The paradoxes of supervision: The “rule of law” put to the test in the colonial context of British India, 1772–81

The paradoxes of modernity
By Gildas Salmon

The British desire to establish the “rule of law” in the provinces conquered by the East India Company in the late eighteenth century was part of a paradoxical modernization project, distinct from the rhetoric of the civilizing mission that prevailed in the nineteenth century. They sought to govern the Indians according to their own laws, better than the Indians themselves were able to. By examining the Patna Cause, a crucial case in the history of the imperial legal system, this article highlights the collapse of the mechanisms that the colonial powers set up to control the administration of Islamic law in Bengali courts using British judges. My aim is not only to illustrate the deadlocks encountered by the British in the exercise of a mode of power—supervision (whose importance has so far gone unnoticed)—in an empire where several heterogeneous forms of law coexisted. It is also to sketch a genealogy of Orientalism on the basis of the situated forms of reflexivity deployed by the colonial administrators, showing how and why a knowledge capable of objectifying the legal systems specific to the colonized peoples, in their difference with that of the colonizers, became necessary for the exercise of imperial governmentality.

  • British Empire
  • legal pluralism
  • Orientalism
  • rule of law
  • supervision
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