The Journal of Asian Studies

Research Article

The Rule of Colonial Indifference: Rape on Trial in Early Colonial India, 1805–57

Elizabeth Kolsky

Abstract

This article explores the history of intraracial (Indian-on-Indian) rape in early colonial India. Though at times uneven and unpredictable in their rulings, British judges created a set of evidentiary requirements and a body of legal decisions that were as harsh on rape victims as the precolonial Islamic system was presumed to be. Despite the colonial promise of a more modern and humane criminal law, the gradual displacement of Islamic law did little to widen rape victims' path to legal remedy. English common law presumptions about the frequency of false charges and a suspicion of women's claims combined with a colonial insistence on the peculiarity of Indian culture to make it difficult for victims of rape to prevail in court. The colonial legal treatment of the “unsensational” crime of rape was rather unsensational. It largely reflected contemporary trends in England, which raises the important question of what was distinctively colonial about it. 

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