprinting was adopted throughout India. Meanwhile, in 1895, a provincial fingerprint bureau had already been established in Madras, and in 1898, the first national fingerprint bureau in the world was set up at the police headquarters in Calcutta. The Indian Evidence Act of 1872 was amended by Act V of 1899 to admit of fingerprint evidence, and as Henry was to remark in a lecture delivered before the British Association for the Advancement of Science, before the turn of the century fingerprinting had been adopted by virtually all other departments of the Government of India. In England, by contrast, the system was not introduced until 1901 when Henry returned to England to take up the position of Assistant Commissioner of Metropolitan Police in London.

Though Henry continued to be credited with the invention of the system of fingerprint classification, it appears quite certain that his Indian subordinates had made the more vital contributions in perfecting and possibly even originating the system. The committee appointed by the Government of India in 1897 at Henry’s urging to consider the uses and efficacy of fingerprinting had made no mention of the work done by Henry’s subordinates, and Henry certainly did little to clear the confusion. When asked on 12 July 1900 by Lord Belper, the Chairman of the Committee appointed by the Secretary of State to inquire into the identification of criminals by measurements and fingerprints, “Is this system an invention of your own?”, Henry replied simply, “Yes.” On the other hand, replying to a claim made by Henry Faulds that he had discovered the mode of the classification of fingerprints, Henry wrote: “In 1897 I had elaborated the system of classification in use in India and now in use everywhere and I had never heard of Mr. Fauld’s name or labour in this field of research.” It appears, if Henry merely “elaborated” the system, that the system had been devised by someone else, but it is possible that he may have “elaborated” a system that he had, in the first place, discovered. Much later, a former member of the Indian Police Service stated that at a dinner given for Henry and some others during Henry’s visit to India in 1911-12 as a member of the King’s Staff for the Royal Tour, Henry had greeted the assembled company and turned to introduce them to a certain Indian who Henry claimed had been mainly responsible for the fingerprinting system.

As events in the 1920s were to establish, Azizul Haq and Hem Chandra Bose, two men in the employ of the Bengal Police and once attached to Henry, had perfected the system of fingerprinting classification, and whether their role was any greater has not so far been determined. Henry himself, in a letter to the Secretary in the India Office, was to admit that Haq had “contributed more than other members of [his] staff and contributed in a conspicuous degree in bringing about the perfecting of a system of classification that has stood the test of time and has been accepted by most countries.” Shortly before his retirement, Haq petitioned that his services in working out a system of fingerprints be recognized, and the Government of India granted him a honorarium of Rs. 5,000. His colleague in the Bengal Police, Hem Chandra Bose, was similarly recognized for his services in creating a system of single digit impression and for creating a telegraphic code for communicating fingerprint classification. This work involved “arduous labour”, and though Scotland Yard itself published a similar telegraphic code in 1921, Bose’s work had clearly anticipated that code in virtually every respect. As Henry himself conceded, “The Bengal Police originated the system of identification by finger prints, a system which has been adopted by all Police Forces throughout the world and which on the experience of its working through a period of 30 years is, by general consent, admitted to be one of great importance to all engaged in the investigation of crime.”

What is at least incontestable is that the work of Indian officers in the Bengal Police, though critical in allowing the development of fingerprinting as the principal mode for the identification of criminals, was never publicly acknowledged. The colonial state generated a great deal of information and knowledge about Indian society, and though this knowledge rested largely on the work of ‘native informants’, these informants have remained invisible and at best shadowy figures. The colonial master authors the discourse, the native is relegated to the role of an informant: this was to be the predominant form of colonial anthropology, and indeed of anthropology as a field practice and academic discipline. The history of fingerprinting is no different in this respect. Secondly, a popular impression was sought to be conveyed that the development of fingerprinting owed really nothing to the work done in India, an impression that, as one English police officer admitted, Scotland Yard had “never done a thing to correct.” In the first instance, as the derision with which Henry was greeted as a “fingerprint fool” by his own subordinates in London suggests, no one thought it conceivable that a major development could take place in India. If the English police in England had been unable to devise such a system, clearly fingerprinting could be of no great use. This was put bluntly in a letter appearing in an English newspaper, signed by one “disgusted Magistrate”: “Scotland Yard, once known as the world’s finest police organization, will be the laughing stock of Europe if it insisted on trying to trace criminals by odd ridges on their own skins. I, for one, am firmly convinced that no British jury will ever convict a man on ‘evidence’ produced by the half-baked theories some officials happened to pick up in India.” The new fingerprinting system was described as “hopelessly inaccurate, ludicrous, dangerous and completely un-British.” Then, when the accuracy of fingerprinting had been universally accepted, and every police force in the world had adopted the system, the credit had perforce to go to Scotland Yard, for where in India were there policemen capable of revolutionizing the mode of identifying and apprehending criminals?


