Alternately seen as a local-level court of arbitration, a union or committee, or village or municipal council, the concept of the South Asian panchayat was a sociopolitical and legal palimpsest. Retaining traces of meaning accrued from multiple incarnations, contestations, and appropriations, it would become a touchstone for early Indian liberals, radicals, and nationalists, as well as for imperialists concerned with the local devolution of sovereignty. Colonial definitions and redefinitions, however, obscure as much as they reveal about the multiple and shifting meanings of the panchayat for colonized subjects. The panchayat has been seen as primarily a product of Orientalist imagining—ultimately adopted, in an act of strategic essentialism, by Indian nationalists at the end of the nineteenth century. But it was never solely a product of the colonial imagination. Rather, colonial experimentation with older discourses on the panchayat in the context of drives for local governance sparked a more substantive set of reassessments that would transform discourses of law, state, and society in colonial and postcolonial India.

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