William Lawler made a most unlikely literary policeman. He was a librarian, a learned librarian, who looked out on the teeming city of Calcutta from the perspective of Roman antiquity and Victorian morality. Before him, spread out on a table, lay a huge sheet of paper divided into sixteen columns. Around him, above and below him, were books, piled on floors, crammed on shelves, a huge harvest of books published in Bengal in the year 1879. Lawler’s job was to fill in the columns.

The first columns posed no problem. They organized information required for the registration of new books, and their printed headings conformed to the law laid down by Act XXV of the Governor General of India in Council for 1867: title, author, publisher, and so on. By registering a book and paying two rupees, its publisher acquired a copyright for all of British India and protected himself against prosecution, for any unregistered book was deemed to be illegal, and its publisher could be punished by the British colonial government with a two-year jail sentence and a five-thousand-rupee fine. And by printing the filled-out sheets as a “catalog,” issued four times a year as a supplement to its official gazette, the government of Bengal kept a record of all the books published in the province.

Despite their innocent-sounding name, however, the catalogs were not available to the general public. They circulated secretly within the channels of the Indian Civil Service—“A” matter, deemed to be “confidential”—along with identical catalogs from the other provincial governments. Taken together, they provided the agents of the British Raj with a running account of everything in the subcontinent that appeared in print—or at least everything that publishers submitted for registration. The catalog entries from 1868 to 1905 cover about 200,000 titles—more by far than the total output in France during the age of Enlightenment. For Bengal alone, the catalogs from those years run to fifteen enormous volumes, each containing at least five hundred pages. Their scale is staggering, their ambition enormous; they contain millions of words, printed with precision in sixteen standard columns. They represent the civil service talking to itself about the “natives,” a discourse on literature by the colonial authorities at the high tide of imperialism—or, if you prefer Foucault’s formula, knowledge and power.

Lawler satisfied the discursive requirements of his job when he filled in the blank space under the last of the rubrics, column sixteen: “Remarks.” He summarized the narratives of novels, poems, and plays in a way that would make their moral clear for his own readers, the men in the Indian Civil Service who ruled over the “natives.” For example, his remarks on a Bengali epic poem, The Female Bird in the Forest (I will cite titles in English, my Bengali not being what it should be), begin with a general observation: “The present work of eighteen chapters commences with a touching appeal to Mother India, whose sad lot is deplored, and the oppression at the hands of the Yavans (or foreigners) pronounced unbearable.” Then they include a long summary of the plot, which concerned the attempt of a Brahmin to rescue his wife from a wicked Nabab, who had abducted her. And they end with a reference to the ideological subtext of the story:

From pages 50 to 55 in chapter three, the poet digresses to portray in forcible language the subjection of the Aryan Bengal race to foreigners, who have placed their feet on the heads of Brahmins, but that the time must come, though it may be distant, when the Aryans will be freed from the yoke.

The catalog was, in effect, a literary digest, reserved for the Raj’s administrators. By consulting it, a district magistrate in the Punjab or a secretary in the India Office in London would know what the natives were up to when they published books.

They were up to no good. When they weren’t deploring Mother India’s subjection to the foreigners, they were regaling themselves with stories about Krishna’s dallying with the milkmaids and other material derived from the Mahabharata, which Lawler found disgusting. A Hindu tract entitled The Pleasure of Females, for example, took the Krishna theme far beyond the limits of decency, as Lawler understood them. He deplored it as a compendium of “the most openly vulgar and obscene observations ever made, not even having the semblance of an excuse for the public good. It should be at once suppressed.” Mysteries Revealed, a nonfiction account of crime in Calcutta, was equally offensive to Lawler’s Victorian sensibility:

The production is devoid of any merit, the style is colloquial, and the sentiments are obscene…. The fact of its publication is a discredit on Bengali literature and the taste of the native reading public…. It is devoutly to be wished that some means were available for putting a stop to the threatened publication of more trash like this in a second volume.

