Professor Mitra Sharafi's new book examines one minority's turn to law

A new book by Professor Mitra Sharafi of the University of Wisconsin Law School tells the story of how one ethno-religious minority used litigation, lobbying and legislation to reap collective gains on its own behalf.

“My book is an example of using law in the extreme,” says Sharafi, the author of “Law and Identity in Colonial South Asia: Parsi Legal Culture, 1772–1947.” “It’s about how the Parsis in British India got it together legally and got lots done.”

Professor Mitra Sharafi

By contrast, Sharafi says, examples abound of minorities and colonized groups that have avoided interacting with state legal systems as a means of self-protection. Some have even moved to a place where the minority could become the majority, and could then shape state law to protect collective interests. She points to the migration of Mormons to Utah, Jews to Israel, and Muslims to Bangladesh and Pakistan as examples.

“Groups often believe they’ll lose something of their cultural integrity and autonomy if they work with the legal system of the colonizer or majority,” she says.

Not so in the case of the Parsis, argues Sharafi. Followers of the ancient religion Zoroastrianism, the Parsis emigrated from what was then Persia (now Iran) after the seventh-century conquest by Arab Muslims, eventually settling in large numbers in Bombay, India (now known as Mumbai). They prospered there under British colonial rule—as merchants, doctors, property owners and lawyers.

By the early 20th century, Bombay Parsis represented only six percent of the city’s total population. Yet Sharafi found that one-third to one-half of all Bombay lawyers were Parsi, 11 percent of high court judges were Parsi, and almost one-fifth of the reported cases before the high court involved at least one Parsi party.

“All the way down and all the way across—beginning with low-ranking court officials to lawyers to high court judges—you see Parsis represented in disproportionately high numbers in the legal profession in Bombay,” Sharafi says.

She found a treasure trove of case law evidence in court archives in London and Mumbai. Rather than taking arguments to their own religious and community authorities for resolution, Parsis frequently sued each other on intensely personal matters, such as divorce, inheritance and other sensitive issues.

And in the legislative arena, sophisticated Parsi lobbying groups developed that pushed for exemption from general English law. By then drafting their own legislation, especially with regard to marriage and inheritance laws, and using their influence to pass it, the Parsis created a body of law specific to their own culture and identity.

“How do you maintain the autonomy, integrity and rights of your population if you’re a minority?” Sharafi asks. “You can go underground and lie low and try to avoid interacting with the state. Or you can learn about law—legislation, lobbying, the courts—and put that knowledge to use.”

She believes the Parsi example of extreme legalism may hold promise for minority groups today. While conceding that the research exposes a litigious culture whose public disputes often tore families apart, she maintains that in the case of the Parsis, “macro-benefits emerge from the micro-pain.”

“I’m arguing that it’s possible to use the state’s legal system and actually gain in autonomy and control,” she says.

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Submitted by Tammy Kempfert on July 2, 2014

This article appears in the categories: Features

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