Minding the Gaps

Historical Gaps and Non-existent Sources: The Case of the Chaudrie Court in French India

Making Reliable Persons: Managing Descent and Genealogical Computation in Pakistan

How far can we take analysis when essential data are missing, or when our data are judged to be insufficient, or unreliable? In CSSH 63-4, Zehra Hashmi and Danna Agmon argue that gaps in the record are a crucial aspect of the political systems they study, which means missing data can be as valuable as data in abundant supply. 

Here’s how our editors summed up their papers.


Historians and political entities alike face gaps that require interpretation and the development of new heuristic techniques. In “Making Reliable Persons: Managing Descent and Genealogical Computation in Pakistan,” Zehra Hashmi analyzes the launch of a citizen verification program in 2016 to “re-verify” identity for Pakistan’s biometric-based national identity card holders, as part of a national security drive. The card relies on verification via the documentation of descent-based relations, posing questions of who belongs where, and who is a citizen, via a kind of anachronism: who one “is” hangs on the question of who they used to be. Hashmi traces the movement of genealogies between the realm of the familial and the bureaucratic, showing how the colonial state deployed and managed expertise in genealogical computation toward the making of a particular vision of the postcolonial present. The state crafts “reliable persons,” then, by repurposing parts of their pasts for a new set of present uses.

An analogous hermeneutic challenge appears in Danna Agmon’s “Historical Gaps and Non-existent Sources: The Case of the Chaudrie Court in French India.” Agmon leads us into the archival labyrinth of the eighteenth-century Chaudrie court in the French colony of Pondichéry in India, where French judges were meant to dispense justice according to local Tamil modes. Agmon found that the records of this court that did not survive are, paradoxically, crucial to understanding how the court worked. Focusing on these “phantom” sources, Agmon leverages their absence to join an important historical claim and a methodological cue. The Chaudrie was a court where jurisdiction was decoupled from sovereignty, and this was the reason it did not generate a state-managed and preserved archive of official records. The archival absence indexes, then, a specific form of colonial legal practice that warrants close attention.

Agmon and Hashmi tell us why certain kinds of evidence go missing and what the resulting gaps mean. They also explain how missing components presuppose and develop alongside evidence that is privileged and officialized. The analysis is subtle, and we’re eager to hear more from the authors about a few built-in tensions that inflect both papers.    

CSSH:  Your methods put you in odd places. You’re able to articulate things – people, ideas, claims, processes – that the archives are not articulating, but you never simply reject or replace a particular documentation regime. You engage alterity and absence as products of the system. Now that you’ve read each other’s papers, what do you make of this?

Zehra Hashmi

Hashmi:  First, let me say that I’m delighted by this opportunity to think alongside Danna’s work. While we both focus on South Asia and are interested in questions of colonial governance, there are useful points of contrast in our articles that led me to consider my own work in a new light. These include regional focus and time period and, most significantly perhaps, the British as opposed to the French empire in South Asia. These differences are particularly productive for how we approach the role of local sources of knowledge, genealogical or legal, in shaping colonial governance. 

The articles share a set of concerns about how the realm of local customary practice, with its somewhat ambiguous boundaries, is understood and deployed by colonial officials. My work considers how ideas about custom, varying from region to region (specifically between the Punjab and the Northwest Frontier), produced an uneven terrain of colonial documentation regimes, particularly genealogical records in the domain of property relations. In turn, I follow how these documentary technologies are repurposed and build notions of “genealogical computation” into contemporary identification regimes, generating their own gaps and mismatches. By contrast, Danna is interested in an altogether absent judicial archive, the Chaudrie court in French India. She follows what this absence reveals about a different kind of unevenness—the lack of homogeneity across juridical spaces in the French Empire—by examining how local legal models of dispute resolution were activelyintegrated into the French judicial system in India. In so doing, she alerts us to the patchy nature of French knowledge of local legal customs, which is much like our own ability to unearth this past.

CSSH:  A nice parallel, that last point. In both papers, you’re triangulating between what you (as analysts) know, what your subjects know, and what the regime of documentation favors as knowledge. It’s a tricky process. Pulling the patterns closer together can generate new areas of misapprehension. New gaps, so to speak, but useful ones!

Hashmi:  I found this element of multiple epistemological gaps (which appear to mirror one another) to be wonderfully illuminating, especially for articulating something I continue to be preoccupied with: the gap between a lived and practiced world of kinship, and the ability to apprehend this world outside of its codification and concretization in the form of genealogical records, identity documents, and now the identity database. Reading your paper, Danna, and thinking about what an absence means, I wondered about the very possibility of concretizing something like “custom” or “local practice,” a phenomenon continually in motion. How does an absence or a gap produce something in its place? For instance, if French judges had a shaky grasp of local legal practices, were local practices perhaps only made graspable through the process of codification itself?

