Law and Identity in Colonial South Asia


June 19, 2014

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The Parsis, or Zoroastrians, are an ethnoreligious community unusually invested in the colonial legal system of British India and Burma. In this interactive slideshow, Mitra Sharafi, the author of Law and Identity in Colonial South Asia, introduces readers to the history of Parsi culture and identity in colonial South Asia.

Transcript of Law and Identity in Colonial South Asia

Who are the Parsis?
Photo of the Iranshah
Parsis also played an outsized role in Indian legal history.
They produced many top lawyers and judges in the colonial era
Parsi barrister P. B. Vachha (center) and two associates in Bombay, c.1909 (courtesy of R. P. Vachha)
Law and Identity
in Colonial South Asia:
Parsi Legal Culture,

Mitra Sharafi
Followers of the ancient Persian religion of Zoroastrianism,
the Parsis migrated to India
after the conquest of Persia
by Arab Muslims
in the 7th century.
They remained a distinct
ethno-religious community,
and prospered under British rule.
Famous Parsis include
conductor Zubin Mehta and pop star Freddie Mercury.
In India, Tata and Godrej are well known corporations founded by Parsis.
The Parsis helped build Bombay.
If you wander the streets of Mumbai today, you’ll be surrounded by sites created by the Parsi “merchant princes” of British India.
These suits pertained to sensitive matters like marriage, inheritance, libel, and religious trusts.
In a 1925 case,
a teenager named Bella fought for the right to enter the Zoroastrian fire temple in Rangoon.
She had been adopted by Parsis who raised her
in the Zoroastrian faith.
Only Parsi Zoroastians were allowed to enter the temple. And whether ethnic outsiders could be accepted into the Zoroastrian religion and Parsi community was contested.
The colonial courts were thus asked
the question,
a Parsi?
Bella’s case advanced from Rangoon to London against the backdrop of a newly racialized model of Parsi identity.
One of the lawyers against her was the father of Parsi eugenics.
The Bombay solicitor J. J. Vimadalal adapted Euro-American race science to the Parsi context.
The dynamics and intensely sensitive nature of her case reflected the unusual character of Parsi legal culture.
Minorities often avoid interaction with the state
to protect their autonomy.
Not the Parsis.
Bella ultimately lost
her case.
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Through lawsuits
like Bella’s and
this community created
a remarkable
legal world
for itself.
Others in the British Empire also turned to law,
but few did so in such extreme ways.
Parsis replaced English law with a new body
of personal law
that reflected
distinctive models
of the family
and community.
…and sued each other
in the colonial courts
at disproportionate rates.