A conversation with legal historian Rahela Khorakiwala


Bombay High Court, 1902. Catalogue Reference: Part of CO 1069/179. This image is part of the Colonial Office photographic collection held at The National Archives UK, uploaded as part of the Africa Through a Lens project.
Tilak's trial for sedition in the Bombay High Court, 1897.  From the Illustrated London News. Source: ebay, Oct. 2008.

As a legal historian, what drew you to the study of courtroom architecture?

As a law student and judicial clerk, my interactions with the court were largely influenced by my professional training as a lawyer. While I pursued an interdisciplinary MPhil/PhD at the Centre for the Study of Law and Governance at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, I was exposed to the field of legal anthropology. I began observing courts through a different lens. I observed and analysed several courts in India and across the world, and often found similarities in their structuring. Courtroom architecture was an integral part that influenced how a court was perceived and approached. These comparisons got me interested in the theme and I decided that the best space to start these conversations would be through the first three colonial-era high courts that were constructed in India: at Calcutta, Bombay and Madras (present-day Kolkata, Mumbai, and Chennai).


Your work on the Bombay High Court is fascinating, particularly around the use and non-use of particular courtrooms that hold institutional memories. Could you talk more about this?

The Indian freedom fighter and nationalist leader, Bal Gangadhar Tilak was tried for sedition at the Bombay High Court. He was charged and tried for sedition thrice – in 1897, 1908 and 1916.The controversy on the non-use of the central courtroom of the Bombay High Court relates to the second trial of 1908, in which he was convicted and sentenced for his Marathi language writings.  He was pronounced guilty at this trial that was held in the central courtroom (Courtroom No. 46). It is believed that due to this act of colonial injustice, the central courtroom was thereafter never used by an Indian judge of the High Court.

There is a public interest litigation petition pending in the High Court to move the court to a new location, citing among other issues, the lack of space. The court was originally constructed in 1878 for a chief justice and a maximum of 15 judges; the present strength is 75 judges. The non-use of the central courtroom becomes relevant in this context: it is the largest courtroom in the high court but remains unused due to its link to the Tilak trial. When I interviewed judges, I asked them if the courtroom should be used. Many responded saying they would not comment on the issue as it was controversial. Therefore, the largest courtroom remains unused while there is a severe lack of space at the Bombay High Court.


You suggest that there is a conflict between "institutional" and "legal" history that one can productively look at through the built environment of courtrooms. Why is this framing important?  

This framing is important as it highlights the interplay of law, history and memory and the impact that it has on the way the court functions.
Law plays a role in writing and re-writing history, by creating sites of memory and contestation within judicial spaces. In the case of the Bombay High Court, this is seen through the plaque bearing Tilak’s words after he was pronounced guilty of sedition. The placement of the plaque offers the opportunity to look at how law is the writer of history and also plays a role in constructing a memory of certain events. This construction has an effect on the narrators of history also, as is seen through the speech delivered by the judge who presided over the trial, Justice Chagla, and his complicated relationship with Tilak’s lawyer, Mohammed Ali Jinnah.

The memorialisation of the Tilak trial in the Bombay High Court pushes for the recollection of the past in only one particular way; this constrains the way the law is perceived. In the case of the commemoration of the Tilak trial, it plays the role of a reminder of the “injustice” that the Court has perpetuated in the past. It pushes the viewer to reimagine the past relevance of the Court. In doing so, the Court is compelled to assert its nationalism, and label past actions by the British colonial government in India as injustice. It is also reflected in the different ways in which Tilak is commemorated, such as the court’s veneration of Tilak (by garlanding and worshipping his portrait) to public interest litigants, that in the same vein, demand the removal of portraits of British judges who were once part of the Court. 

In my work, I argue that the Court’s architecture rewrites the past in a way as to continuously exercise dominion over people who enter its precincts. In this pursuit, the Court uses (and misuses) history to justify its actions and decisions. This leads to the question: is it the history of law that takes precedence, or the history of memory as narrated by the Court’s architecture that trumps the law? In the case of the commemoration of Tilak’s sedition trial, the history of memory trumps the history of law and creates a site for political contestation instead of legal argument and debate.


How did judges, lawyers and court officials at the Bombay High Court respond to your interest in judicial iconography and courtroom architecture? 

All the persons I interviewed – judges, lawyers, court staff, journalists – were very forthcoming and helpful. Most acknowledged that almost no one does research on the court itself and agreed to have conversations with me. Often, they had not noticed certain architectural features of the court even though they worked in the court every day, for several years. Therefore, many were interested to know more about this novel aspect of their workspace.  


What are some of the new directions in which we can think of the relationship between the courtrooms and legal consciousness? 

We can look at this relationship in terms of how it affects access to justice and make small changes that can have large scale impacts on how people can access and understand legal systems.

For instance, images form the core of my research. With photography being banned in courts, accessing images and seeking permission to use them continues to be a challenge. By making images of the court inaccessible, the court itself becomes inaccessible and impedes access to justice. For my book, it has been very difficult to obtain certain images due to access being such an issue coupled with copyright hurdles and high costs to reproduce them. The more images I can publish through my work, the more accessible I can make the courts - which are otherwise shrouded in secrecy (and no images to break any notions!)

Learn more about Rahela’s work, the Bombay High Court and the Tilak sedition trial in “Memorializing History in the Bombay High Court”, 1 (3) Indian Law Review (2017)



Interviewed by Kalyani Ramnath, July 2019