Faith and State in Colonial Times: Personal Laws and Debates around Widow Burnings in Early Nineteenth Century India

Soon after the English East India Company seized control over civil administration in Eastern India, Governor General Warren Hastings announced a Judicial Plan in 1772: to instruct his government on how to adjudicate disputes on Indian belief, caste, marriage, divorce, succession, inheritance and adoption. It announced that this entire field would be governed under Indian scripture and unwritten ancestral custom, even if the rules went against British moral convictions. Later, when the Indian Empire had been fully formed, the Plan was applied to the rest of colonial territories in India. The British never deviated from the Plan as long as they ruled India. Though meant initially for court usage, the Plan also ensured that the state could make a new law in this sphere only if accredited brahman Pandits or Maulvis – religious scholars – agreed that a particular current practice contradicts pristine religious texts or collective ancestral custom.

Professor Tanika Sarkar, Jawaharlal Nehru University

I will first explain the contours of this unusual legal domain, which preserved a large measure of autonomy for colonized Indians in the most intimate areas of their lives. The domain was named Personal Laws and it later came to include separate packages of laws for Indian Parsis and Christians. Tribal groups were governed by their different customary laws, while Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains were administered under Hindu laws. The laws were occasionally revised in a piecemeal fashion and were renamed as Family Laws after Independence. Their structure and logic, however, remain intact even now.

I will then try to illustrate how the laws functioned in the sphere of widow immolations or the Hindu ritual of Sati in early colonial times.  Much of post colonial historiography on modern Indian culture assumes that the British plotted to thoroughly colonise and transform Indian cultural and social practices. I argue, on the other hand, that the state and the custodians of Hindu faith established a strategic compact: the latter became the acknowledged guardians of religious belief, social and domestic practices and ritual life, while the state acted as a referee: mediating among, and choosing a particular brahmanical opinion on these matters out of a medley of contending interpretations. The habit continued even when new laws were introduced – when immolations were criminalised, for instance. In my presentation, I will try to explain my point of departure through a close study of immolation- events and their abolition in 1829.

An introduction by Dipesh Chakrabarty from 2010, which still holds:

“Tanika Sarkar is arguably the most prominent feminist historian today writing on Bengal and India. She also belongs to a tiny band of Indian scholars whose interests embrace both history and literature. Her many different books and essays on women's histories—notable as much for their breadth of interests as for their sensitive and imaginative handling of a wide variety of Bengali and English-language sources from the colonial times and before—show her to be an intellectual whose work is both attentive to the messiness of the past and at the same time deliberately resistant to what she sees as unsatisfactory, schematic interpretations of many postcolonial scholars. This gives her writing a polemical edge but it is not consumed by polemics. In the end, much of it is indeed pioneering, imaginative, and wonderful history from someone completely engaged with what goes on around her.”

Some publications:

Hindu Wife, Hindu Nation: Community, Religion, Cultural Nationalism (Hurst, 2001), ISBN 978-1850655824

Rebels, Wives, Saints: Designing Selves and Nations in Colonial Times (University of Chicago Press, 2009), ISBN 978-1906497293

‘Is Love without Borders Possible?’, Special Guest Contribution, Feminist Review, 2018-07, Vol.119 (1), pp. 7-19.

‘Intimate Violence in Colonial Bengal: A Death, a Trial and a Law,1889–1891’, Law and History Review, 2020-02-01, Vol.38 (1), pp. 177-200.

You are welcome to join the seminar on zoom by emailing Åse Magnusson.

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