Voices from the Field

Commentary & Opinions

2019.14: Jahnu Bharadwaj, "Archival Research as Fieldwork: Reflections on a Small Government Archive in Assam"

In her piece, “Archival Research as Fieldwork: Reflections on Small and Under-utilized Indian Archives” Amanda Lanzillo brings up an interesting point regarding historical research.[1] Lanzillo states that the abstract discussion among historians regarding archival research rarely addresses her archival experiences. She observes that fieldwork, as a method and term, is something that historians are not very comfortable using and is a more common method in other social science disciplines. She states that the term “fieldwork” better describes her archival process. Lanzillo’s is a story of hard toiled endeavor, with occasional success and happiness at finding required materials. For me, most of my experiences of archival research have conveyed a sense of frustration, with rare moments of relief and happiness.  

In my research, I seek to reconstruct a social history of the British colonial judicial apparatus in Assam, India. While looking at the level of institutions and policies of criminal justice in colonial Assam, my research also addresses local nuances in the actuality of practices on the ground. It is difficult to talk about such nuances when working on under-represented and under-researched areas like Assam since it is hard to find sources other than colonial materials on the history of Assam in modern times.

Very few alternative sources, such as contemporary literary sources, folklore, and archaeological objects and sites have survived the test of time. I have to heavily depend on the government archives, as these are almost the sole repositories of written sources. Researchers familiar with the government historical archives in India know that the National Archives of India (henceforth, NAI) mostly contain documents pertaining to presidency or imperial headquarters. Similarly, the Assam State Archives (henceforth, ASA) mostly possesses colonial documents directly addressed to or written by provincial level colonial administrators like the Chief Commissioner and the Judicial Commissioner of Assam. For colonial sources of district and local levels, one would not be much helped by just looking at the archived materials in the NAI or the ASA.

One of the most important works on the legal history of colonial India, Elizabeth Kolsky’s Colonial Justice in British India: White Violence and the Rule of Law (2010), includes a chapter entitled, “One scale of justice for the planter and another for the coolie: law and violence on the Assam tea plantations.”[2] However, quite surprisingly, Kolsky’s list of the archives and libraries she consulted does not mention a single archive or library in Assam. It is possible to assume that Kolsky, for the aforementioned chapter, thought it enough to access the NAI and the British Library’s India Office Records in London, the two largest and most extensive archives containing documents from the British Raj. Perhaps, logistical issues and poor facilities of transport and communication in Assam led Kolsky to completely forego the necessity of accessing local archives in Assam. In my research, I have chosen to move beyond the NAI, and the state archives of West Bengal and Assam. My fieldwork, comprising archival visits to a few small archives in Assam to access the documents preserved therein, has led me to establish numerous official and personal contacts. In the process, I have located many more small archives in Assam, rarely visited by researchers, and have witnessed scores of documents decaying without any adequate system of preservation. The following details one such journey to a small departmental archive in Assam.

There is an interesting criminal case reported in the Indian Law Reports for 1892. The case, Madan Mohan Biswas (Petitioner) versus Queen- Empress, is a story of a native gentleman physically abusing certain workers in Nagaon district, and the subsequent court hearings.[3] The High Court case proceeding contains an excerpt of the police case diary prepared by the police officer in charge. The excerpt, however, seems incomplete. I could not locate anything on the original police case diary of this particular case in the NAI, or the state archives of Assam and West Bengal. Officials in the ASA told me that the records of Nagaon district were never sent to the ASA, unlike the records of Jorhat district.[4] Hence, I decided to try the record rooms at the Sadar Police Station at Nagaon. I was told that the record room at Nagaon Sadar Police Station does not possess documents covering 1892. Thereafter, I decided to explore the record rooms at the Office of the Deputy Commissioner of Nagaon. The Deputy Commissioner’s Office has either three or four record rooms pertaining to different departments (none of the officials could tell me exactly how many record rooms were functional at that moment), and a bigger Mahafezkhana, or a large records room, right next to the complex, which was established in 2009 as a research center and archive documents pertaining to Nagaon district.[5] The process of getting permission to access the records kept at the Mahafezkhana eventually took three days, with me literally running after the concerned administrator and trying to familiarize myself with other officials and assistants in the office through multiple means and persons, not to speak of the mandatory tea and snacks I had to provide. I was told that I would not be able to access the other record rooms because the documents they contained were being digitized at that moment. An office assistant was also assigned to help me in my search. 

