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Bella's Case: Parsi Identity and the Law in Colonial Rangoon, Bombay and London, 1887-1925

Mitra J. Sharafi

University of Wisconsin Law School


PhD Dissertation, Department of History, Princeton University , 2006
Univ. of Wisconsin Legal Studies Research Paper No. 1126

This dissertation explores the ways in which the ethnic identity of South Asia's Parsis was forged through litigation in the British colonial courts. The Parsis were Zoroastrians who fled to India after the seventh-century conquest of Persia by Arab Muslims. Under British rule, they became an elite of intermediary traders and professionals. Around 1900, a series of lawsuits erupted on the admission of ethnic outsiders into the Parsi community through intermarriage, conversion, and adoption. This dissertation is a study of the most extensive of these cases, the Privy Council appeal of Saklat v Bella (1914-25). The case erupted when an Indian orphan named Bella was adopted by Parsis in Rangoon, initiated into the Zoroastrian religion, and taken into the Rangoon fire temple, a space arguably desecrated by the presence of ethnic outsiders. Through an examination of case papers and judges' notebooks from the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council (London) and the Bombay High Court (Mumbai), the dissertation explores competing visions of Parsi identity that were promoted by reformist and orthodox Parsis as litigants, witnesses, lawyers, judges, and journalists. Bella's case highlights two sorts of displacement. First, a patrilineal definition of Parsi identity was overtaken in this period by a more exclusive, eugenics-based racial model. As anxieties over communal extinction peaked with the advent of the census, orthodox Parsis clung to the notion of Persian racial purity, excluding Indian, Burmese, and European outsiders with renewed tenacity. Second, the colonial legal system's reconfiguration of Parsi religious institutions as trusts unravelled the authority of Zoroastrian priests as arbiters of religious doctrine. On a larger scale, Saklat v Bella illustrates how a "centripetal jurisprudence" contributed to the creation of a unitary "legal India" and an empire of common law. It is also a story about legal pluralism and the rise of a non-European legal profession in the colonial context. Parsis rose to prominence as lawyers and judges in this period, and used their legal influence to carve out a space for Zoroastrian legal identity.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 497

Keywords: egal history, South Asia, India, Parsi, Zoroastrianism, trusts, personal law, religion, colonialism, British Empire, Privy Council, Bombay

JEL Classification: Y4: Dissertations

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Date posted: August 21, 2010  

Suggested Citation

Sharafi, Mitra J., Bella's Case: Parsi Identity and the Law in Colonial Rangoon, Bombay and London, 1887-1925 (2006). PhD Dissertation, Department of History, Princeton University , 2006; Univ. of Wisconsin Legal Studies Research Paper No. 1126. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1661996

Contact Information

Mitra J. Sharafi (Contact Author)
University of Wisconsin Law School ( email )
975 Bascom Mall
Madison, WI 53706
United States
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