Prisons in Colonial Bengal (1838-1919)
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Prisons in Colonial Bengal (1838-1919)

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Item Code: NAN335
Author: Madhurima Sen
Publisher: Thema Books, Kolkata
Language: English
Edition: 2007
ISBN: 8186017674
Pages: 186
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details: 8.5 inch X 5.5 inch
Weight 300 gm
About the Author

Through her close study of how criminals were handled and treated in the British prisons in colonial Bengal in the period under review. Dr Madhurima Sen shows an administration wavering between the new ideas in the air perceiving the prison as a site of moral reform of the convict and the punitive thrust that came more naturally to the colonial rulers. She ferrets through a large body of archival material, documents, reports, and reminiscences, to reconstruct prison life in Bengal and the cellular prison at Port Blair in the Andamans, in all its details.


The present work deals with the history of prisons and prisoners under the Raj between 1838 and 1919 in a single colonial province, viz. Bengal. The Bengal Presidency then included the Mughal Subah' of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. I choose to confine myself, however, to Lower Bengal, now the state of West Bengal and the State of Bangladesh, though occasionally I refer to the jails of Assam and Bihar. The chronological framework is related to the setting up of the first Prison Discipline Committee in India in 1836. The work ends with the second most important Jail Committee and its various recommendations. The period is particularly important because the system of punishment in India took a definite shape during this particular phase.

There is some published literature on prisons, the bulk of which is merely descriptive. Apart from this descriptive category, which includes official publications and reminiscences, there are some sociological and historical accounts like Indra J Singh's Indian Prisons (Delhi 1933); P K Tarapore's Prison Reforms in India (Delhi 1936); F A Barker's The Modem Prison System Of India (London 1944); B K Bhattacharyya's Prisons (Calcutta 1958); Vidya Bhushan's Prison Administration in India with Special Reference to Uttar Pradesh (Delhi 1970); R N Datir's Prison as a Social System (Bombay 1978) or Amarendra Mohanty and Narayan Hazary's Indian Prison System (Delhi 1990). But all these earlier accounts focus on the structural-functional aspects of the prison or on its administrative development; whereas in the present work the entire effort goes to explore the nature of the British colonial state through its various levers of control like the prisons and the various ways of its interaction with the Indian sub-continent and its people. Here the prison emerges not as an isolated institution but as representative of the ways in which colonial knowledge was constructed and deployed. Throughout the period under review a chain of reforms continued under the stress of changing times and conditions allowing for the evolution of a completely new system, a new mode of procedure, a new organization of the police and probably a new method of punishment too. Though not exactly seminal to the work proposed here, the classic monograph by Eric Stokes, English Utilitarians and India (Delhi 1959) and the subsequent works of J D M Derret, Religion, Law and The State in India (London 1968), Thomas Metcalf, Ideologies of The Raj (Cambridge 1995), or a very recent work by Radhika Singha, A Despotism of Law, Crime and Justice in Early Colonial India (Delhi 1998), followed by A C Banerjee's article 'English Law in India', in the Journal of History (Jadavpur University 1981) or Basudeb Chatterjee's concentration on the general study of law, the ideology behind it and the growth of a complete legal culture in India, have helped me to understand the early lawmaking and the nature of state control in colonial India. A significant impetus has also come from Michel Foucault's Discipline and Punish: Birth of the Prison (New York 1977), Michael Ignatieff, A Just Measure of Pain: The Penitentiary in the Industrial Revolution, /750-/850 (New York 1978), Anand Yangs's Crime and Criminality in British India (Arizona 1986), Chittabrata Pal it, Amit Bhattacharyya, Ranjan Chakrabarti (eds.), Political Economy and Protest in Colonial India (Calcutta 1997) or Sarmistha De's article, 'Marginal Europeans and the White Underworld in Colonial Bombay,' in the Jadavpur University Journal Of History, 1995-96.

Ranjan Chakrabarti in all probability was one of the earliest scholars to write an article on 'Prison as a Lever Of Social Control' in Bengal Past And Present, 1989. His subsequent work, Authority and Violence in Colonial Bengal, /800-/860 (Calcutta 1997) includes a chapter on the same topic. The work of Ranjan Chakrabarti and also that of David Arnold, who wrote an article entitled 'The Colonial Prison: Power, Knowledge and Penology in Nineteenth Century India,' in Subaltern Studies', Vol. VIII (Delhi 1994), played a crucial role in shaping my approach to the subject.

