Pre-History of DNA ‘Fingerprinting’ in India


Manpreet Singh Dhillon

Doctoral Research Scholar, Centre for the Study of Law and Governance, Jawaharlal Nehru University

New Delhi–110 067 India

*Corresponding Author Email:



This paper shows how fingerprinting was birthed in colonial India as a response to the requirements of governing the native population whom the British colonialists presumed to be untrustworthy and deceptive. It further shows how fingerprint was developed into a technology of unique human identification by Henry Faulds and Francis Galton in England and the way in which a fingerprint classification system was developed by Edward Henry along with Azizul Haque and Hem Chandra Bose in India. The paper goes on to link the historical development in human fingerprint identification and classification with the contemporary developments in DNA fingerprinting and databasing.


KEYWORDS: Fingerprints, classification, DNA, database, colonialism.




DNA fingerprinting has been construed as the most revolutionary technology to emerge in the forensic sciences in the 21st century enabling the identification of individuals based on their unique genetic profiles. This technology is marked as a radical break from the previously available forms of individual identification like blood group identification and latent fingerprints. However, critical scholars have shown that there is a prior history to the emergence of DNA fingerprinting that problematizes this narrative (Cole 2001). The fact that the word ‘fingerprinting’ itself has been included in DNA profiling stands testament to the fact that a link has been established between human fingerprint analysis and genetic coding of the human body. This keyword ‘DNA fingerprinting’ is made possible by the power of human/DNA fingerprints in ascertaining a unique identification regime. It is my attempt to show in this paper how a ‘pre-history’ of DNA fingerprinting informs its current discourse and thus, write a ‘history of the present’ (Garland 2014).


I show how the history of technologies of human identification progresses and the ways in which it has been governmentalized in colonial and postcolonial India.


The emergence of fingerprinting in India:

Sir William Herschel (1833-1917) was a British administrator in colonial India who first used a human palm-print to enact a contract between the state and a Bengali businessman Rajyadhar Konai for the supply of road making material in 1858. He made Rajyadhar imprint his palm on the contract document to ‘frighten Konai out of all thought of repudiating his signature thereafter’ due to his suspicion and distrust of the native. Many years later, Herschel wrote to Francis Galton.


So difficult was it then 1858 [sic] to obtain credence to signatures that I bethought me of the signature of the hand itself. It was the first idea that occurred to me of the kind, and was only intended to frighten the man. It was not the custom of the country to sign so – But purdanishin women [women living in seclusion – purdah], when signing a document sign by dipping the finger in common ink and making a ‘blot’. This is called teepsahi...and has no connection with the recognition by the lines of the skin (quoted in Sengoopta, 2003:60; emphasis added).


What forced Herschel to come up with this solution was the necessity of guaranteeing that the contract would be kept between the two parties i.e. the colonial government and the native contractor (Singha 2000). This was necessitated by the problem of colonial governance in which the native population could not be trusted to keep their terms of contract to which they had given their signature to and he ‘introduced fingerprints simply as an administrative innovation’ (2003:87). For Herschel, in 1858, the palm-print was meant ‘for securing a signature which the writer would obviously hesitate to disown’ (2003:60). In 1877, Herschel was appointed the Magistrate and Collector of Hoogly District where ‘he had control over the criminal courts, the jail, and the Department for Registration of Deeds and was in charge of the payment of government pensions’ (2003:73). Here he collected the fingerprints from pensioners and jailed inmates and for registration of deeds. His main concern was the problem of ‘impersonation’, like pensions being collected for persons who have died long ago and proxies being sent to serve out prison sentences on behalf of others.


Here is a means of identifying the identity of every man in jail with the man sentenced by the court, at any moment, day or night. Call the number up and make him sign. If it is he, it is he; if not, he is exposed on the spot. Is 1302 really dead, and is that his corpse or a sham one? The corpse has two fingers that will answer the question at once. Is this man brought into jail the real Simon Pure sentenced by the Magistrate? The sign-manual on the back of the magistrate’s warrant is there to testify, &c (Herschel, 1916:24).


However, Herschel’s enthusiasm for making fingerprint collection a part of colonial governance was not shared by others and he could not convince the government to push this biometric collection as standard administrative policy (Cole, 2001:65-66). Upon his return to England in 1878, the practise was discontinued (2003:78-79). Herschel, however, was the first to introduce fingerprinting for the identification of criminals in the criminal justice system.


Another form in which I made use of the new system for public purposes was in jail. The common device of hiring a substitute to serve out a term was not unknown, but it involved a long risk of detection. A safer but very costly, and therefore rare, device was to sham death and a purchased corpse, affording comparative safety after escape. A case of this kind, carried out with the aid of an irregularly appointed doctor, was strongly suspected by me at Hoogly. The precaution I adopted was to take the finger-prints of each offender when passing sentence of imprisonment, both on the records of the Court and also the warrant to the jailer (Herschel, 1916:20).


