Privy Council Papers and Historical Narratives of the Ajmer Dargah

By Elizabeth Thelen

In the twentieth century, two cases regarding the management of the Dargah (shrine) of Sufi saint Mu’in al-Din Chishti were appealed to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. The first, Appeal No. 8 of 1936, Syed Altaf Hussain and Others vs. Diwan Syed Ale Rasul Ali Khan and Others, was about rights to pilgrim’s offerings at the shrine.  The second, Appeal No. 36 of 1945, Syed Asrar Ahmed vs. The Durgah Committee Ajmer, concerned the hereditary nature of the post of mutawalli (trustee) of the shrine endowment (waqf).

Main entrance to the Ajmer shrine

I first learned of the ‘Printed Papers’ of Appeals to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council regarding these cases in 2015, when in the course of researching the history of patronage at the shrine pre-1800, I met with the Diwan of the Ajmer Dargah. He showed me the copies of the ‘Printed Papers’ that he held in his library and pointed out how the proceedings included translations of a small number of Mughal documents.

In my first encounter with these records, I, like other scholars researching the shrine’s medieval and early modern history, sought to mine the ‘Printed Papers’ for the traces of Mughal records they contained. Documents relating to the shrine, especially those from before 1818, are held privately if and where they survive, and are largely inaccessible to researchers. Thus, the earlier history of the shrine is written largely on the basis of copies of documents published in a small number of compilations between the 1920s and 1950s, as well as copies made in colonial administrative and legal records including the ‘Printed Papers.’

However, the ‘Printed Papers,’ also have much to tell us about how documents were translated and interpreted and in new contexts as documents from as early as the sixteenth century entered the twentieth-century courtroom. Recently, I have returned to the ‘Printed Papers’ of these two cases with broader questions about the formation of archives and the role of law in creating and authorizing certain historical narratives. This means looking at the marginalia, notes and presentation of each document as much as at the document itself. For example, in the ‘Printed Papers’ of Privy Council Appeal No. 36 of 1945, each evidence exhibit included is prefaced with a short statement detailing where and how the document was procured, including the officials who vouched for the accuracy of the copy and in the case of translations, the translator’s attestation that he had produced a true translation. For a number of the exhibits, in addition to the ‘local translation’ made by Kameshwar Prasad, who was the translator in Ajmer’s District Judge’s court in the 1940s, a ‘Bombay translation’ was also included. These dual translations, created at the request of the Judicial Commissioner in an earlier appeal, show differing translation strategies and raise questions about how legal translation shaped judgements.

In this case, the judgement of the Privy Council included a narrative of the history and significance of the shrine and the post of mutawalli that explicitly referenced a number of the documents included as evidence exhibits and even quotes from a couple that were key to the appellant’s case. Although the ‘Printed Papers’ were not widely available to readers in the 1940s (researchers today can access them in the British Library and the full text of 6 cases here), the Durgah Committee, who won the case, printed the Privy Council judgement in Urdu translation shortly after it was issued in 1946. This can be seen as an attempt to sway public opinion in their favour and also promoted the court’s analysis of the shrine’s history and documents as an authoritative interpretation. Thus, the process of compilation behind the ‘Printed Papers’ is also relevant to understanding the construction of popular histories of the shrine.

Collaboration with Leiden/Nijmegen project on the ‘Hidden History of Colonialism’

Nandini Chatterjee

Right at the start of the lockdowns imposed by our various countries due to the worldwide Covid-19 pandemic, we had a conference in Leiden cancelled. We have been particularly looking forward to this, because we had planned with meet with members of another research team on the sidelines, to discuss potential collaboration.

That research team consists of the members of the NWO-funded Colonialism Inside Out project, led by Alicia Schrikker (Leiden University) and Dries Lyna (Radboud University). 

Colonialism Zoomed In!

In keeping with the emerging research culture of this pandemic-afflicted world, we managed to meet instead on Zoom, on 20 March. This was a most productive and enjoyable session, which, as readers can see, brought smiles to our faces. We had already collected abstracts of potential papers that members of both teams could write; Dries Lyna had used these to generate a word cloud to identify the common materials, ideas and concepts that we were dealing with. 

It became obvious during the meeting that we were dealing with colonialism in South Asia and the Indian Ocean in a way that was both familiar and unfamiliar. We are interested in bureaucracies, in the everyday, in indigenous subjects and agents, but we wanted to tell the story of writing and recording, of law, using materials that are often swept under the all-encompassing myth of uniform European colonialisms. It helps that we are dealing with many empires – Mughal, French, British, Dutch, among others – and many languages – Dutch, French, English, Arabic, Persian, Sinhala, Tamil, Bengali. We share an interest in the hidden archive, and a commitment to the material history of records. 

Fahad Bishara, with his penchant for neatly turned phrases, suggested that what we are working on are ‘Paper Empires’, and that is the working title with which we are now working to produce a collection of essays in the coming months.