Fear of the False: Forensic Science in Colonial India


Frederick Burkhardt Residential Fellowships for Recently Tenured Scholars




For residence at the National Humanities Center during academic year 2020-2021


Between 1840 and 1947, a wave of treatises and institutions emerged to detect crime in South Asia. India’s new experts in poison, blood, forgery, and explosives were supposed to cut through the perjury and forgery of “mendacious natives” to extract objective scientific truth in the service of a neutral vision of justice. However, the new forensic science invited increasingly complicated and conflicting answers to the questions, “what is truth?” and “what is justice?” This study of the history of forensic science in colonial India reveals that a system initially structured along fault lines of racial difference morphed into a site for competing conceptions of truth and justice among men of science and of law, both British and Indian. It explores both the opportunities for adaptation, on the one hand, and the curtailment of complexity, on the other, that accompanied forensic knowledge production in the colonial setting.