⁠⁠⁠⁠Herschel also posited that, fingerprinting was ‘for all practical purposes far more infallible than photography’ (2003:75). This could be because, ‘for many police officers, doubts about the capacity of native agency to mentally register a photograph and pick out a suspect undermined the indexical value of photography’ (Singha 2000). However, with the introduction of fingerprints, ‘what to the British administrators had seemed an indistinguishable mass of Bengali faces (or ‘snouts’, to recall Filarete’s contemptuous words) now became a series of individuals each marked by a biological specificity. This extraordinary extension of the notion of individuality happened because of the relationship between the state and its administrative and police forces’ (Ginzburg and Davin 1980).


Later, it was Henry Faulds (1843-1930), a missionary who began his career in Darjeeling, north Bengal in 1872 and who moved to Tokyo, Japan in 1874, who first came up with the hypothesis that fingerprints were unique to every individual and could be used for criminal identification. Faulds had written to Charles Darwin in February, 1880. Darwin, in turn, forwarded the letter to his cousin Francis Galton who did not take much interest in the matter then. In October, 1880, Faulds findings were published in the scientific journal Nature. This publication started a turf war between Herschel and Faulds regarding who was the pioneer. Faulds attempted a classification scheme for the identification of fingerprints which he published. However, the credit for making fingerprint analysis into the ‘science’ of dactyloscopy is given to Francis Galton who published his book Fingerprints in 1892, the cover of which he imprinted with his own fingerprints.


William Herschel provided his collection of fingerprints from India to Galton for research which were instrumental in Galton concluding that, “the ‘two great and peculiar merits of fingerprints’ were that they were self-signatures, free from all possibility of faults in observation or of clerical error; and they apply throughout life’” (2003:102-103,106). How did Galton substantiate his conclusions? He did this using the language of statistics, thereby giving it the legitimacy of mathematical rigour (Stigler 1995)⁠. He accomplished this by first gathering data and then analyzing it using statistical tools. Besides laying the scientific foundation for dactyloscopy, Galton was also instrumental in ensuring that fingerprinting would be used in civil and criminal identification and administration (Galton 1892).


Galton saw application for the technology all over the Empire. In an address before the Anthropological Institute in 1889 he suggested that fingerprinting might avoid “the great difficulty in identifying coolies either by their photographs or measurements.” “Whatever difficulty may be felt in the identification of Hindoos,” he said “is experienced in at least an equal degree in that of the Chinese residents in our Colonies and Settlements, who to European eyes are still more alike than the Hindoos, and in whose name there is still less variety (Cole, 2001:77).


⁠Galton’s interest in fingerprints emerged from his quest for finding a connection between fingerprints and hereditary traits shaped by his belief in eugenics. He looked for evidence to suggest that fingerprints could provide information regarding the race, heredity or criminal propensity from individual fingerprints and connect it with larger populations. He looked at fingerprints not only as a form of unique identification of an individual but as a window to his hereditary propensities. He established an ‘Eugenics Record Office’, ran a ‘Biometric Laboratory’ and edited Biometrika to further his research. Much like the palm reader in India would read the palm and tell the past and the future of the person, Galton’s attempt was to decipher the hidden meanings that fingerprints could reveal about heredity and traits ‘scientifically’.


Cesare Lombroso (1835-1909) had started the Italian school of criminal anthropology which came up with the concept of the ‘criminal man’ as a ‘born criminal’ in Europe. Lombroso’s project was to evidence a ‘biological’ basis for crime and criminality. The criminals were a different type of people who could be identified based on their different physical characteristics. By measuring different body parts, Lombroso posited that dangerousness could be identified and crime could be pathologised in the figure of the ‘homo criminalis’. At around the same time, British colonial ethnographer-administrators in India also came up with the concept of the ‘hereditary criminals’ in the ‘laboratory of mankind’ (Pinney 1990).⁠


One of the first to exercise an interest in measuring skulls as a means of ethnic categorization within India was William Sleeman. Sleeman served as district commissioner of Narsinghpur in the Saugor and Narmada Valley Territories in the 1820’s, and after a period as the magistrate in Jabalpur, the capital of the territories, was appointed in 1835 as General Superintendent of the operations for the suppression of Thuggee – the dacoity conspiracy which he claimed to have unearthed during the period of service in Jabalpur. Sleeman was convinced, as were many of his contemporaries, that criminality was an inherited tendency, and that the Thugs, being a closely knit criminal conspiracy, with their own language, customs and religious beliefs (including the worship of the goddess Kali), as well as the custom of inter-marraige, could be regarded as virtually a separate caste or tribe (Bates, 1995:11).


