News & Events

Faculty Seminar | Presumed Guilty by Law? Crime, Regulation and the Making of the Domestic Servant in Late 18th and Early 19th Century Madras


Room No. 104, New Academic Block, NLSIU (Closed event)



Wednesday, August 17, 2022, 3:30 pm

This week’s faculty seminar will be delivered by Vidhya Raveendranathan on the paper titled ‘Presumed Guilty by Law? Crime, Regulation and the Making of the Domestic Servant in Late Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Century Madras.’

About the Speaker:

Vidhya Raveendranathan, Visiting Assistant Professor, NLSIU.

Vidhya is a historian of modern South Asia and her work is at the intersection of urban, legal and labour history with a special focus on the impact of infrastructure building, property making, policing and legal regulation and sanitary engineering in reworking a broad range of occupations formerly subject to particularistic obligations and social ties into abstract labour.

Currently, she is a final year Phd candidate at the Centre for Modern Indian Studies, University of Goettingen, Germany. Her research has been funded by the German Research Foundation, German Historical Institute, London as well as the Henry Luce Foundation dissertation grant. She was also a former doctoral fellow at the Centre for Global Asia, New York University, Shanghai.

About the Paper: 

The expansion of the city’s territorial frontiers together with the steady traffic of outcaste labour into European households in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, instilled fears about the conniving and capricious native domestic servant in Madras. Anxious efforts by the colonial state to reform the policing and prosecution of various forms of urban crime was limited by the intimacy of labour that enabled domestic servants to breach both spatial and racial hierarchies as well as made them privy to certain hidden forms of knowledge about households. Such illicit and unregulated proximities, however become the stepping stone for the colonial policing and legal apparatus to transform the space of the household into sites of judicial inquiry. Given the ambiguities surrounding domestic service being both a contractual and personal relationship, the governance and the legal constitution of the household required both the clear outlining of distinctions between a servant, slave, and coolie as well as the meanings of crime. While both the structure of policing and procedural politics of law framed the domestic servant as a figure of crime, it had the paradoxical effect of enabling them to access colonial courts to arbitrate over issues relating to wage disputes and corporeal violence against their masters. By exploring these paradoxes, the paper shows how the category of the domestic servant and the concomitant links between crime, servitude and meniality was produced during the process of policing, judicial deliberation and arbitration of crime. I argue that in the absence of older status relationships which had previously been used to construct labour relations in the eighteenth century, the colonial state in nineteenth-century Madras relied on the presumption of guilt clauses and a highly informal justice system to enforce contractual obligations on the domestic servant and also separated the domestic servant from other labouring groups.