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3. Petitions, Petitioners, and the Petitioned: Developing Categories through Official Languages of the Self

1778 C.E.: When we heard that the Nabob had given some Country to the Company we imagined that now we would do well and suffer no injustice. But the people of the Company do contrary to our expectation oppress us more than the Nabob did.

1801 C.E.: I have always been attached to the Interests of the Company and expect their protection in every case. ... I am hopeful that Mr. Travers will be directed to observe the ancient usages.

Ca. 1840 C.E.: About 20 years ago I, Sivichettu Bhúmi of Dachepalli was possessed by [the god] Venkateswara .... One day the god came to me in a dream and told me that he lives in a corner of my house. The next day I found an idol in my house, and began doing puja to it everyday. But suddenly a drought has come to our area .... I thus ... ask the honorable C. P. Brown to help me do puja. 1


If these snippets are any indication, and this chapter will suggest that they are, the span of sixty-two or so years saw an enormous change in the ways Indians interacted with British officials of the East Indian Company in South India. One thing that remained constant over this period, however, was the use of the petition both to stake out who petitioners were and to establish how they sought to be connected with those they petitioned. Of course, the petition was new neither to the British nor to Indians. This gave it a special place in the relationship between colonizer and colonized. Its structure was understood by both, throughout many layers of society, and across many cultures. It serves, then, as a convenient entrée into changes in the perception of self, and the attempts by Indians to work productively with a system that was, in most other ways, very much foreign.

One basis for the analysis of selected texts throughout this work is my suggestion that the use of particular types of sources will enable us to observe changing formulations of the self; in this case it is the petition, and its use in nineteenth-century Telugu-speaking India. I will seek to establish the importance of the space for expression it created and will attempt to show that the exercise of expression in that space led directly to the articulation of new and productive categories of identity in early nineteenth-century South India. In this instance I will take a look at petitions from that period to see how Telugu speakers used them in very specific ways to set out the power they reserved for the application of labels, labels to be used by themselves, and by the various officials to whom the petitions were addressed. Though I do not propose with these petitions that any one single identity came to be understood, it appears that petitions were crucial in giving Indians a hand in developing the meanings for operative categories of culture that were eventually adopted by the system as a whole. This look at petitions will also indicate that the British were susceptible to the powerful exchange of ideas that flowed through petitions, and ultimately accepted the insinuation of the language of the petition into the language of Company bureaucracy, especially at the local level.

Petitions, in fact, find themselves in an enviable position in the world of late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century sources from South India. They are perhaps the only sources that allow historians to begin an investigation into a history "from below." Almost all other sources are either British or Sanskritic. The petitions that we see in the records were offered up by Telugu speakers and other Indians of the South after the coming of East India Company administration to various areas of the peninsula. The Company welcomed petitions from its subjects, and, in anticipation of the bureaucratic regime it would eventually develop, it carefully preserved many of those documents, first by translating and copying them into the records, and later by storing them in their archives.

The use of petitions does have its drawbacks. We must not fail to recognize, for instance, the inherent problems associated with using documents that were produced in the context of East India Company administrative structures, and that therefore participated in, and were to some extent inextricable from, the discourses of colonialism. Gyanendra Pandey, for one, has stressed the importance of not overlooking this relationship with his proposition that the archive itself has been one of the many institutions that contributes to the notion of unities and universalities in the face of fragments and divergence. He suggests as a solution that historians question the archive as the standard basis for sources and that they remember that "the provisionality and contested character of all such unities (the objects of historical analysis) must be underlined." 2 If, then, we do acknowledge the coloniality of the petition and give it its due severe scrutiny, I propose that with this necessary critical eye it is one source that will allow us to identify some of the myriad constituent points of view (it is a dialogic production) that contributed to its placement in the records. I begin with a look at the nature of the petition, and I hope to show how it will prove a useful means of opening windows to changing conceptions of the self in this period.

Me and My Government: Petitions as Indicators of Changing Relationships


If there is one consistent aspect of the petition as genre, it is that its language first and foremost reveals the nature of the relationships between the writers of the document and the government (or its officials) being petitioned, here the East India Company. This being the case, it is important to see how the petition worked as a means to express newly designated meanings for terms that groups in southern India formulated in the context of experiencing solidarities, and then used to identify themselves to the holders of juridical power, English East India Company officials. Changes over time in the ways people petitioned government will then help us see how petitions also reflected changing knowledge of the self and the ways of relating to colonial government. What follows are four petitions from various points in the span of years from 1780 to 1840. Having a sense of the differences between 1778 and 1840 wordings of petitions will allow us, then, to proceed to a look at petitions overall, and how they served the needs of petitioners over time.

The first of these petitions is dated 1778, and is from a town west of Madras:


That in very old times upwards of 4,000 years or their [sic] about the Country of Arcot being a Wilderness and the Polligars 3 called Corumbers, having built it Twenty four Forts and Using great Tiranny [sic], Dontaman Sacravaty the son of a King of the Coast Choromandel destroyed them and sending for your Petitioners' Ancestors the Inhabitants of the Country of Terah (?), promised them that if they would cut down the woods, turn them into Fields, dig Tanks for watering the Fields, and cultivate the Country and give him the one-sixth part of the Product, he would let them have the remaining five parts .... 

When we heard that the Nabob had given some Country to the Company we imagined that now we would do well and suffer no injustice. But the people of the Company do contrary to our expectation oppress us more than the Nabob did. Because they force us to give them Bullocks, sheep, Fowls and other things for a trifling Price. We can now for that reason not keep herds upon fields for getting by their Dung the Fields manured thus a field which thirty years ago produced one hundred marcal (?) does now scarce produce Twenty. In our gardens they cut down the trees without paying anything for them and even without giving Cooley for the carrying the Trees to the fort, thus the gardens are ruined and the cattle has no shade to enjoy. 4 


Everything about this petition reflects concerns the petitioners have about retaining privileges that they propose existed prior to the coming of the British. Four thousand years speaks to their authority in the region over time. Comparisons with other rulers seek to propose to the Company a standard of rule that the latter ought to uphold. And the concerns that these petitioners showed in this document about the decay of their lands and of the area in general was a way to make known the real differences they had about ideas of governance. Those concerns pointed to a set of aesthetics of their environment that they were not so sure the British understood, but about which they sought to educate them. 5 That is, the petitioners struggled to outline for the East India Company officials exactly who they were in the hope that this would set the Company on the right administrative course. The overall tone of the plea is one of uncertainty, even fear, and has only limited expectations for some response from government. In all, it reflects the early stages of the relationship between these landholders (mirasidars) and the British who recently had come to control an area around Madras, an are commonly referred to as "the Jagir."

The second petition in this batch is one from Nellore, to the north of Madras, dated November 1801. It reveals a different set of understandings between petitioner and Company.

I have always been attached to the Interests of the Company and expect their protection in every case .... I am hopeful that Mr. Travers will be directed to observe the ancient usages — I enclose a Mahrattah paper containing an account of the subjects in dispute whence every circumstance will be known — I am anxious that the ancient usages should be confirmed. 6

By this date the history portion of the petition takes the reader back to a time far less distant than the four thousand years of the document from twenty-three years before. It hearkens back to the beginning of British rule, and to the fact that both the petitioner and the Company have similar interests. Retention of ancient usages is put forth as one of these interests. Here the petitioner does not appeal to ideas that lie beyond the scope of British rule, but to concepts understood as part and parcel of it. Here the writer does not intend to educate the British on the nature of his authority in the region, and the corresponding respect he feels he deserves. Instead he seeks confirmation of what he hopes to be a commonly held value — the idea that existing privileges, backed up by documents, should remain inviolable. In essence, he has attempted to tap into his learned understanding of what the role of Company administration is for him at this time.

The last two petitions in this introduction come from the middle of the nineteenth century. And even more than the one dated 1801, they are illustrative of the changes that occurred over a very short period in the relationships between petitioners and both the Company and the medium itself with which Indians approached government in southern India. The earlier petitions were presented in English. These two, however, were submitted in Telugu and were never translated by any British official or functionary of the Company.

About 20 years ago I, Sivichettu Bhúmi of Dachepalli was possessed by [the god] Venkateswara. Every Saturday I got some grain from devotees. And for years I lived on that. One day the god came to me in a dream and told me that he lives in a corner of my house. The next day I found an idol in my house, and began doing puja to it everyday. But suddenly a drought has come to our area and no one is able to give me anything to give to the god in my house. I thus have nothing to live on and ask the honorable C. P. Brown to help me do puja. 7

I, Aluri Náráyanappa, married 10 years ago, but my wife died one year ago. I decided to remarry, this time to a 12 year old girl from my own village. But the girl's parents wanted a kanyásulkam (bride price) of Rs. 60. They made an agreement that I would have to pay before a certain date. But I did not have the money to pay the bride price. The bride's parents are now trying to sell her for Rs. 500, since the date has passed. I thus seek C. P. Brown's assistance to marry this girl. 8 


Clearly, both these petitions indicate that the roles of Company officials extended much further than the earlier petitions even assumed they should or could. The level of expectation for assistance and redress is extremely high here. The change in tone that generally heightened familiarity is increasingly typical of the petitions that would be submitted to collectors and other officials for inspection as the nineteenth century wore on. To note this, however, is to mark another, more significant, trend in the writing of petitions during this period. It was not necessarily true that Telugu speakers felt more free over time to petition; rather, it is likely that the petition had become a basic and convenient medium for expressing who one was to government officers. This is critical because it then became possible for a huge variety of Telugu speakers early on, as early as the first quarter of the nineteenth century, to articulate through official channels who they were and how they wished to be labeled and dealt with. As will be the case with the Bobbili Katha and the printing press, and with the combination of physical action and petitions for weavers in later chapters, institutional devices became available for people of this region in the nineteenth century that permitted them to shape (anew, if desired) how they talked about themselves and opened up for them the very much political nature of expressing their identities.

