In writing history, the story of those who succeeded is well known. What happens to the losers? What changes can we expect when we examine the defeat of the Khojas and Pushtimargis who went to court because of internal dissent and found that they lost some of their autonomy as self-functioning polities? Instead of being allowed to give evidence of their current belief and behaviour, as Islamic or Hindu, they were presented with interpretations of a homogenized Islam and a homogenized Hinduism as a standard by which their religiosity was assessed. The law court in the mid-nineteenth century would decide who they were. Could any inferences be drawn on the construction of unitary religious communities of today'As the colonial judiciary started to establish its jurisdiction over Indians, it began to redefine the individual polities, which these religious groups were said to resemble. Using its Orientalist knowledge and the new reforming ideas of the Western-educated Indian elite, it identified the different polities as belonging either to Islam or Hinduism, obscuring the great divergences within them. The new enforced homogeneity was contingent on the destruction of the older collectives who lost their powers to handle social and caste disputes since customary law gave way to British common law and equity. Moreover, the definitions of religious communities in court privileged a nuclear patriarchal family, which retained exclusive rights to control female sexuality. The dissident Khoja and Pushtimargi reformers charged their leaders with immortality and wished to prevent women from meeting them. No one though of asking the women themselves or of taking account of their initiatives, as when Manekbhai took a Pushtimargi maharaj to court because she felt he had got hold of their property by unjust means. Taking two famous and popular legal trials in Bombay, the Aga Khan Case and the Maharaj Libel Case, the author shows that the court worked with a notion of group membership as religious community where experts, Westernized Indians or British scholars, elicited the truth. She further asserts that the colonial judiciarys denial of the polities ability to govern themselves and their simultaneous governance by the colonial state meant that individuals were identified in law or in the courts with a marked religious community. Such a legal system defines society as religious and traps social groups into wider fundamentalist identifications.
About the Author
Amrita Shodhan is an independent scholar. She received her PhD in South Asian Languages and Civilization from the University of Chicago.