There are nine illustrations accompanying the text, which tell their own tale about the colonial anthropology of knowledge, the advent of photography, and railway thieves. The frontispiece stands in singular and splendid isolation, and not merely because it is the frontispiece, or because it is a photograph of the book’s author. The inscription below the photograph, which shows Naidu adorned with the honors he had received from the government, states that in a hand-to-hand encounter with dacoits in 1890, he was severely injured. Towards the end of his own text, Naidu also relates how he was once, while in pursuit of a gang, badly beaten up and “left for dead”; and though his assailants were given three years of rigorous imprisonment, the prejudices against the police prevailed upon the High Court judges, who reduced the sentences to eighteen months. The Medical Officer’s report on Naidu related that he had found “forty contusions and abrasions on his person, caused probably by sticks and stones”; the inspector’s left thumb was “both fractured and dislocated”, indeed “permanently injured”; and his very life had, for some days, been “in danger” (pp. 210-12). As the intrepid hero of his own narrative, Naidu emerges as the solitary individual in a society where, on the British view, one could only speak of ‘types’ of Indians. Thus, in the other eight photographs, a number of men are bunched together: since, by a principle of infinite substitutability, one could easily stand in place of another, they could be rendered nameless, as indeed they are in all but two photographs.

Though anthropometry furnished a fairly comprehensive knowledge of Indians and assisted in the development of a system of surveillance, a more accurate representation of the people was desired. Fingerprinting made possible the identification of criminals, and photography further enhanced the means of representation, besides furnishing the greatest possible likeness of the various types of Indians. The pioneers of photography in India were military men, and it is apposite that the massive photographic exercise in typology, The People of India, initiated at the behest of Governor-General Canning, was transformed by the Rebellion of 1857-58 into an official project of the state, and placed under the control of the Political and Secret Department. One scholar has argued that it is “hierarchical observation” and “normalizing judgment” which predominate in the People of India. The Gujars, for instance, are pictured as a “dishonest, untrustworthy and lawless [people] in a high degree”, addicted (as signified by the hookah) to ganja, and requiring “constant and unremitting supervision”. But these judgments could be modified, if the people in question displayed certain redeeming characteristics. Thus the much-ridiculed “Bunnea” [Bania], who is pictured in the art of cheating, is at once rescued with the observation that he is a “useful person, and contributes very largely to the furtherance of the general trade of India”. A nation of shopkeepers, the English recognized their own kith and kin; and, moreover, the “Bunnea” had perforce to be retained as an icon of whatever is useful and necessary, for on the English view, wherever there is commerce, there flourishes the ‘rule of law’.

It is ‘types’, not ‘individuals’, which emerge in these photographs of Indians in colonial photography, and in the History of Railway Thieves — not surprising, when we consider than the Indian exists only as a member of a collectivity. This point cannot be emphasized enough; and we see this binarism developed in a variety of colonial texts and practices. In John McCosh’s album of photographs in the National Army Museum, “British officers and their wives are represented very much as individuals”, as in “Captain Jones, Madras” and “Miss Kitten Cloette Cape”, though a “Miss Kitten” was perhaps not the happiest example of a person meant to be taken seriously as an individual; Indians, by way of contrast, are represented in ethnic or racial terms: hence a “Burmese Beauty”, “Madras Man”, and so on. As Indian society was a conglomeration of ‘types’, photography was to be used to elicit and document these ‘types’. Photographers were to be commissioned by the state to take the ‘likenesses’ of their subjects, the various castes and tribes of India. This was the gist of the directive issued by the Government of India’s Foreign Department: “Each Local Government is expected to collect into one collection such photographic likenesses of the races and classes within its borders as it may obtain and furnish a very brief notice of each. The likenesses are to be sent to the Central Committee of the London Exhibition in Calcutta.”

