News & Events

NLS Public Lecture Series | The Indian Jail Committee 1919-20 and International Penology


Online event (via Zoom)

Register here.


Thursday, April 28, 2022, 5:30 pm

NLSIU invites you to the Public Lecture on “The Indian Jail Committee 1919-20 and International Penology: Too advanced, too American, too expensive?” on Thursday, April 28, 2022.


Radhika Singha,
Professor (Retired), Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University

Her research interests focus on the social history of crime and criminal law, identification practices, especially in relation to colonial governmentality, borders and border–crossing in South Asia. The mobilisation of human, fiscal and material resources from India for World War one  became an intersecting  research theme. She is now working on ‘foreign’ as a category of governmentality in colonial India and the emergence of an  archive of ‘foreignness’. On another research track  she  she is also exploring the engagement between the colonial penal regime and international penology.


The Indian Jail Committee report of 1919-20 is often cast as the turning point when reform and rehabilitation were added to  deterrence in penal policy. This tribute is followed by the admission that very little changed on the ground. Why after all did a cash-strapped, politically- besieged regime sponsor a globe-trotting study- tour of jails and reformatories ? Why did this  committee return to enthuse about ‘flexible or indeterminate sentencing’, a penal principle embraced in the USA, but faltering in Britain. One argument is that to push through its post-war constitutional package the colonial regime had to show it was responsive to criticism about the harsh treatment of ‘seditionist’ prisoners.  But references to political prisoners are very minimal in its report. Instead there was an effort to change the conversation. The committee’s proposals centred on the idea that criminal and vagrant populations made productive at sites of confinement , such as jails, reformatories and ‘criminal tribe settlements’ were ready for re-integration to society. Far from undermining private enterprise, this design for raising productivity, would check recidivism and benefit a nation on the verge of industrialisation and the tax payer. The report became a reference point for assessing India’s advance towards a ‘scientific penology’ because restrictions on  liberty seemed to serve agendas of  national economic and social reconstruction. Yet its proposals were also constantly brushed aside for being ‘too advanced’, ‘too American’ and above all too expensive.