Contesting Pahari Conjugality in the Western Himalayas: Sexuality, Colonialism and the Question of Inheritance

The historiography of social reform in colonial India continues to be influenced by the dominant language of critique of the lived lives of the natives. In the context of western Himalayan region, the hilly areas of colonial Punjab, this early twentieth century debate was largely influenced by the discourse of migrants who came to settle in Shimla, the summer capital of British Empire in India, in the late nineteenth century. The contestations of a local custom of reet, which defined varied aspects of Pahari conjugality, were central to the debates of these reformers who sought to abolish this custom through legislation. But the nature of relationship between the colonial state and the native chiefs of several hill states and the inherent diversity and exclusivity of several regions in these Pahari areas altered the language of rhetoric against reet and evoked an interesting counter-discourse on sexuality, labour, freedom, reform, inheritance and colonialism.

This paper is an attempt to foreground a historiography ‘with characteristic emphasis: first on the variety of idioms, or “languages” as they came to be known, in which political argument might be conducted and second, on the participants in political argument as historical actors, responding to one another in a diversity of linguistic and other political and historical contexts that gave the recoverable history of their argument a very rich texture.’ The argument is divided into several parts and shall evolve a discussion on the notion of reform, Pahari landscape and its relationship with conjugality and sexuality, and colonial anxiety with the question of inheritance and social reform.

Yogesh Snehi Yogesh Snehi teaches history at the School of Liberal Studies, Ambedkar University Delhi (AUD). He has been engaging with critical debates on the Punjab region and has published research, organised workshops and conducted surveys on themes related to diversity, sexuality, region formation, identity and communalism, piety and orality at popular sufi shrines and social reform in colonial Punjab. Snehi is jointly editing a book ‘Modernity and Changing Social Fabric of Punjab and Haryana’ with Indian Institute of Advanced, Shimla. Through a Tasveer Ghar fellowship, he has also created a digital repository of images that are in circulation at popular sufi shrines in contemporary Punjab.


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