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Intractable Women: Adultery and Abduction in Colonial Punjab (British India)

Meenu Deswal, History

This paper explores how the indigenous as well as colonial official discourses on adultery, though ostensibly focused on the “immorality” of women, were intimately connected with the exclusion of women from inheritance of landed property. Colonial rule in Punjab was explicitly based on the policy of non-interference in customary practices of the indigenous communities. This policy led to the consolidation of a colonial regime of property that was based on the “customary principle” of complete exclusion of women from inheritance and ownership of property. The paper, thus, explores the extent to which the trope of peasant women’s immorality was related to the consolidation of the colonial regime of property that sought to “protect” the peasant household—the main source of revenue for the state—from breaking up. The paper argues that though by the end of the nineteenth century there was consolidation of patrilineal forms of property arrangements in the province, an examination of adultery and elopement (or “self-abetted” abductions) of women in this context reflects not only colonial anxieties around the effective consolidation of a property regime that was constantly being ruptured from within, but at the same time shows how women sought alternative ways to escape or subvert certain customary practices imposed upon them by landed patriarchal elites, who were in turn bolstered by a colonial legal apparatus that codified such practices following the rhetoric of “preserving native custom”.