Dekan Lā Ripōrṫ: Familiar genres, unfamiliar stories

By Elizabeth Lhost

For my final essay this month, I’ve selected the Deccan Law Reports for analysis.

Law reports are a familiar genre for many legal historians, and the Deccan Law Reports are exemplars of the genre. Each volume includes cases dedicated to criminal (faujdārī) and civil (dīwānī) cases. There are also cases from the revenue (mālguzārī) courts, noteworthy cases reported from other jurisdictions (including the High Courts of British India), and reprintings of local laws and acts. When all four parts are bound together, the resulting volumes are several thousand pages, and like most works of legal reference, they are large, unwieldy, cumbersome books. They are also quite fragile, and as such, remain difficult to access.

One volume of the Deccan Law Reports, bound with brown and leather and lying flat on the table. © 2023 Elizabeth Lhost is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

To help lawyers and practitioners navigate the volumes’ contents, each part (dīwānī, faujdārī, mālguzārī, etc.) has several tables of contents, indices almost: The first of these provides an alphabetical list of the cases, ordered by the plaintiff’s name: Aḥmad Khān banām-i Maḥbūb Khān, Amīr al-Nisa Begam banām-i Afżal Khān, Bābā-jī banām-i Ganesh Yādav, Bansī Laʿl banām-i Yūgā Āpā. The next list provides an alphabetical index to the subject headings for each case that range from the general (ibtidāʾ: beginning; ikhrāj: expulsion) to the specific (“ikhrāj-i ʿudhrdārī ba-ʿadm-i pīrwī”: expulsion on the pretext of non-compliance). These subject-headings then appear as part of the headnote for each case. Because the cases follow a loose chronological order, according to the court’s calendar, the headnotes begin by identifying the court that heard the case—under a partial bench of the criminal court (nigrānī-yi faujdārī-yi jalsa-yi mutafiqa); under the full bench of the criminal court (jalsa-yi kāmila); on appeal from the criminal court, etc.—and the judge who was presiding. The headnotes then name the parties, the points of law in (or subject of) the case, followed by a short summary for context and a statement of the outcome, the decision, the faila.

Table of contents pages from volume 13 of the Deccan Law Reports, showing the annual list of criminal (faujdārī) cases, according to keyword.

For scholars who have consulted law reports from other jurisdictions, these early twentieth-century law reports, published in Urdu, and summarizing points of law decided by the state’s appellate and high court justices, likely sound familiar. Even if they exhibit a few oddities and quirks (like combining civil, criminal, revenue, and other cases into a single volume, or using full names – rather than surnames – to identify and alphabetize cases), as part of the law report genre, the Deccan Law Reports are (at least somewhat) recognizable. They are recognizable for practitioners who still work with printed law reporters today, and they are familiar to legal historians who have consulted the law reports of other common law jurisdictions.

Sample pages from volume 2 of the Deccan Law Reports, showing the headnotes and decisions for multiple cases. Note the marginal notes indicated the number and date of each case, as well as the list of subject-headings beneath each case name.

What makes these volumes worth discussing as part of my series this month on legal sources from the Indian princely states is their ability to disrupt our assumptions about language, format, influence, and access. Generally (though not exclusively) when scholars refer to law reports from British India, they refer to the English-language reports printed and published from one or more of the regional high courts.[1] Although in some cases these law reports are the only sources available for understanding a legal question, they are not always the best source for understanding what everyday law looked like. Case files, judges’ notebooks, regional reports, and in this case Urdu-language reports from a princely state, can provide a richer, more granular look at the operation of law.[2]

While I’d argue that there’s no such thing as an unmediated legal source, it almost goes without saying that published law reports are highly mediated. Not only have the cases been selected, usually for their contributions to substantive or procedural interpretation and relevance for future legal decision-making, but the details of each report have also been curated to tell specific stories and to make their arguments obvious for the purposes of informing subsequent legal decisions. Their reliance upon English as the language of legal business and court-reporting also lends a recognizable element of mediation to reports from South Asia.[3]

The Deccan Law Reports share many of these aspects of mediation. Cases are selected, curated, and narrated to substantiate specific legal points; they are summarized, printed, and published with the express purpose of shaping subsequent interpretations; and they’re organized according to those interpretive principles. Yet one element that is missing from these reports is the mediation of their translation into the English language and into English legal concepts and categories.

Legal translation, as scholars like Iza Hussin and others have shown, is a complex process that involves not just drawing word-to-word equivalencies from one language to another but also probing specific contexts, concordances, and nuances into how and when words appear.[4] The Deccan Law Reports provide thousands of pages of material through which to trace some of the concepts and categories that complicate the study of law and legal history. Not only do they provide scholars with an opportunity to track the evolution and interpretation of important concepts (contracts, evidence, testimony, intent) that touch many areas of law, but they also provide scholars with an opportunity to undertake comparative analyses. What principles of contract law did Hyderabad’s high court judges apply when hearing cases? How did they understand intent? What sense did they make of “religion” when hearing disputes? When and where did they distinguish between Muslim, Hindu, British, or Buddhist litigants? How did new legislation shape and inform judicial determinations vis-à-vis earlier interpretations based on “custom” or “tradition”?

It is unlikely that studying the Deccan Law Reports will lead scholars to singular or definitive answers to these questions. More likely, reading sources like the Deccan Law Reports, the Baroda Law Reports, the Marwar Law Reports, or the Mysore Chief Court Reports will lead scholars away from answers and toward new questions. But by pushing scholars toward new questions (and toward new approaches to old questions) sources like the Deccan Law Reports will eventually, gradually lead us all toward new understandings of law and legal change in colonial and imperial contexts—and that should provide more than enough motivation to dig in.

Further Reading:

  1. Arthur Mitchell Fraas, “Readers, Scribes, and Collectors: The Dissemination of Legal Knowledge in Eighteenth-Century British South Asia,” Unpublished Paper, 2012,
  2. Iza Hussin and Mona Oraby, “Translation and the afterlives of Anglophone Theory,” The Immanent Frame, June 15, 2021,


[1] Justice Syed Mahmood would famously include passages in Arabic in his decisions. See Alan M. Guenther, “Syed Mahmood and the Transformation of Muslim Law in British India” (PhD. diss., McGill University, 2004); and relatedly, Alan M. Guenther, “Justice Mahmood and English Education in India,” South Asia Research 31, no. 1 (February 1, 2011): 45–67,

[2] On judge’s notebooks, see the section on “unpublished sources” in Mitra Sharafi’s “Research Guide to Colonial South Asian Case Law,”

[3] There are vernacular-language reports from British India (often from district courts) that scholars could also call upon here.

[4] See, for starters, Iza Hussin, “Introduction: How to do things with translation,” Islamic Law Blog, December 15, 2022,

(Suggested Bluebook citation: Elizabeth Lhost, Dekan Lā Ripōrṫ: Familiar genres, unfamiliar stories, Islamic Law Blog (Mar. 28, 2023),

(Suggested Chicago citation: Elizabeth Lhost, “Dekan Lā Ripōrṫ: Familiar genres, unfamiliar stories,” Islamic Law Blog, March 28, 2023,

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