The process that we will see here in the case of the petition and its role, for instance, in helping certain Telugu speakers resolve village boundary disputes (as was examined in the previous chapter), is consistent with the thesis of this work as a whole. Much earlier than historians have recorded, Indians were able to communicate the political bounds of their culture and society through emerging media. By the time that a nationalist discourse can be said to have developed, Indians were already familiar with the means by which to articulate categories that transcended "traditional" labels. The early-nineteenth-century politics of culture demonstrate that Telugu speakers were creating new meanings for categories themselves at the very moment that a colonial apparatus was attempting to contain its subjects with bureaucratic devices as well as with manageable groupings and namings. I propose to demonstrate that petitioners ultimately came to use the petition freely precisely because it offered a chance to voice historically contingent categories that derived not from some abstract discourse on the self, but from the experience of acts of solidarity that could be conjured up in the writing of a petition to reaffirm a group's identity. In fact, the petition proved particularly well suited for this sort of articulation.

The Place of the Petition within the Archives


The Madras Board of Revenue's Registry of Petitions was begun in 1817. It lists merely the briefest details of a given petition, and served as a means of easing the demands of space that petitions were making on the pages of the Board's consultation volumes by that time. Except in extraordinary cases, the full text of a petition was no longer added to the record, but was stored separately in the archive. 9 The registry itself records increasing numbers of petitions received almost every year throughout the first half of the nineteenth century. 10 Although the actual petitions were not recorded in this registry, its lists of petitioners leave us some means by which to quantify the use of petitions by South Indians. The registry paints a picture of grievances having come from locales spread across the entirety of South India. Beyond the registry for this post-1817 period, located in the Government Oriental Manuscript Library in Madras, are ten volumes of Telugu-language petitions addressed to Charles Philip Brown, a Madras civil servant who was stationed for most of his career in Telugu-speaking areas of South India, and who became a prominent figure in the world of literary Telugu during the middle part of the nineteenth century. 11 These volumes, containing hundreds of petitions from the 1830s and 1840s, are testament not only to Brown's personal penchant for collecting and preserving such documents, but, as with the government's petition register, reflect the ease with which Telugu speakers had, by that time, taken to using the petition as a particular forum for expression and a means of contacting government and government officials.

The history of the writing of petitions in South India is certainly long and varied. And, indeed, it neither begins with the registry of petitions, nor ends with the passing of C. P. Brown, himself a symbol of an apogee of interest in Telugu by the British in India. 12 But the turning of the nineteenth century nevertheless stands out in that history of petitions inasmuch as it brought with it a time when changes in the nature of British administration in India coincided with an increased use of East India Company structures by Telugu speakers. British officials and Indians in South India were in the midst of hammering out land tenure systems and other means of administering the areas recently acquired by the Company in the South. Government officials, land owners, peasants, and others were all in the process of trying to balance both ryotwari ideas of taxation (where smaller-scale land owners prevailed — and thus contracted directly with revenue officials) and permanent settlement ideas (in areas where large-scale land owners, zamindars, were prominent), as well as searching for ways either to maximize revenue in general, or to oppose the imposition of various revenue schemes, as the situation dictated. The permanent settlement, for instance, was only instituted in the South in 1802, and only then for two years before being changed to a combination of permanent and other land tenure schemes. Bureaucratic structures were also changing accordingly in the course of both the British and Indians looking for ways to give them firmer and more acceptable shape. The process of negotiating the terms of Company rule overall meant that Indians were increasingly participating in the structures of that juridical rule — the petition being one such medium for engaging Company administration. A number of works on the history of such changes in South India during this period have documented these processes. 13 But a history of the petition as a resource for expressing categories that designated cultural groupings has not been explored.

The petition of late eighteenth and early nineteenth century India existed as an outgrowth of many possible traditions. I will focus on two in particular here: (1) the long-established practice of petitioning among inhabitants of Britain and British subjects elsewhere, and (2) the South Indian institution of the arzee — a term, originally from Arabic, most often translated as "petition." 14 Though it is not within the scope of this work to outline a history of the petition itself, it is worthy of note that for neither party, the East India Company and Telugu speakers, was the petition a foreign object, one without meaning at a broad level by the time of the arrival of East India Company administration in the region. I hope to demonstrate that two phenomena worked together to allow that short period, the first half of the nineteenth century, to be a fruitful time for the construction of knowledge about the self for Telugu speakers. To begin with, there was an historical familiarity with the institution of the arzee/petition. Second, the first half of the nineteenth century saw the first significant inroads made by the East India Company administration into Telugu-speaking areas. The historically contingent overlapping of these two events meant that calls for expressions of solidarity, or references in petitions to solidarities of the past among groups of Indians, could lead to the formation of new knowledge about the self (within the context of existing categories), and even to the production of new categories that would then be bounded not by existing meanings, but be based on the remade understandings of those historical solidarities.

Varying Functions for the Petition


Petitions clearly served a number of purposes for Indians in this period. A cross-section of petitions within a relatively tight time frame will indicate how petitioners came to understand the full range of possibilities available for them by the use of that medium. With each petition I plan to show how the language used by petitioners, regardless of stated purpose for the petition, ultimately came back to a statement about the self. This was the case whether that statement concerned the rights an individual subject should enjoy, or whether it involved visions of how society needed to be changed to accommodate the politics of identity.

One of the earlier Telugu language petitions available in the records of the East India Company from the area near Nellore in southern India includes the following:

During the time Mr. Thomas Townsend was deputy (who well experienced in the Gentoo Language) to the collector Mr. I. B. Travers the business of the inhabitants was conducted with strict justice, and the inhabitants lived in contentment whereby the Company's Revenue flourished and we prospered; on that gentleman being appointed to a new station, we were oppressed with violence (perhaps through the evil intrigues of the Collector's Dubash) and the gentleman being deficient in the Gentoo language and from adhering to the advice of his Dubash he was induced to punish and confine a number of Inhabitants in Irons. 15

The "inhabitants of Nellore" and their request of the Governor in Council at Madras are significant for two specific reasons. For one it offers a time index with its use of "Gentoo" for Telugu, a convention done away with soon after the date of this petition. More important, these petitioners also petitioned as a specifically defined group — the inhabitants of Nellore — thereby employing the equation of people with place.

Petitions from groups such as this tended to carry greater weight than those from individuals. They were worded carefully in ways that suggested the wider concerns of people in the area, an attempt in this instance, perhaps, to counter testimony from the collector or from a powerful zamindar. Petitions from groups also provided a shield against the retaliation that might face an individual who complained too much. But an even more forceful aspect of the purport of this petition is the fact that it sought to situate its petitioners within a much broader social setting than that of a group of malcontents. The document was from "the inhabitants of Nellore." Because the petition, in special ways, was itself a means by which to articulate structure in society, the petitioners here could stake out and thus define for themselves and for the British the largest possible geographic and linguistic — Telugu — bases, at once making their request more substantial and framing the terms of a new solidarity. They were describing a relationship (existing or hoped for) between themselves and government.

The petitioners asked government to act in accordance with "strict justice," and they sought a contentment observed during the administration of the previous collector. This last angle allowed the body of their request to remain within the scope of Company rule, objecting only to one particular aspect of it. Petitioners had come to realize that the strongest bases for their arguments lay in clearly establishing to Company officials the exact breadth and nature of who they claimed to be, since "who they were" translated into setting a standard for how the Company would treat them in the future. Of course, such clarity of purpose also indicates that the terms of the relationships between the East India Company and Indians were still open to adjustment through dialogue.

