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Property in South Asia

Property in South Asia: History, Law, and Politics

April 18-19, 2014

A Conference at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, Silverman 147

Organized by The Department of South Asia Studies and Penn Law School
With support from Penn’s South Asia Center, Department of History, Center for the Advanced Study of India, and the Christopher H. Browne Center for International Politics

What is property? Considered in the context of the contemporary societies of South Asia—with their bursting populations, pervasive land hunger, and ongoing tug of war between the urban and the agrarian, the developmental and the neoliberal, and the elite and subaltern—the answer may seem to go without saying. The question’s extreme simplicity of form, however, should not conceal the great complexity it harbors. Even strictly from the contemporary perspective—whether philosophical, legal, or economic—there is little agreement on the nature and basis of property. Is there a difference between property and the right to property? Are rights, themselves, inherently proprietary? If we speak of property as a social relation must we necessarily also be speaking about rights that are in some sense legal? What is the relationship between the logic of property and the logic of commodification? What of property’s relationship to possession, occupancy, use, and de facto control? Does that relationship imply that property is simply the reality of control over things in the world or is it a conceptual system for representing how control over such things is organized, parsed, and reckoned with? Is there something inherently Eurocentric or otherwise misleading about calling all such conceptual systems by the name of ‘property’? If we restrict our focus to property in land or rudimentary—rather than highly financialized—‘moveables’ are these difficulties likely to multiply or diminish? Finally, how do we go about meaningfully interrogating these questions not just through reference to our contemporary world but the much more daunting historical worlds of the past?

In this two-day workshop we hope to address some of these questions through creating a historically informed dialogue about property in South Asia that cuts across the institutional boundaries that often separate legal scholars from scholars of the humanities and affiliated social sciences. In so doing, our hope is to assemble a broad range of academicians to explore five key ‘moments’ in the conceptualization of land control and related issues concerning the evolution of ideas and practices related to the disposition of land-based wealth in the South Asian subcontinent from the early modern to the early post-colonial.  We have organized these five moments according to the following progression of panel topics. Please note that all paper/conversant topics are topics (not titles) and remain preliminary at this point.

Images © Arunabha Hajra and Pavanje Scene © via CC Attribution Share-alike licenses 3.0,2.5, 2.0, 1.0 and GNU Free Documentation Licenses.