The "Great Wahabi Trial": The Legal Construction and Deconstruction of the Muslim Jihadi in British India, 1869–71

Monday, January 5, 2009: 11:00 AM
Lenox Ballroom (Sheraton New York)
Julia Stephens , Harvard University, Cambridge, MA
During the sensational Wahabi trials of the 1860s and 1870s, the colonial administration brought charges against several dozen Indian Muslims for supporting jihadi movements in the North-West Frontier. The trial of Amir Khan was the most protracted and highly debated of these trials. In July 1869, Amir Khan, a distinguished elderly member of the Calcutta business community, was arrested and transported to Bihar, where he was imprisoned without formal charges for months. The first stage of the legal controversy involved Khan's right to apply for a writ of habeas corpus, which the Calcutta court denied. Khan's legal ordeal continued for another year and a half, as he was tried, released, rearrested, convicted, and eventually sentenced to transportation for life on charges of financially supporting efforts to wage war against the queen.

During the course of Khan's multiple hearings before courts in Patna, Calcutta, and London, legal journals and newspapers in India and Britain published hundreds of articles on his case. Many used the case to make virulent attacks on Indian Muslims, including W.W. Hunter in his famous pamphlet, "The Indian Musalmans : are they bound in conscience to rebel against the queen?" Khan's case contributed to the idea that Muslim subjects were inherently disloyal as they had a religious obligation to wage jihad against non-Muslim rulers. Yet, Khan's ordeal simultaneously revealed the instability of notions of colonial and religious difference. Legal debates over the suspension of habeas corpus in Khan's case raised questions about the security of rights of all subjects of the Raj, Indian and British. Eventually, the elderly Khan attracted the sympathy of both the British and Indian communities, and he was eventually pardoned in 1877. The case thus provides an important case study in the legal construction, and deconstruction, of the category of the Muslim jihadi.

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