History India

The forgotten Indian pioneers of fingerprint science

The forgotten Indian pioneers of fingerprint science

While researching on the history of fingerprinting, we came across several archive records which throw light on the key role played by two Indian police officers, Sub- Inspectors Azizul Haque and Hem Chandra Bose, in the advancement of the science of fingerprints. The so-called Henry’s System of Fingerprint Classification was actually worked out by them. The world’s first fingerprint bureau was set up at Calcutta (now Kolkata) in 1897, mainly by their efforts.

In addition, Bose invented the telegraphic code system for fingerprints and published it in 1916. Sir Charles Stockley Collins of Scotland Yard, who is recognized worldwide as the originator of fingerprint telegraphic technique, published his findings in 1921 – five years after Bose’s publication. Likewise Bose devised the single digit fingerprint classification system three years prior to Harry Battley. The then British government reciprocated the sagaciousness of Haque and Bose by awarding to each of them an honorarium of Rs 5000 and by conferring the titles of Khan Bahadur and Rai Bahadur respectively, on them. (After India became free, these decorations were rendered meaningless, for all titles were abolished under an Act of the Constitution.) However, this is not enough. Justice has been denied to Haque and Bose. Now that the colonial clouds have dispersed, it is pertinent to highlight the contribution of these police officers so that they may officially be recognized as pioneers of the science of fingerprinting.

Classification system for fingerprints

On 12 June 1897, the Council of the Governor General of India gave consent to the report of a committee which suggested that henceforth fingerprints should be used for classification of criminal records. The report emphasized that the method of fingerprinting was simple, cost-effective and more accurate than the anthropometric technique used earlier(1).

During the same year, the first Fingerprint Bureau in the world was inaugurated at Calcutta. The criminal record at this Bureau was streamlined in accordance with a formula worked out by Sir Edward Richard Henry, the then Inspector General of Police, Lower Provinces, Bengal. Hence it was named Henry’s Method of Classification. Today, nearly all the nations of the world follow Henry’s method for maintaining criminal records (2).

When Henry took up the study of fingerprints, Haque and Chandra Bose were already working in the Anthropometric Bureau. These two police personnel played a leading role in formulating the classification method. Our research proves that the classification formula was actually worked out by them, while Henry shrewdly gave his name to the system. According to Haylock (3):

It was, in fact, K.B.A. Haque who helped Edward Henry in creating a mathematical formula to supplement Henry’s idea of sorting 10 digit fingerprint forms into a ‘pigeon hole’ cabinet system based on fingerprint patterns. It was by this method that the famous ‘1024 pigeon holes’ now part of the fingerprint folklore, came into being. It seems that Khan Haque, over a period of weeks, devised the basis of the classification system we now know, and took it to his boss, Edward Henry, who studied it for couple of weeks.

On 12 July 1900, Lord Beeper, Chairman of the Commission appointed by the Secretary of State to go into the details of classification method asked Henry: ‘Is this system an invention of your own?’

‘Yes’, replied Henry (4).

In 1899, Henry read a paper on the classification of criminal records at Dover (England) before an assembly of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (5). He did not acknowledge the role played by Haque and Bose in devising the system.

In 1900, the Government of India sponsored the publication of Henry’s paper in enlarged form. It was entitled, Classification and Uses of Fingerprints. Subsequently, Her Majesty’s Stationery Office in England published numerous editions of the book. No word of thanks for Haque and Bose appears in any of the editions (3).

Berry (2) writes:

Haque is alleged to have muttered to confidants that Henry could not even understand the system when it was patiently explained to him.

Haque and Bose could not have done anything beyond that. In 1900, native Sub-Inspectors of Police had no channel of redressal against a British Inspector General nor would a high official doubt that a junior, and that too an Indian, could file a representation against him (3).

However, Puri (6) believes that in the early 1920s, Haque and Bose did represent their case to the government. On surveying Home Department Records at the National Archives of India, New Delhi, we found that Haque alone represented his case. And it can hardly be called a representation.

The whole issue arose when in 1924, Haque received the title of ‘Khan Bahadur’ and Henry, while congratulating him remarked, ‘I wish they had at the same time given you a jagir (a piece of land)’. On his retirement as Deputy Superintendent of Police and Honorary Magistrate, Haque wrote an application dated 3 March 1925 to the Governor of Bihar and Orissa (7):

Your humble memorialist’s prayer is that in consideration of his loyal services, especially in the matter of the adaptation of the Finger Print System to practical use… Your Excellency’s benign Government may consider your humble memorialist’s case with a view to the grant of jagir.