An even earlier petition from the Nellore area (used earlier to illustrate the language of earlier petitions) pursued a similar objective to this petition from 1808, and offers another good example of the function of the petition as genre. Again, but more fully:

Now W. Travers [collector of Nellore] influenced by the assertions of the Ryots of Nellore has directed the ancient usages [mamool?] to be infringed — I have always been attached to the Interests of the Company and expect their protection in every case .... I am hopeful that Mr. Travers will be directed to observe the ancient usages — I enclose a mahrattah paper containing an account of the subjects in dispute whence every circumstance will be known — I am anxious that the ancient usages should be confirmed. 16

In this case, even more so than the document from 1808, the petitioner sought to mark out his particular relationship to the Company. This zamindar asserted a loyalty to the Company that he hoped would supersede the local interests of its representative, the collector. He made known his intricate connection with the British ("attached to the Interests of the Company"), and he intoned what seems to be his realization of an increasingly long term presence by the British. That is, here he did not feel the need to call for a return to a previous administration. The zamindar did, however, hearken back, as was common practice in such cases, to an acceptable great authority, "ancient" (and thus unimpeachable) usage. But by this time petitioners had come to understand the British tendency to give greater credence to pleas that contained some textual basis for precedence. History and "ancient usages" were decreasingly important, these being the foremost parts of the 1778 petition, for instance, however, insufficient here. This petition was careful, therefore, to include a document, a "mahrattah paper," that might substantiate the claims spelled out in the text. So the zamindar not only followed the "rule" of making sure that the Company knew who he was and what he expected as a result of that from government, he also displayed his knowledge of the ins and outs of British thinking on such matters with the added inclusion of the document. Thus it is clear that petitions reflected a number of the changing shared understandings that both the British and Telugu speakers were going through.

There is a further feature common to both these two petitions from Nellore that calls for examination. The petitions here also located the petitioners in connection to a party other than that of the Company (and its collectors). In this case that party was the "ryots of Nellore." The inclusion of this third party reveals a structural aspect to the petition that resounds in the later Nellore petition also. This reference to and use of the third party even more thoroughly situates the petitioner(s) in his social setting. In 1808 the third party is the team of the Dubash 17 and collector. In this 1801 petition it is a slightly different union, the ryots and the collector. In both petitions the three basic groups are the same, that is, ryots (growers — the petitioners in 1808 and the wrongful in 1801), the collector (in both cases not wrong himself, simply misled), and a specific lone figure, one endowed with Company granted privileges (Dubash, a local official, and zamindar, landowner). Of importance here, and telling of the structural role of the petition, is the fact that a different point in the triangle of parties is petitioning in each case. The key feature of both these instances is that the petition was used in each case as the bureaucratically available vehicle for expression, regardless of which type of party sought redress. Thus though the zamindar of Venkatagiri called for a reinstating of "ancient usages" and a general resumption of hierarchy and order that suited his visions of society, he also called for an assertion of British authority in his favor with respect to a third party, the ryots. The inhabitants of Nellore, on the other hand, sought government help to stave off the intrigues of the Dubash in order to reinstate mamúl. In each case the government was asked to become the arbiter of usage (mamúl) with the presumption that the arbitration would ultimately result in the petitioner's favor.

The petition, however, involved more than an opportunity to resolve triangulated disagreements. Its suitability for these very different parties was predicated on what the petition as a genre had to offer petitioners, and how it worked in relation to existing structures of power. Identifying the triangulation of parties, the fact that groups sought Company intervention in disputes, was itself a means for petitioners to stake out and define spaces for themselves in society. In both these cases the petition served as an act of placing (or categorizing). There was a placing of the petitioner in relation to others in society and government. There was a placing of all parties in relation to positions of power. The zamindar reminded his readers that he was attached to the interests of the Company , and the inhabitants of Nellore asked the Board to note that the Company's revenue flourished because of them. With their places clearly defined, the petitioners could then renounce certain powers (the powers that normally would have permitted them to resolve the conflicts themselves), and bequeath those powers to government, ironically, with the hope that similar powers would be returned to the petitioners in a more potent form (given that the Company eventually decided in their favors). Of the wide variety of roles that the petition played in this society, then, the opportunity it offered in the minds of petitioners for the drawing of lines between and around groups was critical.

By means of variations on a theme, the petition offered a chance to circumscribe visions of society in many other ways also. Its rhetoric encompassed hopes, and delineated what constituted transgression. The petition, for instance, could give a woman a rare chance to express in the records her vision of the appropriate relationships between women and governmental authority. A clear example of this was the case of the Rajah of Bobbili's wife, Chandrammah, who in 1817, after being accosted by the district magistrate's officers, petitioned the collector at Vizagapatam. She insisted, "Family women of rank are never required to appear in person before a magistrate." 18 The magistrate had nevertheless ordered the police into her quarters, where they "dragged me out by laying hold of my arms and exercised towards me all kinds of rudeness." 19 For Chandrammah, a woman, the petition offered a space for expression of this kind, a space to develop a strategy about where she fit in, a space not available in other loci for expression. 20

This use of the petition and its ability to outline visions and models of the social order worked also to suggest ways that those models might be reinserted into the petitioners' society once a (perceived) disturbance had taken place. Take here the case of the "head barbers" from an area near Rajahmundry, who claimed a dispute with another group of barbers.

There are some Moochelkah Papers in our possession to shew that they have no right to meddle with our People of the said Circar. Unless the Circar please to punish the wrong[ing] party and write [sic: right?] the injured party in this case no Barbers can remain in the villages. 21

According to this petition there is only one way to reestablish order and set matters straight in the area. The barbers have their basis of authority (the muchilika, a written agreement). And they make reference to that document to bolster their case, as we have seen documents referred to elsewhere. But they also introduce another consequence of the dispute as a whole. Unlike other petitions, they did not simply hope that the Company would restore their position. Rather, they insisted that restoration was the only option available to the Company. And, failing that restoration, they would subvert the existing order by uprooting themselves and leaving the area. They made it clear that they alone knew best how to rectify the problem before them. That solution was based both on an understanding of the order of the society in which they operated, and on their understanding that the petition offered a space for such an assertion. They asserted their correctness in this case — their right to be who they were, and to act in the future in a desired fashion — by petitioning the Company to settle the dispute, and to settle it in a particular way.

All of the goals that we have seen earlier from a variety of petitioners were inherent components of the petition as a genre of expression. When we consider petitions in their roles of historical source material produced by South Indians, however, we find they offer other important intrinsic characteristics. As the first level of recorded grievances from locals, they tend to be useful as the "rawest" statements in what sometimes became drawn-out legal battles. Later statements taken as testimony in litigation that stemmed originally from petitions took on a legalese that masked the petition's unique presentation of self. But the language of these petitions as historical sources was significant even beyond its concerns with assertions of the self. More than other text media for expression (essays, letters, stories, etc.) the petition served as a space in which a virtual one-to-one correspondence existed between function and expressed intent. The petition's role as a completely public offering of expression and outliner of structure in society gives it a privileged position among sources. Its "publicity" compelled the petition's language to be utterly embedded in forms of civility (language that operated within the logos of what it was to be a subject of Company governance), and thus almost completely lacking in a candor that privacy might bring. That is, in a sense these sources can be read as perfectly biased historical documents, understandable only within the realm of their temporal and social context — intended only for the moment, and absent of meaning the instant after they were read by their receivers.

The necessary publicity of the petition, therefore, combined with its increased use in the nineteenth century, despite the complexity of conveying meaning in so public a document, indicates another development of this period. The larger nexus of interdependence in Indian society was growing, altering very basic structures in society. This is best seen in the changed tone of petitions and in the wider range of petitioners who used that medium. More Indians offered their lives and disputes to be adjudicated by the Company. 22 Change in the level of interdependence in society is represented by a sea change in the way individuals were able to interact. There existed a greater ability by groups to rely on others as a means of functioning in society. The proliferating uses of the petition reflected in many ways this change. A higher level of interdependence, moreover, required a greater ability to express the self, and the group's self, in relation to others. In other words, we are also seeing here, in the changing form of the petition itself, a growing sense of the importance Indians chose to place on being able to assert category meanings, and on the framing of relationships with government. One of the best ways to observe this concern for the control over categories is through the naming and typing phenomena in the language of petitions from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

The Uses of Naming in the Context of the Petition


The emerging process of petitioners more thoroughly naming and categorizing themselves into bureaucratically articulable units to the point that those units (groups) adopted the political imperatives of the categories in use (and, in turn, proliferated discourses on the self according to the newly construed terms of those categories) is most evident in the early part of the nineteenth century. It was then that the message was becoming clear that there was a productive basis in locals adopting more strictly understood categories about themselves, and thus a constructive reason for Telugu speakers to engage in the discourses of the self. Importantly, the notion that locals could benefit from internalizing the epistemologies inherent in group names is also evident from observations made by Company officials, and by the records of the Company. Though the British only slowly came to terms with this issue, a few examples show how they were actually compelled to respond to the categorizing process.

Before the nineteenth century, the politics of categories were much more subdued in the context of the records. A 1798 discussion of a petition indicates the tail end of a time when it was enough simply to name the situation involving and circumstances of a complaint, and not necessarily the people involved:

Sir, Enclosed I have the honor of forwarding to you copy of a Petition addressed to me by the bearer an Inhabitant of this place between whom and her husband a disagreement having sometime since arisen. She requested that he might be compelled to allow her sufficient for her maintenance which he accordingly agreed to supply her with but which he has of late not only withheld but has repaired to Peddapore with an intention of marrying another person I have to request therefore that you will prevent his marriage taking place unless he can prove the charge he alleges against her and which only by the rules of their Cast can dispense with the necessity for it or should she no longer withhold her compliance that you will direct him to give her the daily allowance mentioned in her petition. I am ...

