This article will feature in Issue 38: Language and Culture

Modern detective novels and television dramas have captured public imagination for over a century. Forensic fingerprinting features in nearly every single one. Whilst the practise is one many are familiar with, few know of its modern history of development in colonial India, and the story of how it reached Victorian Britain to further develop into the technique widely used today across the globe. It is the result of an exchange of forensic knowledge born in two hugely diverse national and social contexts. 

The late nineteenth century was a period of significant forensic development. It was a period with rapidly increasing urban anonymity, making forensic investigations challenging in many respects. Centralised scientific management and formalised anthropometry was in vogue across Europe, with many countries investing in forensic laboratories and improved techniques for criminal identification. For this reason, India as the seat of a vital modern forensic development seems surprising. Professor of History, Chandak Sengoopta (2003), observes an absence of any mention in Indian literature of forensic laboratories, suggesting major technoscientific inequalities existed between Britain and India in this period. However, these inequalities arguably formed the foundation for British implementation of formalised forensic fingerprinting in India and its subsequent success.

I would first like to establish the national context in which forensic fingerprinting came into existence. Whilst in Britain, criminals were a small subclass in society having actively broken a law, in India the British Raj designated multiple, often peripatetic, groups as ‘criminal tribes’ (Sengoopta, 2003). The result of these differing classifications? A criminal class far exceeding the size of that which existed in Britain, and one the Raj sought to use to mobilise India’s immense economic potential after entering the global market in the 1840s. 

This motivation is important to recognise, as it influenced the methods used by policing authorities to trace and identify ‘criminals’ in this period. British authorities refused to implement body chipping or amputation as a means of punishment to control ‘criminal’ classes in India as bodily mutilation may impede an individual’s ability to work – and therefore harm the Empire’s economy. Of further importance were India’s low literacy levels and inadequate investigative infrastructure. These rendered the anthropometric methods widely used in Europe in this period inefficient in this context. The solution, fingerprinting, was a method of forensics an illiterate local police constable could use without significant challenges. Furthermore, the use of hand-printing as a form of signature in colonial India had shown prior success. Thus fingerprinting was a natural progression from this practise in the forensic field. Whilst the use of ‘marks’ for identification has a ‘murky’ prehistory in Asia (Cole, 2004), forensic fingerprinting’s modern history began and developed in colonial India.

In later years, India too began to adopt other European scientific developments for forensics, for example wireless communication. From this we can observe an exchange of forensic and scientific knowledge, bringing modern wireless communication from Britain to India, and ‘marks’ and formalised fingerprinting from India to Britain. However, despite the initial success and preference for forensic fingerprinting in India, the British government and public did not respond favourably towards fingerprinting for formal identification when first suggested by Magistrate William Herschel in the 1850s. They cited reasons implying mark-making practices were only suitable for more ‘primitive’ races rather than the British populace (Sengoopta, 2003), and the public’s concern over the use of the technique for increased government surveillance and classification of non-criminal classes. The association between criminals, ‘primitive’ races, and mark-making was exceedingly pervasive in British society and a central reason for initial refusal of the practise.

Consequently, Herschel brought and successfully implemented the practice in India where it developed into the policing technique widely used today, crucially aided by Azizul Haque, Hem Chandra Bose, and Sir Edward Henry of the Kolkata fingerprint Bureau. From this, Henry helped reintroduce forensic fingerprinting to the British government and public, finding a greater degree of success. The practise was investigated and overseen by the Belper Committee, led by Lord Belper, and established by the Secretary of State for Home Department.The origin story of forensic fingerprinting teaches us about Britain and India’s relationship as coloniser and colonised. Singha (2000) suggests fingerprinting was a reaction to Britain’s belief of their supposed ‘superiority’ and its resulting racism. This is reinforced by Herschel’s perception of Indian cultures as ones of ‘deceit’ in which ‘natives’ were unable to distinguish truth from falsehoods, a driving force behind his decision to bring forensic fingerprinting to India after its initial rejection in Britain. The hegemonic power the British government held over its colonial Indian subjects and its eagerness to control this large, diverse populace exist in stark contrast to its treatment of British subjects. This article’s title ‘From Colonial Subject to Criminal’ is indicative of this double standard. It reflects the association between fingerprinting and criminality – how the use of this practise was both indicative of the British perception that large swathes of the Indian population were deceitful criminals, and a reflection of the transfer of this technique from wider Indian colonial subjects to British criminals at the turn of the 20th century.

By Hannah Teeger