It is the likenesses of the Bhamptas, Barwars, Kepmaries, Mallahs, and Donga Dasaries that are shown in the photographs in History of Railway Thieves. But besides these, there were numerous other types of railway thieves, and it the likeness of each type that is shown on the photograph facing page 145, where passport-size shots of six men draw attention to the peculiarities of each type. The caption beneath the photograph states, “Types of railway thieves of different classes”, but it is scarcely clear what we are to make of these “types”. How different is one type from another, and what essential difference helped to demarcate one type from the others? If the man in the coat and tie appears to be something of an oddity, we have only to turn to Naidu’s observation, at several points in the text, that many swindlers and railway thieves had made it a point to be disguised in European clothes (p. 154). A Gujarati Brahmin, “dressed in European clothes of the best quality” (p. 162), might have well escaped apprehension but for the vigilance of the railway police. The Brahmins certainly had no more scruples than anyone else, and Naidu found Brahmins resorting to “coffee clubs and pimping houses” in Madras’ George Town, while another Brahmin he knew had developed excellent skills, which he deployed with great success to rob fellow Brahmins and Sadhus, as a poisoner (pp. 159-60, 165). Perhaps, indeed, it was easier to be a railway thief as a Brahmin, as one was more likely to escape suspicion, and those who were not Brahmins found that masquerading as one gave them an unexpected measure of safety. Disguised as Brahmins, the Dasaries took employment in Brahmin homes, and would decamp when opportunity presented itself with valuable property (p. 78, 137). The Sanauriyas went so far as to “claim a Brahminical origin”, and when arrested for theft, would suggest to their victims that in having been robbed by a Brahmin, they had gained spiritually even while incurring material loss (p. 75).

In turning to the text, we find Naidu eager to identify characteristics of conduct and action common to all “railway thieves”, and just as pointedly he notes the peculiarities of each class of these criminals. A number of these common features are easily identified. First, almost all the gangs Naidu encountered in his long years of service included a few boys and women; many adult members had first been recruited in their childhood, often by the expedient of having them kidnapped (p. 71). Among the Bhamptas, a boy was generally employed to keep a watch and give signals to his adult compatriots; often the boy was used as a decoy, thereby enabling the real thieves to run away, though among the Barwars, the boys “usually do the actual thieving” (p. 33, 79). When caught, the boy would be “pitied by the other passengers or bystanders owing to his tender age, and upon their interference [be] let off with a slap or two” (p. 33); and similarly the Koravars, suggests Naidu, presumed that the “natural softness of the Indians will generally prevail, making them reluctant” to hand over the “juvenile offender” to the police (p. 50). These boys had been so trained so that they never betrayed their elders, and would refuse to state “their places of abode or the names of [their] parents” (p. 33).

Secondly, just as indispensable to the gangs of thieves were women, who more easily gained the confidence of female passengers, more successfully deceived with sweet words, and were less liable to attract suspicion. Naidu was inclined to the view that women thieves were just as wicked as the men, and they had “proved to be so dangerous with their frequent convictions for thefts, that they [were] bound over for good behaviour like their male members” (p. 59). He recommended that the women among apprehended gang members were to be searched thoroughly, though they were “so troublesome that no ordinary timid woman will dare search their persons properly; some bold, forward and intrepid woman of another caste must therefore be specially selected for the purpose” (p. 142). Among all classes of railway thieves, the women used their “private parts” to conceal jewels or other stolen property (p. 52, 135, 142); and as Naidu added, by way of recommendation, the women were to be asked to jump, “so that the jewel may drop in the act of jumping” (p. 52). Any woman asking to be allowed to leave “on the plea of answering the calls of nature” was to be prevented from allowing such “possible exit of the property” (p. 40). Thus the women were to be subjected to a microscopic examination, and in the form of a benevolent gynecological inquisition, their private parts were to be brought under surveillance.

