by Shashwati Talukdar
On our way to Jalandhar, the bus stopped in the middle of nowhere. A smiling middle-aged man got on and reached for under our seats. At first we thought it was the police in plain clothes checking for drugs, since the ‘Punjab drug problem’ always came up in most of our conversations about the state, without any prompting from us.
Turned out, the pleasant gentleman was a rural postmaster collecting the mail for distribution in the area villages.
Perhaps our misreading of the situation says more about the times we grew up in than anything else. We came of age during the ‘Punjab Problem’ and the ‘Kashmir Problem,’ when very visible surveillance became a way of life, with random checkpoints and searches which seemed like so much security theatre, and a way to intimidate young women considered ‘loose’ for being out late.
It’s interesting we conflated the postal system with a surveillance system, maybe a connection that is not so farfetched. And I don’t mean in a Thomas Pynchon-‘The Crying of Lot 49’ way, or maybe I do.
The postal service is much older than what we know as the postal service now, one that was set up by the East India Company, which was in turn based on the Mughal system. But the colonial post office was charged with responsibilities the older systems were not.
Radhika Singha, in examining identification practices in colonial India, positions the post office as a place of establishing administrative identities and fixing them. Fluid identities, especially those of non-sedentary communities were seen as deviant. Therefore fixing of identities was imperative to the imperial project. And the postal system was eminently suited to the task. The postal system identified populations as having fixed places of residence, pathologizing those who didn’t in the process. Additionally, the postal system was a conduit for financial transactions through money orders, which required a system of identification. And lastly, the postal system was also a site of surveillance.
So sensing a conspiracy in the innocuous act of collecting the mail may not be that farfetched after all. There is something in the DNA of the modern mail system that allows for it:
Since the British engaged in trade with India and also governed India, the political and commercial motives were important and linked. The welfare role of the post, though genuine, came later as a by-product of the network already established for political and commercial reasons. The service-for-the-people role of the post was secondary to its tool-for-governance role, both temporally, and in terms of importance.
(From a dissertation on the economic history of the Indian postal system by Sheetal Bharat)
(Go here for the first post in the series)