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Reflecting on Our Past

Amar Farooqui

Edited by Pramod K. Nayar
Orient Longman, Hyderabad, 2007, pp. lxxvi 315, Rs. 395.00

Edited by Sabyasachi Bhattacharya
Orient Longman, Hyderabad, 2007, pp. vi 320, Rs. 695.00


As is well known, following the ‘recapture’ of Delhi in mid-September 1857, the British carried out a mock trial of Bahadur Shah in the Diwan-i khas of the Red Fort. This sham show was conducted by a military commission headed by Lt. Col. M. Dawes. It lasted from 27 January to 9 March 1858. At the end of the trial Bahadur Shah was convicted of treason and of having abetted the killing of Europeans. Neither of these charges had any legal substance. In October 1858 Bahadur Shah, along with some of the members of his immediate family, was transported to Rangoon, where he died in 1862.   The mock trial and the charge of treason against the emperor served the purpose of demonstrating that the Company was the real sovereign power against which Bahadur Shah had committed high treason. In his celebrated essay ‘The Political Theory of the Indian Mutiny’ (1922) F.W. Buckler forcefully argued that it was the Company that was the rebel, and that the sipahis were duty-bound to support the emperor. In other words that the Company’s government had no independent constitutional basis. Its authority derived from the various farmans issued by the Mughals.   The trial was intended to put an end to the anomalous position whereby given the de jure status of the emperor the colonial state had been unable to claim sovereign rights. Thus the trial was central to the assertion of colonial sovereignty in exclusive terms. The new edition of The Trial of Bahadur Shah Zafar, edited by Pramod K. Nayar, makes available the full text of the proceedings of this trial. The earlier (H.L.O. Garrett) edition, published in 1932, has long been out of print. Needless to add, the publication of the new edition coincides with the 150th anniversary of the Great Revolt. Nayar has used the original 1858 edition published from Calcutta, and collated this with Garrett’s edition.   In his exhaustive introduction of nearly sixty pages Nayar examines the ideological significance of the trial as a spectacle: ‘… the trial was intended as a spectacle that reiterated and reinforced British power’. It was a device for delegitimizing indigenous authority, and yet, as Nayar notes, ‘What is ironic is that this same Zafar is conspicuous by his absence in postcolonial analyses of the colonial state and colonial discourses’.   The editorial note pays close attention to the language of the trial—its vocabulary, its phrases, its legalese—to understand how ...

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