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Extraordinary Law at the Colonial Frontier: Notes on the East India Company Archive

Bhavani RamanAssistant Professor of History; David L. Rike University Preceptor in History; Princeton University

Chair: Parimal PatilProfessor of Religion and Indian Philosophy, Chair of the Department of South Asian Studies, Harvard University

Co-sponsored with the Department of South Asian Studies at Harvard University

We often think of martial law being deployed upon suspension of municipal law in the context of urban civil unrest. Raman draws on East India Company archives from the Madras and Bengal Presidencies to argue that in India between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, martial law is deployed in largely unsettled, jungle-infested frontier lands in contexts in which municipal law is absent. At stake in this use of martial law is the ability of the British East India Company – then a corporate sovereign power – to designate certain inhabitants as “rebellious” in order to justify the acquisition of their land and resources.

Raman’s discussion of martial law takes us beyond its immediate economic repercussions to its long-term effects. Martial law is used in this context with the specific intent of restricting free trade and expanding the agrarian resources of a trading company – all in the name of security and protection. Examples drawn from this context, Raman argues compellingly, will contribute to current conversations about the aims and effects of emergency law in various international contexts.

Written by Deonnie Moodie, PhD Candidate at GSAS