The message is clear enough, but it is also puzzling. The implicit readers of column sixteen were the masters of India. They needed to be informed about the literature pouring from the presses in a bewildering variety of languages. But why did the Raj content itself with accumulating knowledge? Why did it not repress the books that men like Lawler would cheerfully have burned? Can the cataloging be considered as a kind of censorship? Evidently not, at least not the direct, prepublication kind such as that of eighteenth-century France. But the story of imperialism and native literatures involves much more than repression. One cannot make sense of it without considering the peculiar character of the book and of the Raj in nineteenth-century India.


The printed book in India was both very old and very new when the governor-general tried to bring it under his control by the Press and Registration of Books Act of 1867. Printing had existed on the subcontinent since 1556. But it remained confined to tiny enclaves of missionaries scattered along the coasts, and the total number of publications, including pamphlets and news sheets, came to fewer than two thousand titles by 1800. The printed book did not penetrate deeply into Indian society until the second half of the nineteenth century, and even then it faced formidable obstacles: mass illiteracy and dozens of mutually incomprehensible languages.

The act of 1867 was but one of several attempts to restore order in a world still shaking from the after-shocks of the Sepoy Mutiny and peasant uprisings of 1857–1858. The mutiny—or the First War of Independence, as some Indians prefer to call it—had exposed the fragility of the British hold on power. Regions larger than England had risen in revolt. Although the native soldiers had remained loyal throughout most of the subcontinent, the sepoys of the Raj’s heartland, the territories from Delhi to Calcutta, had shown that they could not be trusted, and, equally disturbing, that they had not been understood. Who would have thought that the introduction of a new rifle, the breechloading Enfield, would have provided the spark for the conflagration? In order to load it, the soldiers had to bite off the tips of the cartridges; and that, to them, was unthinkable, because the cartridges were said to be sealed with the fat of pigs and the grease of cows, making them an abomination to Muslims and Hindus alike.

When the British inspected the devastation produced by the revolt, they began to measure the cultural distance that separated them from the natives and to shift to a new form of imperialism, one that would combine an increase of knowledge with an expansion of power and that would be fundamentally liberal. Parliament abolished the East India Company in 1858, brought India under the direct rule of the Crown, and governed through an administration that depended on modern modes of information-gathering—that is, on an endless flow of words on paper.

The Indian Civil Service, recruited since 1853 by means of competitive examination, produced reports on everything under the subcontinental sun. Everything was surveyed, mapped, classified, and counted, including human beings, who appeared in the first Indian census in 1872, divided neatly into castes, subcastes, and a dozen other categories determined by the columns of a printed form. The catalogs of books belonged to the same effort to catalog everything. They were in effect a census of Indian literature as the imperial authorities understood it. But I’d prefer to concentrate on the literary qualities of the reports, that is, on what could be called the discourse on literature among the imperialist authorities.

Foucault’s formula equating knowledge with power fits the later phase of British rule in India and helps to explain the catalog of books, but it is far too facile. Many rulers genuinely cared for the welfare of the “natives” and truly believed in the liberal principle of promoting happiness. In fact, the father and grandfather of liberalism, John Stuart Mill and James Mill, developed that principle into a philosophy while working for the East India Company. J.S. Mill’s testimony about the company to the House of Lords in 1852 anticipated his manifesto of liberalism, On Liberty. And the ultimate liberal, John Morley, tried to translate that philosophy into government policy fifty years later while serving as secretary of state for India. Thanks to the educational system inspired by Macaulay, an Indian elite, trained in English, developed a modern literature marked by Western as well as Eastern traditions (for example, the movement now celebrated as the “Bengal Renaissance”) and also flooded the lower ranks of the British bureaucracy. These “Babus,” as they were called, sometimes with respect, sometimes with derision, filled in the forms and drafted the reports that shaped the Raj’s understanding of itself. That was a complex process, visited on the Indians by the British and executed in large part by the Indians themselves, and there is no better site on which to study its elaboration than column sixteen of the Raj’s catalogs of books.


Column sixteen was not added to the standard form until August 1871; and the first librarians to use it kept their comments to a minimum, though they did not hesitate to pass judgment on the books they registered: “miscellaneous songs, chiefly of a filthy character”; “a Hindu mythological tale. The filthiest poetical effusion imaginable”; “pieces of poetry on different subjects, professedly written for, but not at all suited to boys.”

