Current research on “Colonial Bureaucrats” – a case from the “Punjab School” in British India

MISE Toshiyuki


Recent studies on imperial history tend to make an empirical re-examination of distinguishing features of the individual bureaucrats and departments concerned, rather than to explore the collective nature of “colonial officers.” What kind of contributions can we make from the argument on British India, where the colonial administration had a profound impact on modern Indian society? This is my brief consideration from the case of a group called the Punjab School.


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No more explanation will be necessary here about the importance of the colonial era in modern Indian studies. The Indian subcontinent is one of the exceptional regions of Asia, in terms of the length of contact with European influences, the scale of colonization, and the depth of cultural impact. Above all, the Indian Civil Service, not only formulated all policy frameworks in the imperial administration, but also reigned as sovereign in the rural areas. Therefore, they were regarded as “the new ruling caste in India.” It would be difficult to speak of the various social institutions and cultural practices of contemporary India without referring to the influence of their administrative works. This is also true of the traditional Indian social groups and cultural practices that we anthropologists have made the subject of our studies. Under these circumstances, I have conducted research on the governmental ethnographic surveys and censuses in the colonial period. By consulting official documents and manuscripts, I try to reveal how caste groups, as well as the conceptual frameworks for viewing Indian society, have been formulated historically. In this process, one of the groups that attracted my attention was the civil servants of Punjab Province, namely, the Punjab School.

The Punjab School in British India

The Punjab region, situated in the northwest of the former territory of the Indian Empire, was the land-route gateway to the subcontinent of India. From ancient times, it has been the “crossroads of civilization” through which people invading India have passed. As suggested by its name (“the five rivers”), it also has an expansive plain blessed with abundant water resources. From the 19th century onward, the Punjab has been a militarily strategic area confronting the threat of Russia; one of the world’s greatest irrigated agricultural terrains; the homeland of the Sikhs, who constituted one of the leading groups in the Indian army; and the “powder keg” of India, where people of diverse religions and languages coexisted. Following the annexation of the Punjab by the British East India Company (1849), it became one of the Britain’s most important strategic and administrative focal points. Especially after “the Great Mutiny,” the stabilization of local administration became an urgent priority, and many of the “superior” personnel of the time were sent and stationed there. They are described as the Punjab School, since they shared theoretical premises on colonial rule and Indian society, as well as a common moral sense and social background. Special reference must be given to its “second generation,” who executed the district administration from the 1870s onward. Forming a sharp contrast with the administrative style of the charismatic “first generation,” characterized by “paternalism,” they endeavored to depersonalize and rationalize administration. They attempted a thorough practice of legalism, scientific land assessment, total comprehension of land relations, and utilized accurate population data for food distribution, education, public health, and so on. Their administrative method, conducted by many who had majored in natural sciences and mathematics, was also called “scientific administration”. Considered to be a part of this administration are Charles Tupper’s survey for the codification of the Punjab Customary Law, and Denzil Ibbetson’s survey for the Settlement of Karnal District, and Census of Punjab. As will be mentioned later, these social surveys can be regarded as modern pioneering fieldwork. Besides, under the influence of Henry Maine’s comparative jurisprudence and evolutionary theory of law, they were also an intellectual countermovement that attempted to establish a new theory of Indian society, trying to replace the conventional perceptions and the prevailing discourses on India of the time. In fact, the Punjab School had developed some original views on Indian society. But with the exception of the recent works by C. Dewey (1991) and C. Morrison (1984), they are not fully dealt with in the history of colonial administration and anthropology. The truth is that their activities became one of the foundations of Indian anthropology and caste studies.

Since the dawn of Indian history, foreign groups such as Aryans, Scythians, Turks, Afghans, and Persians have formed the ruling class and have mingled together with the people of the Indian subcontinent. The British were also one such people, and it would be important to have another angle to regard the British as a part of “the people of India” and the British Empire as a part of India. But since the spread of the theories of Michel Foucault and Edward Said on power, it has become general to comprehend states and colonial systems rather as monoliths. In consequence, the minorities within the Empires and groups opposing the leading faction have been overlooked. It cannot be denied that rather monotonous pictures of imperialism have been dispersed. Starting from the analysis of various “schools” and “factions” within the establishment, and revealing their influences on policy making, seems to be important not only for regional studies of modern India, but also for a reflective study of the negative legacy of human history known as “the Age of Imperialism.”

Researching about the Asiatic

In addition to these academic interests, I have a few more remarks.

Firstly, a group such as the Punjab School was not merely a minority in terms of numbers, but also considered to be “peculiar” in the overall Indian Civil Service of the time. “Scientific administration,” characterized by systematic quantification, was deemed to be unusual by the British as well as the Indians of the time. Many historical documents exemplify that modern social surveys such as censuses, which were unrelated to conscription and levies, were beyond the understanding of both Indians and the British in rural areas when they were first conducted in the villages. They were considered to be literally magical rituals that would bring about disasters. The British ruling elite also seemed to share this sense of “peculiarity.” In the first place, the second generation of the Punjab School differed from the first generation in terms of personnel. The former were a generation centered on Oxbridge graduates that had come to the administration through open competition (some of whom were among the top performers), but the latter had been recruited by patronage. Since the second generation emphasized consistency on “paper,” rather than the relationships formed in the clubs or outdoor events such as hunting and horse riding, the previous generation found they had little in common and were sometimes mocked as “the competition wallahs.” However, this second generation tried to eliminate arbitrary discretion under the name of “tacit understanding.” They emphasized explicit provisions and numerical data, and coherent and consistent administration.

