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The Rule of Colonial Indifference: Rape on Trial in Early Colonial India, 1805–57


This article explores the history of intraracial (Indian-on-Indian) rape in early colonial India. Though at times uneven and unpredictable in their rulings, British judges created a set of evidentiary requirements and a body of legal decisions that were as harsh on rape victims as the precolonial Islamic system was presumed to be. Despite the colonial promise of a more modern and humane criminal law, the gradual displacement of Islamic law did little to widen rape victims' path to legal remedy. English common law presumptions about the frequency of false charges and a suspicion of women's claims combined with a colonial insistence on the peculiarity of Indian culture to make it difficult for victims of rape to prevail in court. The colonial legal treatment of the “unsensational” crime of rape was rather unsensational. It largely reflected contemporary trends in England, which raises the important question of what was distinctively colonial about it. 

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Catherine Burns . 2005. Sexual Violence and the Law in Japan. New York: RoutledgeCurzon.

Laurie Edelstein . 1998. “An Accusation Easily to Be Made? Rape and Malicious Prosecution in Eighteenth-Century England.American Journal of Legal History 42 (4): 351–90.

Elizabeth Kolsky . 2010. “‘The Body Evidencing the Crime’: Rape on Trial in Colonial India, 1860–1947.Gender & History 22 (1): 109–30.

Tanika Sarkar . 2000. “A Prehistory of Rights: The Age of Consent Debate in Colonial Bengal.Feminist Studies 26 (3): 601–22.

Radhika Singha . 1996. “Making the Domestic More Domestic: Criminal Law and the ‘Head of the Household,’ 1772–1843.” Indian Economic and Social History Review 33 (3): 309–44.

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak . 1988. “Can the Subaltern Speak?” In Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, eds. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg , 271313. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

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The Journal of Asian Studies
  • ISSN: 0021-9118
  • EISSN: 1752-0401
  • URL: /core/journals/journal-of-asian-studies
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