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Law and Identity in Colonial South Asia
Parsi Legal Culture, 1772–1947


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Part of Studies in Legal History

  • Date Published: September 2016
  • availability: Available
  • format: Paperback
  • isbn: 9781107661882
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About the Authors
  • This book explores the legal culture of the Parsis, or Zoroastrians, an ethnoreligious community unusually invested in the colonial legal system of British India and Burma. Rather than trying to maintain collective autonomy and integrity by avoiding interaction with the state, the Parsis sank deep into the colonial legal system itself. From the late eighteenth century until India's independence in 1947, they became heavy users of colonial law, acting as lawyers, judges, litigants, lobbyists, and legislators. They de-Anglicized the law that governed them and enshrined in law their own distinctive models of the family and community by two routes: frequent intra-group litigation often managed by Parsi legal professionals in the areas of marriage, inheritance, religious trusts, and libel, and the creation of legislation that would become Parsi personal law. Other South Asian communities also turned to law, but none seem to have done so earlier or in more pronounced ways than the Parsis.

    • Based upon previously unexamined primary sources from archives rediscovered over the past decade: the Bombay High Court (Mumbai) and the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council (London)
    • Takes case law seriously, while most work on South Asian legal history focuses on legislation
    • One of the first studies in South Asian legal history by a scholar trained both in law and in history
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    • Winner of the 2015 J. Willard Hurst Award, Law and Society Association

    Reviews & endorsements

    'Despite its importance, there is relatively little written on Parsi law. Mitra Sharafi's book undertakes the most detailed and informed study of the main branches of Parsi legal history. In it, Sharafi neatly straddles two readerships, the Parsi specialist and the legal fields. Through this, Sharafi offers a work that is by a long way the best study in its field, carrying the subject a long way forward. This is a superb piece of work.' John R. Hinnells, Liverpool Hope University

    'Mitra Sharafi's book brings to light a community that has received little attention in the historiography of South Asia, namely the Parsis. What distinguishes this community is the unique path by which they acculturated themselves into the world of colonial law, both by entering the legal profession and by crafting their own laws of marriage and inheritance. Sharafi moves deftly between Parsi cultural issues and their participation in colonial courts, both as litigants and as practitioners of colonial law. Her command over the local case law concerning Parsis, relevant newspapers, and records of London's Privy Council are nothing short of breathtaking. This is clearly the work of a dedicated scholar, and this book will make a strong contribution to South Asian history and the study of diaspora and of colonial law more broadly.' Chandra Mallampalli, Westmont College, California

    '… an invaluable contribution to the fields of legal history and Parsi studies. It is arguably the most important work to date in the latter field.' Simin Patel, Law and History Review

    '… a model of how social history stands to gain from a fuller use of legal sources.' C. S. Adcock, The American Historical Review

    'In revealing clear outlines to this formidably intricate story of legal change involving a social group, a legal profession, statutory reform and very extensive case law within an imperial framework, the author has achieved something remarkable. A community and its laws are explained.' Raymond Cocks, The Journal of Legal History

    'The book is carefully argued, and repeatedly dispenses with religious essentialisms to demonstrate the importance of historical explanation. Contributing to discussions of personal law, the book documents how one minority community sought legal autonomy but not political separatism. … This very readable volume will be much appreciated by scholars and students of religion, law, and history in South Asia and beyond.' C. S. Adcock, The American Historical Review

    'Mitra Sharafi's monograph on the legal culture of the Parsi's, a community of ethnic Zoroastrians, is an invaluable contribution to the fields of legal history and Parsi studies. It is arguably the most important work to date in the latter of the field. … For the legal historian as well as for the historian of South Asia, the value and novelty of Sharafi's work will lie in the colonial legal system. For the scholar of Parsi studies, the strength of the work lies in tackling a well-established area of community life in new, thorough, and transformative ways.' Simin Patel, Law and History Review

    'In Sharafi's hands, the particular puzzle of Parsi legalism and its racializing effects asks how colonial legal culture left its enduring imprint on postcolonial understandings of the tragedy, promise, and power of modern law.' Bhavani Raman, Journal of the American Bar Foundation

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    Product details

    • Date Published: September 2016
    • format: Paperback
    • isbn: 9781107661882
    • length: 368 pages
    • dimensions: 229 x 152 x 21 mm
    • weight: 0.54kg
    • contains: 28 b/w illus. 1 map
    • availability: Available
  • Table of Contents

    Part I. Parsi Legal Culture:
    1. Using law: colonial Parsis go to court
    2. Making law: two patterns
    Part II. The Creation of Parsi Personal Law:
    3. The limits of English law: the Inheritance Acts
    4. Reconfiguring male privilege: the Matrimonial Acts
    5. The jury and intra-group control: the Parsi Chief Matrimonial Court
    Part III. Beyond Personal Law:
    6. Entrusting the faith: religious trusts and the Parsi legal profession
    7. Pure Parsi: libel, race, and group membership
    Conclusion: law and identity
    Appendix: legislation.

  • Author

    Mitra Sharafi, University of Wisconsin, Madison
    Mitra Sharafi is a legal historian of South Asia. She is Associate Professor of Law and Legal Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, with History affiliation. She hosts the South Asian Legal History Resources website.


    • Winner of the 2015 J. Willard Hurst Award, Law and Society Association

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