May 18, 2014, by Katharine Adeney

Law, citizenship and democratic state building in India between 1910-1960s

Political Divisions of the Indian Empire

Law, citizenship and democratic state building in India between 1910-1960s

A one day workshop on 10th April 2014

Organiser: Dr Stephen Legg, School of Geography, University of Nottingham

 This one day workshop was organized due to a generous grant from the IAPS staff funding scheme. It built upon a similar event at SOAS in London on July 10th 2013 which included presentations on various projects addressing intersections of democracy, authoritarianism and “colonial modernity” in South Asia from the earliest paper (constitutional reform in 1919) to papers analysing the 15 years after the independence of India and Pakistan in 1947. Building upon these presentations I was invited to co-edit a special issue of a journal with the organisers (Eleanor Newbigin from SOAS, Rohit De from Cambridge, soon to be Yale, William Gould from Leeds and Ornit Shani from the University of Haifa). We are in negotiation with the journal Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Under the new editorship of Timothy Mitchell and Anupama Rao the journal has declared its new vision and we think our papers will make a provocative contribution.

The workshop was incredibly productive and brought to light shared interests and concerns across the papers. These included the work of a legal practitioner and theorist (KT Shah) who featured in three of the papers spanning the 1919, 1935 and post-independence constitutional debates. We also discussed the various methodological challenges that face academics working on constitutions. The vastness of the task involved in rewriting a constitution necessarily means that not even a fraction of the contingencies and developments involved can be anticipated. Constitutional documents are thus speculatory on detail and often display a willed refusal to define fundamental terms and concepts, thus allowing the inclusion of blocks, checks and amendments at a later stage. The substantial nature of the reforms necessitated by constitutional change raise a more significant question; can you study a country as large as “India”, or even as large as the several countries to emerge from partition in 1947 (Pakistan and, later, Bangladesh)?

In many ways all the papers in the collective rethought the legacy of colonial legal developments and the postcolonial constitutional framework for understanding the long history of the transition from the colonial to the postcolonial state. Interestingly (and perhaps, ironically) the papers divided along the axis of exploring the potential of colonial constitutional developments and examining the limits of postcolonial legal and constitutional developments. Legg, Elangovan, and Shani explored in different ways the potential of the legal frameworks of 1919 and 1935 Acts. Shani discussed the potential of bureaucratic imagination in bringing the idea of universal adult franchise to life, something that was thought impossible only a few years prior to decolonization. Together, the three papers highlight the potential of constitutionalism and creative bureaucratic imagination that undergirded this history of constitutionalism. Papers by Sen, Sherman, Gould, and De explored the limits of nationalizing legal institutions and practices in the postcolonial nation-state. At the moment of the inauguration of the nation-state, the new lawmakers soon found themselves reenacting the colonial strategies of discrimination and exclusion (Sen, Gould) and finding contingent exceptions in practices (Sherman) even as society found new ways of continuing the legacies of the Raj (in particular, language – De). In this sense, postcolonial history reveals the problematic continuities between the colonial and the postcolonial state thus demonstrating the severe limits of the conceptual, ideological, and normative imprint of these legal frameworks.

In exploring the potential of colonial legal frameworks and the limits of the nationalist constitutional framework, the papers proceeded along somewhat counterintuitive lines. For, conventionally, the colonial framework is usually seen as restrictive and reworked by the nationalist leaders in order to suit the postcolonial state. However, in re-charting this familiar trajectory the essays highlight the slightly unconventional paths that were traversed in the journey from the colonial to the postcolonial.

Since the SOAS workshop we have been drafting our papers and pre-circulated them before brief presentations and discussion at the workshop on 10th April. The presentations and discussants were as follows:

Session 1: India’s constitutional framework before independence and its implications for democratic state building

Steve Legg                 Dyarchy: scalar geographies of interwar India

(Geography, University of Nottingham)

Discussants:                Gould, Newbigin


Arvind Elangovan     Sir B N Rau and the 1935 Act (by skype)

(History, Wright State University: by skype)

Discussants:                Legg, Newbigin


Session 2: Democratic citizenship in the transition to independence


Ornit Shani                Rewriting the bureaucratic colonial imagination in the preparation of the first elections

(Asian Studies, University of Haifa)

Discussants:    De, Elangovan


Session 3: Democracy and citizenship at the social margins


William Gould         Repealing the obnoxious law: Citizenship, ‘denotification’ and the Habitual Offenders Act, 1939 – 1952

(History, University of Leeds)

Discussants:    Legg, Shani


Uditi Sen                   Terra Nullius: Making Andamans Indian (by skype)

(South Asian Studies, Hampshire College: by skype)

Discussants:    Sherman, De


Session 4: Using the constitution to make citizenship from below


Rohit De                    The education of Brenda Mary Pinto: the right to English in a postcolonial republic

(History & Law, University of Cambridge)

Discussants:    Shani, Gould


Taylor Sherman        Constitutionalism and Muslim belonging in the decade after independence

(History, LSE)

Discussants:    Elangovan, Sen

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