After this initial stage of culture shock, the confrontation of the Victorian with the Bengali imagination in column sixteen produced increasingly complicated reactions, and the “remarks” grew apace. Soon they spilled over the neatly ruled lines between the columns, invading the neighboring space, running across the page, and filling the whole sheet with a flood of words. By 1875, column sixteen began to read like the column of a journal, and the remarks turned into reviews. After 1879, when Chunder Nath Bose succeeded William Lawler, the catalog was compiled by Indians. But the tone of the remarks remained essentially the same, though the Babu librarians seemed to be less obsessed with sex and more concerned with philological correctness. When they detected signs of restiveness among the “natives,” they sounded just as concerned or indignant as their British predeces-sors. Bose deplored a Bengali novel, Surendra-Binodini Natak, because “the story of love is mixed up with another story, the object of which seems to be to excite in the native mind a strong hatred for English rule and the English character. There are passages in which the author’s language becomes almost seditious.”

What tendencies emerge from thirty years of these running comments on the daily output of books? First, ethnographic bewilderment. To the British librarians in the 1870s, Bengali literature was a strange assortment of incompatible elements. Thus the remarks on Pigment of Knowledge: “Miscellaneous verses on time, hope, rich men, the quail and cocoanuts.” And on Waves of Meditation: “A piece of incoherent and unintelligible writing.” By the 1890s, when the Indians had taken over the catalogs, the expressions of incomprehension gave way to a second theme: scorn for the vast popular literature, which was pouring off the presses and being sold by peddlers among the poor of Calcutta and the peasants of the hinterland. This literature dealt in urban horrors—low-life, murderers, detectives, prostitutes—and rural fantasies—fairies, magic, adventures, astrology.

To judge from the remarks in column sixteen, it was somewhat similar to the penny dreadfuls and chapbooks of contemporary Europe. But its sentimental romances drew on Hindu mythology, and its almanacs combined astrological advice with mantras to be recited while piercing ears or giving a child rice for the first time. Songbooks also circulated widely, mixing traditional ribaldry with comments on current events. And most important of all, printed versions of popular plays, usually small booklets, but sometimes volumes of two hundred pages or more, spread the spicy fare of Calcutta’s theaters throughout the entire province. All this printed matter was read aloud, in workplaces, bazaars, and the domestic quarters of women; and the readings were performances, some by professionals, who sang or acted out the texts, bringing them alive before a vast audience—roughly two million in Bengal alone in 1857, according to one well-informed source, James Long, a British missionary and expert on Bengali literature.

The keepers of the catalog did not show much appreciation of the serious strain in this literature, although they made some respectful remarks about Rabindranath Tagore. What most commanded their respect was linguistic purity and philological prowess. Thus a review of The Moonlight of Marriage: “The book is written in pure, idiomatic Sanskrit, which very few pandits, if any, can write in these days. The metrical introduction…will be of great value. The work is in every way worthy of the deep and varied scholarship of its author.” A proportionate degree of scorn fell on anything “low” and “vulgar” in style as well as subject matter. The catalogers acted as guardians of the flame of culture, and they identified civilization with Sanskritization, or what they took to be a cultural strain that led back to an ancient world of classical purity. That, too, belonged to the Raj constructed jointly by the British and the Indians, and it had an element of self-imposed Orientalism in it.

Finally, column sixteen shows the Raj keeping watch over literature for signs of danger. The catalogers recorded a great many books that deplored the Indians’ subjection to foreign rule and that bewailed their decadence, poverty, and powerlessness, a theme that was frequently used in contrast to the glory of the ancient Aryans, who were celebrated for their fiercely independent spirit as well as their superior culture. Here is a typical example:

The Bengali is called a coward and taunted with being so accustomed to the chains of slavery, and so delighted with it, as to forget the very name and meaning of “independence.” The poet reminds his countrymen of their noble ancestors and their valorous deeds; describes “independence” as a precious jewel, the very sound of the name of which gives life to the dead; also that the Americans esteemed it so great a treasure as to have flown to arms with one accord to preserve it.

So the catalogers detected sedition—but nowhere in the papers of the India Office do you find the slightest trace of prepublication censorship. Perhaps the British in India did not really worry about what the “natives” published; perhaps the Raj was really liberal after all.

