Eunuchs, Colonialism, and Modernity in North India


A review of Power, Perversion and Panic: Eunuchs, Colonialism and Modernity in North India, by Jessica Hinchy.

Jessica Hinchy’s dissertation is a deeply researched history of the criminalization of eunuchs under colonial rule in British India. Focusing on the North-West Province and Oudh, the study extends from the late eighteenth century to the end of the nineteenth century. It thereby examines the mode of control deployed by the East India Company against eunuchs and the changes that occurred following the transfer of power to the British Crown in 1858—and, in particular, the passing of the Criminal Tribes Act in 1871. The study examines different social groups who were included within the single category of eunuchs–in particular, the elite khwajasarais and the subaltern hijras. In doing so, it not only questions the utility of “eunuch” as an umbrella category, but also provides a rich history of elite as well as marginalized groups under colonial rule.

The dissertation addresses several important questions that have engaged South Asianists and other postcolonial scholars over the past few decades. The principal themes that run through the work include: colonial governmentality in the second half of the nineteenth century; the everyday negotiation of colonial authority among marginalized communities; and the formation of colonial and imperial knowledge on gender and sexuality. In addition, Hinchy provides a preliminary genealogy to the criminalization of hijras in contemporary South Asia.

The dissertation is organized in three parts: the first is a history of khwajasarais in late eighteenth and early nineteenth century Awadh, while the second and third parts focus on hijras during the second half of the nineteenth century. The khwajasarais, who were eunuchs and slaves to members of the royal family of Awadh, were among the region’s political elite. They often functioned as military commanders, envoys and negotiators. Hinchy demonstrates that an understanding of khwajasarai power destabilizes established European notions of politics, domesticity, and gender. Khwajasarais were eunuchs who were depicted in contemporary writing as masculine rather than as androgynous; they were slaves who wielded considerable power and were regarded as part of the nobility; and their political operations routinely traversed the line between the private and the public. Additionally, Hinchy contributes to the historical study of the family, decoupling its bonds from conjugal and biological kinship. Specifically, she challenges the idiom of “fictive” kinship, arguing instead for an increased understanding of “constructed” kinship, which accounts for kinship-making practices among khwajasarais and the intricate familial networks to which they belonged.

Part I of the dissertation also chronicles the changing relationship between the Company and the khwajasarais. In the late eighteenth century, the Company recognized the alternative forms of domesticity and politics practiced by khwajasarais. Concomitantly, its attempts to curb the power of the khwajasarais were limited to securing its own sovereign and territorial power; moreover, they were in fact often thwarted. By the mid-nineteenth century, however, the Company perceived khwajasarai domesticity and politics as morally corrupt, and attempted to regulate khwajasarai labor by prohibiting their employment in the government apparatus. All the same, given conditions of indirect rule, colonial control of eunuchs was fairly circumscribed before the second half of the nineteenth century.

It was in controlling the socially more marginalized hijras in the second half of the nineteenth century that colonial control became more interventionist, shifting towards managing eunuch populations through the techniques of governmentality described by Michel Foucault. Foucauldian techniques of governance–including enumeration, classification, and surveillance–became especially apparent after the enactment of the Criminal Tribes Act in 1871. Parts II and III of the dissertation discuss this project of colonial governmentality to emphasize its spatially uneven and internally fissured nature. Hinchy examines the state’s attempts to cause hijras to “die out” by intervening to prevent emasculation and transform hijra occupations, gendered practices, and domestic arrangements. In a series of chapters, she provides a wonderfully thick description of the policing of hijras and their use of public spaces; hijras’ everyday lives and forms of resistance; the formation of colonial knowledge on deviant sexuality and domesticity; and the tensions between medical and legal knowledge of hijra bodies.

