The mystery of land records shrouded in red

Published: July 13, 2019
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Since colonial times official land documents have been wrapped in red cloth. DESIGN: IBRAHIM YAHYA

Since colonial times official land documents have been wrapped in red cloth. DESIGN: IBRAHIM YAHYA

KARACHI: The colour red symbolises many things in popular imagination. Often, it is associated with danger and used to signify threat. Or at times, it is seen to represent passion and emotion, particularly love and rage. Many empires and kingdoms, the British among them, also saw the colour as a sign of royalty and used it to signify imperial might and projection.

In the context of bureaucracy, the colour red usually gets a bad rap, associated as it is with official lethargy. But there is another less reported significance to the hue: important official land records and documents are almost always shrouded in red cloth.

Although the practice of shrouding official documents, land records in particular, in red cloth dates back to the days of British rule in the Subcontinent, the origin of the colonial ritual is still unknown to many who continue to uphold it. The mysterious practice baffles almost everyone in the bureaucratic circles.

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While the most common reaction to red colour is that it demands you to take notice, many in Sindh’s administrative coterie believe it is a way to caution or alert individuals in government offices.

Some presume red cloth was used as a primitive way of flagging confidential documents to prevent unwarranted access.  Others believe documents are enveloped in red to protect them from unintended or accidental destruction.

Decoding the myth about the use red cloth in government offices, former Sindh government bureaucrat, Aftab Memon said the practice of concealing official documents in red cloth goes back to the official Manual for Settlement of Land, implemented by the British rulers in the Indian subcontinent.

“This practice goes back to early 1900s when red cloth was used to measure land,” Memon claimed. The former bureaucrat associates the bureaucratic ritual with the revenue or tapedari system in the Indian subcontinent.

“The use of red cloth goes back to the land measurement process in Punjab. It was the start of the revenue or tapedari system in the subcontinent,” he said.

Unaware of the significance behind the choice of red colour to veil official revenue documents, Memon assumes there could have been a legal or functional reason behind the practise.

“Maybe red color was used as a sign of caution or restriction to show ownership or authority of revenue record reserved for certain officials,” he said.

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Concurring with Memon’s version of history, Asif, who works as a revenue officer in Sukkur, said red may have been used to indicate prohibited material. “Using red cloth to cover land-related papers could have been a warning to prevent unauthorized access.”

While the purpose or reason behind enshrouding documents in red remains a mystery, its use continues.  Officers at the Board of Revenue in Karachi, claim they frequently whiteness the use of red cloth to keep the land-related records.

“The use of red cloth is still very common at our offices,” said Nazeer Ahmed, a revenue employee in Karachi.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 13th, 2019.

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