Danna Agmon

Agmon:  This question, about how absences or gaps themselves bring forth tangible and material constructions, is what made me so happy to talk in more detail about our articles. Whatever it is that a gap creates – whether it be the shape of the archive or the form of legality, in my article, or a sense of self or type of governance, in Zehra’s – our work shows that documentary gaps are a form of presence, not an absence. In Zehra’s article, this becomes clear in a whole set of scenarios, in which the desire and ability of the Pakistani state and the National Database and Registration Authority (NARDA) to demand a “reverification” of identity cards creates profound disruption for the people pulled into this process. The origins of this disruption lie in evidence that doesn’t exist, or exists in what the state considers the wrong form. 

CSSH:  That’s a critical point. The state’s insistence on certain kinds of evidence can actually cause alternative forms of data to accumulate in locations and media that government officials do not recognize as legitimate. Or documents might be used in ways that guarantee their dispersal. You deal with both possibilities in your papers.

Agmon:  The story of Gulnar Bibi, the Pashtun woman whose card was “blocked” by NADRA, shows how profoundly unsettling the creation of documentary gaps can be in real time for the people living through these processes. When the NADRA board required Gulnar to provide documentation, it was precisely the evidence that she did not have access to – like a shajarah-yi-nasab, a genealogical chart that would prove her lineage’s claim to the land her family owned – that proved to be most crucial. The documents that do not exist, in the re-verification process, are always more important than the ones that do exist. Anyone who’s ever been sucked into a bureaucratic nightmare will recognize this dynamic: whatever documents one is able to provide are quickly shuffled off to the side, taken for granted, or ignored. The missing documentation, however, takes on ever-growing, even mythic, dimensions. In the case of the Chaudrie court in Pondichéry, it’s very difficult to gain a glimpse into the lived experience of litigants in relation to the court’s documentary practices. But Gulnar’s missing documents and missing genealogical knowledge are made the center of her experience at the NADRA board, a framing she tenaciously fights. I was impressed, Zehra, by the way you used this example to show how the absence of records creates people’s relation to the state and its institutions. 

A 1704 map of Pondichéry exhibits the city’s grid and major institutions, but does not note the location of the Chaudrie, even though it was managed by the French during this period. It was located next to the central market, marked on the map with the letter G. “Plan de Pondichéry à la côte de Coromandel occupé par la Compagnie royale des Indes orientale / mis au jour par N. de Fer – 1704.” (Source: Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Cartes et plans, GE D-17834.)

Hashmi:  And I was impressed by your treatment of the Chaudrie court. You show how this court engaged a diverse set of local actors and brought them into the French sphere of influence, to argue that jurisdiction produced sovereignty as opposed to the other way round. We’re both concerned with the limits of knowledge and power. You note the tension between metropolitan directives and the limits of exercising judicial authority when meting out judgement and punishments. When compared to the Chaudrie court, the Northwest Frontier emerges not just as a borderland but also as an administrative limit; a space purposefully rendered ungovernable and yet generating its own mode of colonial governance that filters into the present. An engagement with absences and their productive limits reveals a quality shared between French and British imperial projects in South Asia—one that suggests the force, residue, and continual presence of local practices in informing the nature of colonial governance.

For me, this likeness raised the question of historical process and the direction of causal flows. In my work, this emerges from a preoccupation with the overlapping domains of kinship and governance, which have long been intertwined given how genealogical records were deployed as instruments of rule. In the Pondichéry case, you trouble the division between law and custom – the early modern period is particularly productive to think with here – by breaking down distinctions between the Chaudrie court and the Superior Council, showing how imperial legal practices were themselves already pluralistic. Simultaneously, this raises the question of what precisely made them so. While the local landscape certainly shaped the colonial legal domain, to what extent does the absence in the archive allow us to speculate about what happened in the other direction: the domain of local legal practices and customs as they were recruited into these plural colonial legal systems?

CSSH:  It’s good that you factor in multiple directions of influence. The gaps and misfit data you write about are not simply byproducts of British and French inattention, or subaltern withholding.

Generations of Identity Documents (Photo by Zehra Hashmi)

Agmon:  Your article, Zehra, helps us see how different knowledge systems change as they are recruited into each other, as you so evocatively put it. You describe genealogical records as trying to “officialize that which is often slippery and contradictory in the realm of practice.” I found that to be such a useful way of framing the relationship between law and custom. State bureaucracies, whether in legal, archival, or genealogical guises, aim for a façade of total knowability. It is in the encounter between the official and the slippery that the productive gaps become more clearly visible. 