Rajahmundry Benjamin Branfill 

3rd March 1798 Collector 3rd Division 23 


Branfill can speak obliquely about the woman's caste — which is almost certainly here only a gloss for religion in the mind of the collector. He is able to focus on her economic situation and the physical geography of the people involved, only the most basic aspect of "placing" evident in later supplications, and constituent features of all petitions. Her caste, her role as a Hindu woman, or any of what later would become vital questions as to who she is are only marginal particulars in this report.

Similarly, Branfill's assistant, John Read, could translate a letter that narrated events in a village in 1798 using rather transparent and denotative terms. "Mandapatty Soobadoo a cowkeeper (who [is] an Inhabitant of Viswanampollam ...) and a husbandman of Dammerlah[,] Ramaiah Mockasady of Caparrow" had destroyed some crops. 24 In the course of bringing these men to the collector for punishment the Mahassoldar and Byraggy were attacked by the "Inhabitants of the said Village[, mainly] Pariars, Toddydrawers, and Cowkeepers." 25 No labels anywhere in the petition use Telugu-language group terms. The later necessary identification of a name with the people it signified had not yet taken complete hold. Initial or perfunctory descriptions, which went no further than the contextualized, Company-related functional description of a person, disregarded specific játi names and religion. Note that Read even used a Tamil term, "Pariars," in this Telugu-speaking area to describe a group of people. At this time the British were still able (perhaps more so than Telugu speakers) to use great latitude in avoiding (if they so chose) the naming and categorizing of Indians: in that way also avoiding the incumbent and heightening politics of those terms as well. They could still speak in the most general ways about people and groups. There would come a time later when they could not be so casual. 26

Another typical moment of this earlier indefiniteness in labeling by the British came in the form of their uses of group names in information they compiled. A list of deserters from the army in one case had column headings that included the deserter's name, age, height, country, color, and "cast" [sic]. 27 The column under "colors" in this list used the following designations: brown, light brown, dark brown, dark, and black. (Other such lists added the phrase "bamboo colored.") Furthermore, the "cast" column set forth a range of terms that would appear out of place in a comparable list from the end of the nineteenth century. Of the first thirty people in this 1797 list there were:
















The conscious political typing that emerged by the time of the census lists of 1881, for instance, is absent here in 1797 when the metaphorical aspects of caste as a means of typing prevailed. 28 The politicization of the group self and the practice that accompanied it — compelling all to recognize and employ the group's own terms — was arising almost at this same time as a result of the in-depth wrangling, chiefly in the bureaucratic forum, by and about those groups. This politicization (and identity assertion), as we saw with boundary disputes, emerged precisely in the further discursive circumscription of who groups insisted they were.

The ultimate signal that the politicization of caste had an increasing influence on the British (and contrary to the idea that the latter politicized caste for Indians) is laid out in a directive that the Governor in Council ordered implemented among all of its servants. This 1820 circular recognized the inadequacy of existing practices, and set a new basis for action by the British with relation to how Indians chose to represent themselves.

You will perceive that the Governor in Council is of opinion, that the disputes between the castes require to be regulated, not by the reasonableness of the thing in dispute, but by the prevailing prejudices of the parties concerned. Things innocent in themselves, therefore, cannot be sanctioned with reference to the natural rights of men, if, according to established usage and general opinion they be calculated to produce dissatisfaction and disorder.

You will also understand that as the usage of one district or of one part of a district, with respect to matters of caste, often differs from that of another, the inhabitants of every place should be required to abide by their own usage. 29 


Putting aside the other issue of the orientalist and Enlightenment-produced idea that Indians did not have a sense of the "natural rights of men," in a sense, by this time actions taken by Indians and the East India Company language concerning Indians were ceasing to be considered readily transparent. There was a new understanding among all parties that Indian categories would have to be reckoned with. Thus Telugu speakers had, by 1820, through opportunities for expression with the British, for one, begun to dictate the terms of their own identities even to this government board in Madras.

On the other hand, to see how the categorizing process worked from the point of view of Telugu speakers, it is important to recognize that petitioners framed their requests using carefully chosen categories, in large part, as a way to empower themselves towards directing the attention of Company officials to the specifics of their grievances. Lists within petitions, for example, are glaringly telling in their considered use of group terms. Generally, the petition as genre called out for, among other things, lists and figures, and Telugu speakers provided them in abundance. In 1795 Rajah Geetanaraow issued a petition designating the various people under his protection. This submission to the collector at Guntur, George Ram, was made to bolster the Raja's claim for the generous pension he had requested from the East India Company. The names of groups listed in the petition feature some interesting inclusions:





slave boys

slave girls

palanquin boys

Jettys — Prise fighers


But it is the last grouping that most notably marks this raja's payroll; he concludes the enumeration with thirteen "Gumastahs vacquils seristadars and Bramins etc.." 30 In fact, this lumping together does not appear so unusual through the first three terms, all of which were titles for officers who held some of the various positions of governance at the local level for the East India Company and other rulers. That is, vakil, gomastah, and sheristadar are Persian terms referring to various office holders under local administrations. But a clear ordering in the group as a whole seems to end there. With the inclusion of "Bramin," the coherency of the Rajah's particular collection in this case appears to break down, for Bráhman is almost always a term with caste and religious implications only.

If there is a disjuncture in the listing, then, we must consider what may seem the rather odd suggestion that "Bramin" was at this time an office-holding term as well as a caste and religious term. Perhaps this seems highly insignificant. But even if we were to discount "Bramin" as an aberration, the "etc." would complicate matters further by leaving it unclear as to what the next item in the list could possibly be. Furthermore, there is no doubt that petitioners worded their letters carefully. This raja, for instance, late in the arzee, made sure to mention, "we are Zamindars we must therefore perform according to the usual custom." With this little line he restated explicitly for the reader his own sense of the valued place he held in relation to government, and he reminded that reader of the Rajah's attachment to tradition, both of which happened to be the salient issues for which the collector would look when reading this document. The care Geetanaraow took to word his document purposefully is made even clearer by the wording of the petition following his in the records, a petition of a similar nature. That subsequent letter omits the word "Bramin" in its list of officers retained by the raja. 31 The optional nature of including this term in such lists lends credence to the idea that Geetanaraow had other motives for its presence in his petition.

Thus, if we grant that Rajah Geetanaraow knew exactly what he was doing when he wrote, "Bramins etc.," the conclusions we may draw from this list are considerably narrowed. Bramin here was included as a means of adding weight to a list of functionaries, precisely as the contrast with the next petition indicates. Telugu speakers were aware that the term Bráhman had importance for the British. This is clear in Geetanaraow's petition and, as we will see, in another petition from two widows. The use of Bráhman stands out for the very reason that for Telugu speakers at this time it was not solely a religious/caste term or grouping. It was invoked because the petitioners knew the British considered "Bráhman" as being part of a larger Hindu/religious trope, and because they knew that the British privileged the religious in Indian society, even if Telugu speakers themselves did not give the category an exclusively religious intent. 32

There is an even further nuanced aspect of the naming act. The invocation of "Bramins" in this particular way places that "Bráhman-as-sign-of-religion" meaning irrevocably back into the larger play of cultural signs and meanings surrounding categories used by Telugu speakers and the British. The petitioners here give the British what they think the British want, but they are also engaging in a process of changing the ways they construe their own worlds. Because Telugu speakers by now clearly understood both valences of "Bráhman" (their own wider meaning, and that narrower one that the British tended to employ), the epistemology behind such a category was then available, as an unavoidable consequence of the process, to the set of deployments of that term in the future. This moment in the use of the term Bráhman offers a look at the types of negotiations that went on towards establishing epistemologies of cultural categories more pervasively over time.

Of course, Indians and the British engaged in this same type of negotiation elsewhere as well. A petition of 1820 submitted by "Venkumah and Vissummah the Mothers of Doorga Prasad Naidoo Minor Zamindar of Davaracotah" asks for a particular land classification to be applied to a gift they made to two men.

During the performance of our husbands obsequies we granted to Mooloogoo Rungacharloo 1/2 cutty of land at Potarlunka, and 1/2 Cutty to Vamoory Seeniah at Pagole, consequently we request you will be pleased to order the above mentioned land to be possessed as Mauniam for those two Bramins. 33

It is clear here that the petitioners are using the language of Company bureaucracy. There is a coherency throughout the petition with regard to the naming of people and things. The terms, portions and conditions of the giving of land are precise. So it is also likely that not just any two persons would be beneficiaries of the gift of land. The men were "Bramins." Petitioners knew that, for the purposes of the Company's classification scheme, caste equaled religion. 34 As in Rajah Geetanaraow's petition, "Bramin" was most certainly viewed as adding weight to a request. Petitioners felt they could count on the British granting requests for Bráhmans, the people the British identified as the arbiters of Hindu culture and society. The widows were careful to designate that their gift of land should be seen as an act of charity for two religious figures.

