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Personal Law and Citizenship in India's Transition to Independence

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  06 January 2011

School of Oriental and African Studies, Thornhaugh Street, London WC1H 0XG, UK Email:


Studies of the post-colonial state have often presented it as a structure that has fallen under the control of self-interested sections of the Indian elite. In terms of citizenship, the failure of the state to do more to realize the egalitarian promise of the Fundamental Rights, set out in the Constitution of 1950, has often been attributed to interference by these powerful elite. Tracing the interplay between debates about Hindu property rights and popular support or tolerance for the notion of individual, liberal citizenship, this paper argues that the principles espoused in the Fundamental Rights were never neutral abstractions but, long before independence, were firmly embedded in the material world of late-colonial political relations. Thus, in certain key regards, the citizen-subject of the Indian Constitution was not the individual, freed from ascriptive categories of gender or religious identity, but firmly tied to the power structures of the community governed by Hindu law.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2010

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27 Kozlowski, Muslim Endowments, pp. 1–3.

28 Ibid, pp. 10–14; The use of waqf law in this developed in the Ottoman Empire during the eighteenth century in response to the state's fiscal policies but became an even more popular way of protecting a family's hold over land in the nineteenth century, with the expansion of colonial power in this region. Powers, ‘Orientalism, Colonialism and Legal History’, pp. 537–538.

29 Kugle, ‘Framed, Blamed and Renamed’, pp. 286–294. Debates about the public and private character of the waqf were paralleled by debates about private trusts governed by Hindu law. On the emergence of this notion of public economic space and its impact on Hindu personal legal structures see Birla, Ritu, Stages of Capital: Law, Culture and Market Governance in Late Colonial India (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2009)Google Scholar.

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32 For a summary of Privy Council rulings on this matter see the Statement of Objects and Reasons to Hari Singh Gour's Bill to define the liability of a Hindu coparcener, (NAI) GOI Home Department, Judicial F. 407/1924.

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36 While waqf is now the common spelling used for this term, the 1913 Act used this older construction. I cite the formal title of the act, rather than amending it in line with modern usage. Kozlowski, Muslim endowments, pp. 177–191.

37 Indeed, reform of waqf law also continued after independence, though it was much more concerned with waqf management than with family entitlement. Rashid, Khalid, Wakf administration in India (Vikas, New Delhi, 1978), pp. 2335Google Scholar.

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40 These included R. R. Kale, a lawyer from Maharashtra and Sambanda Mudaliar, a lawyer from Georgetown in the Madras Presidency. See Eleanor Newbigin, ‘The Hindu Code Bill and the Making of the Modern Indian State’, Unpublished thesis, University of Cambridge (2008).

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44 The HLRRA had branches in Bengal, Allahabad and Nagpur. A collection of their written material and minutes is available in (NAI) M. R. Jayakar Papers F. 4.

45 These were the Women's Indian Association (WIA), founded in 1917, the National Council of Women in India (NCWI), established in 1925 and the All India Women's Conference (AIWC), which met for the first time in 1927 to discuss women's education but rapidly grew into a more permanent organization. Forbes, Geraldine, Women in Modern India (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1996), pp. 7291CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Candy, Catherine ‘Competing Transnational Representations of the 1930s Indian Franchise Question’, in Fletcher, Ian Christopher, et al. . (eds), Women's Suffrage in the British Empire (Routledge, London, 2000), pp. 191206Google Scholar. Basu, A. and Ray, B.Women's Struggle: a History of the All-India Women's Conference 1927–1990 (Manohar, Delhi, 1990)Google Scholar.

46 Basu and Ray, Women's Struggle, pp. 19–21, 28–29.

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48 Mrinalini Sinha, Specters of Mother India.

49 On the relationship between modernity and the Child Marriage Restraint Act see, Sinha, Mrinalini, ‘The Lineage of the “Indian” Modern: Rhetoric, Agency and the Sarda Act in Late Colonial India’ in Burton, A. (ed.), Gender, Sexuality and Colonial Modernities (Routledge: London, 1999), pp. 207220Google Scholar.