Thirdly, much like the thugs from whom, in a manner of speaking, the ‘criminal tribes’ and perhaps even ‘railway thieves’ were said to be descended, many of the railway thieves had their distinct forms of communication and secret language. Colonel Sleeman, who had been put in charge of the East India Company’s operations against the thugs, had claimed to have deciphered the secret language purportedly spoken by them, the decoding of which led to their apprehension, conviction, and eventual elimination. No such tall claims are advanced by Naidu, though he does note that members of each criminal class communicated amongst themselves by means of sign languages and codes, and that he gained some knowledge of these secret modes of communication. He says of the Bhamptas that they “make certain signs with their eye-lids and fingers which are totally unintelligible to others”; the “Barwars belonging to a criminal gang have a code of their own”; and the Koravars make use, particularly “in the presence of strangers”, of “certain expressions, words and signals, whose meaning is known only to themselves” (p. 5, 73, 58). Criminality among these criminal classes had developed to the extent that each group had developed its own language, howsoever primitive, and the prevalence of such secret languages clearly demonstrated the presence of gangs given to organized crime.

Notwithstanding the fact that different classes of railway thieves had different origins, and that the language of one gang was incomprehensible to members of another gang, Naidu did not doubt that these gangs associated with each other for the purpose of theft. Such criminal association was clearly established among members of the same gang (p. 94, 96), but what was there to associate the Yerragollas, whose preferred way of swindling others was to disappear from the villages from whose wealthy residents they had taken loans, with the Pamulavallus, who pretended to be snake-charmers, or indeed with the Jathipallis, who rolled down the streets “begging in the name of Venkataramana” (p. 132, 129, 138)? Naidu found that several gangs had “conjointly committed seven house dacoities in the bordering taluqs” of several districts in Mysore, Madras, and Bombay”, and he was to come to the conclusion that “in the course of their common predatory excursions carried far and wide, they began to appreciate the artful manoeuvres of their fraternity, and, as time wore on, commenced intermarrying with them.” It is this “matrimonial connection” that cemented the “link that already existed in the oneness of their criminal pursuits, rowing as they were in the same boat on the ocean of life” (pp. 141-42). Naidu does not ask how it is that Indians, who were held by the very colonial writers for whom Naidu had intense admiration, and whose authority he would have trembled to question, to be intensely parochial and tyrannized by caste distinctions, could abandon their supposedly insurmountable taboos in consorting with each other. How is it that Indians, again described as exceedingly ‘conservative’ in their social observances and religious customs, could forge such marriage alliances? Nor does he pause to consider, if only ironically, that such a life of crime had a great deal in it that was commendable if it could lead even Indians, who were said to be notoriously exclusive in their associations, to forgo their reservations. It is not with approbation, but merely as a matter of fact, that Naidu records that among the Koravars, though marriages were performed “under the auspices of a Brahmin priest”, widow remarriages were common, and there was “no enforced widowhood”; and likewise among the Waddars “widows and divorced women” could “remarry in the same or neighbouring gang without any compunction” (p. 47, 143). That the ‘criminal classes’ should not have been afflicted by the restraints imposed upon themselves by the upper castes is a matter that Naidu evidently did not think was worthy of comment.

If, on the one hand, it is the element of commonalty among the different classes of railway thieves, and their sense of belonging to a brotherhood, that Naidu sought to convey, equally striking is his delineation, again in a purely descriptive mode, of some of the peculiarities of each type of these criminal tribes. Three examples, one relating to their forms of worship, and the other to their modes of hiding stolen property and committing theft, can be furnished. He describes the Mallahs as worshippers of Kali, in whose presence the gang members, after sacrificing goats, “eat meat, drink liquor and make merry” (p. 110); much more strikingly, he says of the Koravars that they are followers of Shiva, and that they also worship Kali and Betala; but the deity they most propitiate is “Moothevi”, the goddess of sleep, “whom they dread and worship, male and female, more than any other god or goddess of the Hindu Pantheon.” In so worshipping and invoking the goddess, they sought the strength to remain sleepless “while on nefarious purpose bent”, and contrariwise to “make their victims sufficiently sleepy over their property” (p. 45). All this is recorded without a trace of humour, and one can only surmise what Naidu would have thought of Edison’s invention of the light bulb as an object designed to obviate the necessity of sleep!