It turns out, however, that there is an inconsistency at the juxtaposition of Bráhman with maunium land, an inconsistency that exactly corresponds to the Rajah's listing of Bráhmans with vákils, etc.. Maunium land, within the British taxation system, was rent-free land (or land with little assessment at all) specifically designated for village functionaries and officials. 35 The term Bráhman, then, in the world of the Telugu speaker, by 1820, was clearly capable of being as wedded to its meaning of functionary as it could be to the meaning relating to a religious figure. The tax classification of the land for which they were making the request was not a randomly chosen category. The grant was intended to be used as a repayment for the obsequies that only Bráhmans could perform in the first place. But for the petition to succeed in having this land granted as such — tax free, these men had to be functionaries, as well as Bráhmans, the priest caste. The petitioners, by actually naming the men as Bráhmans, were signaling to the British that they did indeed have an awareness of the privileged status accorded that group. This is to say, there was no reason that the petitioners needed to state that the men were Bráhmans except to assure themselves that the British would take this as security for making a particular type of grant of land. The widows had to know the kinds of categorizing that the British were capable of in order for their request to function within the framework of the petition.

This case has similarities to a situation that took place on the other side of the bureaucratic divide. In 1829 the collector at Rajahmundry, John T. Anstey, summed up his explanation of how land should be assessed for taxation. Anstey proclaimed that normally it was to be a straight tax, "except where the Ryot is of the Rajah caste or Bramin Caste in which case as he is unable to cultivate himself and must employ others for that purpose." 36 Unlike the list of deserters from 1797, an essentializing aspect of depicting caste, at least for the two named groups, holds sway here. For Indians, however, the implications of Company officials construing "Bramin" in this way were not inconsiderable. Uses of that term in petitions to officials thus had to take its bureaucratic construction into account. Again, this was evident in the petition from the two widows. The invocation of Bráhman was important there for its obvious indication of their understanding of British categories and privilege bestowal. But to leave the use of the term at an acknowledgment of British constructions of a category would fail to recognize the ways in which the widows were negotiating its meanings themselves. The naming of the men went further than the understanding of existing meanings: it also marked them. Nowhere else in the petition were they named as "Bramins" before the last word in the document. The marking literally closed the petition, but it also closed the group it marked. That is, the widows had essentialized the term in order to convey their desires. Marking such as this was a productive mechanism for petitioners. This and other petitions participated in these types of constructions (here, of "Bráhman"), helping to make more powerful its new meaning. This transformation of Bráhman is another example of the reworking of the discourse of the politics of culture — or identity — and how the petition functioned as a medium of such.

Yet, taking all of this into account might still elicit the notion that the inclusion of "Bramin" in the petition was perhaps not sufficiently revealing of the process I am presenting here. It might very well be argued that Bráhman was the one caste that did in fact maintain some consistency over time, that did have a discourse on the self for itself. At work here, however, is more than a challenge to the understanding of "Bráhman-ness." This petition from the two widows highlights the naming process of this period and how it was conducted and furthered in the course of negotiating with Company bureaucracy. Petitioners gave themselves and their groupings contextually specific and historically determined names because they sought to achieve some level of understanding for the terms that went beyond the existing confines of the labels already in use. The names they employed had to carry some connotative weight that would further the goal of the petition as a whole. In another case, for instance, one that plays with játi categories again, but a játi other than that of Bráhman, the collector of the Godavari District translated one arzee as follows:

Enter Petition of this Date Banian Widow — To the Worshipful Thomas Snodgrass Esq. — The humble Petition of Dasary Letchemu a Poor Widow of Banian Cast belonging to Cocanadah —

Shewith —  

One Cuttah Chendriah a Banian man of Pourah Village before these three years past being used to come to Cocanadah upon his own traffick business he became Acquaintance to me because I permitted him to dress his Victuals in My House — As I have no Brother etc. People to take care of me and I have got some Estate I was in search for a trustee and he the said Banian assured me upon Oath to take care of me and my business and to part with his Money very freely to me by maintaining me and my most aged Mother at his expense if I together with my whole Estate be put into his hands and possession. In consequence of the solemn Oath and promise made by him I have put my trusts in him and delivered the whole of my things and Money to his Charge without receiving any voucher from him in proof of the same — but he having afterwards affirmed me to be a Dalayats[,] spoilt my Cast and deprived me of the Undermentioned things and ready money and turned me from his charge, my said defendant is here and tells me whenever he sees me that he will spend my money in bribing the People against my Complaint. 37 


As with "Bramin" above, Banian here carried a weight out of proportion to its mere inclusion in the document. The woman's position as a Banian, with any of the respectability that might have accompanied it, was in jeopardy. Transgression of the boundaries of Banian right-action made her status in society intolerable. The naming and the closure of understanding with regard to the term were thus imperative to her plea. She had to rely on and insist on the rights due a Banian widow in order to strengthen her grievance. This attempt to create new meaning with naming changes the understandings of these categories for all, not just the petitioners and the British. Once convenient metaphors for groups or functionaries, these names took on essences that stayed with them and framed future discussions of these marked groups.

The care taken in the deployment of categories, deployment that participated in the creation of knowledge about those categories, could also work to produce efforts in the opposite direction once certain meanings relating to specific terms had taken hold in society. This is clear if we accept the process by which group labels incorporated historically determined meanings. For we must also recognize that inevitably subsequent nuancings of those meanings would result. In a petition submitted in Nellore in response to accusations against the group of petitioners, for example, four men hoped to take away from the connotations that had, by 1820, worked their ways into discourse surrounding certain játi names. In most of the references to this petition the British officials referred to the petitioners as "Reddies," a játi name for people generally considered by Company officials to be a wealthy group of cultivators. But in the petition itself those "Reddies" carefully used other words to describe themselves. "No persons are affronted in the Company's Government but treated with civility, we are Ryots and to be considered as children of the Honorable Company." 38 The term ryot had in other petitions been used for the smallest of land owners, and as a way to distinguish them from larger and more powerful land holding mirasidars, or even Reddies. This retreat from certain labels became even more widespread later in the century with reactions to British attempts to fully classify Indians through the census and various other schemes. I will address this when I come to a discussion of weavers in Coastal Andhra. For now it is important simply to note that the process of creating meanings associated with terms, and then refining those meanings, within the scope of British rule in India, had been taking place for a considerable period of time before those late nineteenth century bureaucratic institutions eventually came into their own.

Coming Full Cycle


As mentioned earlier, the British tended to play catch-up in the various applications of local terminology (if they used them at all). This delay was especially evident in cases where groups chose new names to represent themselves. As the nineteenth century progressed, however, local officials became far less reluctant or delinquent in such use, and were eventually frequent utterers of local terms, labels and categories. This may have indicated a desire to control certain aspects of society at that local level. But it also certainly represented the results of the intense negotiations that had been going on, and that were evident in the naming process we have seen in petitions throughout this period. By century's end, local officials actually came to be at odds, in their use of terminology, with administrators in Madras and elsewhere in India, and quite in disagreement with the directors and ministers in London. The repercussions of insinuations of category and term usage into the official bureaucratic discourse, especially the extent to which it found its way into the language of local officials, reached up to the highest levels of Company and, eventually, Government of India administration. This thoroughgoing insinuation shows the depth of the changing relationships between British officials and Indians throughout the nineteenth century. It was a series of exchanges that no one could stop.

Furthermore, the petition was one of the chief vehicles of this process. The fact that the petition could be a place for locals to spell out visions they had of society meant that it also provided an opportunity for reflection and introspection for the petitioners themselves, reflection that gave insight into proposed models for that society and life. In numerous respects these visions were extreme, at times rhetorical, or, at others, a series of postures. And though they are evident in many of the petitions from Telugu speakers, most of those ideas and idylls were not fully adopted into mainstream Company and British official discourse. But, at a different level, a level that, while less significant, still shows how the flow of ideas could work, terms and categories did move from Indians and into, and through their British "others," even if many of the main ideas from petitions did not transfer. In fact, the history of this "bottom-up" relationship is quite clear, and can be seen in many ways. A petition of 1829 that originated in the region near Rajahmundry, and the equivalence of language that collector and Telugu speakers were able to employ, shows this. The "Munsiff, Curnums, and Ryots of Palicote and Contaroo" complained of overassessment. 39 The petitioners sought a reference to a settlement from their "Dutch past" as a basis for setting the tax on crops. But the collector had his reasons for not acceding to the demands of the petitioners.

At the time of making Jummabundy in Fuslies 1235 and 36, the then Collectors having found the Government was sustaining a loss by the settlement upon the Kyle in consequence of the Ryots concealing part of their produce, made their settlements upon the anchanah instead of the Kyle and when I made the settlement for last fusly having learnt that great abuses were practised in these villages through the intrigues of certain Dutch residents there and that the Government did not get its full share of the actual produce either by the settlement upon the Kyle or by the Nevaudah upon the anchanah, I endeavoured to persuade the Ryots to accept a Veesabady or money assessment or to take the villages on rent but they would not consent to either of these proposals and insisted on their produce being Kyled. 40

He continued on with his version to the Board of Revenue by using such terms as pootees, muchilika, and pauloo. The employment of "indigenous" terms in reports such as this to Madras was significant in that it demonstrated an attempt on the part of local British officials to work with terms and categories at hand. The fact that the collector chose (or felt compelled) to gloss the terms veesabady and, later, pauloo for the Board hints at the collector's awareness of a gap in the way officials construed society at the local versus the way it was done at the presidency level. There had been an ongoing dialogue between the Telugu speakers around him and the collector himself. And this dialogue showed itself in the way the collector eventually selected to express himself.

