Law and History Review

Forum: Maneuvering the Personal Law System in Colonial India

Escaping the Grip of Personal Law in Colonial India: Proving Custom, Negotiating Hindu-ness

Chandra Mallampalli c1

Postcolonial perspectives on India's past have tended to focus on representations, which served the purpose of colonial domination. The view, for instance, that Indian society is fundamentally constituted by caste or religion legitimated the supposedly secular or neutral system of governance introduced by the British. Building upon Edward Said's Orientalism (1978), scholars have suggested that some of our most widely held assumptions about Indian society were more rooted in an imperial worldview than in real social experiences of Indians. The attempt of colonial administrators to understand and govern India through the study of ancient texts formed the basis of an Indian variety of Orientalism. How colonial courts deployed this text-based knowledge in relation to the actual practices of religious “communities” is the central focus of this essay.

Chandra Mallampalli is an associate professor of history at Westmont College <>. He is the author of Christians and Public Life in Colonial South India (RoutledgeCurzon, 2004) and numerous articles addressing themes of law, religion, and society in South Asia. This essay was presented at a workshop on “Thinking about Rights in Colonial India,” at Trinity College, Cambridge, in April 2008. The author wishes to thank Mitra Sharafi, Elizabeth Kolsky, Anand Yang, Eleanor Newbigen, and Rupa Viswanath for their helpful comments on earlier drafts of this essay.