It is in the manner in which thieves hid and removed their stolen property that they displayed more considerable differences. While it was common among all of them to pass stolen booty from one set of hands to another, particularly when the threat of being found out loomed large, and most would also swallow smaller jewels (p. 52, 146), the Koravars had struck upon the ingenious mechanism of defecating upon stolen property (p. 50). The Mallahs would throw valuable goods out of the train at pre-arranged spots “where camels, donkeys, and ponies were in attendance to carry the stolen property miles away” into another territory (p. 107), while other pick-pockets had shoes with specially designed receptacles (p. 146). Among another class of professional thieves, the method chosen to conceal stolen goods, and jewelry in particular, was to have an artificial cavity developed in the throat. A lead bullet would be lowered by means of a string attached to the neck of the “patient” into his throat, and over the course of the next six weeks this lead would corrode the surrounding tissues, thereby creating a cavity. After six weeks this bullet would be replaced with a gold one, which would prevent the cavity from filling up; and into this cavity could be placed small jewels, gold coins, and other valuable items of a small size (p. 169). Naidu notes that the procedure “is tedious and painful and it is only a few who go through the whole course.”

Finally, in the matter of committing theft, some of the peculiarities that Naidu describes are striking. The Bhamptas, before the advent of the railways, carried on their trade “only by day, never after dark”; but after the introduction of trains, they appear to have come to the realization that “darkness favoured their designs on the persons or property of travellers”, and henceforth they commenced their operations only under cover of darkness (p. 9). While less particular about the time of day, the Koravars intoxicated themselves before setting out on their excursions, “but not to such an extent as to lose control over hand or head”, though the Donga Dasaries, while similarly fortifying themselves with arrack or toddy before going out to loot the innocents, did so to “harden their feelings and make them[selves] bold and callous” (p. 52, 126). But it is the methods of the Aheriyas of the United Provinces that Naidu found “artistic in the extreme”. Getting close to their victims lying asleep outside their homes or on rooftops, they would insert pincers between the knots of anklets, necklaces, and armlets, and pry loose the jewelry; and if their victim should be lying on their stomach, rendering their jewelry inaccessible, the Aheriyas would tickle them with fingers or a feather as to make them turn over (p. 118).


One might suppose that the various “railway thieves” are so characterized by Naidu because they made their living by committing theft on trains, at railway stations and platforms, and at railway junctions. To a not inconsiderable extent, Naidu’s description of their modus operandi, and their theatre of operations, appears to bear out this assumption. As an itinerant and vagrant people, railway thieves would have found that trains facilitated their criminal activities, allowing them to commit depredations over the length and breadth of the land. Thus the Bhamptas, Koravars, and other “railway thieves”, though they had traditionally made their living by picking pockets at festivals, fairs, and other places where people gathered in large numbers, found that trains afforded them an easier, and as Naidu would suggest, more ‘natural’ opportunity of adding to their income (p. 9, 44). In time the Bhamptas came to acquire a certain distinctiveness because of their thefts on running trains (p. 21), while other professional railway pick-pockets of diverse origins were so daring as to walk along the foot board while the train was in motion to the first and second class cabins, whence they proceeded to “remove through the windows small hand bags hung from the hat-pegs” (p. 148). The Koravars, however, preferred to confine their operations largely to railway platforms, using the tools of their trade to cut open bags, break open boxes, and substitute canvas bags filled with rags and rubbish for the bags of their victims (p. 55). The Mallahs, whom Naidu describes as the dacoits of the waterways, continued their activities on rivers and in riverine settlements, but found that “full advantage” could be taken of the railways “as an auxiliary in respect of rapid retreats or as a means of transporting the proceeds of their raids to their homes with security and despatch” (p. 99).

Evidently, then, the various classes of “railway thieves” had varying associations with trains and railway platforms, and for many of them trains and stations were the principal places for their operations. But Naidu’s designation of them as “railway thieves” remains somewhat ambiguous, particularly when we consider that, on his own admission, some groups, such as the Dumpa Chenchus, while committing “thefts and highway robberies” would “never approach a railway station”, (p. 140), while others, such as the Koravars, continued to frequent fairs and festivals (p. 51). Certainly none of the “railway thieves” Naidu describes confined their activities exclusively to trains, stations, and railway junctions, and though these “railway thieves” may, as Naidu appears to suggest, have had a ‘natural’ proclivity towards these arenas of activity, clearly numerous other classes of criminals found railway thievery a profitable profession. Thus the latter part of the History of Railway Thieves is given over to a discussion of robberies committed by employees of the railway, whom Naidu describes as a more reprehensible lot because they betrayed the trust reposed in them (p. 173). Numerous cases of the theft of liquor, and of the discovery of stolen property in the residences of station masters, are recounted (pp. 180-86). Long service in the railways furnished no assurance that employees would remain loyal and trustworthy (p. 180), and the burden of Naidu’s narrative is to establish not merely the “dare-devil character of this class of servants” (p. 188), but the difficulty of detecting crime when railway employees themselves were implicated in criminal activities. Accordingly the ingenuity of the police force, and of officers like Naidu, was always being put to the test.

