An Emperor on Trial: Colonialism and International Law in 19th-Century India

Sunday, January 7, 2018: 9:40 AM
Columbia 12 (Washington Hilton)
Mithi Mukherjee, University of Colorado Boulder
In January 1858 a British military tribunal in India set up by the East India Company’s government tried and convicted the Sovereign of India, Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar on charges of treason, which included encouraging rebellion and waging war against the state. This political trial came in the wake of a violent conflict that broke out initially as a mutiny in the East India Company’s Army but soon turned into a widespread conflagration involving the wider population. Known as the Rebellion of 1857, this armed confrontation was the largest and most determined anti-colonial war that any European empire had faced until then.

What is remarkable about this trial is that Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar legally recognized and publically acclaimed as the Sovereign of India had to defend himself against the charge of treason brought against him by a foreign trading company that had come to wield political power in India. In this paper, through an analysis of this trial, I show the essential link between the origin of the discourse of international law and the history of colonialism. I contend that what makes this trial significant is that the advent of the discourse of international law in the colonies went hand in hand with the abrogation of the discourse of national sovereignty. This legal abrogation of the discourse of national sovereignty in the colonies grounded in international law went on to determine, I conclude, both the discourse of empire and that of anticolonialism in the twentieth century.