In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • The Thrill of ‘Simply Dressing Up’: The Indian Police, Disguise, and Intelligence Work in Colonial India
  • Michael Silvestri

Rudyard Kipling’s Kim is one of the key texts which gave rise to the modern spy novel, and Kipling’s portrait of the Great Game — the Imperial rivalry between Britain and Russia on the Northwest frontier of India — remains the most famous representation of intelligence work in British India.1 Kim features a near-omniscient British Raj whose knowledge of Indian society and geography enables its minions to move unseen, to monitor and control information, and to counter potential threats to British power with ease. 2 While such fantasies of imperial control were a common trope of late-nineteenth-century novels, they bore little relation to the more mundane realities of intelligence work in colonial India. 3 Here, I would like to consider some of the myths of British police intelligence work in India as well as the realities of how the colonial state obtained information about Indian political movements. My focus will be on the province of Bengal, the center of British power in nineteenth-century India, where in the twentieth century a long-lasting revolutionary nationalist movement developed to challenge British rule. Before turning to this subject, however, it is necessary first to consider the development of the Indian Police and their role in upholding the power of the colonial state.


In 1902, Lord Curzon, who championed a thorough reform of the Indian Police during his tenure as Viceroy, bemoaned “the profound discontent that prevails in every part of the country at the existing administration of the force. It is saturated with corruption from end to end, and is an instrument of private danger rather than of public protection.” 4 Curzon’s low opinion of the Indian Police was shared by both British and Indian observers. A career in the Indian Police, observers almost unanimously agreed, was certainly not the first choice for a gentleman. Charles Dickens’ son, Francis Jeffrey, failed at various professions before becoming a member of the Bengal Police in 1864. 5 When Edmund C. Cox, a matriculate of Trinity College, Cambridge, joined the Bombay Police in the 1880s, he was the only university or public school sixth-form man on the force. Cox later recalled

how utterly horrified I was to find that my District Superintendent of Police was a man who ought never to have been appointed to a service which is supposed to be composed of gentlemen. He had been a common or garden half-caste clerk in some office, and certainly had no special qualifications for his extraordinary selection. It was an awful blow to my pride to have to serve under him. 6

Nonetheless, from the late nineteenth century onwards, civil police forces in India and other parts of the British Empire played an important role in the maintenance of public order within the British Empire. 7 In spite of the statement by one Governor of Bombay that “we hold India by the sword,” the police rather than the army was the primary coercive force in India, particularly in the last four decades of colonial rule. 8 By the twentieth century, the police had become one of the most prominent features of the colonial state, as well as one of its most visible manifestations to “ordinary” Indians. An understanding of the nature of police power is therefore vital to an understanding of the functioning of the colonial state in the late colonial period.

How did the Indian Police develop into such a prominent institution? While late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century experiments with policing under the rule of the English East India Company laid the foundations, it was the reorganization under the Indian Police Act of 1861 that established the structure and legal code under which the Indian Police continue to operate to this day. 9 After 1861, the Indian Police were organized at the provincial level and kept mostly unarmed. Indeed, the fear of Indian Army officers of mutiny by armed police ensured that police armaments were kept to the minimum necessary...

Additional Information

Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.