Brown (2003) writes that, “by the late 1860s, with the development of more elaborate ‘scientific’ taxonomies of criminal behaviour, the presumption that Indian society harboured hereditary criminal communities was widespread”. The heredity of criminality in India was construed to be a function of both nature and nurture (Dirks 2001) ⁠. The Criminal Tribes Act of 1871 put this assumption into law (Nigam 1990).


Globalization of fingerprint identification and classification:

Meanwhile in Europe, Alphonse Bertillon (1853-1914) had started a technological revolution in policing in France to identify and track criminals (recidivists) necessitated by the ‘chaotic state of police record keeping in Paris’ where crime and criminals had become an ‘epidemic’ (Cole, 2001:32-34). Bertillon grew up in a house well versed with the use of anthropometric tools and he used this knowledge to start a detailed measurement of the criminal’s bodies. Next, he devised a ‘Bertillon Card’ where all these measurements would be systematically noted along with the photograph of the person. Hence, the criminal could be indexed into a ‘record’ for easy and prompt retrieval: a database. As Cole writes, ‘using Bertillon’s method, proven habitual criminality could be made visible through the paper records held by police and penal bureaucracies. Bertillon made it possible to visualize criminality in a plodding bureaucratic yet devastatingly effective way. The criminality of the body could be made visible, but only by virtue of the link Bertillon had constructed between it and the written inscriptions on the criminal records (Cole, 2001:45,59).


In the late 1880s, anthropometry began to be used by the colonial Indian police (Sengoopta, 2003:133-137). Edgar Thurston, superindentant of the Madras Museum from 1885-1908 was called in to train officers in anthropometry (Dirks 2001). ⁠However, the Bertillonian system was unsuitable to the Indian situation because of the differences in physical traits that Indians had with the Europeans and also because of the technicalities involved in the gathering of measurements. Measurement errors could not be controlled effectively. The Indian context demanded a different classification system for individual identification. Edward Henry (1850-1931) along with his two assistant Azizul Haque and Hem Chandra Bose started working on devising such a system in the Bengal Police. Henry took the credit of coming up with the ‘Henry System of Fingerprint Classification’ from Haque and Bose and announced in 1897 that he had finally found a way to classify fingerprints for easy and effective retrieval (Sengoopta, 2003:133-147; Sodhi and Kaur, 2005).

⁠The creation of the fingerprint database had converted the human body into an ‘indexical trace’, as Waits (2016:42) notes, Prior to fingerprinting, British colonialists turned to technologies such as photography and anthropometry to make racial and cultural differences observable and quantifiable. However, these images could not operate alone and thus were unable to offer usable forms of information to the British without the intervention of text. Nor were they particularly well configured for archival systems. Fingerprinting offered a remedy, resolving many of the key problems that plagued other visual technologies, since the fingerprint image, as an unchanging and thoroughly indexical object, was seen as devoid of subjective properties limiting the potential for identification and classification.


The first forensic use of fingerprinting occurred in 1897 when the police investigated the murder of the manager of a tea garden in Julpaiguri district of Bhutan. They recovered a kukri from the crime scene and found a bloody fingerprint on the almanac found on the wooden box. The police were able to match the fingerprint gathered from the crime scene to that of the manager’s ex-servant Kangali Charan. The first trial using fingerprints as evidence began in 1898, ‘the bloody fingerprint, the judge concluded, was “good and sufficient to hold that the defendant was the man who trespassed into the room of the deceased on the night of the 15th of August and handled the papers and the calendar in the wooden box. At the same time, I do not hold that it proves that he murdered the man or that he was an actual abettor in the crime of murder.” Therefore, the judge and assessors convicted Charan of burglary but acquited him of the murder’ (Cole, 2001:90). In 1899, the use of fingerprint experts in courts was recognized in the Indian Evidence Act. The legal credibility of this new ‘scientific’ evidence hinged on the Popperian logic of falsification i.e. ‘the absence of disproof was taken as proof’ (Cole, 2001:90; Popper, 1959).


From the colony, fingerprint databasing made its way to the metropole with Henry’s return to England. In 1900 the Belper Committee was tasked with relooking the system of criminal identification in Britain and Henry gave the committee members a proof of his classification method. Henry published Classification and Uses of Fingerprints in 1900 and the next year the Belper Committee accepted the use of fingerprints in the British Police. Henry had also introduced his fingerprinting system in South Africa in 1900 where he was posted before moving to the Scotland Yard.


