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Ethnography Of Adjudication

Pratiksha Baxi

By Srimati Basu
Orient BlackSwan, Noida, 2015, pp. 280, Rs. 775.00


The book begins with an evocative gaze that lingers over the writing on the walls of family courts in Kolkata. The writing on the walls of the courts invites attention to what Srimati Basu characterizes as the disciplinary governmentality of courts; seductive calls for alternative dispute resolution; normative pictures of family and marriage and finally, a ‘noble’ feminism according women honour and protection within matrimony. The pedagogical function of the walls frames the discourses that a litigant engages with in the court or in a counsellor’s office. This ethnographic account leads us to the multiple places where law sits and rises to adjudicate, mediate and constitute everyday troubles of matrimonial life. Looking at law anthropologically Basu challenges the idea that ‘mediation’ puts an end to the ‘troubles of law’ to suggest that ‘mediation, as law’s Other, is ambivalent in the same ways as law: new spaces and new modes of speaking do not necessarily alter legal authority’. Not only does Basu argue that ‘law is creatively used to shape marriage, with and against women’s agency’, but she also demonstrates how the cunning of judicial reform functions simultaneously as ‘poison’ and ‘medicine’, by assuming that gender and kinship are stable categories. The fieldwork set in family courts in Kolkata, Delhi and Dhaka allows a rich ethnographic description of how law produces new forms of subjectivities and socialities. The thick description of what is at stake in doing courtroom ethnography is lucid and instructive in explicating the value of deploying the anthropological method in the field of law. This book is drawn from a valuable archive of 297 cases of which 234 have been documented in Kolkata. It is based on a multi-sited ethnographic project that follows different discourses, categories and institutions to describe how the object of research is constituted variously at different sites. The book undertakes a magisterial project to look at how disputes over divorce, marital violence, domestic violence, rape, sexual fraud, property and sexuality find judicial interpretation in a comparative framework while placing specific narratives of violence in a wider debate. This is followed by an instructive and insightful reading of what Basu identifies as four critical colonial and postcolonial moments: The Dissolution of Muslim Marriage Bill debates (1939), the Hindu Code Bill debates (1949), the report of the Committee on the Status of Women in India (1974), and the Family Courts Bill debates (1984). This chapter maps the genealogies of ...

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