Using Petitions as a Source for South Asian History
Society for Advancing the History of South Asia 4
Written petitions addressed to figures in authority are important historical sources for many periods and regions in world history. Petitions have been variously used as sources for understanding histories of law and rights, the evolution of states and constitutions, the growth of public opinion and the public sphere, and political and social movements.
A cluster of recent works in South Asian history have made innovative use of written petitions for rethinking the social, political and intellectual history of modern South Asia. Petitions have been used to explore early modern norms of moral-economy among artisans in Rajasthan, the production of a new scribal culture in early colonial South India, the development of an Indian form of liberal constitutionalism in the nineteenth century, and the stirrings of a modern nationalist consciousness.
This panel brings together scholars of South Asia currently working with petitions as historical sources, both to consider how the generic forms and language of petitions changed over time, and also to reflect on the methodological and theoretical challenges raised by petitions. While petitions can be used to construct political histories “from below,” as articulations of individual grievances, community interests, or a sense of “public opinion,” these documents are typically mediated by structures of power which determine their form and content. Petitions (often called arzees in modern South Asian languages, from the Indo-Persian term arz-dasht) were also written in many different forms and languages, and for many different institutional sites. The study of petitions, therefore, can address large questions about the changing interactions between politics, law and subject-hood in pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial settings.
The three papers in this panel reflect on these larger questions through particular studies of petitioning as a political and legal practice from the era of colonial state-formation to the growth of democratic institutions in independent India. Robert Travers suggests how late Mughal practices of petitioning rulers continued into the early decades of colonial rule in eighteenth century Bengal; he reads arzees recorded in the early colonial archive as a form of complaint literature, expressing notions of rights derived from pre-colonial political, legal and ethical traditions. David Gilmartin examines the growth of “election petitions,” involving legal challenges to election results, as a central feature of India’s emergent democratic practice from the late colonial period onwards. He argues that these petitions were an important venue for articulating the meanings of popular sovereignty. Rohit De shows how collective writ petitions on the issue of cow protection, presented to the Supreme Court in post-independent India, expressed new understandings of the relationships between communities and the state; thus, he uses petitions to trace the deep impact of India’s new constitution on expressions of political identity. Finally, Bhavani Raman, whose recent book on scribal culture in colonial South India includes an extended analysis of petitions and petitioning, will offer a commentary.