Prisons were not unknown in pre-colonial times, but the purpose of imprisonment in those days was qualitatively different from that of the colonial period The prison during the last three centuries or so has evolved to the status of an institution of social control and a symbol of legitimate coercion. It is no more a resting ground in the legal process where a death penalty, banishment or life transportation may be the ultimate verdict. Rather the institution of prison has imbibed and is influenced by the conventional norms, ideals and assumptions of humanitarianism, enlightenment and the welfare state. Society has defined the need for the removal of criminals, and the prison system as an organization has come into being to accomplish this task. Since there has been an underlying assumption that with the advent of colonial rule, prison organization in India assumed a new form, my search would therefore seek to answer the question: did the colonial prison really serve the actual purposes of imprisonment (in the modern sense of the term), i.e. custodial, coercive and correctional, or did it exist only as one of the means of colonial repression? This will throw ample light on the state of prison discipline and thereby attempt a better understanding of the nature of those prisons erected and developed in colonial India. Simultaneously I seek to explore the changing ideological impulse and policy perspectives, highlighting the racial assumptions that underpinned policymaking and acceptance of caste and religious differences as the basis for discrimination among groups of prisoners.

The growth of a new judiciary in general and the prison network in particular were a corollary to contemporary penal reform in Europe. In Europe there had been an intimate relation between the adoption of imprisonment as punishment of the first resort and the social tension of the early nineteenth century. With the process of industrialization and urbanization and the rising rate of pauperism and vagrancy in early modem Europe, there was a growing conviction among the ruling elite that the poorer classes were the dangerous classes. The process of criminalization of the poor culminated in the Black Act, whereby varied forms of human behaviour previously outside the scope of law came to be considered as crime. All these led to the galloping rise in the rate of crime and the authority found no alternative other than adoption of imprisonment as the punishment of the first resort to cope with such growing tensions. In colonial Bengal too, increasing rural violence in the late eighteenth century served as provocation for the major changes in the mode of punishment. The last quarter of the eighteenth century has generally been regarded as a period of violent social turmoil in Bengal. Their own experiences at home defined their perceptions of crime in India, helping the ruling elite to shape the concept of dangerous classes and subsequently influence the Criminal Tribes Act in the Indian context. The process of the criminalization of the poor in colonial India was prompted by the urgent need to generate greater social discipline in the subject society as without such order, revenue collection would be disturbed. As the early attempts to suppress rural violence failed, the colonial authority attributed the prevailing disorders to the character of the Indian. The colonial conviction that crime was hereditary with the Indian grew out of pragmatic requirements and out of contemporary ideas about crime causation. The limited perceptions of crime generally and criminal tribes specifically were also defined by the colonial context in which rulers ruled with an institution as well as an ideology of control. In the late nineteenth century it had become almost a commonplace of British empirical theory that the British Empire was different from and therefore better than the Roman Empire in that the latter was just robbery and profit, whereas the former was a rigorous system in which order and law prevailed. It grew out of the necessity to justify and legitimize the empire. The growing tension among the rural folk in colonial India was treated by the authority as a law and order problem replete with words like bandit, heinous offence, disturbances, criminals etc. The terminology conveyed the colonial perception of crime and law and order. There was little awareness then that crime was also a social phenomenon and many of its manifestations were intimately bound up with the dislocation in the indigenous society and economy brought about by colonial rule. Consequently in India, the history of crime and control is still in an embryonic form.

This work is roughly divided into five sections. The first of these—Coming of a New Administration of Justice in India-covers the early stage of the Company's lawmaking from the time of Warren Hastings. Hastings' General Regulations and the Regulating Act of 1773 that established the Supreme Court at Calcutta laid down the intention of the British government in terms of English superintendence of law and justice. In the same year (1773) imprisonment as a form of punishment or the modern prison system was introduced in India. The British administrators conceived the prison system of the colonial regime as a modem method of reforming the offenders as against the pre-modern or medieval system of punishment which the Indians had been practising since time immemorial. The early stage of the Company's lawmaking culminated in the Cornwallis Code of 1793 that was supposed to inaugurate an era of equality before law which was quite a false plea. On the contrary, it reflected the naked racism of the colonial rulers. Under the Company's rule two sets of law, two systems of judiciary, were established in India; the Supreme Court administering English law for the benefit of Englishmen in Calcutta and the Sudder Nizamat Adalat and its subordinate courts administering Indian law among the natives. The chapter offers an overview of the contemporary European attitude to punishment. There was a reformatory rationale behind the prison houses in Bengal in pale imitation of recent English prison reform considerably distorted and miscarried in the colonial situation. The chapter also records the reaction of the indigenous society to the introduction of an alien system of justice and punishment.

The next chapter describes Prison Discipline in Bengal during the period under review. Till 1844, the control over jails was exercised by the Nizamat Adalat. In that capacity, in 1811 it promulgated a set of rules relating to the subject. However at that time, there was no uniform code of rules and the individual efforts of the Sudder Court, Zilla Judges and Magistrates could contribute little to the system of prison discipline and it continued until in 1838, when a notable plan was adopted for the same purpose. The process of prison reform in India started systematically from the appointment of the Prison Discipline Committee on 2 January 1836, with T B Macaulay as member. Macaulay was asked to formulate a Penal Code for India. The existing body of criminal law which Macaulay wanted to sweep away could be described as an Anglo-Muhammedan construct, assembled over the preceding half century from various modifications of the Islamic law, supplemented by Company regulations and classified by the various constructions and circular orders. A review of the whole subject of prison discipline in Bengal is offered in the chapter, with illustrations of several details of prison management.