In these sections, Hinchy contributes to the historiographical debate on the construction of colonial knowledge. Specifically, she qualifies the Saidian argument by proposing that colonial knowledge of hijras was neither fixed nor pre-determined by Orientalist discourse, but rather was in frequent flux and shaped by a variety of local informants–“a process of asymmetrical dialogue with multiple sources of local knowledge” (p. 152). For instance, she writes that not all governmental officers perceived hijras as criminal, and that many did not see the policing of hijras as justified. Also, the very category of the eunuch was repeatedly refined and redefined throughout the late nineteenth century. Furthermore, colonial knowledge of gender and sexuality did not simply flow from the metropole to the colony. Rather, there was a more circular flow of knowledge and, in fact, the colony shaped metropolitan understandings of homosexuality and obscenity. A case in point was medical knowledge of the sodomite body, which was developed by British physicians in India over two decades earlier than in England, but soon after similar developments in continental Europe.

Throughout the dissertation, Hinchy actively engages with the question of power and resistance. While the dissertation draws upon James Scott’s work on everyday forms of resistance practiced by subordinate groups, and on the Subaltern Studies Collective’s delineation of elite and subaltern forms of politics, it aligns itself with scholarship that does not assume the existence of an autonomous domain of subaltern politics. Rather, hegemonic discourses seep into subaltern lives too, informing their beliefs and practices. Further, power and resistance are seen as mutually constitutive, and the exercise of power is always contested (Douglas Haynes & Gyan Prakash ed., Contesting Power: Resistance and Everyday Social Relations in South Asia. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991). Drawing upon this literature, Hinchy presents a sophisticated analysis of colonial power, very effectively using the metaphor of “cracks” in the edifice of power, which provide subordinate groups interstitial spaces of resistance.

Hinchy’s nuanced analysis of the hijra practice of alms-collection, which she shows to be simultaneously hegemonic and subversive, is but one example of the complexity that characterizes power and resistance. On the one hand, Hinchy argues, alms-collection indicates hijra resistance to colonial control. When the government prohibited hijra public performances on grounds of obscenity, hijras continued to practice alms-collection, since it provided them with an alternative means of livelihood. Furthermore, the practice subverted the state’s attempts to criminalize them, since “alms-collection also constructed hijras as spiritual ascetics” (p. 183). On the other hand, this very act of hijra meaning-making was influenced by hegemonic discourses that privileged procreative sexuality, for the infertile hijra evoked her power over fertility to bless the alms-giver with a son.

In bringing to light varied strategies of hijra resistance such as alms-collection, mobility, and the appropriation of colonial knowledge–strategies that ranged from the “innocuous to the… dramatic” (p. 176)–Hinchy demonstrates the need to expand our vision beyond contemporary queer politics in India. Importantly, she argues that “gender and sexuality were important to, but not necessarily the core”, of hijra identities and resistance in the nineteenth century (p. 177).

In sum, this dissertation demonstrates that while the colonial project of surveillance and societal refashioning was always fractured, contested, and limited by resources, it nevertheless had the impact of criminalizing hijras. This criminalization was to last long, with profound implications for contemporary South Asian society. Hinchy’s work is not limited to the history of eunuchs; rather, it answers broader questions about the nature of colonial power and the everyday lives of subaltern communities. This research, when published, will substantially strengthen the growing scholarship on the anthropology of the everyday state, and also enrich the literature on postcolonial gender and sexuality.

Radha Kumar
Assistant Professor, Department of History
Syracuse University.

Primary Sources
India Office Records, British Library.
Home and Foreign Department Records, National Archives of India.
District & Divisional Records, Uttar Pradesh State Archives.
Faiz Bakhsh, Muhammad, Memoirs of Delhi and Faizábád, Being a Translation of the Táríkh Farahbakhsh of Muhammad Faiz-Bakhsh. Translated by William Hoey. 2 vols. Allahabad: Government Press, 1889.
Published English-language material from the nineteenth century: ethnologies, medical texts, travel narratives.

Dissertation Information
The Australian National University, Canberra. 2013. 360pp. Primary Advisor: Peter Jackson.

Image: Nazir ud-Daula, Petition to Officiating Chief Commissioner of Oudh, 3 September 1861, Uttar Pradesh State Archives, Lucknow, Board of Revenue, Lucknow Department, no. 779.

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