In general, academic research on imperialism in Asia tends to make an implicit attack on “modernism” or “enlightenment.” But excluding modern rationalism from the subject of study as not being “Asiatic,” and praising only traditional and idiosyncratic aspects of societies might easily slip down into the pitfall of some sort of “Orientalism.” In the first place, we researchers and intellectuals are the product of modern education. Besides, human history shows us many examples where simplistic and rather optimistic notions of “overcoming modernity” can readily lead to a “narrow-minded” nationalism. How to perceive and associate theoretically terms such as Asia, the West, and the Modern; the perspective of the researchers toward the object of the research becomes the focal point.

There is a further point to be mentioned here, which is their over-scrupulous attitude toward the empirical verification in field research. The survey method adopted by the Punjab School was the classical one, i.e., the questionnaire, which contemporary anthropologists might regard as somehow formalistic and banal. But considering the circumstances of the time, it can be seen that this could be quite revolutionary. In general, the format of research items had been constructed according to the personal experiences and values of the researchers. A series of subjective associations would then lead their social survey. But working up a “questionnaire” which was drawn up according to theoretical interest and overall consistency, would diminish subjectivity and personal inclinations. At the same time, the surveyor has to research items which were beyond his or her concern. This could possibly broaden or even transform their original research concerns (for instance, with items relating to the traditional family structure, magic, and folklore, etc., for administrators or former science students).

In this sense, we can probably say that their field research contained many opportunities for “the epistemological turn,” which occurs when the “Self” encounters the “Others” (the most straightforward example being a kind of experience where “the scales fall from one’s eyes”)—we can say it is one of the prerequisites for anthropological fieldwork. Namely, the actual realities of Indian society encountered through the field research rather than the bibliographical survey, as well as the image of “the society” per se embodied in the questionnaires.

The scientific works conducted by the Punjab School contain many problems and limitations concerning the content as well as the objectives. But they were not mere information gathering under the existing framework. Rather, they were intended to build up a theoretical scheme through empirical field research (I would like to discuss this matter in another paper). In addition, their over-scrupulousness with empirical verification had some synchronicity with the academic world, since the pioneering anthropologists and French sociologists of the time struggled to construct scientific methodology, to say nothing of the theoretical framework.

Turning to the present state of affairs in the humanities, the absolute standing of “positivism” has eroded after the literary criticism of ethnography and “the linguistic turn.” But this is just indicating nothing more than the nature of our perception that we are unable to perceive anything except through some kind of method. Therefore, especially in the academic field, it may be vital to be more conscious of our methodology, which is always partial, but remains the only means to perceive reality (See Mise [2002] concerning this point.)

I believe that positivism in the humanities and social sciences is not the mere editing of the historical materials and the narratives of the informants without skepticism. It is the way to listen to the voices of the “Others” through exhaustive criticism and scrutiny of the materials encountered in the field or in the original. Therefore, it is not something that restricts our imagination nor certifies the absolute truth, but something that undoubtedly stimulates our thinking and imagination.


In this paper I have discussed colonial administrators in British India, especially a group known as the Punjab School. My last additional remark is that, while they were a peculiar minority, the Punjab School was never “excess baggage.” Ibbetson, for instance, was “genuinely interested in the welfare of the lower classes,” and was treated as an eccentric by his colleagues, though he was the most trusted by the then Governor-General Curzon of all the people at the center of power. Although not belonging to the Punjab School, among the officials who carried out anthropological research, there were people like Herbert Risley, who was one of the backstage manipulators of the “Partition of Bengal” and was regarded as a “Machiavellist,” as well as Edward Gait, who indicated an understanding of the plight of village farmers, and was described by M. K. Gāndhī as a “good governor.” All of these people were of the status of member of Council, governor and chief secretary, and had a substantial influence on decision-making in imperial policies. Today, however, not only their thought and personal histories are not well known, but their existence itself is almost forgotten. This indicates that there is still a great deal of margin for research on colonial administrators. At the same time, after the post-colonial theories have been widely circulated, we come to a point over again to ask empirically what “the colonial” is, and to develop the perspectives for analyzing academically the idiosyncrasy and modernity of Asia. I think these are now at stake.




Dewey, Clive 1991. The Settlement Literature of the Greater Punjab: A Handbook, Manohar.

Morrison, Charles 1984. “Three Styles of Imperial Ethnography: British Officials as Anthropologists in India”, Knowledge and Society, 5: 141-169.

Mise, Toshiyuki 2002. “Shiryo no rekishigaku—Eiryo-indo kokusei-chousa-shiryo no yurai (The Historiography on the Historical Sources – How the Census of British India Came into Being”, Mori, Akiko (ed.), Rekishi jojutsu no genzai (Writing History in the Contemporary Era), Jinbun Shoin.


MISE Toshiyuki
Part-time Lecturer,Seisen University