It also appears odd that the collector should have used the local terms at all when he could have simply used glosses in his report, especially since he did this anyway for a number of terms. In fact, later the Board would censure the use by collectors of all but a select group of "indigenous terms." 41 Becoming "too native" — as this use of language perhaps indicated to them — was not a simple result of a Westerner's choice, but an outcome of the interactions in which he was partaking on a daily basis. Even more so, this use of language was a result of the unavoidable creation of knowledge that accompanied those interactions; it reflected an epistemology that was being produced through negotiation and dialogue, an epistemology that made possible the insinuation of the language of Telugu speakers into the structures of colonial bureaucratic discourses via such devices as the petition.

The interaction we see here continued at least to the end of the nineteenth century. And to a great degree it proved to be unstoppable. Early on the Court of Directors of the East India Company in London tried to arrest the increasing presence of Indian terms. But those attempts only served to show where lines of knowledge creation were being drawn. Local administrators were unable to refrain from the use of indigenous terms throughout this period. Some of the first hints at both the rift between London and Madras and the ties between local officials and Telugu speakers were given in an 1815 memorandum passed along to collectors from the Board of Revenue.

Honorable Court of Directors [are] expressive of their desire that all native terms and applications used in correspondence should be accompanied with appropriate terms or explanations in English.

I am directed by the Board to desire that in all practicable cases no native terms be used, but where it may be necessary to elucidate the meaning by reference to the name in the native language that the name or term be inserted in the margin. 42 


This was only one of the earliest examples. Again and again the government had to remind collectors that "native" terms were unacceptable.

In the circular letter from this department, No. 70-3943-52 of the 31st December, 1873, the Government of India drew attention to the instructions of the late Honourable Court of Directors regarding the use of vernacular terms in official correspondence, and requested that such terms should be employed as sparingly as possible, especially in papers which were intended to go beyond the Local Government first concerned. Again in the extract circulated with resolution No. 2-81-95 of 31st January, 1881, the Secretary of State drew attention to the inconvenience attending the use of vernacular terms in reports or official correspondence sent home to the India Office, and directed that, whenever it was considered desirable to make use of them, their English equivalents should also be given.

2. It appears to the Government of India that these instructions have in some measure been lost sight of owing to lapse of time. Letters and reports which come before the Governor-General in Council, and especially those dealing with revenue matters, are not infrequently almost unintelligible to persons unacquainted with the Province from which they are received, owing to the number of vernacular terms with which their pages are laden.

3. I am therefore to request that the use of such terms may be avoided as far as possible. It is sometimes necessary to employ vernacular words for which there exists no English equivalent; and the precise meaning of which can be conveyed in English, if at all, only by a long periphrasis. But wherever it is possible to use an English word which expresses, with sufficient accuracy for the immediate purpose, the meaning to be conveyed, this should be done. 43  


This extract is useful here because it shows how far the interactions and negotiations had gone. When local officials found that they could not express themselves in anything but those local terms, they were reflecting the inescapable power of the flow of ideas from Indians into their own understandings of the categories they used. The Government of India suggested that the reason for the continued use of indigenous terms lay in the fact that earlier directives had "been lost sight of owing to lapse of time." This was probably the farthest from the truth. Time merely showed how futile was the task of proscribing such activity. The insinuation into British bureaucratic discourse of "native" terms was one critical result of the power of media for expression such as the petition, and other dialogic bureaucratic strategies. Petitions had as much of an effect on their readers as they did on their writers.

When the Petition Did Not Work


To this point we have seen examples of how the petition functioned successfully to push forward ideas that petitioners had about their society and about how they chose to constitute their own identities. In the last section I also tried to show how the effects of the petition did not stop with the petitioner. The British, too, were forced to reckon with the new types of knowledge produced by such a medium for expression. But now, in order better to understand the fuller role of the petition itself, I turn to one case in which that forum for expression did not suit the needs of certain would-be holders of grievances. This instance helps identify the productive boundaries of the petition. The case of a group not necessarily interested in setting out the limits of the self, despite holding a grievance, differs dramatically from most of the instances laid out earlier. This may be based largely on the fact that one important effect of successfully petitioning was a reinforcement of some preexisting juridical power. The successful petition, that is, caused the British to reaffirm a set of existing relationships, offered to them for adjudication, because the petitioners sought a kind of heightening of already-held power. This was the case in the petition from the zamindar near Nellore, and in the petition from mirasidars in that area also. It follows to reason, therefore, that the petition was, in general, not the first choice of expression for the traditionally powerless, despite the fact that they certainly had their own grievances.

In October 1819 the Board of Revenue received a reply to its request of Mr. Russell, the collector at Masulipatam, that he investigate the circumstances of an unsigned petition from the shepherds at Veeravelly in his district. Russell began by complaining that "as the petition in question bears neither name, mark, nor signature; and neither states the period when the alleged grievance occurred, the number of sheep pretended to have been delivered .... I have been somewhat perplexed how to conduct my inquiries." 44 Nevertheless, Russell proceeded to undertake some investigation by rounding up and asking questions of various shepherds in the region, the following being two samples of his interviews.

Declaration of Coloosoo Veeray Head Shepherd of Veeravelly Dated Ellore 16th September, 1819

Q. Did you send such a petition to the Board?

A. We never presented such a petition.

Q. Do you know anything regarding such a petition?

A. We know nothing regarding it.

Q. Look carefully at the petition and tell me if you ever saw it before?

A. I never saw it ....

Q. Were you always paid for your sheep?

A. We were always paid for our sheep ....

/marked/ Veeroy

Taken before me 16th September, 1819

/signed/ E. Bannerman

Hd. Asst. Collector

Q. Is the Declaration now read over to you the same you gave to Mr. Bannerman?

A. Yes

Q. How many shepherds are there in your village?

A. Two houses.

Q. I remember that, when I was at Veeravelly, an old man came to me with a complaint: who is he?

A. Padakum Soobiah a Coorama man.

Q. Where is he now?

A. I don't know where he is.

Q. Is he an inhabitant of your village?

A. He is an inhabitant of Movawary Goodem the hamlet under my village.

Q. Where are his wife and children, and his flocks?

A. He has no wife nor has he any flock: he has a son of 18 years of age, who lives by charity.

Q. How long has the old man been absent from your village?

A. I have not seen him since you came to Veeravelly last year —

Taken before me

/signed/ G.E. Russell, collector 45

The first question that seems to arise immediately out of this situation is, if the petition was such a powerful tool for Telugu speakers, why were the shepherds so intent on denying any role in the sending of this petition to the Board in Madras? The petition's very success in prompting action by the Board appears to have given the shepherds a feeling more of consternation than of gratification, particularly given the firm disavowals they made during the interviews. Setting aside for the moment the absurdity of the notion that the shepherds felt they could be frank with the collector during such a "chat" (or even that the answers offered up were not a form of dissimulation), it is extremely unlikely that shepherds would wish to partake openly in the petition process in the first place. Despite the collector's confusion, the unsigned petition was completely congruous with the shepherds' roles vis--vis the Company, as well as with their own views of their selves in relation to the British. The nominal value of the petition was its offer of airing grievances. The liability for a group such as these shepherds was that redress of grievances required recognition by government as well as some acknowledgment of rights. That a petition did make its way to Madras, even anonymously, signified the popularity of the petition, but not a mastery over its form, or even an understanding of its workings. The general standing of the shepherds in relation to the Company was one offering few privileges, if any. So the process of expression through the petition here would prove to be unproductive. Without a previously held juridical power that might be left for Company reaffirmation, the petition had little substantive value at the time of its submission. The implications of this situation, however, are significant.

When the petition did achieve success, it did so because it reflected an underlying structure, and not because of its nominal value. This was the larger problem for the shepherds. The petition as a genre offered petitioners a chance to reflect on their visions of society. Without a politicization of the self, shepherds did not readily find a voice with which to express identity, let alone frame it for placement into the petition. A grievance alone, without an articulation of the self, and without some status as a corporate body to reaffirm, made the petition a hollow document with which neither the shepherds nor the collector really knew how to deal. The situation for the shepherds was in marked contrast to the one in which weavers found themselves during the same period. Weavers were able to use the petition with increasing regularity and increasing confidence once they had experienced episodes of solidarity among themselves, despite their having relatively little juridical power as a group. Those instances of solidarity (politicizing weaver selves) set the stage whereby the petition became a fruitful outlet for expressions of notions of the self in conjunction with their desires to air grievances. 46 The petition simply did not work for these shepherds at this time.

