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The Hindu Code Bill and the making of the modern Indian state



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Newbigin, Eleanor 


This dissertation examines debates about women's rights and family law reform in inter-war and early independence India. Focusing on the Hindu Code Bill, an attempt to reform and codify Hindu family law that began in 1941 and culminated in 1956, it argues that these reforms sought to alter the way in which male authority was exercised within the Hindu family but also to consolidate the power of north Indian Hindu men over other regional Hindu and non-Hindu communities. Managed through alliances between colonial rulers and 'local men of influence', British governance in India helped to ensure and even sharpen the hierarchical structure of patriarchal authority in India. Enabling a small number of officials to maintain order over large regions of the subcontinent, colonial modes of governance served to subordinate not only women but also many men to the authority of a small number of patriarchs. The family and the personal legal system governing relations within it were particularly crucial to the framework of colonial power. Constitutional reform and changes in the political-economy of colonial rule after World War I began to place this hierarchical structure of power under pressure and created growing interest, amongst Indian legislators and colonial officials, in its reform. Though couched in the language of women's rights, reform of personal law was driven by a desire to reconfigure thd balance of power within both the Hindu family and the Indian state. Opening up competition between regional Hindu elites who sought to establish their own practices as the basis of the new Code, after independence these debates were also drawn into nation- and citizenship-building projects with important consequences for the emerging secular state. Reflecting the rising power of north Indian legislators, the Code Bill project served to consolidate conservative patriarchy of Hindu men from this region as the basis, not only of Hindu legal identity, but of Indian citizenship.






Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge