Kavita Datla

Kavita Datla received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Michigan in 1997, then pursued her master’s degree at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi and completed her doctorate at the University of California, Berkeley. Unfortunately, Datla passed away in July 2017 after a hard-fought battle with a rare form of cancer. She was an associate professor at Mount Holyoke College at the time of her death and was promoted to full professor posthumously.

In her honor, the University of Michigan Center for South Asian Studies (CSAS) hosts an annual lecture series to honor Kavita’s work and her passion for research in India, enabled by a generous donation from the Datla family and friends.

On October 7, 2022, Kavita’s friend, Associate Professor Bhavani Raman from the history department at the University of Toronto, was the featured speaker for the well-attended (which included members of the Datla family) annual CSAS Kavita Datla Memorial lecture. 

The lecture was Raman’s paper on the earliest freestanding statutory provision in the world for administration detention crafted by the British East India Company. Bengal Regulation III, 1818, empowered an executive to seize and hold individuals indefinitely without trial, and it acquired a long afterlife in the British Empire beyond India.

Bhavani Raman

“This is my preliminary attempt to explore the conceptual connection between extraordinary law and resource sequestration,” said Raman. 

Curiously, very little is known about this regulation. Why and how was it promulgated, and why did it take the form it did, given that in the company’s colonies, the executive was unrestricted by legislative checks and the jurisdiction of habeas corpus was limited? Raman’s paper looks into how and why the early documents on this regulation disappeared in plain sight in the colonial archives, journeying to the upland edges of the Northern Circars. It shows how recalling the events that led to Bengal III, 1818, challenges our understanding of administration detention as a constitutional guarantee of personal liberty. It also draws out the significance of this history for theories of emergency and the normalization of wartime law.

“I examined the taxonomy of detention developed by the British East India Company at the turn of the nineteenth century,” adds Raman. “This overlooked legal archive of colonial annexation history reveals regimes of counter-insurgent policing to be embedded in wartime measures and tied to the sequestration of bodies and land. This genealogy of the security state invites a reconsideration of theories of sovereign exception by foregrounding the relationship between law and frontier-making.” 

Raman’s research and teaching focus on colonialism's histories, especially concerning questions of law, administration, and Tamil worlds. Other than a monograph on paperwork and writing in Tamil South India Document Raj: Writing and Scribes in Early Colonial South India (University of Chicago Press, 2012 and Permanent Black, 2015), she has published on recordkeeping and property, ethics and elementary education, migration and return in the Bay of Bengal, and the history of Tamil Studies as an interdisciplinary formation. She is currently working on two projects, one, on early colonial security laws in South Asia and the second, on the history of hydrological infrastructure in Chennai, India, using historical maps.

For more information on Bhavani Raman and her work, please visit her University of Toronto faculty page.