Book Project: Boats in a Storm: Law and Displacement in Postwar South Asia

 In 1942, Madras in British India became an important point of transit for Tamil-speaking migrants displaced by World War II. Some fled Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka) after Japanese air raids. Others trekked across mountains from Burma (present-day Myanmar) after Japanese forces occupied it. This unraveling of labor, commerce and capital assemblages that once bound the Bay of Bengal littoral together, which I term South Asia’s “other partitions”, can be traced within, through and around law. This project looks at judicial and bureaucratic encounters in postwar Madras (including present-day Tamil Nadu and parts of Kerala) Singapore, Rangoon (present-day Yangon) and Colombo, where migrants confronted postwar legal regimes of immigration, detention and taxation that restricted freedoms of travel, movement and residence, drawing on assumptions about ethnic and racial identities. Using the Madras High Court as a vantage point and drawing on previously unexplored archives in India and Sri Lanka and materials about Myanmar and Singapore, the project shifts attention from citizenship and legal status to jurisdictional conflict and legal practice. I argue that jurisdictional claims shaped and were shaped by the migrant experience of displacement in the aftermath of World War II around the Bay of Bengal. These claims, made in the context of decolonization, were reflective of the multiple, nascent political possibilities in postwar South Asia.


Tracing “fragmentary jurisdictions”, this connected legal history narrates the legal and economic geographies that were reconstituted in the transition from empire to nation in South Asia. First, it follows Chettiar financiers, protesting double taxation provisions and litigating dishonored promissory notes from Rangoon across the Bay to Devakkottai in Madras. Second, it tracks traders and plantation laborers demanding to be recognized as Ceylonese citizens instead of being sent “home” to India, from Colombo across the Palk Strait to Tuticorin (present-day Thoothukudi) and Tinnevelly (present-day Tirunelveli). Third, I trace the travails of aspiring Tamil-speaking trade unionists and dockworkers, deported from Singapore to Madras City, challenging their detentions without trial and demanding that they be reunited with their families. These archives of decolonization reveal how personal histories disrupt official histories and how legal temporalities can shape, and set the pace for, political transitions.

My next project will examine internment and surveillance across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in South Asia.

Other Research Projects  

I also retain an interest in nineteenth century histories of criminal procedure, and am at work on a second essay concerning the criminal jury trial in South Asia. Read the first essay, 'The Colonial Difference between Law and Fact' here. I speak about it in interviews here, here and here

Using funds from a seed grant from the Centre for Digital Humanities at Princeton University, I am developing a map of Chettiar moneylending operations in lower Burma from data included in law reports.

Facade of a Chettiar Mansion, Kanadukathan (2017). Photo by Kalyani Ramnath.

Facade of a Chettiar Mansion, Kanadukathan (2017). Photo by Kalyani Ramnath.