What the case of the shepherds does demonstrate is that the petition was not necessarily about the grievance named in the petition itself. The shepherds were not paid for the sheep that the army took on its way through the area. If petitions required grievances alone, this would be a perfect case for the shepherds to petition Government, as the Inhabitants of Poondamally had done many years before for a similar grievance. 47 The point here is that the entire frame of reference for the petition was first an awareness of self in relation to government, and then an ability (or even a desperate desire) to articulate that relationship. Thus the parameters for the employment of the petition as a vehicle for category assertion lay at the conjunction of two important events: first, activity that resulted in the formation of a solidarity within some group (e.g., villagers demanding a specific boundary or weavers insisting on particular rights), and second, the decision, then, to categorize that group in the space of the petition. These two apparently necessary events in connection with the availability of the petition led to a resulting circular and causal process of the petition helping to further categorize and reinforce that group's identity. This was not (had not been) the case with these shepherds. The citation of their interaction with the collector here, then, illustrates the limits of the realm in which the petition worked during this period, and for whom it might or might not be instrumental in formulating a politics of culture.

One Conclusion for the Petition


By the middle of the nineteenth century, petitions from Telugu speakers were taking on shapes that would have been unheard of to the drafters of the 1778 petition from Poondamally. Examples of two of these later types of petitions were set out at the beginning of this chapter. Yet those two represent only the tiniest portion of the flood of such documents that reached local officials every month by mid-century. The Board of Revenue in Madras even stopped recording the text of petitions altogether in its consultations volumes so excessive were the demands for space there. At the local level, however, officials were still required to read petitions, even if they took no action regarding them. Even then, while petitions continued to be important in certain ways, for many, especially officials, a cynicism had begun to set in. From that local side clearer understandings of the relationships that had come to dominate between officials and Telugu speakers made older spaces for expression less decisive in playing a role in change. An 1818 memorandum from the Head Assistant Magistrate, Vizagapatam, Hugh Montgomerie, to the Magistrate of Vizagapatam, complained that the police were not looking into claims in petitions brought forward by inhabitants. One regional police office responded with the following upon being charged that it was not acting on a variety of complaints: If we did "enquire into the plaint the parties would not pay any attention to [our] decision." 48

petitionCharles Phillip Brown's attention to and collection of the petitions that were sent to him were the exception. His interest, however, was for an altogether different reason. Brown was less concerned about making sure that petitioners received redress of their grievances than he was about whether he could make any use of the variety of letters he received in his research into Telugu grammar and prosody. He not only made sure that his office read petitions that reached him, but he also had each petition copied into a special ledger. The petitions were then rated from "A" to "F" according to the type of Telugu used in the framing of the requests. 49 Petitions that used what Brown considered affected and pedantic Telugu received an "A," while village Telugu, or other vernacular forms, received their own codings. The briefest of glimpses at Brown's collection reveals petitions that asked for everything from restitution for tusks that were stolen from a dead elephant, to financial help for a petitioner who had no one to help him at home, to a request from a group of inhabitants of a village for assistance in ousting a host of demons who were haunting houses in the area. 50

What this sort of collection represents is more telling about the relationship that had developed between Telugu speakers and the Company than about the genre of the petition. For Brown, the petition had come to be recognized as one of the most basic forms of expression from Telugu speakers. The fact that petitions were more interesting to an official whose hobby happened to be Telugu grammar than they were to the groups who were supposed to look into the complaints named in the petitions, the local police and the administration in Madras, indicates that a certain shifting had occurred in the ways that all parties were constructing knowledge about governance. Although epistemologies about the self were still being developed, they were being developed elsewhere, beyond the colonial petition, as that medium for expression had ceased being part of a dialogue that reflected the production of knowledge about the self. The petition had become archivalized, and even orientalized. The best reason for an historian to use the petition in the first place to see formations of identity was that Telugu speakers chose to employ it as the host for their explorations into the self, and because the Company encouraged such a use of the petition. Negotiations early on between the British and locals had been open to a high degree, and were engaged in by both parties for a significant period of time, at least up to the middle of the nineteenth century.

Once systems of government changed, once basic structural features of rule in India had altered, once a degree of familiarity and sedentarization had set in, as was certainly the case by the middle of the nineteenth century in India, the petition ceased to function in the same way. For Telugu speakers it was no longer primarily a place to explain who petitioners were; it was more a space in which to test the limits of Company bureaucracy and Company responsibilities to inhabitants. British officials, on the other hand, made petitions into types of orientalized documents, markers of the essences of aspects of Indian culture, items to be collected, as Brown did, as a way to catalogue knowledge about India and Indians. The petition by the middle of the nineteenth century was no longer the same space for dialogue it had been earlier.

Finally, the period of time during which the petition was a space for the negotiation of cultural categories offers a chance to see a serious series of realignments of those categories. And those realignments only succeeded because the negotiations were carried out under the particular circumstances of the early phases of Company rule in South India. The earlier petitions from the Rajah, the widows, the Banian woman, and even the later petition from the "Reddies" (two asserting Bráhman identity, one insisting on Banian identity, and one trying to distance itself from meanings associated with the label "Reddy") are uneasily juxtaposed against the language we have seen from the Company servants of this same period, the turn of the nineteenth century. The British were playing catch-up. They comprehended the voicing of these categories, but did not initially employ them in their own productions. This, it would seem, was inevitable, but perhaps it was not obvious. The production of knowledge about categories and about the self took place at the behest of Indians, and through such media for expression as the petition. There was no imposition of this knowledge from above. Although there may have been attempts on the part of the British and their bureaucracy to stave off the fruits of the epistemic process in favor of some juridically imposed notions about society and culture in India, ultimately Telugu speakers led the way and produced their own sets of categories, though all the while using the systems that colonialism had to offer. The British ultimately had to follow this lead. The signs of the production of this knowledge are many, though subtle, but always visible in the language used to articulate the self. It is when we look at other, more lively exchanges, at dialogic processes of identity formation in the heat of argument, that Telugu speakers forcefully demonstrate their intractable and imperative roles in that process. By viewing petitions and debates in the context of settling boundary disputes we saw this more clearly, as we will also now see it when looking at the history of a story, the Bobbili Katha.


Note 1: Petition Citations: Petition from 1778: "To the Honourable Sir Thomas Rumbold, President and Governor of Fort St. George and Council: The Petition of the Inhabitants of Poondamally District in the Country of the Company's Jaghir," Bancroft Library Manuscript, University of California, Berkeley. Petition from 1801: MBR Consultations, vol. 302B, nos. 25, 26, fol. 13,600 (November 1801). Petition ca. 1840: C. P. Brown, Series of Letters, vol. 1, Government Oriental Manuscript Library, Madras, MS 417, fol. 23, Mid-19th century — Undated.  Back.

Note 2: Gyanendra Pandey, "In Defense of the Fragment: Writing about Hindu-Muslim Riots in India Today," Representations 37 (Winter 1992): 50.  Back.

Note 3: Usually seen as poligar in the records, this was a Tamil term that came to be used in Telugu-speaking areas as well. It refers to local rulers.  Back.

Note 4: "To the Honourable Sir Thomas Rumbold, President and Governor of Fort St. George and Council: The Petition of the Inhabitants of Poondamally District in the Country of the Company's Jaghir," Bancroft Library Manuscript, University of California, Berkeley.  Back.

Note 5: On this issue of negotiating a mutually acceptable aesthetics of the environment in Tamil areas, see, for instance, Eugene Irschick, Dialogue and History: Constructing South India, 1795-1895 (Berkeley, 1994), 80-81.  Back.

Note 6: Madras Board of Revenue (MBR) Consultations, vol. 302B, nos. 25, 26, fol. 13,600 (November 1801). All materials in the consultation volumes of the Board of Revenue in Madras are in English, translated either in Madras by government translators or by the collector and his office at the district level. The actual Telugu-language petitions, if they still exist (most were destroyed after translation), appear only at the district level from the collectorates of the Telugu-speaking areas of South India. The records occasionally mention that an original petition is at the Head Translator's Office in Madras, but no records from that office are available.  Back.

Note 7: C. P. Brown, Series of Letters, vol. 1, Government Oriental Manuscript Library, Madras, MS 417, fol. 23, Mid 19th century — Undated.  Back.

Note 8: Brown, Series of Letters, vol. 1, MS 417, fol. 48, Mid 19th century — Undated.  Back.

Note 9: One point to note about the recording and preservation of petitions is that once they ceased being copied to the consultation volumes, their existence was compromised. The paper used by the Company was of a much higher quality and has lasted more than two hundred years in the archives. The paper used by petitioners was usually of a much poorer quality, and virtually none of the untranscribed petitions survive to this day. Although this clearly leads to another discussion of the archive's colonial contingency, it also presents us with the ironic twist that the older petitions, those prior to 1817, were preserved, and are available in the archives.  Back.

Note 10: Madras Registry of Petitions, 1817 to 1850.  Back.

Note 11: C. P. Brown, Series of Letters, vol. 1, "A Catalogue of letters," MS 417, Tamil Nadu State Oriental Manuscript Library.  Back.