There is some truth, I believe, in both those propositions. But before rallying to the revisionist notion that imperialism in India should be considered as a rather happy chapter in world history, I think it is time to reconsider the nature of censorship itself. The standard French model of vetting texts before publication does not apply to Indian circumstances, although Foucault’s other formula, “surveillance and punishment,” comes closer to the mark. In India, however, the two halves of that equation fell apart, leaving a regime that was all surveillance and no punishment. Indians, like Englishmen, could publish anything they liked, subject only to prosecution for libel and sedition. Even more remarkable, the British brought together two other tendencies that would seem to be incompatible: imperialism and liberalism. Britannia ruled and the press remained free, free even to lament the country’s lack of independence. And this strange bundle of incongruities held together…until 1905, when the British partitioned Bengal.

To the British, the partition made good, solid, bureaucratic sense. Bengal was a vast province of 189,000 square miles with a population of 85 million, more than twice that of Britain, and it could not be administered adequately by a lieutenant-governor and a scattering of district officers. But to the Bengalis, the partition was a murderous blow, which cut deeply into the flesh of their body politic. They attributed it to a cynical strategy of divide and rule: the new province of Eastern Bengal and Assam would provide the British with a docile Muslim dependency, while the nationalist intellectuals of Calcutta, a growing body of overeducated and underemployed Babus, would lose influence relative to the non-Bengali speakers of West Bengal. Speeches, petitions, protest meetings, demonstrations, loud choruses of the new nationalist anthem “Bande Mataram” (“Hail to Thee, Mother”—i.e., India) fell on deaf ears. Lord Curzon, the viceroy, was as unbending as the steel brace that he wore to support his back. And Lord Minto, a fellow Tory who succeeded him in August 1905, showed even less concern for the wishes of the native population, despite the prodding of his superior, John Morley, the secretary of state for India in London. Morley was a devout Liberal, who took office with the Liberal government elected at the end of 1905. He favored all sorts of reforms, including the election of Indians to provincial councils; but when he spoke of the partition of Bengal as a “settled fact,” the Bengali intellectuals felt betrayed by the very principles they had imbibed in their English schools.

After the failure of “mendicancy”—the policy of cooperation favored by the moderate wing of the Congress Party—the Bengali nationalists took to swadeshi, a strategy of boycotting British imports and favoring home-made goods. The boycott of manufactures led to the boycott of institutions—courts, schools, the civil service—and ultimately to the demand for swaraj (or independence). Groups of militants drew on revivalist Hinduism in order to develop alternative forms of civic life, but this strategy brought them into conflict with Bengal’s large Muslim minority, 30 percent of the population in Calcutta itself. The creation, with Lord Minto’s encouragement, of the All-India Muslim League at the end of 1906 confirmed the view that the British were playing a game of divide and rule. Hindu–Muslim riots at Comilla and Mymensingh in the spring of 1907 drove a wedge between the two populations. Under the pretext of restoring order, the British suspended civil liberties and began arresting agitators everywhere from Bengal to the Punjab. But the Hindus themselves split when the Congress Party broke up at its annual meeting in December 1907. And the extremists found themselves increasingly isolated—unable to work with the old, moderate political elite, on the one hand, and incapable of mobilizing the impoverished, illiterate peasant masses, on the other.

Trapped in this impasse, the most radical nationalists tried to blast their way out by means of bombs. The examples of European anarchists, the notion of propaganda of the deed, the appeal of heroic self-sacrifice, and the cult of Kali, the goddess of destruction, also reinforced the turn to terrorism. On April 30, 1908, a bomb killed two British women in a railway car at Muzaffarpur, and a series of similar incidents continued until a failed attempt on the life of Minto’s successor, Lord Hardinge, in 1912. By then, most of the extremists had been arrested or driven out of the country. The transfer of the capital to Delhi and the reunification of Bengal in 1911, followed by the outbreak of World War I, put an end to this first phase of nationalist agitation. In retrospect, it seems clear that the partition protests and the terrorist campaign never posed a serious threat to the Raj. But they looked terribly threatening between 1905 and 1912, when the British kept reminding themselves that they were an alien population of a few hundred thousand trying to rule a subcontinent of several hundred million while preaching the virtues of freedom from arbitrary arrest and freedom of the press.

