Historicizing ‘Law’ as a Language of Progress, and Its Anomalies: The Case of Penal Law Reforms in Colonial India

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This paper dispels the myth of liberal Enlightenment in relation to penal law reforms in colonial India by advancing two sets of argument. First, the liberal project of codification on the basis of universalist notion of utilitarianism never broke with cultural hierarchy inbuilt in the very act of colonisation. In this paper, I specifically look into the emerging phenomenon of evolutionary science in the nineteenth century – social Darwinism – to explain the dominant normative, as opposed to realist, justification of such racial hierarchy in colonial discourses since the nineteenth century. Second, using Dipesh Chakrabarty’s theoretical framework, I provincialise the penal law reform project in colonial India through the examination of literature in the field, and substantiate how the notion of utilitarian universality remained vague and unpromising in face of instrumental needs on ground – both in the colony and in the metropolis. Taken together, these propositions dispel the myth of the liberal project of penal law reforms in colonial India based on this universalist position and underscore the fallacies of the transition narrative of modernity itself.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)213-240
Number of pages28
JournalAsian Journal of Comparative Law
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2014


  • utilitarianism
  • liberal universalism
  • historiography
  • colonial legislation
  • penal law reforms


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