The Criminal Tribe in India Before the British

31 October 2012, 12:00 - 14:00

CRASSH, Alison Richard Building, SG2

Dr Anastasia Piliavsky (Social Anthropology) presents at the CRASSH Postdoctoral Research Seminar.

The event is free to attend but registration is required.  Please click on the link at the right hand side of the page to register your place.  A sandwich lunch will be provided.

Abstract

 

The broad consensus in current historiography holds the Criminal Tribe in British India to be a myth of colonial making. This paper argues the contrary. I discuss a selection of precolonial descriptions of robber castes to show that the idea of the guild of congenital robbers was not a British import, but a label of much older indigenous vintage on the subcontinent. With the Criminal Tribe enjoying pride of place in the postcolonial critics’ pageant of “colonial stereotypes,” this case is representative and it bears on the broader discussion of colonial knowledge. It challenges the commonplace view that colonial social types, and indeed the bulk of colonial knowledge—branded after Edward Saïd as the discourse of Orientalism—was little more than the imaginative residue of imperial politics. While colonial uses of this (and not only this) stereotype certainly add up to a lurid history of violence against communities branded as born criminals under British law, the stereotype itself draws substantially on indigenous sources. This should not come as a surprise, for it is in the nature of stereotypes to put in motion the mobile machinery of political life while themselves remaining just what they are: stable conceits whose rhetorical efficacy relies on their cultural purchase. And, unless we altogether dismiss any degree of communication and mutual comprehension between colonialists and their subjects, we can only ignore ideas shared by both at our peril.

About Anastasia Piliavsky

Anastasia Piliavsky is the Zukerman Research Fellow in Social Anthropology at King's College. Most of her work has focused on the (vast) overlap of politics and crime in Northern India, where she has researched the involvement of professional thieves in local politics. Her book, tentatively entitled Stray Men, is currently under review with Chicago University Press.  Anastasia is now leading a large, collaborative ERC & ESCR-funded project on criminal politics in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. She has also written on secrecy, patronage, hierarchy, democracy, exchange, and the history and ethnography of policing institutions in India. She also runs the History and Anthropology Seminar Series at CRASSH.


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