The press had fueled the explosion of nationalism from the very beginning. The leading agitators were men of letters, who drew their inspiration from literature, both Indian and Western, and who gathered around newspapers and libraries. Calcutta’s most important nationalist group, the Anushilan Samiti, had a library of four thousand volumes, and its revolutionary weekly, Yugantar, which mixed belles-lettres with calls for revolutionary action, took its name from the novel by Sibnath Sastri. Songs, plays, poems, pamphlets, religious tracts, histories, literature of every variety turned up wherever a British agent discovered signs of sedition. The servants of the Raj knew this literature very well, because they had been keeping track of it for forty years in their catalogs. After 1905 the question was: How could they use this information to repress the outbreak of nationalism?


At this point surveillance turned into punishment. It took two forms: repression by police and prosecution in the courts.

The repression, which amounted to censorship of the postpublication variety, involved the same kinds of police action as had been used in Europe: the arrest of authors, publishers, and printers; raids on bookstores; the interception of letters and packages in the mail; even the use of secret agents to report on what was said in meetings and what was read in schools. As accounts of this activity began to churn through the vast digestive tract of the Indian Civil Service, it became clear that the literature now deemed to be seditious was the same as the literature that had appeared for years in the catalogs. It covered the same range of themes and genres, but now the agents of the Raj wanted to annihilate it, whatever the cost might be in the loss of civil liberties. “Summary procedures” were necessary, the lieutenant-governor of the Punjab said in 1907, for the natives were “credulous,” “emotional,” “inflammable,” and liable to explode when provoked by seditious messages. A commissioner in the Central Provinces warned that “the gravity of the situation demands that we take whatever is absolutely the most effective measure for controlling sedition in the press without regard to any Western theories or sentiments, which are not applicable to the condition of this country.”

Everywhere the men in the field seemed to regard freedom of expression as a Western luxury that would make government impossible in India. Lord Minto pressed their views on Morley, demanding arbitrary power to curb the press. But the liberty of the press belonged to the most sacred articles of faith in Morley’s liberal creed; and the disparity between preaching liberalism and practicing imperialism stood out every week during ques-tion time in Parliament, when backbenchers like Sir Henry Cotton, a well-informed expert on Indian affairs, exposed the illiberalism of British rule in India for all the world to see.

While Minto and Morley dueled in their dispatches, the humbler agents of the Raj filled the confidential correspondence of the ICS with reports of repression. In one raid on a nationalist association, the books confiscated by the police included Aristotle’s Politics, as well as English-language works such as The Awakening of Japan and The Life and Writing of Joseph Mazzini. Customs officials would not permit the import of a book of excerpts from official documents printed by the gov-ernment in London, because it made the Indian police look bad. Postal inspectors often seized The Gaelic American and anti-imperialist speeches of William Jennings Bryan in the mail.

Bryan, translated into Indian languages, seemed especially threatening to the Criminal Investigation Department: “The ignorant Hindu reader imagines that Bryan is qualified to criticize, and that he is English instead of being what he is—an American demagogue and openly hostile to England.” The government also banned a reprint of a history of the East India Company which was first published in 1838 and had been available in several public libraries ever since. In a brief for the prosecution, a legal adviser to the government did not dispute the accuracy or the age of the book. Instead, sounding more like a modern reception theorist than an agent of the Raj, he argued that the text had taken on new meaning. An unsophisticated reader of the cheap, modern, Urdu edition might believe that criticism made in 1838 applied to the Raj in 1909. “It is the effect on the general reader that must be considered,” he insisted. And as a clincher to his argument, he noted, “The legislature has decreed that the reputation of the present Government of India shall be sacred.” The advocate-general of the government of India concurred: “What some years back would have been an innocent matter is today dangerous.” The same arguments applied to other books, which had been duly registered in the catalogs without arousing charges of sedition. The literary landscape remained the same as it had been before 1905, but it looked entirely different.

