As England extended its authority over Bombay, Calcutta and other localities in early imperial India, law served as a medium of transfer between metropole and colony and English judges faced complex questions about the law’s relationship with its non-Christian subjects. While Hindus and Muslims were provided with authorised religious advisors at the English courts in India, Parsis remained officially excluded as a minority religious group. Judicial creativity, when faced with questions of Parsi marriage, divorce, child custody and conversion, was limited by judges’ ‘available conceptual resources’. Cases involving Jews in England from the eighteenth century proved to be uniquely relevant, as they rehearsed the fundamental challenges involved in the interaction of the Anglican establishment with non-Christian subjects. The common legal paradigm of Jews and Parsis was further manifested in the unconscious framing of outsiders in the courtroom using the metaphor of a ‘body of people’. This phrase, which appears only twenty times in the corpus of English Law Reports, reflects the physicalisation or personification of a society of individuals with a shared history, values, and political and legal framework. It expresses a judicial conception of them as distinct and unified, with the corollary negative associations of being threatening and potentially subversive. Despite their strong mercantile ties to the colonisers, Parsis thus served as the ‘Jews’ of India in the sense that they helped define and secure the majority by contradistinction, and their separateness was reinforced both explicitly and implicitly in legal encounters.
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--posted by Mitra Sharafi