Workshop: 'Colonial Institutions and the Uses of Law in Early Modern South Asia'

Workshop: 'Colonial Institutions and the Uses of Law in Early Modern South Asia'

28 January 2019, Radboud University Nijmegen (Netherlands)

Indian Ocean World in the 18th Century (IOW18) Workshop Series

Organized by: Dries Lyna, Luc Bulten (both Radboud University Nijmegen) and Leonard Hodges (King’s College London)

In partnership with Alicia Schrikker (Leiden University) & International Institute for Asian Studies

Discussant: Nandini Chatterjee (University of Exeter)

Law has long been recognised as one of the most important fields for understanding the creation and maintenance of the colonial state in South Asia. Historians have shown how both criminal and civil law were a means for subjugating and governing colonised populations, as legal codes and property regimes served to maintain the social order and legitimise the extractive capacity of the colonial state. Recent research shifted away from this top-down perspective, and close attention to the actions of indigenous litigants has revealed how local populations used colonial legal systems to serve their own interests, with a great deal of present-day work focusing on legal pluralism. Yet the vast majority of this literature has addressed the question of law and colonialism in South Asia through the lens of the British colonial experience, privileging a particular path with all its subsequent implications for how we conceptualise the trajectory of South Asian history. In addition, the strong focus on British 19th-century institutions seems to have blurred the possible influence of their early modern (or even pre-colonial) predecessors.

This one-day workshop seeks to complicate teleological readings of law and its relationship to colonial institutions and state-making by drawing on contexts beyond and before British domination in the subcontinent. By evoking the ‘uses of law’ we hope to capture both the constraints and opportunities the creation of colonial institutions posed for a wide range of people, whether colonial administrators, local elites, merchants, farmers or widows.

Central questions in this workshop are:

  • How did pluralistic settings affect the development of colonial institutions, and in what ways did these institutions appropriate and transform indigenous legalities?
  • How might local actors have sought to contest or benefit from particular colonial institutions?
  • And to what extent is it possible to capture indigenous agency when meditated through colonial institutions?

The workshop is a free event, but registration via the online form is required. For more information about the workshop, contact us via