Having executed this Gestalt switch and filled the subcontinent’s jails with arrested authors, it remained for the agents of the Raj to get them convicted in court. This last step was the most difficult of all, because it threatened to expose the contradiction inherent in liberal imperialism. The British were committed to play by the rules that they had imposed upon the Indians. They believed in those rules—the rule of justice first of all—as the measure of the civilization they had brought to the subcontinent. So they accepted the right of Indians to publish books under the same constraints that applied to Englishmen—that is, freely, subject to the laws of libel and sedition. But sedition had acquired a peculiar meaning under the Raj. According to the Indian Penal Code of 1860, written in the confusion of the post-Mutiny era, sedition applied to anyone who “excites or attempts to excite feelings of disaffection to the Government.” “Disaffection” remained undefined until 1898, when the government added an explanatory note to the key provision, Section 124A. “The expression ‘disaffection’ includes disloyalty and all feelings of enmity.” Whether this clarified anything would be determined during the next decade, when the Raj tried dozens of authors for promoting sedition through their writings.

In retrospect, the verdicts look like foregone conclusions. Most of the authors were convicted and sentenced to “rigorous imprisonment,” usually for terms of one to six years, sometimes with an additional punishment of a heavy fine and “transportation” to a sweltering prison in Mandalay. To get the convictions, however, the judges, lawyers, clerks, and bailiffs had to put on a convincing performance. The wigs and robes, the gaveling and taking of oaths, the standing up and sitting down, the legalistic language and formalistic courtesies—“Your Honor,” “the Learned Pleader”—demonstrated the legitimacy of British law in an Indian setting.

But the Indians had learned to play that game, too. Their pleaders had studied in British schools and could defend their clients by citing British precedents—or, if need be, Shakespeare and Milton. Of course, most citations tended to come from the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, for that is where the accused writers drew their inspiration. To win their case, the prosecutors had to argue at times on native grounds. But the British had educated themselves in the ways of the “natives” just as the Indians had trained in the schools of the sahibs. Decades of learned commentary in the catalogs demonstrated that the agents of the Raj had developed a vast knowledge of Indian literature. In key cases, the catalogers themselves testified in court. So the courtroom turned into a hermeneutic battlefield, where each side acted out its interpretation of the other and imperialism appeared, at least for a few moments, while the muskets were stored in their racks, as a contest for symbolic dominance through textual exegesis.

Consider the following verse from a poem, which was published in a literary review, Pallichitra, in 1910, and typifies the material condemned as seditious in the courts. Because its author could not be identified (he was later found and sent to prison for two years), the editor of the volume was tried, found guilty of sedition under section 124A, and sentenced to two years of “rigorous imprisonment.” In fact, the judge declared that he deserved to be transported for life, so heinous was his crime. Where, then, was the wickedness in the following words, which are given in the translation from the Bengali provided by the official court translator?

Under the stamp of Asur’s feet there are no Parijat flowers in the Nandan Gardens;
and in the garb of a beggar, Indrani is sorely
suffering in the most recess [sic] of her heart.

To most Westerners, the poem is utterly opaque. To the district magistrate, it was rank sedition. There was nothing esoteric about it which an “ordinary reader” could not grasp, he claimed, for its meaning was transparent to anyone with an elementary knowledge of Hindu mythology: Indrani was Mother India; the flowery garden was the paradise the British had destroyed; the Asur were devils, that is, the British; and their enemies, the Indians, now reduced to beggary, were soon to rise and overthrow their oppressors. The context of current events made the message of the poem horrifyingly clear to the judge presiding over the case against it:

The poem was published…about the middle of July last; there had previously to its publication been a series of murderous attacks upon English men and women in India, upon British officials especially. The poem would be meaningless unless by the allusions to the slaughtering of the demons (Asur) the British race were meant. The object of the writer evidently was to incite his Hindu fellow countrymen to join together to murder the British in India. In view of the terribly pernicious effect such literature as this is found to produce on the younger generation of Bengal,… not only is a deterrent sentence necessary, but it is also necessary to remove for some time to come, to prevent him further harming society, one who has been persistently harming society…. I do not think there is any reason for treating his offence lightly. I accordingly sentence him to two years rigorous imprisonment.