The Mahafezkhana at the Deputy Commissioner’s Office, Nagaon is an almost abandoned house now. Numerous racks of documents are kept unorganized and are covered with dust and cobwebs. I located some bundled documents in the unused toilet attached to the preservation room. There was hardly any catalogue available, and most of the documents were kept tied with cloths. A sea of cobweb, poor lighting, and no means of cleaning the dust covering the documents made my task almost impossible. I had to climb on tables and chairs, even use a ladder to reach some documents. 

However, there were refreshing moments, too. The assistant assigned to be with me took it upon himself to elicit permission from the person in charge for me to access the Judicial Department’s record room at the Office of the Deputy Commissioner. After many days’ effort, I was able to find a few important documents in the Mahafezkhana and the other record room. I would sit and note down important points from those documents, and the assistant would sit next to me and sip his tea with a sense of happiness.

The severe difficulty in archival research in India, due to the condition of the archives, is only a matter of verbal discussion, and almost an accepted fact among historians and other scholars. However, it has not been seen as an occupational and methodological hazard in historical research. Recent discussions regarding methods of historical research in India have mostly covered aspects related to finding alternative sources such as oral histories and folklore, or how to navigate and read elite and colonial sources to find traces of the subaltern classes, whose stories and lives are usually absent in elite histories based on such sources. In my training and research so far, I have not encountered much discussion on archival methods that could assist me with the practicalities of archival work. Perhaps most researchers depend heavily on reasonably well-managed state and national archives. Further, there has not been much emphasis of teaching the practicalities of archival research as a primary research method. The reason, according to Barbara E. L’Eplattenier, is that “…because archival historical work is often so unique- each archive, each situation, each study is different, with different resources, different access, different constraints- generalizing about archival work can be difficult, especially for the individual researcher.”[6]

Researchers primarily working on underrepresented areas or topics would relate to this point, as they have to constantly depend on unconventional repositories and departmental archives to locate relevant documents. Do we consider the record rooms at government offices, courts, police stations, and jails as archives? Are the officials in charge of these sites archivists? Are we even discussing the conditions of documents still kept in the departmental record rooms with sheer neglect and official insincerity? Do historians have any responsibility, or authority, to ensure efficient preservation and easy and systematic accessibility of documents, in such departmental archives, for researchers and enthusiasts? These are some of the questions that need to be raised and addressed. If archival research is regarded as crucial in historical research, it has to be discussed in practicality and in totality. Conceptualizing it as field work will help historians figure out ways to talk about the testing hazards and difficulties in conducting archival research.       




Jahnu Bharadwaj is a doctoral student of History, in the department of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Indian Institute of Technology in Gandhinagar, Gujarat, India. His doctoral research looks at the legal history of the British Empire in Assam, with a focus on the administration of criminal justice. He holds an M.A. and an M. Phil in History from the Department of History at the University of Hyderabad, Telangana State, India. He can be contacted at: jahnu.bharadwaj@iitgn.ac.in .

[1] Lanzillo, Amanda. 2019. “Archival Research as Fieldwork: Reflections on Small and Under-Utilized Indian Archives.” Critical Asian Studies, March 15, 2019. 

[2] Kolsky, Elizabeth. 2010. Colonial Justice in British India: White Violence and the Rule of Law. New Delhi: Cambridge University Press.

[3] Madan Mohan Biswas (Petitioner) v. Queen- Empress, (1892) Criminal Rule No. 65 of 1892, XIX Indian Law Reports, Calcutta Series, 572- 582.

[4] Ironically, the records sent from the Jorhat district, currently being preserved in the ASA, are reportedly not given to researchers under the pretext of being in too brittle of a condition. 

[5] “New Record Room Revives History.” The Telegraph, Online Edition, September 15, 2009, and Sarat Sarma, “Task Force for Monuments.” The Telegraph, Online Edition, 19 May, 2011.

[6] L’Eplattenier, Barbara E. 2009. “An Argument for Archival Research Methods: Thinking Beyond Methodology.” College English, Vol. 72, No. 1, 68, (September 2009): 67-79.