Book Review: Oliver Mendelsohn, Law and Social Transformation in India

Date01 December 2014
Published date01 December 2014
AuthorAnushka Singh
Subject MatterBook Reviews
Military-Madrasa-Mullah Complex 243
India Quarterly, 66, 2 (2010): 133–149
A Global Threat 243
Book Reviews
Oliver Mendelsohn, Law and Social Transformation in India. New Delhi: Oxford University Press. 2014.
302 pages. ` 895.
Law and Social Transformation in India is one of those rare attempts that unravels an entire history of
law in India by treating it as a social variable and explores a wide spectrum of themes interwoven in a
discussion of litigation process in India. The book explores the legal forms that the Anglo-legal tradition
introduced in India through colonialism, their interaction with pre-colonial legal discourse, uncovering
how much of the character of Indian law today resembles the forms of legality that predated colonial
incursions and the forms that were introduced by the British.
Methodologically, this book is based on extensive ethnographic diachronic research, a case-study
approach that attempts to mark out a historical sociology of law in India. Unique to this book is that it
picks up conflicting case studies and allows for contradictory deductions to be made; seemingly assert-
ing that the legal scene is paradoxical and no singular deduction must describe it. The book is a collection
of articles written over time, consolidated through thematic unity which allows the book to put together
several fragmented deliberations into one narrative. However, more than once, it fails to connect each
sub-theme coherently to the single running thread of litigation process. The articles, published between
1981 and 2007, at several places make arguments that seem to be in conflict with the present scenario in
which the book has been published.
The book deals with four major themes. The first two discuss the litigation process in rural and urban
India separately, digging out the character of law and how legality is defined in India, where the primary
focus remains on the institution of the court as the ultimate legal authority. For rural India the argument
is about predominance of litigation related to disputes over agrarian land in rural areas, something
that sees continuity from pre-colonial times to the twentieth century, though there has been a decline. The
core argument is that the institution of the courts established by the British was successful in only
one task: enforcing the claims of the state like revenue and favouring only those who were in tune with
the new land policy. This is the reason why the state could not transform the older order to a large extent
and remained alien. Mendelsohn’s larger argument is that it is the nature of litigation cases (primarily
agrarian dispute settlement) that was largely responsible for the problems in judicial system in colonial
India (p. 40). Courts were more an institution to deal with the new land policy and its consequences
rather a normative institution for imparting justice in colonial India. In all of these arguments there seems
to be a suggestion that it was the reduction of the courts to a mere dispute settlement arbitrator that
Studies in Indian Politics
2(2) 243–257
© 2014 Lokniti, Centre for the
Study of Developing Societies
SAGE Publications
Los Angeles, London,
New Delhi, Singapore,
Washington DC
DOI: 10.1177/2321023014551878

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