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Writing Law at the Edge of Empire: Evidence from the Qazis of Bharuch (1799–1864)

  • Elizabeth Lhost


When judicial department officials at Bombay began to enforce the British East India Company’s (EIC) authority over the production and authentication of certain types of legal documents in the late 1830s, qāẓīs (Islamic judges) like Sayyid Aḥmad Ḥusain of Bharuch, objected to their loss of authority. In petitions sent to the Governor in Council from the edges of empire, these legal intermediaries objected to the Company’s interference with their livelihoods. Although the qazis’ complaints did not yield the desired results, by demonstrating the utility of their record-keeping abilities, qazis were able to retain discrete rights. The effects of these negotiations demonstrate the ways in which the intersections of expanding Company policies and local legal activity contributed to the growth of imperial power. Attending to the particularities of local legal practice, captured in the writings of these qazis, this article highlights the material mechanisms by which the EIC co-opted existing documentary cultures to extend state surveillance over local populations and challenges prevailing histories of legal translation and codification by focusing on the social ramifications of changing legal definitions at the moment such relations were first articulated in writing.

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This is an Open Access article, distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives licence (, which permits non-commercial re-use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is unaltered and is properly cited. The written permission of Cambridge University Press must be obtained for commercial re-use or in order to create a derivative work.

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Elizabeth Lhost is a historian of law and religion in South Asia. Her current book project traces the transformation of Islamic legal practice in nineteenth-century British India using paperwork, bureaucracy, and writing technologies to understand local legal practice during this period. She earned her PhD in History and South Asian Languages and Civilizations from the University of Chicago and is currently a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow with the Center for the Humanities and associate lecturer in the undergraduate Legal Studies Program at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. The author would like to thank Nick Abbott, Muzaffar Alam, Dipesh Chakrabarty, Iza Hussin, Rajeev Kinra, and Emily Lynn Osborn for providing valuable feedback on earlier versions of this paper. The author would also like to thank the organisers, Sanne Ravensbergen and Mahmood Kooria, for inviting this contribution and to acknowledge the input and guidance received from the editorial staff at Itinerario and two anonymous reviewers who provided key insights during the revision process. Research for this article was supported by the Fulbright Commission, the Social Science Research Council, the American Institute of Pakistan Studies, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and the American Council of Learned Societies.

Elizabeth Lhost,



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Writing Law at the Edge of Empire: Evidence from the Qazis of Bharuch (1799–1864)

  • Elizabeth Lhost


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