In 1910, prostitutes began being fingerprinted in New York and by 1916, petty criminals began to be fingerprinted (Cole, 2001:153-157). Thus, we find that by the early 1900s, the Henry system of fingerprint classification had been adopted in India, South Africa, Britain, the United States of America, Canada and New Zealand while the Vucetich system had been adopted in Argentina within their own historical context; as Higgs notes, ‘fingerprinting was thus a technique that circulated round the Empire, with London acting as the nodal centre of dispersion, in much the same way as civil registration had spread some 60 years before. However, in the case of fingerprinting England was as much importing knowledge as originating it’ (Higgs, 2011:135-136). Commenting on the emergence of fingerprinting in India, Sengoopta (2003:204) notes.


The emergence of fingerprinting in British India, in short, was often influenced by racial beliefs but far more important than that racism was the fundamental nature of British rule in India.


British dominion over India was mighty at one level and strangely insecure in others. Unquestioned authority went hand in hand with pervasive fears of being deceived by the populace. After the Mutiny of 1857, these fears intensified. It is this curious combination of despotic rule and intense insecurity that is the ultimate explanation of the origin of systematic fingerprinting in the Raj as well as of the astonishing extent of its application. Only in India could it be done on that scale and only in India did the British feel the need to do it on that scale.


One must also keep in mind the tremendous changes in colonial policing in India after 1857 leading to the Police Act V of 1861. The enactment of the Indian Penal Code, the Indian Evidence Act, Criminal Procedure Code and the Indian Police Act ensured that the rule of law would govern the sentencing and punishment of criminals henceforth (see Verma, 2009). Although the police were primarily meant to ensure law and order and the perpetuation of British domination in India, the language of law would depend on science to justify itself. The insertion of the government fingerprint expert in the Indian Evidence Act was a culmination of this historical process.


The association of fingerprinting with criminal identification and thus, as an effect with the stigma of ‘criminality’ ensured that the civil uses of this technology was incapacitated in the United Kingdom as well, even though both Herschel and Galton (even more so), proselytized the application of fingerprinting collection and database for civil administrative purposes. The culture of British libertarian ideology ensured that fingerprinting remained bound for criminal identification only as ‘the body of the freeborn English subject was untouchable as long as he had not demonstrably infringed the laws of the realm. The body of the colonial subject, however, was another matter altogether’ (Sengoopta 2003). As Higgs notes, ‘in India the British regarded all native peoples as essentially untrustworthy, if not downright criminals by birth’ (Higgs, 2011:147).


Fingerprinting would eventually extend to members of the designated, criminal tribes as well as to all prisoners. After 1905, adults registered under the Criminal Tribes Act were fingerprinted as a matter of course. The 1911 Criminal Tribes Act empowered district magistrates to take the fingerprints of identities to permanent bodily signs (Anderson, 2004:168).


The collection and use of fingerprinting hinged on the criteria of whether one was a criminal, a colonial subject or a citizen with legal and political protections. For India, South Africa and Argentina, the use of fingerprints for civil administration would cohere as part of the colonial and postcolonial state’s governmental rationality of surveillance and control (Rodriquez 2004). The entry of fingerprints from the illiterate and the poor in India became routinized in administration, ostensibly to check frauds and forgery. The colonized body (as criminals or welfare recipients) became part of the ‘colonial archive’ (Dirks, 2001). We can assert that in the UK and the rest of the western world, the use of fingerprint databases was controlled by the onus on protecting individual liberty, while in the colonies the need for security and control led the implementation of the policy on fingerprinting.



The discovery of fingerprints as a unique marker of human identity enabled the state to pinpoint a person with his/her body for the first time in history. In 1984, Alec Jeffreys discovered ‘DNA fingerprinting’, latching on to the stupendous success of ‘latent’ fingerprinting (Gill, Jeffreys, and Werrett 1985; Lynch et al. 2008)⁠. The genetic imprint of every individual is unique, except for identical twins. In this respect, even identical twins have different fingerprints. Just like fingerprints, DNA testing has become a revolutionary tool for fighting crime all over the world (Krimsky and Simoncelli 2013) because of its power of unique individualization⁠. The creation of DNA databases by different countries also points to the similarities in which fingerprints were indexed and classified. DNA is now used widely for criminal investigations, paternity testing and immigration checking. As with fingerprints, DNA is now computerized and databased into information retrieval systems becoming part of the biometric governance of societies in the period of late modernity.



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Received on 31.05.2019         Modified on 16.06.2019

Accepted on 30.06.2019      ©A&V Publications All right reserved

Res.  J. Humanities and Social Sciences. 2019; 10(3):882-886.

DOI: 10.5958/2321-5828.2019.00145.1