Haque also stated in this letter that since he was confirmed as Deputy Superintendent of Police just a year and a half before his retirement, his pension had been cut down and therefore he was finding it difficult to maintain his position. In support of his case, Haque enclosed a clipping from The Statesman dated 28 February 1925 which, in an article entitled, ‘Indian affairs in London’ stated, ‘A Muhammaden Sub-Inspector played an important and still insufficiently acknowledged part (in fingerprint classification)’. It is also distressing to note that in this ten-paragraph letter, Haque refers to himself as Your Humble Memorialist thirteen times! This is more of an appeal than a representation.

The Government of Bihar and Orissa, where Haque served his last posting, considered the application sympathetically. However, in these provinces there was no land which the government could have possibly donated to Haque. Hence it forwarded the letter to the Government of India, stating that Haque deserved to be adequately rewarded and that in place of a jagir, he may be awarded an honorarium from the central fund. J. D. Sifton, Esq., C.I.E., I.C.S., Officiating Chief Secretary to the Government of Bihar and Orissa further wrote (letter no. 761 PR, dated 15 June 1925):

Azizul Haque was. . . allowed to start research work upon a method of classifying finger prints, and after months of experiment he evolved his primary classification which convinced Sir E. R. Henry that the problem of providing an effective method of classifying fingerprints could be solved. Thereafter the secondary and other classifications were evolved and the Khan Bahadur played an important role in their conception.

Sifton also stated that in March 1897 Haque appeared before the committee of experts constituted at the request of Henry, to test scientifically the anthropological and fingerprint system. He was put to all possible tests by the committee. However, neither the Government of India nor the Government of Bengal could confirm whether Haque actually appeared before the committee.

When this letter was referred to D. Petrice, Director, Intelligence Bureau, it created an element of doubt. On 13 July 1925, Petrice wrote:

There can be no doubt whatever that the present system of classification of fingerprints was a scientific discovery of great value and has been adopted all over the world. Whether Khan Bahadur Azizul Haque took as prominent a part in evolving it as is claimed for him is, however, a matter on which I have no information. He is not mentioned in Sir Edward Henry’s own book, and in the history of the finger print system as given in the Encyclopedia Britannica, Sir E. Henry is quoted as the inventor….

It also created an element of surprise, for Petrice further wrote:

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.

This situation arose because so long as Henry was in India, he did not speak or write a word about the contribution of Indian officers to the fingerprint classification system. Petrice then referred the letter to the Government of Bengal, since Haque was with the Bengal Police when the classification formula received accreditation. L. Birley, Chief Secretary to the Government of Bengal replied back on 30 November 1925 (letter no. 4382 PI):

The key (plate) referred to in page 73 of Sir Edward’s book entitled ‘Classification and Uses of Finger Prints’ is attributed to the Khan Bahadur and this key may have suggested the arithmetical rule for determining primary classification which is the method in use at present.

Apart from this, the Government of Bengal could not shed any light on Haque’s role. It therefore suggested that the case may be referred to Henry himself.

Henry endorsed the grant of honorarium to Haque. In a letter dated 10 May 1926, he wrote to P. H. Dumbel, the then Secretary of the Services and General Department, India Office (3,7):

…I wish to make clear that, in my opinion, he (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.

In this letter Henry also wrote (7):

As in most research enquires, results were achieved by team work.

One wonders why Henry, after a lapse of 30 years, became considerate towards Haque. Puri (6) advocates that two factors were responsible for a change in Henry’s attitude. First, Haque (and Bose too) had risen to the rank of Deputy Superintendent of Police and could, therefore, assert himself. Secondly, by 1920s, the colonial grip was becoming loose. These may be true. However, there was another reason for Henry turning soft and, we feel, that this was more important. Four years earlier, Henry had spoken of Haque’s contribution to F. W. Duke, an officer at India Office, Whitehall. Duke, in turn, wrote a letter on 25 January 1922, to Sir Havilland Le Mesurier, Acting Governor of Bihar and Orissa in which he stated:

Azizul Haque devised the classification which is now in force not only in India but practically throughout the civilized world. It may have required no exceptional talent; if not done by him, the same, or an equivalent, might have been done later by someone else, but the fact remains that it was devised by him, has not been superseded and its use is world-wide.