Also relevant here are your insights about the mutual formation of governmental and familial structures. NADRA, as an institution, is deeply invested in a host of local and familial networks, of households, villages, neighborhoods, and the memory-making practices that run through these sites. At the same time, the members of these networks are wrapped up in NADRA’s authority in inextricable and often destabilizing ways. In this back-and-forth, genealogical knowledge and governance practices are co-constituted. This is a dynamic that I also identify in the context of eighteenth-century French courts in India, one that I term “nested legality.” Colonial French courts drew into their procedures (and by extension their archives) multiple other modes of managing interrogations and managing disputes, like arbitration, village council decisions, intervention by commercial brokers, or just plain gossip. The official documentary record then attempted to minimize or obscure these other forms of legality in the court documents. But this attempt is doomed to fail, leaving these alternative legalities nested in the official record and calling attention to all that was left out of this record. Using your framing, the official is always simultaneously slippery. 

CSSH:  And the more the official attempts to grasp, the more it drops, or distorts, or disqualifies. Sometimes the “unofficial” remainders of this process are considered unworthy of representation at all. It’s fascinating that an argument can be made using these “slippery” data, even when they persist today mostly as a body of information officials did not collect in the past. 

Hashmi:  This is what Danna shows us. The limits to colonial authority—especially in the face of local actors—constitute the jurisdictional context that then explains the absence of the Chaudrie court archive. What I show for the Northwest Frontier is that the absence of regular documentary regimes was a function of the fact that colonial officials cited the autonomous nature of Pashtun tribal organization to justify their decision to maintain the frontier as an indeterminate zone. In other words, colonial officials decided not to exercise sovereignty or jurisdiction over tribes in these regions. Reading your analysis of legal practices, Danna, I’m curious about the relationship between intentionality and contingency that produces such documentary absences. In part, this line of inquiry emerges from a tension between the intentional and inadvertent character of forms of structural violence, and how they are built into colonial projects. What ideas about futurity, legacy, and precedence were built into the decision not to preserve (or not to ensure the preservation of) records? What does that reveal about sovereignty and jurisdiction, and what does it say about the desire for erasure as its own mode of control? 

Agmon:  Erasure certainly is a mode of control. So is forgetting, denying, minimizing, or physically neglecting certain forms of knowledge. As you note, genealogical knowledge is as much about exclusion as belonging. Much the same could be said about archival formation. But alongside erasure, reading the two articles side by side really highlighted how the lack of documentation produces its own set of archives, which can literally and figuratively paper over the gap. In my study, this happens when French court records from the Superior Council come to stand in for legal exchanges in colonial Pondichéry, and in yours, this dynamic is at play when people need to produce documents that explain their missing documents. In the process, more and more documents come to circle around the missing central piece of evidence, the desired form of proof. This left me thinking about the form and format of documentary evidence. Working in the archives in Aix-en-Provence, where many French colonial documents are kept, I’ve had the experience of coming across palm leaf documents in Tamil, tucked between sheets of paper in French, which fall apart at the touch. 

CSSH:  The evidence disintegrates just as you find it. Amazing.

Agmon:  The archival gap is constantly being made and remade, expanding and contracting. As Zehra notes, documents are also drawn into the “domain of substances and qualities, like blood, houses and truth claims.” What then is the material shape of the gap?

CSSH:  So many images leap to mind. It’s an answerable question. The crumbled palm leaf is still there. The branches of Pashtun genealogy are there. We can understand gaps as time and space, too. As “intentional and inadvertent” projects. You’ve shown us how to do this, and how revealing it can be.

Danna Agmon is an Associate Professor of History and Core Faculty in ASPECT, an interdisciplinary Ph.D. program, at Virginia Tech. She is the author of A Colonial Affair: Commerce, Conversion, and Scandal in French India (Cornell University Press, 2017). Her work has also appeared in the journals French Historical StudiesJournal of Modern HistoryHistorical Reflections/Réflexions Historiques, and Eighteenth-Century Studies. Agmon is currently writing a book on law and legal archives in the French Empire in India and the Indian Ocean. 

Zehra Hashmi is a postdoctoral research associate at the Watson Institute at Brown University. She completed her Ph.D. in Anthropology and History at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Her research explores technologies of identification in their historical and contemporary forms and as they intersect with securitization, kinship, and governance in colonial South Asia and postcolonial Pakistan.

By ashryock

Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Anthropology University of Michigan

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