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Problems of Violence, States of Terror: Torture in Colonial India

Abstract: The 'discovery' of torture and its prevalence in the extraction of confessions produced a dilemma for the colonial state in India. Especially with the publication of the two-volume Report of the Commissioners for the Investigation of Alleged Cases of Torture in the Madras Presidency in 1855, colonial administrators became uncomfortably aware of the contrived nature of the 'truth' produced before magistrates and the police. This paper traces the significance of colonial efforts to contain such practices by examining in detail a case of torture that scandalized the Bombay government in 1855, on the heels of the publication of the Madras Report. Attempts to define the practice of excessive violence as 'torture' in order to discipline and reform the police encountered the simultaneous denial of these practices as specifically 'colonial'. Excessive violence was instead attributed to precolonial penal regimes regularly used excessive violence, thereby blurring the boundaries between law and brutal violence. Torture came to be viewed as a remnant or relic of oppressive 'native' practices of punishment. This paper explores the anxieties about legitimating colonial governance that underwrote the logic of 'discovery' and 'refusal', and suggests that attempts to contain torture were double-edged. On the one hand, they were significant in the constitution of transhistorical notions of pain, suffering, and 'the human' that accompanied the moral discourse of the horrific experience of torture. Medical discourses that measured the extent of injury and violation were important for the 'scientific' validation of such claims. On the other hand, the colonial government in Bombay refused to consider the possibility that novel demands for proof, motive, and intention in the commision of crime might have, paradoxically, produced a police force that understood torture as 'legitimate' in the production of juridical truth.

Anupama Rao
Taylor and Francis Online