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The idea of Indian degeneracy or stagnancy was crucial to the case of Ramaswamy Aiyan v. Venkata Achari (1863), which is the focus of the third chapter. While the actual substance of the case concerned the distribution of rights and profits associated with temple management, I suggest that the Privy Council’s engagement with the case served a larger ideological function. The petty squabble between the various sects of Brahmins functioned in the case as a metaphor for the decadent system of caste itself. Over the course of the chapter I show how the very existence of the dispute became evidence of the dysfunction of Indian modes of social and temporal organization. Highlighting the political ramifications of narrative constructions, the Privy Council’s opinion worked to render Indian history as irremediably tainted, and Indian religion as riddled with superstition and irrationality. The case thus reveals the ambivalent interactions between Indian social and temporal organization and British concepts of historicity. Though the case deals explicitly with questions of religion, I suggest that the force of the opnion extends to secular temporalities and teleologies as well.
“’A Power Able to Overawe Them All’: Criminality and the Uses of Fear,” begins with a discussion of criminality in The Queen v. Eduljee Byramjee (1846). At the heart of the case was the question of whether criminal convictions could be appealed to the Privy Council. On the one hand, to limit appeals to the Queen would implicitly serve to undermine her absolute sovereignty. On the other hand, granting the right to appeal would undermine the authority of the colonial courts and intervene in the social, political, and economic uses to which Indian criminals were put. This chapter also shows how the fiction of Indian criminality became useful to the exercise of British sovereignty. As the last ready supply of working bodies after the abolition of slavery, and the end of British penal transport, Indian criminals provided essential physical labor for the territorial expansion of Empire. The rhetoric of Indian degeneracy, then, was central to both the ideological and material terms by which the British consolidated and expanded their sovereignty. (Word Count: 10,500)
The sixth chapter continues this focus on the theme of adoption by considering the portrayal of orphans and foundlings in the ‘adoption’ novels of George Eliot. At a time when questions of filial dependence or entitlements were being rigidly regulated in the colony, writers from Charles Dickens to Charlotte Brontë and George Eliot imbued adoptive relations with special sentimental and social value to expansively reform ideas of how family, home, and kinship are understood. So, for instance, this chapter shows how Eliot’s Silas Marner (1861) champions the surrogate parental relation over wealth and property inheritance precisely when the Sumroo case legally restricts these ties in the Indian context. Yet, even for Eliot, when adoption raises the specter of racial or national difference as in Daniel Deronda (1876) kinship remains ancestral, its hallmark being genealogical and not open to the caprice of nurture. What this chapter thus clarifies is a contrapuntal relationship between law and literature around the question of adoption. Some of the most celebrated nineteenth century English novels use adoption to break with the family romance plot, upending legal assumptions about rights and descent. However, race proves a limit point even for these works with otherwise capacious imaginations.
The fifth chapter examines eighteenth and nineteenth century inheritance laws in India in order to analyze the intersections between state power, gender, and colonial policies of annexation. In particular, I focus on the case of Troup v. East India Company (1857), which involves the estate of Begum Sumroo, one of the wealthiest and most unconventional women in colonial India. Sumroo, who did not have biological heirs, sought to transfer her wealth to her son through adoption. In a case that revolved around the distinction between private and state property for native principalities, the colonial state declared that the Begum’s property was subject to annexation. The annexation inaugurated a series of legal cases that unfolded over the unfortunate life of her adopted heir David Ochterlony Dyce Sombre. Taking the case of Begum Sumroo as my starting point, I explore the ways in which the normativization of western notions of inheritance and property worked to undergird the expansion of Empire. Assertions of colonial sovereignty thus sought to disrupt unruly forms of sexual and social organization in order to more efficiently manage both affective relations and property ownership
Chapter Two, “The Social Life of Crime: Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations and Philip Meadows Taylor’s Confessions of a Thug” reads the oppositional evolution of criminal justice in England and India by comparing the two novels. I begin with the observation that the movement toward rehabilitation and the humanization of the criminal in nineteenth century England occurs in tandem with the rise of corporal punishment and penal transportation in India. Taking the two novels as instances of this contradictory impulse, I examine the figure of the thug as a cipher for racialized fears of Indian criminality. In particular, I look at representations of paternity and masculinity within both novels. I show that Abel Magwitch becomes humanized in Dickens’s novel by taking on the mantle of fatherhood for Pip. By contrast, Ameer Ali is condemned for his paradigmatic inability to foster a viable childhood. I argue that criminality emerges within a Victorian matrix of race and patriarchy in which to be a father, or father figure, is to be properly human.
The book begins with a broad introduction situating the development of colonial law alongside the rise of the novel. The introduction offers an overview of the architecture of colonial sovereignty while also delving into its specifically legal context. From the move toward the codification of laws to the adjudication of cases in the Privy Council, the introduction reveals the ways in which the law provided a narrative for colonial lives. At the same time, the introduction shows how broader cultural narratives as represented in the era’s literature influenced the law. Even if, as is customarily claimed, the substance of law in the colonies was haphazard and drawn from multiple legal traditions, its authority was largely founded in claims to absolute sovereignty. The introduction frames the ways in which bloodline claims to the sovereignty of kingship were reconfigured in the colonies to enact a biopolitical sovereignty of race.
The afterword brings the various questions raised through colonial law and literature into the contemporary era. In it, I reflect on the book’s overarching argument and attempt to orient its conclusions toward the present and future. It is difficult, for example, to read the recent ruling by the Supreme Court undoing the prohibition of homosexuality in Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code as a predictable outcome of the structuring logic of colonial law. At the same time, it is equally unexpected as a consequence of contemporary Indian nationalism. Thinking about the unruly history of the “unnatural offence” that Section 377 seeks to prohibit helps reframe the legal narrative outside any teleological recourse to progress and tradition. In this vein, the afterword examines a range of flashpoints in contemporary Indian law in order to arrive at a broader understanding of the intersection of law and narrativity.
“On Time: How Fiction Writes History in Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone,” shows how the novel subtly reinforces the principles put forth in the judicial opinion. Written just five years after Ramaswamy Aiyan v. Venkata Achari was decided by the Privy Council, The Moonstone reflects many similar concerns with centering English modernity, especially by way of comparison with colonies such as India. I show how the novel invokes oppositional teleologies for India and Britain, often playing up sectarian tensions and Brahminism in the Indian context. As the narrative of the mystery moves steadily forward, reflecting the teleology of British progress, the temporality of India remains stubbornly stagnant. Finally, folding the present into the past, the gem, the deity, and the devotees end up exactly where they began, oblivious to the linear narrative of history and impervious to the forward movement of time. More specifically, the novel’s mystery genre works to naturalize a teleological narrative of history that solidifies the relationship between the restorative British present and the stalled Indian past. As the mystery unfolds, it becomes increasingly clear that the temporality of the novel is intimately related to the teleology of a colonialist vision of history.
Situated at the intersection of law and literature, nineteenth-century studies and post-colonialism, Colonial Law in India and the Victorian Imagination draws on original archival research to shed new light on Victorian literature. Each chapter explores the relationship between the shared cultural logic of law and literature, and considers how this inflected colonial sociality. Leila Neti approaches the legal archive in a distinctly literary fashion, attending to nuances of voice, character, diction and narrative, while also tracing elements of fact and procedure, reading the case summaries as literary texts to reveal the common turns of imagination that motivated both fictional and legal narratives. What emerges is an innovative political analytic for understanding the entanglements between judicial and cultural norms in Britain and the colony, bridging the critical gap in how law and literature interact within the colonial arena.
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