Law and Minority Identity in Colonial India


Chancellor Day Hall Common Room, 3644 rue Peel, Montreal, QC, H3A 1W9, CA

A talk by Mitra Sharafi, Assistant Professor of Law and Legal Studies, University of Wisconsin, Madison.

Organized by the Katharine A. Pearson Chair in Civil Society and Public Policy, and by the South Asia Working Group (Fac. of Arts).


This talk explores the legal culture of the Parsis, or Zoroastrians, an ethnoreligious community unusually invested in the colonial legal system of British India and Burma. Rather than trying to maintain collective autonomy and integrity by avoiding interaction with the state, the Parsis sank deep into the colonial legal system itself. From the late eighteenth century until India’s independence in 1947, they became heavy users of colonial law, acting as lawyers, judges, litigants, lobbyists, and legislators. They de-Anglicized the law that governed them and enshrined in law their own distinctive models of the family and community by two routes: frequent intragroup litigation often managed by Parsi legal professionals in the areas of marriage, inheritance, religious trusts, and libel, and the creation of legislation that would become Parsi personal law. Other South Asian communities also turned to law, but none seems to have done so earlier or in more pronounced ways than the Parsis.

Speaker bio

Mitra Sharafi is an assistant professor of Law and Legal Studies at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, with an affiliation appointment in History. She holds history degrees from McGill (BA 1996) and Princeton (PhD 2006) and law degrees from Cambridge (BA 1998) and Oxford (BCL 1999). Her work has appeared in a variety of scholarly journals and has been recognized by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the National Science

Foundation, and the Social Science Research Council. Her first book, Law and Identity in Colonial South Asia: Parsi Legal Culture, 1772-1947 is forthcoming with the American Society for Legal History’s “Studies in Legal History” book series. It will be published by Cambridge University Press in April 2014. She is currently at work on her next book project, a study of poisoning and medical jurisprudence in colonial India.

Faculty webpage:

Research website (South Asian Legal History Resources):