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A Contested Arena

Ratna Kapur

By Rina Verma Williams
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2006, pp. 214, Rs. 595.00


The issue of reform of personal laws has been a site of intense conflict and tension in India. And the legal arena remains a primary site of contestation. Rina Verma Williams examines how the system of personal laws has been and continues to be critical to sustaining state authority and the exercise of power over the Indian citizenry. Her book examines how the policy on personal laws in India has been shaped largely by political exigencies from the time of the colonial encounter and persisted into the postcolonial moment. She undertakes a comparison of the policies of the British colonial power in India in relation to the personal laws with those of independent India, during three different time periods. The periods covered include the codification of 'Hindu' laws under Nehru in the 1950s; the enactment of the Muslim Women's Protection on Divorce Act, endorsed by Rajiv Gandhi in the 1980s; and the response of the Bharatiya Janata Party and the National Democratic Alliance to the notion of a Uniform Civil Code during the 1990s. While the policy of non-interference was the purportedly governing policy adopted by governments ever since Warren Hastings decreed the same in 1772, Williams uncovers how this policy was constantly refashioned and even at times discarded.   Williams provides an overview of some of the critical scholarship that has emerged on the relationship between law and Empire, identifying two strands. One strand critically examines how western law and legal institutions were transported into the colonies where there was already an indigenous system in existence. The result was the production of a dual legal system. However, later scholarship argues that western and indigenous laws were not self-contained pre-existing entities and that the two were mutually constitutive-that there was a back and forth between the colony and the metropole, resulting in a constant modification of one another. Both strands nevertheless are critical of the positive law theorists who claimed that law was neutral and based on universal principles, exposing how law operated in the context of Empire to further the economic and political interests of the colonial power and deny benefits to the native subjects. "The colonial state was an economic predator and the positive law provided its claws. The law was by no means a reflection of society"(p. 37). Colonialism was first and foremost an economic enterprise. Law was deployed as a mechanism to further that enterprise together with the ...

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