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Research Seminars



Alastair McClure
University of Chicago Rethinking Violence, Sovereignty, and the Making of Criminal Law in Colonial India


15 Feb 2019

10:00 a.m.
4.36 Run Run Shaw Tower, Centennial Campus



Violent societal breakdowns at times of civil war, rebellion, and revolution have been identified as historical ruptures from which new sovereign legal orders can emerge. The 1857-58 rebellion in colonial India, the largest rebellion in nineteenth century British imperial history, can be interpreted as one such example. Acting as the catalyst for the replacement of the East India Company with Crown rule, the constitutional, legal and political grounds upon which India was governed would be dramatically transformed in response to this period of pervasive violence. While historians interested in the legal implications of rebellion have primarily focused upon the 1860 codification of criminal law, this paper will argue that later changes to legal practice and procedure in India were shaped by two foundational events that predated codification. The first of these was the 1858 trial of Bahadur Shah Zafar II. Ignoring his status as Mughal sovereign, the trial took place under spectacular circumstances, charging him with murder and treason as a pensioner and a British subject. Found guilty, and unlike the majority of his family who were killed, he was banished to Burma to live out the last years of his life. With the former Mughal sovereign exiled, the paper then shifts to Queen Victoria’s 1858 Proclamation. As her first gesture as the sovereign figurehead of India, this public declaration articulated the new terms under which colonial rule would govern. Including religious tolerance and investment in industry, vital to this was an amnesty offered to large numbers of rebels. Though the proclamation spoke in universal terms regarding the rights and status of colonial subjecthood, a closer look at the practice of amnesty reveals a more flexible and scaled system of rewards, punishments and forgiveness following rebellion. Juxtaposing these two moments, one targeting the Mughal sovereign, the other targeting society at large, the paper argues that this juncture saw the fashioning of a new form of colonial sovereignty in India. It is this that would provide the undergirding structure upon which India’s codified criminal legal system would later function through.


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