The third chapter takes up the subject of Prison Personnel. So far very little has been written about the colonial prison officers, specially those in the inferior orders. A study of the prison officialdom is important because the subordinate staff and assistants possessed great opportunities for good or evil in dealing with the prisoners. Although the expectations of the authorities from the native officers were sky-high, they were recruited from an obscure background, were rarely trusted or paid adequately and always despised as uncivilized and corrupt.

How were the prisoners to be employed in the jails, or were they to be employed at all, were points which were constantly being mooted, discussed, and too often left undecided. Therefore the employment of jail inmates was one of the most difficult problems confronting the colonial jail administrators. Regarding employment of the prisoners, the colonial authority naturally looked to England for guidance and every change of policy there was sooner or later implemented here, although financial considerations in many cases stood in the way of the adoption of expensive metropolitan schemes. During the colonial period hard prison labour became the most powerful engine in the hands of the penal legislators in India for making jails as terrible as they ought to be made.

The fifth and last chapter deals with the punishment of transportation. To the colonial rulers imprisonment appeared to be an effective instrument to pacify the social tensions arising out of the dislocation and breakdown of the traditional system, and to discipline the hostile classes. Imprisonment offered a new strategic formula, isolating the criminal class from the innocent class. They sought to generate popular apathy against the outlaws and enlist the support of the people in the apprehension of the criminals. This was considered a necessary goal and was thus drawn to the colonial perception of law and order. It was expected that the moment someone was thrown to prison he would be deprived of all forms of social sympathy. However, the growth of a social sensibility, recognizing the dangerousness of the outlaws, was far from complete in India. The colonial authority sought for other devices, that would make the punishment of incarceration an object of terror in the eyes of the general populace of the country. They tried to compensate for their inadequacy by greater reliance on punishment and deterrence and that was precisely met by the punishment of transportation. It was a weapon of tremendous power in view of the Hindu antipathy to crossing the 'black water', whereby a transportee became an absolute leper to his community. Separation from caste and kin was reputedly 'the only punishment that a native dreads.' (Home [Judicial] Progs. June 1869, No.3)

The evolution of colonial criminal justice and the systematic introduction of imprisonment as a regular mode of punishment was a response to the specific needs of law and order. History of crime and penitentiary has a rich pedigree in the West. But history of the colonial prison and prisoners in India has never been a favourite subject of Indian historians. The prison has so long been treated as an adjunct to the criminal justice system. Consequently while police and policing have received some attention, the prison has been virtually consigned to collective oblivion. Sociologists, social reformers, psychologists or political scientists have sometimes sought to explore prisons and prison life from their respective viewpoints, but we rarely come across a history of the colonial prison other than mere descriptions of administrative machinery or sociological enquiry. The initial impact of the introduction of English Law, the prisons and their role in the early stage of the colonial state formation in India has received less than its fair share of attention from historians. The present work, covering a generally neglected terrain of Indian history, should be of great use to students/ researchers in the social sciences and criminal justice. On the one hand it focuses on the early stage of the Company's lawmaking process, its dilemmas, the various changes in prison administration, the prison infrastructure and the major landmarks in prison reforms. On the other hand it highlights the superiority complex and the false, inflated ego of the ruling race manifest in every sphere of the colonial administration. The transformation of the English in India from suppliant merchants to a ruling caste raised them to the isolation of an exclusive community imbued with a sense of racial superiority.

The study is based on archival sources, reports of various committees appointed by the government from time to time, selections from the records of the Government of Bengal, papers related to the confessions of the prisoners and other primary sources. To surmount, at least partly, dependence on official sources, I have, whenever possible, used contemporary newspapers and other literary works, autobiographies etc. The period of the present study is roughly from 1838 to 1919. But very little contemporary literature of that period has been readily available for research. Hence sources of this kind used for the study have been mostly from a later period. The prison came to be colonized by middle class nationalists from the 1890s onwards and it is from their diaries and memoirs that we can document experiences in Indian jails. It is however difficult to gain access to the experiences of earlier generations of prisoners drawn mostly from other class backgrounds, especially the illiterate prisoners who formed the great majority of the nineteenth century convicts. I have purposely placed some words in italics, to draw particular attention to these words, continuously used by the administrators, as they convey the colonial perception of crime, law and order.


Chapter IComing of A New Administration of Justice9
Chapter IIPrison Discipline29
Chapter IIIPrison Personnel59
Chapter IVPrison Labour91
Chapter VTransportation117
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