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What Constitutes Crime?

Shatam Ray

Edited by Anupama Rao and Saurabh Dube
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2013, pp. 424, Rs. 850.00


In the past few years, India has witnessed a renewed interest in the category of criminal acts ranging from corruption to cases of violence against women. In the light of such debates, Crime Through Time, a collection of writings on crime in the Indian subcontinent covering about 200 years, is topical indeed. As the editors of the anthology point out, the history of crime is also a history of law as well as evolving ideas of justice. Defining what constitutes a criminal act has always been the prerogative of the state and is an important aspect in the exercise of asserting legitimacy and sovereignty. And yet at no point has this function of the state remained uncontested; constant subversion of a disciplinary apparatus through wilful transgressions or everyday practices of the subjects meant to be ordered. The contributors bring to relief the discursive production of crime and the simultaneous institutionalization of the legal system, obscuring its historical genesis.   The first revisionist trend for the historical study of crime came from the emerging historiography associated with the English social history. Pioneering works of E.P. Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm and George Rude looked at instances of criminal activities and violence and ascribed new meanings and imaginations to them. Thompson’s idea of ‘moral economy’ and Hobsbawm’s ‘primitive rebels’ emerged as two of the more influential ideas that recast crime and criminals in a new light. As the editors outline, in considerable detail, this renewed interest in legal history or history of criminalization was further buoyed by the works of Michel Foucault. His ideas on power and the myriad ways in which subjects were disciplined into law-abiding citizens have fundamentally altered decades of writings on the subject. While giving considerable space to these two paradigms on the subject, the authors do acknowledge the ways in which these approaches have come to be challenged/ modified with the works of scholars such as Giorgio Agamben or Philip Abrams and new reading of earlier scholars such as Walter Benjamin. However, this mapping has largely been relegated to a breathless endnote to the introductory passage.   One of the central ideas that the collection tries to address, through its focus on crime and legality, is the continuity evident in the regimes from the eighteenth century onwards. As the editors point out, the earlier ideas of ‘transition’ or ‘rupture’ stand corrected and such sensibility needs to be reflected on ...

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