This interpretation, however, had not gone uncontested. The judge reached it only after a free-for-all between the defense lawyer and the prosecuting attorney. According to the defense lawyer, words meant what dictionaries said they meant and what ordinary people understood them to mean. He quoted from dictionaries and called some men-in-the-street-type witnesses in order to drive the point home. One key term, boyrishir in Bengali, could hardly refer to the British government, as the prosecution claimed, because its conventional meaning was “from the head of the enemy.” Another, asur, meant the “forces of darkness.” It could not refer to Englishmen, who were not dark, as he demonstrated by quoting from speeches of the viceroy. As to a third supposedly incriminating term, rudhir, it was used in common sayings such as “I will offer my blood,” indicating a willingness to make a sacrifice. Anyone familiar with the customs of Hindus knew that they frequently sacrificed animals and that there was nothing offensive in the notion of blood being offered for a worthy cause. At the level of metaphor, the poem used the same figures of speech as in Hamlet’s most famous soliloquy. It was a meditation on freedom, based on the opposition between town and country life, like Goldsmith’s “Deserted Village.”

Indeed, Goldsmith’s poem contained a much stronger declamation against tyranny, yet it was commonly read, with no ill effects, by Indian children in British schools. In case the British had forgotten how their own poets celebrated freedom, the defense lawyer treated the court to some stirring passages from Cowper. In comparison to Cowper, he insisted, his client was mildness itself. Of course, the author of the Bengali poem drew on Hindu mythology, but if the court were to forbid all such references, nothing would be left of vernacular literature. To read sedition into such a poem was not merely to get it wrong, but to fan the flames of panic instead of calming them.

In rebuttal, the prosecutor raked over the text once more, arguing that the defense’s reading of it compounded faulty definitions with incoherent metaphors. Asur, for example, could not mean “darkness,” “for they are given legs and feet and described as trampling down paradise flowers under foot.” The textual exegesis went on and on, until the judge called a halt and offered a reading of his own, line by line, and finally arrived at the bottom line: sedition. The trial had everything that one would expect to encounter in a modern class on poetry: philology, semantic fields, metaphorical patterns, ideological contexts, reader response, and interpretative communities.

Similar debates took place in case after case, for the authorities began to see sedition in all sorts of publications—histories, political pamphlets, religious tracts, plays, and songbooks. What had appeared as the harmless beginnings of a modern literature before 1905 stood condemned as revolutionary agitation by 1910. Literature now looked dangerous, because it was no longer restricted to the literati: it was spreading to the masses—that is, spreading “disaffection,” and “disaffection” meant sedition. Considering the impoverished and illiterate state of most Indian peasants, the diagnosis may have been exaggerated. But the civil service took it seriously:

Inflammatory statements…are read with avidity and believed without question in bazaars and villages…. From the original credulous readers, the report is disseminated among an illiterate population, whose susceptibility to the most extravagant rumors is proverbial, becoming in transit ever more distorted and more violent…. The dak [post] arrives, bringing with it the Sandhya or Charu Mihit or other paper locally popular, and some one among the village leaders reads out passages to a collection of bhadralog and others under the shelter of a convenient tree. Even the passing cultivator lays down his plough and joins the expectant group. The poisonous extracts are heard and digested, and then all disperse and go their ways, retailing what they have learnt with heaven knows what embellishments and exaggerations.

Of course, newspapers, as indicated in this report from a district officer, seemed especially threatening, because they combined ideology with news. But books and pamphlets, especially collections of songs and texts of plays, could penetrate even more effectively into the world of the illiterate, because they were acted out in oral performances, which often combined music, mime, and drama.

On December 11, 1907, a district magistrate in Amraoti, Central Provinces, sentenced Swami Deshmukh Shivanad Guru Yoganand, alias Ga-nesh Yadeo Deshmukh, to transportation for seven years to a Mandalay prison for distributing and declaiming a seditious songbook, Swarajya Sapan, or Steps to Self-Government. Deshmukh wrote the songs, had them printed, and peddled them throughout the region, singing as he went. In order to promote sales—so the judge claimed—he changed his name and dressed as a mendicant holy man, a marketing strategy that appealed “…to the hearts of the illiterate many in every town and village through which he wandered.” By “meter and music,” the fake swami whipped up the emotions of “the credulous rustics who would be impressed only too readily by what fell from the lips of a sanyasi [Brahmin holy man].” The judge considered this “a very serious crime,” sedition of a sort that used to be punished by death:

It is high time that the public generally realized that sedition in India is no longer a mere vituperative babbling which passes harmlessly over the heads of the mass of the people, as it did perhaps a quarter of a century ago. Education and internal communications have now been so largely developed, and a disaffected press has been so many years at work, that libels against the government… have become a political danger, which it is the duty of the criminal courts to check and, if possible, to uproot by stern justice.

