University of Cambridge > > Department of Geography - Seminars in Cultural and Historical Geography > 'Justifiable' Homicide? Responses to Wife-Murder in Nineteenth-Century India and Britain

'Justifiable' Homicide? Responses to Wife-Murder in Nineteenth-Century India and Britain

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In July 1825, the Supreme Criminal Court for Bengal, known as the Nizamat Adalat, reviewed the case of Chait Ram, a man who had been charged at the Bareilly sessions with the murder of his wife, Mussumaut Dhunkeeah. Ram freely admitted killing her and even identified the weapon he had used, but claimed the murder was the result of his wife’s adultery with a neighbour. Since the killing of a wife caught in the act of adultery was not a crime under Islamic law, the qadis (Islamic judges) of the Nizamat Adalat recommended he be released from custody at once. While one of the three officiating British judges argued that Ram had not sufficiently proven that his wife had indeed been conducting an affair, and suggested that a sentence of life imprisonment would be appropriate given the circumstances, his two colleagues disagreed and upheld the qadis ruling. Ram was freed immediately ‘without further punishment.’ At one level, the case of Chait Ram and the decision of the British officials to follow the recommendation of the Muslim legal scholars who reviewed it can perhaps be seen as part of the wider policy of early colonial rulers to attempt to maintain the appearance of benevolent rule by not interfering overtly with established legal practice. Yet British judges had few qualms dismissing reports by the qadis when they disagreed with what had been said. Moreover, an approach which focuses exclusively on what such verdicts meant in terms of the perception of violence in India ignores the fact that remarkably similar cases – and remarkably similar outcomes – were by no means unusual back in Britain.

This talk is part of the Department of Geography - Seminars in Cultural and Historical Geography series.

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