The paper deals with the historical dynamics of the struggle over inheritance law in West Sumatra under the colonial rule of the Dutch Indies. The Minangkabau in West Sumatra are an interesting example of legal pluralism in Muslim societies. Their adat (indigenous law and social organisation) of matrilineal heritage regulated kinship, group affiliation, inheritance of property, and succession to office. Since the sixteenth century they have been devout Muslims. Their history is characterised by dynamic transformations of the relationship between adat and Islam, and—since their incorporation into the colony of the Dutch East Indies in the early nineteenth century—with the state. The paper shows how these conflicts and negotiations produced different results in different arenas. The agreements reached in the political arena were usually different from the use of law in the decision-making processes of village and state courts, as were the actual practices of villagers in everyday property and inheritance affairs.
Recent analyses of the ‘revitalisation of tradition’ have rekindled earlier discussions of the ‘creation of customary law’ in colonial states. For Indonesia, critics have deconstructed a ‘myth of adat’, arguing that adat law was an invention of the adat law scholar Van Vollenhoven and his followers. The assessment of that period also shapes interpretations of developments in Indonesia after 1998. The purpose of this paper is to demonstrate that in some respects the critique of colonial scholarship was misconceived, and that these misconceptions hamper a proper understanding of the current revitalisation of adat in Indonesia. Many interpretations of colonial legal science and practice have become anachronistic and stereotypical. We argue that most interpretations were and are largely based on a legalistic conception of ‘law’ and ‘customary law’, that authors selectively generalise interpretations from specific contexts, and that they do not take into account what such interpretations say over legal realities beyond these contexts. Lastly we think that the target of the critique is somewhat misconceived as it is directed at those scholars who were aware of the danger of legal ethnocentrism and criticised it, while not looking at those colonial scholars and courts, who grossly misinterpreted local normative systems in terms of Dutch legal categories. We argue that some assumptions and propositions of these earlier and contemporary critical deconstructions are in need of re-evaluation. Given its presence in current analyses, reconsidering Van Vollenhoven and his followers is more than a return to a history long gone by. We substantiate our propositions with a discussion of the history of the village commons, ulayat, in West Sumatra, which has always been a central illustration in all discussions of adat law.
This article deals with struggles over natural resources in West Sumatra, the homeland of the Minangkabau after the end of the Suharto regime in 1998. In these processes, actors often follow ambiguous strategies in pursuing their interests. We argue that these ambiguities to a large extent derive from a combination of factors: One is the multiple embeddedness of property rights at different layers of social organisations, in particular in social and general legal relationships. The second is the systemic implication of property rights in other domains of social organisation, for instance, authority and power relations. The third is the specific complexity and concomitant legal insecurity within plural legal orders. Actors who draw on rules from different legal orders — for designing regulations, for validating transactions, and for making decisions in disputes — have to deal with the problem that property relations are embedded differently in different legal orders and have different logics and systemic implications. This often leads actors to a strange combination of highly legalistic reasoning and a very pragmatic search for solutions.