'Survey' Is No Longer a Harmless Word. But in Fact, it Never Was One.

When our government tries to pass off punitive action as a ‘survey’, we know where that dodge came from.

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This piece was first published on The India Cable – a premium newsletter from The Wire & Galileo Ideas – and has been republished here. To subscribe to The India Cable, click here.

The term ‘survey’ has recently re-entered the vocabulary of the state, after decades of neglect. In September, punitive tax raids on media organisations Newslaundry and Newsclick were passed off as ‘surveys’. And now, a legislative committee in BJP-governed Karnataka, which is becoming a laboratory for the weaponisation of the idea of forced religious conversion, has mandated a ‘survey’ of churches and missionary activity. The state high court has refused to stay the process, despite strong objections from the church and the community, finding no evidence that persecution is a goal. But the fact that intelligence officers have been press-ganged into the project lends an element of purposiveness. Career spooks do not gad about surveying any old thing. They are generally in search of the bigger, better pakoda to fry.

Surveys in India date back to the East India Company, in the period shortly after the fall of Srirangapatna and the death of Tipu Sultan in 1799, in the Fourth Anglo-Mysore War. Two developments followed. The city was looted in the traditional manner, and Tipu’s personal effects, including his armour and armaments, and his famous Tiger devouring an English soldier, went to enrich the Victoria & Albert Museum and the British Royal Collection (Vijay Mallya is the current owner of the sword of Tipu Sultan, which had inspired a 1976 book by Bhagwan S. Gidwani, which inspired a TV serial in turn). More importantly, while the Company had been deeply invested in mapmaking for at least a century, the siege of Srirangapatna exposed the poor quality of its maps.

Military colonialists do not value maps which depict only relations between features, like the ones which preface the volumes of The Lord of the Rings, or early maps of Calcutta. They like ordnance maps, which can be read to calculate the parabolas of cannonballs, and direct accurate artillery fire. Scientifically, Tipu was ahead of the field. He was a technology fan who used the first modern military rockets to impressive effect ― so impressive that two centuries later, the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan has Tom Hanks calling for a ‘Bangalore torpedo’, a British World War I spinoff of Tipu’s experiments with rocketry. In 1800, William Lambton of the Company’s infantry offered to even the odds by making maps more militarily useful, by triangulation. The project, launched in 1802 near St Thomas Mount in Chennai, eventually covered the subcontinent.

The best-remembered achievement of the Great Trigonometrical Survey was the calculation of the height of Mount Everest, named for Lambton’s successor George Everest. But the most dramatic stories of the survey, which was estimated to take five years but ran for decades, are those of the infiltration of ‘pundit’ surveyors into Afghanistan and Tibet ― the frontier territories of the Great Game. The UK was expansionist at the time and in fact, it had a Secretary of State for War until 1964, when the more soothingly titled Defence Minister took over.

High Tibet was particularly attractive to the empire, and ‘pundits’ like Nain Singh Rawat, Rai Bahadur Kishen Singh of present-day Uttarakhand (read dramatic accounts of the pundits’ exploits) and Sarat Chandra Das of Bengal opened up a territory where Englishmen were unwelcome, following the growth in Chinese influence after the Sino-Nepalese War of 1791. They were actually spies, carrying instruments like a compass embedded in the head of a walking stick and a sextant hidden disassembled in luggage, and were trained to walk in paces of exactly 33 inches ― with each pace counted through the day. Nain Singh estimated the altitude of Lhasa by measuring the boiling point of water with a smuggled thermometer.

The Great Trigonometric Survey was absorbed into the Survey of India, which traces its origins to 1767. Its purpose was administrative, but its most interesting exploits concerned strategic advantage. So, when our government tries to pass off punitive action as a ‘survey’, we know where that dodge came from.