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51 David Gilmartin, ‘Kinship, Women and Politics’, see also footnote 12, above.

52 From the Statement of Objects and Reasons in support of the Shariat Application Act 1937, cited in Nair, Janaki, Women and Law in Colonial India: a Social History (Kali for Women, Delhi, 1996), p. 193Google Scholar.

53 The Government of India insisted that this reference to ‘law’ be altered before the bill was enacted, so that, in the end, the measure affected only customary practice and not statute. See extract from Legislative Assembly Debates, Vol. V., no. 11, 16 September, 1937, pp. 9–13. (NAI) GOI Home Department F.28/34/1938—Judicial.

54 Précis of opinions on the Moslem Personal Law (Shariat) Application Bill—Paper I (NAI) GOI Home Department F.28/34/1938—Judicial.

55 See also views of Mohamad A. D. Arshad, Revenue Assistant in D. G. Khan District, Punjab, Précis of opinions on the Moslem Personal Law (Shariat) Application Bill—Paper III; Ibid.

56 See the opinion of the Commissioner, Northern Division, Dhulia, Bombay Presidency, in Précis of opinions on the Moslem Personal Law (Shariat) Application Bill—Paper II, Ibid.

57 Paper II, Ibid.

58 Paper I, Ibid.

59 Explanatory summary by Robert F. Mudie, Government of India, Home department, 11 September, 1937, (NAI) GOI Home Department, Judicial F.36/17/1935.

60 This would result in the gradual phasing out of the all-male coparcenary and a move to a situation in which property remained in the hands of a more nuclear family structure. Many representatives questioned this when the bill was circulated for opinion, some of them wondering whether this was a result of poor wording of the bill's provisions. See for example the opinions of the Governor of Bombay and Mr Justice Munroe of Punjab ‘Précis of opinions on the Hindu Women's Rights to Property Bill’. (NAI) GOI Home Department, Judicial F.28/25/1938.

61 Note from the Government of the United Provinces to the Secretary of the Government of India, Legislative Department, 15 January, 1935. (NAI) GOI Home Department, Judicial F.28/25/1938.

62 This point was raised by Khan Bahadur M. Sehamnad Sahib Bahadur, MLC of Madras in Précis of opinions on the Moslem Personal Law (Shariat) Application Bill—Paper I (NAI) GOI Home Department—Judicial F.28/34/1938.

63 The Hindu Women's Rights to Property (Amendment) Act, (Act XI of 1938). (NAI) GOI Home Department F.364/1937—Judicial.

64 Statement of object of reasons from a Bill to amend the Hindu Women's Right to Property Act, 1937, introduced by Mr G. S. Motilal in July 1938. (NAI) GOI Home Department—Judicial F.28/13/1938.

65 In a summary of official opinion on G. S. Motilal's 1938 bill to amend the Hindu Women's Right to Property Act, a member of the Government of India explained that the main criticism of the measure was that, ‘The Bill is fundamentally opposed to the principles of Hindu Law’. Note by Secretary to the Government of India, Home Department, 22 February, 1939. (NAI) GOI Home Department—Judicial, F.28/13/1938.

66 Basu, Monmayee, Hindu Women and Marriage Law (Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2004), pp. 127133Google Scholar.

67 Hindu Law Committee ‘Report of the Hindu Law Committee’ (June, 1941), Appendix VI. (IOR) V/26/100/16.

68 Ibid., p. 10.

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70 Nehru, Jawaharlal to Khan, Mohammad Ismail, Muslim League representative in the Constituent Assembly, 30 December, 1948, Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru, (2nd series), Vol. 9, Gopal, S. (ed.) (Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fund: Oxford University Press, New Delhi, circa. 1990), pp. 317318Google Scholar.

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