It is to the detection of crime and its perpetrators that Naidu devotes the last few pages of his history. Detectives are likened to soldiers, as bound not to question the orders of their superiors, or to ponder over the course of contemplated action, but merely (in Tennyson’s words) “to do and die” (p. 195). Naidu makes a rather pathetic attempt at imagining himself as something of a figure with literary accomplishments, most certainly as one educated in Western classics and history, and a few platitudes, such as the motto ascribed to Napoleon, “Nothing is impossible for man”, are allowed to give shape to the argument that, with proper training and perseverance, the police can invariably resolve railway thefts (p. 196). Among the qualifications that the police officer who aims at being a “successful detective” must possess are patience, promptitude, and affability, as these furnish him with the greatest potential for gaining valuable clues and winning the confidence of the public. The detective, predictably, must have an exemplary facility for observation, and it is essential that he learn to “listen carefully,” “consider deeply,” and “judge calmly”; and perhaps even more singularly, he must not rely upon the constables — invariably Indians, needless to say — “for information, for their interest towards public property and safety is clearly at a discount” (pp. 198-99).

Though Naidu would have been loathe to take subordinates, and indeed any manner of Indians, into his confidence, the indispensability of his countrymen for successful police work is grudgingly accepted. At a few pages in the main body of the text, Naidu had noted the use of informants to forge arrests and gain convictions (pp. 9-10), but he seeks to issue a warning, by way of setting out a typology of informants, that not all informants are reliable. Thus the “innocent or artless informants” are misled into providing false testimony. The “accomplice informants”, on the other hand, provide useful information that must not be hastily discarded, but this information has to be taken cum grano salis, or with a grain of salt, for they are liable to “twist and distort the real facts so as to throw suspicion off themselves”; and much more vigilant must the police officer be against “false informants”, a “most detestable type of men” entirely “dead to all scruples of conscience, and to the calls of humanity”, who will not shirk from telling the most vile falsehoods, and whose false testimony often sends innocent men to prison (pp. 201-3). Most informants squeak on their associates in crime out of spite (thus “the spiteful informants), or out of a deeply held sense of having been overlooked when the booty was being parceled out (pp. 202-3), but Naidu also recognized a class of “honourable informants”, men moved not only by the letter of the law, but so actuated by the desire of wishing to see justice vindicated, that they would “nothing extenuate, nor set down aught in malice” (p. 200).

If Naidu pretty much ends on the note of informants, it is on that very note that we can end too, with the suggestion that Naidu is most appropriately seen as a native informant serving the colonial police and echoing a colonial epistemology, doing the work of both dominance and hegemony. Undoubtedly informants were seldom merely informants, and the history of the subversion of ‘master discourse’ at the hands of informants is only now beginning to be understood and written. Naidu’s work, to the contrary, appears to exemplify all the characteristics of what colonial officials might well have termed ‘babu subservience’. His acknowledgments as a police officer are all to British officers, mainly to his superiors; as a scholar (for so he might have thought of himself), it is again colonial officials, such as William Sleeman and William Crooke, whose “unflinching and persevering enquiries” are appreciated and celebrated as having provided him with the inspiration to lay his humble work before the public. No flashes of brilliance or wondrous insight adorn this work; the prose almost never sparkles, nor does it rattle much; and the tone is ‘scientific’, anthropological, investigative, and classificatory to the point of being dull. It is, to put it plainly and yet paradoxically, the shattering ordinariness of a curious work, and the sheer prosaicness of the colonialism of which it is a product, that commends The History of Railway Thieves to our attention. The representatives of that colonial order looked upon India as a ‘curiosity’; and so it is in the fitness of things that the History of Railway Thieves should itself engage our attention as a curious specimen of a colonial form of knowledge.