“The Magna Charta of Hindostan”: Constituting the British Empire in Eighteenth-Century India

Friday, January 2, 2015: 4:10 PM
Gramercy Suite B (New York Hilton)
Robert Travers, Cornell University
In 1783 Edmund Burke declared that new parliamentary legislation to reform the British East India Company would provide a ‘magna charta of Hindostan’. ‘Whatever the great charter, the statute of tallage, the petition of right, and the declaration of right, are to Great Britain’, he went on, ‘these bills are to the people of India’. Burke’s comments reflected not only his faith in the constitutional principles or ‘fundamental laws’ governing the British state, but also his sense that imperial expansion required a new system of constitutional checks and balances to be enacted for the wider empire. The search for a remodeled constitution of empire was a constant feature of British imperial politics in Burke’s era. This paper examines various British attempts to give constitutional shape to their emerging territorial empire in India. It suggests how, despite a pervasive sense of the vast distance separating British from Indian politics, the idea of extending British constitutional principles into the empire was a pervasive feature of imperial rhetoric and policy-making. This led to strained efforts to adapt the language of ‘mixed’ or ‘balanced’ constitutions to a rule of military conquest, as well as a quest for analogies to British constitutional history in the history of India. By the 1790s, written ‘regulations’ issued in an authoritarian style by the governors and councils in India were being trumpeted as the bedrock of a new written constitution for British India, in a system of self-professed ‘enlightened despotism’. Apart from charting the range of schemes for constituting a new British empire in India, this paper also situates such schemes in the wider context of eighteenth century European thinking about constitutions, and about the role of written constitutional documents as a necessary check on state power.
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