When Henry was consulted on Haque’s honorarium, a copy of this letter was also sent to him. It was now not possible for Henry to retrace his steps.

At the time of final approval of the honorarium, the Home Department noted:

It appears from the information now received that he (Haque) was Sir Edward Henry’s principal helper in perfecting the scheme and that he actually himself devised the method of classification which is in universal use. He thus contributed most materially to a discovery which is of world-wide importance and has brought a great credit to the police of India.

In his letter to Dumbel (dated 10 May 1926), Henry also wrote (7):

In addition to being indebted to Khan Azizul Haque, I was indebted to some of his colleagues but, to what extent I cannot after the lapse of nearly 29 years specify more exactly.

However, Henry contradicted himself when consulted on Bose’s contribution to the system. Four years later he wrote (8):

The Rai Bahadur… 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.

This shows that all along Henry was aware of the contribution which Haque and Bose rendered to the fingerprint system, but he spoke up only when asked to do so.

The contribution of Bose to the science of fingerprinting is best summed up in a communication (No. 650 PI, dated 5 February 1929) from the Government of Bengal to the Government of India, Home Department8. It stated:

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:

  1. The method of comparing imperfect impressions containing only a few naked ridges.
  2. The sub-classification by the numerical method.
  3. The method of estimating the probability of fixing identity by the ridge characteristics.
  4. The sub-classification of the accidental type.
  5. The improved system of indexing.
  6. The introduction of a telegraphic code for finger impressions.
  7. The classification system for a single digit impression.

Going by this communication, it is evident that Bose contributed more to the subject of fingerprints than Haque. This has also been indicated in a note dated 28 February 1929, recorded by P. C. Bamford of the Intelligence Bureau (8):

I know Rai Hem Chandra Basu (Bose) Bahadur very well, and it would be impossible to find a stronger protagonist of the fingerprint system. His open idea was to make it a success. ..Hem Chandra Basu (Bose) not only did his share in the original introduction of the finger print system all over India, but continued, throughout his whole service, to devote himself to this particular work, and for this reason I consider that his case for an honorarium is better than that of Khan Bahadur Azizul Haque….

By saying so, Bamford was merely corroborating the recommendations of the Government of Bengal (8):

The Khan Bahadur, it is understood, was associated with this work only for a period of five years when the system was in its infancy. The Rai Bahadur has, on the other hand, been upgrudging in placing on record in his books the result of his long experience which has contributed much to the advancement of the science and the Governor in Council considers that an honorarium of Rs 10,000 might appropriately be granted to him by the Government of India. In making this recommendation His Excellency in Council is influenced by the consideration that the officer rendered exceptional service to police administration generally, not only in India as a whole but elsewhere.

This recommendation was, however, turned down by the Government of India on the ground that Henry had said that Haque contributed more than any other member of his staff in perfecting the system of fingerprint classification. Hence the honorarium granted to any other officer had to be less than or equal to that awarded to Haque. Nevertheless, Petrice, in a note dated 5 March 1929, wrote (8):

I am satisfied that he (Bose) has a clearly established claim on the generosity of the Government of India in recognition of the exceptional services which he has rendered to the Police Administration generally not only in India, but in civilized countries throughout the world. I am not so satisfied, however, that there is a case for giving him an honorarium of Rs 10,000, as compared with Rs 5000 previously awarded to Khan Bahadur Azizul Haque.

Had Haque not applied for the award, his efforts towards evolving the classification formula would have gone unrecognized. 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.

We suggest that the method be renamed as Henry–Haque–Bose.

~ Excerpted from an in-depth research on the matter by G. S. Sodhi and Jasjeet Kaur


1. Brooker, D. R., Fingerprint World, October 1977, pp. 25–27.
2. Berry, J., In Advances in Fingerprint Technology (eds Lee, H. C. and Gaensslen, R. E.), Elsevier, New York, 1991, pp. 1–38.
3. Haylock, S. E., Fingerprint World, July 1979, pp. 28–29.
4. Identification of Criminals Committee, 1900, Report of a Committee appointed by the Secretary of State to inquire into the method of identification of criminals by measurements and finger prints, Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, London, 1901.
5. Lambourne, G., The Fingerprint Story, Harrap, London, 1984, pp. 60–64.
6. Puri, K. S., Fingerprint World, July 1980, pp. 21–22.
7. Home Department Proceedings No. F. 112/25, Police Branch, 1925.
8. Home Department Proceedings No. F. 14/29, Police Branch, 1929.