It is tempting to view colonial empires of the Early Modern period as unified entities which can be described with thick lines. For a thick description of a more differentiated reality it can be challenging to find relevant sources. Thanks to a project for legal materials from numerous states on the Indian subcontinent it becomes feasible to adjust the general image of British rule over India during three centuries. Thanks to a number of scholars working at Dartmouth College and colleagues elsewhere in the United States the initiative for the Indian Princely States Online Legal History Archive (IPSOLHA) started a few months ago, In this post I would like to look at this project, at the contents and the functioning of the database in its current state, and I will try to put it in a larger context of resources and (online) research on South Asian legal history.
A wealth of legal information
The main institutions helping to create IPSOLHA are the Department of History at Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH, the American Institute of Indian Studies (AIIS) and the South Asian Open Archives (SAOA) program of the Center for Research Libraries (CRL), Chicago. A grant for digital scholarship from the AIIS helped Elisabeth Lhost as a postdoctoral fellow at Dartmouth College to do research and create the website and database for IPSOLHA. The acknowledgements at the IPSOLHA website do not mention her name, but they do list affiliated researchers and (former) research assistants of the project team.
Doing research on princely states from the seventeenth to the twentieth century means facing a lot of challenges. For example, the section with some 35,000 digitized printed items in the SAOA database at JSTOR contains materials in 27 languages, and only a dozen of them mainly spoken in India. Relevant legal materials are scattered over many collections, a major hindrance to getting started at all with researching the subject of a law and justice in the many hundred states headed by Indian princes.
From the start page you can immediately begin – below the introductory text – to browse materials of eight particular types with the headings archival collection, court decisions and opinions, law, document, gazetteers, manuals, legislation and proceedings. I found at the moment of writing two archival collections, some 340 court decisions and opinions, 350 items marked Law, 100 documents, some 90 gazetteers, 35 manuals, some 250 items filed under Legislation, and some 30 items under the heading Proceedings. Under Legislation you will find any form of legislation without the word law in its title, and also legal codes for some states. The heading Document is reserved for single documents.
The link Visit the collection on the start screen leads you to the search interface for the main collection with currently some 2,300 items in twenty languages, nearly one thousand of them in English. It would be helpful to have this essential link also in the top menu bar. This is almost the only wish for clearer navigation I can express, because you will have access to many filters and tools for ordening search results. Results can be shown in four ways using the view button. With the resource type filter you can easily distinguish between primary and secondary sources, and for some resource categories you can even select subspecies. As for now some thirty institutions contribute items to IPSOLHA, with the Library of Congress and the South Asian Open Archives as the main provider. Only a few Indian institutions participate in this project.
One kind of filter is conspicuously absent at the search interface, a filter for date of publication. Using the field Date in the advanced search mode with the option to add fields at will did not work. However, you can sort results by creation date. Filters such as holding institution and state help much to narrow your search. The number of states within IPSOLHA is large indeed. Within the current contents the Rajasthan States and Travancore have the largest number of items.
A particular important question for me is whether you can easily select materials from a particular period. Sofar I have been unable to find a way to do this, apart from sorting by creation date. I would very much like to know for which century the current contents in IPSOLHA offer most information. At the same time I guess the main collection of IPSOLHA is harvested from resources elsewhere, and perhaps there is a technical snag preventing this kind of selection. Surely any portal has its limitations. I spotted few things dating from the eighteenth century or earlier, and it is safe to assume the nineteenth anc twentieth centuries form the core period addressed in IPSOLHA.
However, one aspect could be stated more candidly by the project team, especially in view of the word Online in the long title of IPSOLHA. Only when you filter the contents by item type, the very first filter, you can choose to view only digital resources, some 220 all in all, ten percent of the current total of 2,300 items. Thus IPSOLHA offers now actually more an online catalogue of both archival records and printed works, and only to some extent a digital collection. Of course such a repertory of items to be digitized is already most useful.
Princely states in a larger Indian context
How does IPSOLHA fit in with other online resources for India’s legal history? The fact I could find this project at all thanks to the blog – now an integrated subdomain – South Asian Legal History Resources created by Mitra Sharafi, University of Wisconsin, Madison, says enough. Her information needs no laurels, only my repeated affirmation it is your first port of call for the subject. The online bibliography is one of the major assets, as was and is the extensive links section, although it lacks additional information about these resources.
Of course I have used Sharafi’s links selection as a basis for my own overview of digital libraries in India on my legal history website, but I have added concise descriptions to them. I could add only a few resources Sharafi does not mention. At India Code you can find not only acts enacted at the federal level, but also for states, in some cases with acts from the nineteenth century onwards. It took quite an effort at intervals to find digital libraries in India with relevant materials for legal history. Currently all institutions offering a Digital Library of India do not function or offer a more general educational resource, the National Digital Library of India. During the pandemic Sharafi wrote two blog posts on using digizited Indian legal journals (part 1 and part 2) as a supplement to her list of colonial law journals. You will find links to several regional legal journals published before 1947.
I hoped Elisabeth Lhost – who incidentally worked for some time also at the University of Wisconsin – would provide additional information about the IPSOLHA project, and maybe even some links worth mentioning here, but she does not do this at her personal blog. I think it is best to applaud here her initiative and the team of scholars and research students for starting with IPSOLHA. It is a valuable example of a project looking from a different angle at Indian society at large, and it is worth your detailed attention even in this pioneering phase. For many other countries such projects aiming to provide better access to regional legal resources would be most welcome, too. I am sure regular updates in the near future and afterwards will help to establish and maintain it as a major tool helping you to study India’s long legal history in depth and to gain a new perspective on the history of the British colonial empire on the Indian subcontinent, its extent and context.
A few days after writing this post I concluded it might be indeed worthwhile to look at Indian regional digital libraries for more digitized items concerning the administration, government, law and justice in formerly princely states. For two Indian regions I can mention examples which are in my view fit for inclusion at the IPSOLHA portal. The digital library of the West Bengal Secretariate, Kolkata and the digital collection of the West Bengal Cental State Library offer much for online research. For the southern region Kerala the State Public Library Digital Archive of the State Central Library and the digital documents of the State Public Library and Research Centre, Kozhikode (long known as Calicut) came into view. Looking at more central state libraries and their digital collections seems an obvious road for finding more relevant materials.
Recently Elizabeth Lhost contributed a series of posts about the legal situation of princely states in colonial India at the Islamic Law blog.