How Two Indians Finally Won Credit For Henry Classification System

Hem Chandra Bose & Azizul Haque had to fight for recognition, for their contribution to Henry Classification System.

5 min read
Hem Chandra Bose and Qazi Azizul Haque.

Umr bhar bojh uthaya us ‘keel’ ne;
Aur log tareef ‘tasveer’ ki karte rahe

(It is the nail that took all the burden — yet people kept on appreciating the picture alone)

— Piyush Mishra

Writers Building in Kolkata houses the world’s oldest Fingerprinting Bureau. It was instrumental in rolling out, what came to be known as, the Henry Classification System — named after Sir Edward Henry, Inspector-General of Police of Bengal.

Today, nearly all the nations of the world follow it for maintaining criminal records. It also paved the way for the modern biometric system. However, the lesser-known fact about Henry Classification System is that two Indians, namely, Hem Chandra Bose and Qazi Azizul Haque, were majorly responsible for developing it.

How Reforms Were Brought To Anthropometry By Two Indians — Hem Chandra Bose & Azizul Haque

Sir Edward Henry established the Fingerprints Bureau in a quest to bring a major reform to the (then) existing system of anthropometry. Staffed with two young Indian sub-Inspectors, Hem Chandra Bose and Azizul Haque, it was essentially a two-man department headed by Henry. It was tasked with devising an efficient system of sorting fingerprints by physiological characteristics for one-to-many searching.

Within a year, the brilliant duo devised mathematical formulae that categorised fingerprint patterns. Now it was possible to pigeonhole 10-digit fingerprint forms into distinct categories.

A trained set of eyes could find a perfect match in a ridiculously short time. Initially applied in the Bengal Police, the method was eventually applied to the whole of India when the method was found to be more useful, affordable, scalable than the then prevalent system of anthropometry. Soon thereafter, fingerprint classification was applied to crack a criminal case and nab an offender (Kangali Charan case, 1898) by the Bengal CID.

Henry was a famous man now, reading papers at research seminars and writing books on his classification system.

Sir Henry however, appropriated the sole credit for this, without ever making even a passing reference to the Indian duo.

How Haque Reacted To Sir Henry’s Betrayal

An utterly broken and betrayed Haque withdrew himself from further research. Hem Chandra Bose, on the other hand, was determined to give it another fight. He would go on to develop a telegraphic code system that would facilitate fingerprint information-sharing among crime agencies all around the world. He would also pen down the authoritative book Hints on Fingerprints with a Code for Fingerprints. Another episode of betrayal happened when one Englishman Charles Collins published a book on the same topic without referencing or acknowledging Bose’s work.

As earlier, he, being a native, had little choice. The recognition belonged to and was at the whim of the Whites.

Towards the fag end of his career— decades after the betrayal—Haque decided to represent his case to the government with a clipping from The Statesman which stated, “A Muhammaden Sub-Inspector played an important and still insufficiently acknowledged part [in fingerprint classification]”. When this letter was referred to then Director of Intelligence Bureau, he wrote back: the history of the finger print system as given in the Encyclopedia Britannica, Sir E Henry is quoted as the inventor…If the Khan Bahadur rendered as valuable services as are alleged as long ago as 1893, it is curious that his claims to special recognition should have been so belatedly represented.

Still, instead of outrightly rejecting his claim, the matter was referred to none other than Henry himself. Henry, in his late seventies, was a changed man now. He replied:

Haque contributed more than any other member of my staff and contributed in a conspicuous degree to bringing about the perfecting of a system of classification that has stood the test of time and has been accepted by most countries. As in most research enquires, results were achieved by team work.

How Haque Finally Won Recognition & ‘Inspired’ Bose To Seek Justice

Recognition came to Haque at last, and he was paid honorarium. In the meanwhile, a relentless Bose, though betrayed twice, had been making scientific inroads. He devised the first single digit fingerprint classification system in 1927. Taking a cue from Haque’s case, he also decided to make a representation for the long-overdue recognition. When his case was similarly referred to Sir Henry, he had this to say:

[Hem Chandra Bose] has devoted the whole of his official life to perfecting the methods by which search is facilitated and as his labours have contributed materially to the success achieved he is entitled to great credit.

The government finally paid him the honorarium as well and recognised his contribution in the following note:

“During his long service in the Bengal Bureau he [Bose] acquired unique knowledge of the science and introduced various improvements in the methods of sub-classifying finger impressions of which the following are deserving of special mention:- a) The method of comparing imperfect impressions containing only a few naked ridges; b) The sub-classification by the numerical method; c) The method of estimating the probability of fixing identity by the ridge characteristics; d) The sub-classification of the accidental type; e) The improved system of indexing; f) The introduction of a telegraphic code for finger impressions (Home Department Proceedings, 1917); g) The classification system for a single digit impression (Bose, 1927).”

‘Had Haque Not Got Honorarium, Even Bose Wouldn’t Have Been Rewarded’

As a witness is required for an event such as this, an Englishman was required to be witness to their outstanding achievement — one who himself had clouded this witnessing for long. As authors GS Sodhi and Jasjeet Kaur argue:

“Had Haque not applied for the award, his efforts towards evolving the classification formula would have gone unrecognised. And had Haque not got the honorarium, even Bose would not have been rewarded. Bose received the honorarium not because he applied for it, but because Haque’s case had set a precedent. Nevertheless, the true award for a scientist, who has served a global cause, is not monetary benefit in form of honorarium, but tagging of his name with his invention.”

The Story Of A True ‘Karmayogi’

On this note, Sodhi and Kaur have suggested that the method be renamed as Henry-Haque-Bose system of fingerprint classification as till today the system continues to be known after Henry (and Henry alone).

The story of Haque and particularly of Bose is that of a ‘karmayogi’ in the true sense. Bose continued his research despite his recognition having been stolen twice and no chance of correction thereof.

Probably work became non-distinct from his self— a case of self-actualisation. His challenge to the British despite ignorance can be explained in the words of Faiz Ahmed Faiz:

Ek tarz-e-taghaful hai, so wo unko Mubarak;
Ek tarz-e-tamanna hai, so ham karte rahenge

(As they are blessed with the art of ignorance, so I am blessed with the desire of excellence)

(Agrah Pandit is an officer at the State Bank of India. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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