Note 12: For an in-depth account of Brown's role in the world of nineteenth-century Telugu literature, see Peter Schmitthenner, "Charles Philip Brown, 1798-1884: The Legacy of an East India Company Servant and Scholar of South India" (Ph.D. dissertation., University of Wisconsin, 1992). Brown had many of the petitions he received transcribed into these volumes in order to satisfy his own interest in Telugu prosody. This practice was unusual among Madras civil servants of the time.  Back.

Note 13: For a look at the local goings on of British administrative procedures in a Telugu-speaking area, see Robert Frykenberg, Guntur District, 1788-1848: A History of Local Influence and Central Authority in South India (Oxford, 1965). C. A. Bayly's Indian Society and the Making of the British Empire (New York, 1988) is a more recent look at the overall changes that occurred in the course of British administration throughout India in the nineteenth century. Burton Stein's Thomas Munro: The Origins of the Colonial State and His Vision of Empire (Delhi, 1989) offers some insight into the case of South India through the biography of the chief architect of the land revenue system that came to prevail in numerous areas there (the ryotwari system). Munro's ideas served as an alternative to the model set by Cornwallis in Bengal and his permanent settlement, which focused on the collection of revenue through large landholders (zamindars), as opposed to Munro's focus in the South on small farmers (ryots).  Back.

Note 14: Numerous works look at the basis of the petition in British history. This includes the early eighteenth-century pamphlet by John Somers on the right of British subjects to petition. See John Somers, Jura Populi Anglicani: Or, The Subject's Right of Petitioning Set Forth (London, 1701). Elsewhere, for a definition of arzee, see Henry Yule and A. C. Burnell, Hobson-Jobson: A Glossary of Colloquial Anglo-Indian Words and Phrases (London, 1903) and Horace H. Wilson, A Glossary of Judicial and Revenue Terms (Calcutta, 1940 [1855]), the latter of which includes a rendering of the word arzee into Telugu characters, perhaps suggesting the term's more frequent use in Telugu-speaking areas of India.  Back.

Note 15: MBR Consultations, vol. 479A, fol. 10,383 (November 1808).  Back.

Note 16: MBR Consultations, vol. 302B, nos. 25, 26, fol. 13,600 (November 1801).  Back.

Note 17: Literally, a "two language" person, thus a middleman or translator.  Back.

Note 18: Vizagapatam District Records, vol. 3737A, fol. 161.  Back.

Note 19: Vizagapatam District Records, vol. 3737A, fol. 161.  Back.

Note 20: See chapter 4, "The Bobbili Katha and Velama Identity," for a model of how this particular type of expression helped shape a caste identity.  Back.

Note 21: Godavari District Records, vol. 924, fols. 249-251 (May 1795). Wilson defines "Muchilka" as "a written obligation or agreement, a bond, or deed" (Wilson, A Glossary of Judicial and Revenue Terms, 551f).  Back.

Note 22: This is precisely the vision that Foucault had of the discourses that surrounded discussions of the body in Europe. Rephrasing him slightly, the self "became something to say, and to say exhaustively in accordance with deployments that were varied, but all, in their own way compelling. Whether in the form of a subtle confession in confidence or an authoritarian interrogation [or the possibility of a petition] ... [the self] had to be put into words." Michael Foucault, History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction (New York, 1978), 32.  Back.

Note 23: Godavari District Records, vol. 917, no. 381, fol. 1.  Back.

Note 24: Godavari District Records, vol. 917, no. 408, fols. 22-25.  Back.

Note 25: "Mahassoldar" and "Byraggy" refer to employees of the collector.  Back.

Note 26: In fact, the change in the labeling of groups was beginning at just this time. In March 1803, in a letter to the Collector at Masulipatam, the Deputy Commercial Resident at Ingeram, George Maidman, felt compelled to mention, "At the last Market at Drachavarum, the Davangoloo, Curneeloo and Cayecoloo [all játi names] assembled in a considerable body, attacked the Salees who were present, and ill used and plundered them in a shameful manner" (Godavari District Records, vol. 946B, fol. 617). See chapter 5, "Weavers of Coastal Andhra."  Back.

Note 27: List of deserters, 7 October 1797, Masulipatam District Records, vol. 3710B, fols. 642-643.  Back.

Note 28: Nicholas Dirks also notes this, in a way, in his description of Colin Mackenzie's schemes of collection of "indigenous" texts, which appear rather random. See Dirks's "Castes of Mind," Representations 37 (Winter 1992): 56-78. But, in fact, Mackenzie had particular ideas about Indian culture, and the village histories he compiled were Brahmanic to a high degree, not to mention the fact that his amassers of texts were all Bráhmans. See Mackenzie Manuscript Collection, Government Oriental Manuscript Library, Madras, and the field notes taken by Mackenzie's servants.  Back.

Note 29: MBR Circular, in Masulipatam District Records, vol. 4685, fol. 212.  Back.

Note 30: MBR Circular, in Masulipatam District Records, vol. 4685, fol. 212.  Back.

Note 31: Masulipatam Dt. Records, vol. 3074B, fols. 593-594.  Back.

Note 32: The most common indication of caste equaling religion in the records is the often cited request by Company officials for Indians to take an oath according to "the custom of their caste." Telugu speakers, however, were not always as certain of the value of that equation, as is evident in the following exchange: "Q. Will you according to the custom of your cast make Oath that this is true?" "A. As we know this for to be true — whatever sort of Oath shall be required of us we will make" (Vizagapatam District Records, vol. 3710, fol. 452 [April 1797]).  Back.

Note 33: MBR Consultations, vol. 835, fol. 8854.  Back.

Note 34: Note the aforementioned case of the man who, in response to a question as to whether he would make an oath according to his caste, said he would be willing to make whatever oath the Company official wanted him to.  Back.

Note 35: For the implications of the term maunium and of its conditions for being granted, see Robert Frykenberg, "Land held free of assessment by village servants as emoluments for service" (Guntur District, 1788-1848: A History of Local Influence and Central Authority in South India [Oxford, 1965], 272), and Wilson, land "held . . . in consideration of services done . . . as in the case of officers and servants of a village" (A Glossary of Judicial and Revenue Terms, 521.)  Back.

Note 36: Godavari District Records, vol. 1175, fol. 35 (January 1829).  Back.

Note 37: Godavari District Records, vol. 924, fols. 231-234 (May 1795). "Dalayat" is defined in numerous places as "peon." See, for instance, The Translation Guide: Telugu to English & English to Telugu (New Delhi: Asian Educational Services, 1990 [1925]), 16. Here the petitioner uses the term to bemoan her reduction to the status of a servant.  Back.

Note 38: MBR Consultations, vol. 915, fol. 4937 (November 1820).  Back.

Note 39: MBR Consultations, vol. 1175, nos. 21, 22, fols. 31-35.  Back.

Note 40: MBR Consultations, vol. 1175, nos. 21, 22, fol. 33.  Back.

Note 41: Proceedings of the MBR, 12 October 1871, 7,368-7,369. (See appendix 3A for the stated concerns behind the need for a list, and for the list itself.) There is a spatially and historically conditioned elasticity of British recognition of categories (or actual interest in those categories) as evident in government recognition of language issues in general. An earlier incident documents the Board in Madras requesting a full explanation of the term dookey (a Telugu term for a certain amount of heavy rainfall) used by the collector of Rajahmundry in one report on the state of the district. (To dúk is to jump. So a dookey was the amount of rain that resulted in flooding that produced water on the ground to the depth of the height of a jump.) (MBR Consultations, vol. 925, fol. 9,047.) This request for an explanation could not have taken place later in the century, for the very use of the term dookey would have been prohibited from inclusion in any report to the Board. (It was not on the board's list.) There is a "bubble" of discourse deployment (category creation) fervor surrounding issues such as language and identity that subsides or transfers itself to other topics when aspects of these issues are hammered out, or when they shift to more explicit political realms.  Back.

Note 42: Letter to Collector at Vizagapatam from Board of Revenue regarding use of vernacular terms, 17 August 1815, Vizagapatam District Records, vol. 3731, fols. 293-294.  Back.

Note 43: Madras Proceedings of the Board of Revenue (Land Revenue), G.O. No. 88, 18 March 1895.  Back.

Note 44: MBR Consultations, vol. 835, fol. 8859.  Back.

Note 45: MBR Consultations, vol. 835, fols. 8,861-8,865.  Back.

Note 46: See chapter 5.  Back.

Note 47: See the Poondamally petition as cited earlier. There the petitioners complained of Company appropriations of livestock. But those petitioners happened to be landowners, people with established (politicized) voices on how rulers should administer the land and interact with subjects.  Back.

Note 48: Vizagapatam District Records, vol. 3761B, fol. 235.  Back.

Note 49: See, for example, C. P. Brown, Series of Letters, vol. 1.  Back.

Note 50: "A Catalogue of Letters," Brown, Series of Letters, vol. 1, fols. 15-20 passim.  Back.


Colonial Lists/Indian Power