ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Court as a Theatre of Politics

Sikh–Muslim Confrontation in Colonial Punjab

A communal conflict between Sikhs and Muslims in a village of late colonial Punjab got transplanted into the courtroom. The courts acted as an extension of the public arena. Contestation in the courtroom became a theatre of politics, the target audience of which was not only the immediate litigants but also the larger religious communities outside.

The author is grateful to Tanweer Fazal, Amir Ali, Markus Daechsel, Valerian Rodrigues and the anonymous reviewers for their comments.

Community politics during the late colonial period is ­often seen in the context of a nationalist movement that relegates the quotidian juridico-political mac­hinery into oblivion and tends to focus more on the nationalist metanarratives. Despite such attempts to obscure internecine communal conflict, there is a tendency that these erupt nonetheless in the “public arena.” More pertinently, the historio­graphy of communalism in colonial India is dominated by Hindu–Muslim conflicts. This paper is an attempt to move away from this dominant trope. It is a modest exercise to ­understand how communal antagonism originated in the public arena but also played out in the legal sphere.

The paper attempts to question popular assumption about legal processes being the domain of depoliticised, rational, ­orderly and objective discussions and assessments of claims and counterclaims. It discusses a case of communal conflict in the village of Kot Bhai Than Singh in late colonial Punjab where the Muslim landowner Sardar Muhammad Nawaz Khan and the local Gurdwara leadership clashed over drawing water from a local stream. The confrontation, followed by a riot, took place in July 1937 and was initially settled by the district magistrate. However, it was pursued at the higher court by the Sikhs later.

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Updated On : 29th Jul, 2020
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