Kalyani Ramnath (Princeton University)

Connected Legal Histories of Economic Life, Across the Bay of Bengal

My project is an attempt to reimagine political and economic geographies using a variety of unexplored legal materials. I often think of it as a (dis)connected legal history, looking at legal encounters that accompanied the unraveling of labor and capital networks during decolonization in South Asia. Specifically, the project looks at ways in which laborers, traders, trade unionists and financiers navigated and reinvented rules of territorial jurisdiction encoded in taxation, detention and immigration regimes in present day India, Sri Lanka, Singapore and Myanmar. In this post, I describe some of archival “detective work” involved in writing a connected legal history, beginning with unpublished case papers.

The vantage point for this project was Madras (present day Tamil Nadu), given that it was, as Sunil Amrith has shown, one of the important sites from which immigrants proceeded to various places around the Bay of Bengal and beyond. I decided to follow the archival trail for cases litigated at the Madras High Court in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, the final court of appeal for the Madras province in British India. Only selected judgments of the High Court are printed by official or unofficial law reporters (in the official All India Reporter (Madras series), Indian Law Reports or the Madras Law Journal, for instance). Many of these judgments tend to be those that the judges deem important enough to be reported. Looking at these cases would not have captured some of the routine legal/bureaucratic encounters that migrants would have had. In the initial phase of archival research, I worked at the Madras High Court Record Room, looking through unpublished case papers. For a wonderful guide to using unpublished case papers for non-lawyers, see Mitra Sharafi's blog here.

As an example of the archival material that unpublished case papers can contain: In looking at detention regimes during decolonization, I came across habeas corpus applications filed by detainees under the Madras Maintenance of Public Order Act, 1949, pleading to be released from preventive detention. The young men who had filed these applications were deported from Singapore under emergency regulations, suspected of having Communist sympathies. From the case papers, I was able to locate the names of the detainees, and the Madras-based lawyers who handled many labor-related cases for the Communist Party during this time. The case papers contained special investigation reports, which contained details of the Communist activities that they were allegedly part of in Singapore. The case papers also included the original detention orders issued by the Government, which were useful in noticing a pattern about who a Communist was in the Madras' Government's eyes, and what actions they were alleged to have committed that was a threat to "public order". There was an unnerving amount of back-and-forth correspondence between the police and the government on how to time their arrival at the port, so the men could be detained as soon as they stepped off the ship on which they were being deported from Singapore! The names of the lawyers were also included in the papers, and I was able to locate the law firm (Row and Reddy), which still has offices across the road from the Madras High Court. Learning some of the background about Row and Reddy from former lawyers associated with it gave me insights into why the firm would have taken on these cases at a time when these causes for labor were not the first choice for practicing lawyers. [Row and Reddy would go on to initiate some of the first constitutional test cases in India, challenging freedoms of speech and movement, on behalf of suspected Communist Party workers]

Using some of these details, I looked at records at the Tamil Nadu State Archives in Chennai, Tamil Nadu relating to government efforts to maintain "public order", among which I found several files relating to the "Malayan detenus" who had filed the habeas corpus applications. From the special investigation reports in the case papers, I noted that the Madras Government suspected the young men of being involved with the harbor workers’ struggles in Singapore, details of which I was able to access at The National Archives at Kew Gardens in London. In terms of Tamil language materials, some runs of Janacakti associated with labor struggles in Madras are available at the Roja Muthiah Research Library, and also through the British Library's Endangered Archives Programme ( Malayalam language material relating to AK Gopalan’s litigation, a prominent Communist Party leader at the time, was available at AKG Centre library in Trivandrum, Kerala.

Historians may not always have to look at appellate court record rooms for unpublished case papers. In cases where the government is one of the parties to the litigation, these papers may turn up in state archives. For instance, another set of case papers from the Madras High Court referenced traders and bankers who went back and forth across the Palk Straits. This led me to the National Archives of Sri Lanka (NASL) in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Although there are some court records here, the immigration appeal cases that I was interested were not amongst them. In consultation with the staff, I worked with unpublished case papers in the archives of the Commission for the Registration of Indian and Pakistani Residents, a commission set up in 1949 to evaluate applications from those of Indian or Pakistani origin for Ceylonese citizenship. These papers contain a wealth of detail about these traders and plantation workers, the testimonies that they offered at the inquiries looking into the merits of their citizenship applications, as well as the lawyers and trade unionists who represented them at these inquiries. Some even contained the letters of engagement for the lawyers that the trade unions employed and original copies of the judgment, signatures and seals intact. Working at the NASL was a joy. The staff was knowledgeable and supportive, manuscripts promptly arrived at my desk, and orders for scans and photocopies were swiftly carried out. It also has an impressive collection of newspapers, including Tamil, Sinhala and English language papers. A treat for twentieth century historians: Ceylon Sessional Papers (government reports on specific subjects), copies of all legislation, and parliamentary debates were open stack in the main research room when I visited in November - December 2015. 

These materials reflect the resilience of ordinary people as they struggled to retain rhythms and patterns of immigrant life, attempted to pursue their means of livelihood, participate in political and economic activity, and hold on to social and familial ties, even as labor and capital networks that they were part of were reconfigured during decolonization. Connected legal histories as histories of economic life offer a means of capturing how this resilience redrew political geographies.

January 2018