As an example of the swami’s treachery, the judge cited the refrain from one of the songs: “O God having an elephant head and a crooked mouth. By turning your kind proboscis [put] in the hands of the Aryans the banner of devotion to the country.” It didn’t quite sound like “God save the King!,” but what did it mean? A bewildered Morley telegraphed to ask whether it merited seven years of transportation to Mandalay. But the court in Amraoti had accumulated more evidence of insubordination: another song took Morley himself as its target: “Morley is a bitter karela.” (A karela is a balsam pear.) And still other songs contained suggestive language about poverty, taxation, throwing dice, and licking the butter off the heads of corpses. All this produced some heated exchanges between the lawyers about grammar, syntax, philosophies of translation, and death rituals. In the end, of course, the prosecution won, and the swami went to jail.

A particularly telling case concerns Mukunda Lal Das, the leader of a “jatra party,” or troupe of players, who toured by boat through the Ganges delta, performing traditional dramas in peasant villages. For nine months in 1907 they put on Matri Puja, a modern adaptation of a mythical tale about the conflict between the Daitryas (demons) and the Devas (gods). After its first performance in Calcutta, the play was printed and registered in the catalog for Bengal. But it was banned in 1908, when the keeper of the catalog testified in court that it was a “seditious allegory” that attacked the leading figures in the Raj. When Mukunda performed it in the hinterland, he improvised lines to mock local officials and even the king-emperor George V. He added mime, music, and song; and he also composed his own songbook, which went through several editions and circulated widely, like the text of the play, before the British banned it. The British also issued a series of injunctions against Mukunda’s performances, but he evaded them by moving from district to district until finally, after 168 highly successful performances, he was arrested and brought to trial.

The prosecuting attorney concentrated on the biggest hit in the songbook, “The Matri Puja” or “White Rat” song, which he quoted as follows from the official translation:

Babu,…the white devil is upon your shoulders and is totally ruining you…. Your granary was full of paddy, but the white rat has destroyed it. Babu, just take off the specs, and look around you. Do you know, Deputy Babu, now your head is under the boots of the feringhees, that they have ruined your caste and honor and carried away your riches cleverly?

The defense lawyer contended that the last line should read: “Status and rewards these days go only to businessmen, therefore go into business.” Its meaning turned on the pronoun “they,” which could not possibly refer to feringhees (foreigners), owing to the peculiarities of Bengali syntax and, in particular, the use of “the seventh case with the force of the nominative.” Soon the court was embroiled in a debate about dictionaries, grammatical cases, Sanskrit roots, and the relative value of literal as opposed to figurative translations. But the judge finally handed down his sentence: Mukunda had maligned the British, and he would go to jail for two years.

What was going on in those trials? Censorship, certainly, because the British used them as a means to deter and repress undesirable literature. But the authorities could have clapped the authors and publishers in prison without running them through the elaborate ritual of the courtroom. Instead, they needed to prove their case—that is, to demonstrate the justice of their rule to the “natives” and, even more important, to themselves. If the Raj could not be identified with the rule of law, it might be seen to rule by force. If its judges did not uphold the freedom of the press, they might be taken as the agents of tyranny. Yet they could not allow the Indians to use words as freely as Englishmen did at home. So they construed “feelings of enmity” as “disaffection” and “disaffection” as “sedition,” translating freely from one idiom to another as they needed. That the Indians sometimes outplayed them at their own game made no difference, for the British had the ultimate answer: force. Not that they impounded and imprisoned on a great scale. For the most part, they remained true to form, muddling through a morass of contradictions. Liberal imperialism was the greatest contradiction of them all; so the agents of the Raj summoned up as much ceremony as they could, in order to prevent themselves from seeing it.

This Issue

April 12, 2001