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Response to Review of Race, Religion, and Law in Colonial India. Trials of an Interracial Family

I would like to thank Professor Peter Robb for his detailed and balanced treatment of my book. The review summarizes the book aptly and raises important questions about methodology. I appreciate this opportunity to clarify my methods and the book’s larger arguments.

A recurring theme in Robb’s review is the reliability (or representativeness) of legal source materials. Can the documentation generated by a Privy Council decision be used to reconstruct a family history, given the fact that much of it served the narrow interests of litigants? I certainly believe the materials are useful, but only when read critically (as with any other genre of data) and adequately supplemented by other kinds of evidence. Court cases contain a wealth of information, shedding light on various social experiences and the operations of the colonial judiciary itself.

The book describes how one family’s complex lives were reduced in court to a contest between ‘English-ness’ versus ‘Hindu-ness.’ In Abraham v. Abraham (1863), an interracial family that observed a wide range of customs and had traded with members of different races and creeds was portrayed as belonging either to one community or another, with each defined by checklists of cultural characteristics. The book challenges these fixed alternatives by describing the mixtures that characterize the Abraham family and the society around them. To draw out the contrast, I devote early chapters to the lives of the family before the onset of the lawsuit. Robb finds some aspects of this narrative unremarkable, others unconvincing. I found it necessary to provide these details precisely to set the stage for the simplifications and inflections of the court case, and bring them into sharper focus.

To use case law materials for writing history, we need to examine their origin and context and not discount their validity simply because of the adversarial setting that produced them. Some sources used in my book contain arguments that are ‘manifestly factitious’ as Robb observes. These include statements from litigants themselves or from witnesses for either side. Other documents concern matters that long predate the onset of the court case and are not shaped by the law’s structure of incentives. These include financial accounts, family letters, and other factual information that did not materially influence the outcome of the case or were unrelated to the instructions of judges. Throughout the book, I supplement my use of case documents with archival materials concerning the city where the case originated (Bellary).  Where applicable, I also draw from a wider literature concerning interracial unions, joint families, family firms, and the legal construction of religious identities. I can appreciate Robb’s reference to other works on race and empire that would have enriched the discussion.  My study, however, was somewhat constrained by its focus on a particular locality, and my claim that it was Bellary’s unique economy and climate which facilitated cultural mixture and social mobility among lower classes.

The book includes detailed discussions of the lawyers for each side (for example, pp. 134–5, 141–3, 2045, 145–7), their backgrounds, and legal strategies. In the introduction, I do employ shorthand that states, ‘Francis argued’ or ‘Charlotte argued,’ but this in no way suggests that litigants devised their arguments on their own. One of the great ironies of the case is how the plaintiff, Charlotte Abraham employed an Indian vakil (pleader), Vasudeva Naidu, to make a case for her deceased husband’s English-ness. In fact, on the very page Robb cites (p. 141) I discuss the legal strategy devised by Naidu, not ‘the parties to the dispute.’ The defendant, Francis Abraham, employed an East Indian barrister, J. S. Shrieves, to make the case for his ‘Hindu-ness’. This is particularly ironic, considering the defendant’s paraiyar origins (one among many untouchable groups who resisted Hindu hegemony), and his eventual conversion to Anglicanism.

While micro-histories of this kind are somewhat limited in the wider claims they can make, I sought to address two themes in the book. First, the story of this family defies the ordering of Indian society according to caste and religion. This critique is by no means original. Those who stress the colonial construction of caste or the overlapping or syncretic domains of Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs make similar points.(1) Less often, though, have scholars drawn from the stories of Indian Christians to critique colonial monoliths. By detailing the layers of this family’s involvements and way of life, I question the idea that they belonged to an exclusive enclave constituted by missionaries, church structures, and colonial officials. In order to place the family under English law, the vakil (Naidu) invented a myth of a hermetically sealed Euro-Christian enclave to which the family belonged. By means of such arguments, metropolitan discourses of racial and cultural difference were read into a locality that was marked by relatively fluid social and religious boundaries.

Second, the arguments produced in court invoke myths that carry lasting implications for colonial and postcolonial policies toward Christian converts. The plaintiff portrayed Christian conversion as a dramatic, civilizational rupture that takes Christians beyond the pale of Hindu society and affiliates them with European culture. Hindu nationalists often use the foreign affiliation of Christian converts to legitimate violence toward Dalit, tribal and low caste converts. Moreover, belief in the comparative mobility of Dalit Christians underlies policies that ignore their persistent state of disadvantage. The Government of India thus excludes Dalit Christians from scheduled class status and state assistance of any kind. Matthew Abraham did indeed acquire wealth in spite of his untouchable origins and became a local big man (pedda dora). But this did not make him a poster child for the civilizing mission, the Protestant work ethic, or the blessings of assimilation. A range of local factors, I argue, contributed to his family’s rise to prominence; and many converts in Bellary never experienced such upward mobility.

I thank Professor Robb for his careful treatment of my book and for this opportunity to explain the book’s methodology and core themes.

Notes

  1. Bernard Cohn, Colonialism and its Forms of Knowledge (Princeton, NJ, 1996); Nicolas Dirks, Castes of Mind (Princeton, NJ, 2001); Susan Bayly, Saints, Goddesses and Kings: Muslims and Christians in South Indian Society, 1700-1900 (Cambridge, 1988); Beyond Turk and Hindu: Rethinking Religious Identities in Islamicate South Asia, ed. David Gilmartin and Bruce B. Lawrence (Gainsville, FL, 2000); Romila Thapar, Somanatha (London, 2005); Catherine Asher and Cynthia Talbot, India Before Europe (Cambridge, 2006).Back to (1)
  2. p