University of Cambridge > > Violence and Conflict Graduate Workshop, Faculty of History > A ‘military’ rule of law and the politics of the exception in colonial Punjab, 1849-1870

A ‘military’ rule of law and the politics of the exception in colonial Punjab, 1849-1870

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“From the 1780s onwards, the idea of a government which was subject to the rule of law provided one of the strongest moral endorsements for British colonial rule in India. According to this understanding, the law was supposed to be something universal which applied equally to everyone. In this way, the moral legitimacy of British colonial legality was established in contradistinction to the arbitrary sovereignty and personal discretion of the regime of oriental despotism which it had replaced. At the same time, however, this notion of a universal law also existed in a perpetual tension with a discourse of emergency and exceptionalism which argued that, as a ‘regime of conquest,’ the British government in India also needed to preserve an ‘illimitable’ sovereignty of discretionary authority and powers. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the colonial administration of Punjab, where British officials insisted that the province was uniquely well–suited to a highly authoritarian form of rule due to the supposedly warlike and backward nature of its inhabitants. This paper examines how the tensions between the rule of law and discourses of exceptionalism were elaborated in Punjab. It argues that the Punjab system of governance represented a fundamentally ‘military’ form of government, underpinned by the priorities and politics of pacification, and the need to preserve British prestige as India’s ‘conquering race.’”

This talk is part of the Violence and Conflict Graduate Workshop, Faculty of History series.

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