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Consistencies And Variations

Tanweer Fazal

By Narendra Subramanian
Stanford University Press, 2014, pp. 400, $65.00


Invariably, any conversation on the endurance of personal laws in contemporary jurisprudence gets to the typical and the monotonous. The contours of all such public discussions are shaped by the assumed immutability of such laws; our modern sensibilities are aghast at the force of tradition and horrified by the purported injustices that they sanction. In a discourse shaped largely by the belief in the supremacy of universal post-enlightenment reason, the religious codes governing the intimate sphere of conjugal relations, kinship and inheritance come to constitute the ‘other’ of project modernization, an incomplete task that cannot be left unattended. They, we are told, constitute the remnants of a bygone era, unchanging, somewhat frozen in time. Narendra Subramanian’s Nation and Family, through a comprehensive historical survey across various countries and continents, analyses of legal codes and case laws, dispels all the founding myths of the governing discourse on personal laws. Subramanian assigns historicity to different provisions, documents various reform initiatives and seeks to carefully explore the connections between the nature of social structure, the demands and the interests of the postcolonial states, the national imagery of the ruling elite and the shaping of the personal laws. Subramanian is thorough with his historical data that allows him to place the subject of religious codes within a broader frame. The immediate task outlined is a comprehensive study and analysis of the prevalence of personal laws in India, however, by marshalling in cases drawn from across the globe, the study attempts to capture both the consistencies as well as variations from any given pattern. One of the correlations that the book examines is that between the nature of the modern state and the authority of family and lineages that they sought to usurp. Not in all situations did it necessarily enter into a situation of conflict as settlements between the two in various instances allowed the perpetuity of customary and religious rules governing the personal domain. The results are varied. In many postcolonial and post-imperial countries, the transfer of authority from the family patriarch to the state was far from complete while in many others, state functionaries ensured the extension of their jurisdiction into the sphere of the private and the personal. The regimes in Turkey and Tunisia in the past, and Morocco in the more recent decades assumed the authority of the lineages and the religious clergy by introducing major changes in the ...

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