The 1858 trial of the Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah II Zafar for crimes against the state
AuthorBell, Lucinda Downes
Faculty of Law
Document TypePhD thesis
CitationsBell, L. D. (2004). The 1858 trial of the Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah II Zafar for crimes against the state, PhD thesis, Faculty of Law, The University of Melbourne.
Access StatusOpen Access
Deposited with permission of the author. © 2004 Lucinda Downes Bell
In 1857, hostilities broke out against the ‘rule’ of the East India Company (EIC) in northern India.Measures to suppress the hostilities, known as the 'Mutiny', 'Rebellion' or 'War' of 1857', included legislation enacted by the EIC's Government of India criminalising 'rebellion' and 'waging war' and establishing temporary civil and military commissions. From 1857 to 1859, the Government of India tried soldiers and civilians, including the last Mughal Emperor, the King of Delhi Bahadur Shah II, for their conduct during the hostilities. The law and trials have not previously been the subject of study. his thesis assesses the validity, according to the international law of the time, of the trial by military commission of the King of Delhi in 1858. The research and writing of this study is original for no review of the trial according to international law has previously been attempted. This thesis assesses the validity, according to the international law of the time, of the trial by military commission of the King of Delhi in 1858. The research and writing of this study is original for no review of the trial according to international law has previously been attempted. The central hypothesis is that the trial was in breach of the international law of the time. The thesis demonstrates that the King of Delhi was a Sovereign recognised by Britain and under its protection until he was deposed three months before the trial. The thesis contends that his status as a recognised Sovereign, which according to the long-established rule of sovereign immunity precluded prosecution in the courts of another State, should have been considered sufficient to entitle him to immunity from prosecution. The criminal trial of a recognised Sovereign was without precedent. The thesis also contends that the apparent basis for the assertion of jurisdiction over the King or Delhi, that he became a British national through the extension of protection to the Kingdom or Delhi in 1803, was untenable in law. According to State practice of the time, protection of one State by another neither deprived the protected State of sovereignty nor effected a change in nationality. The thesis suggests that sovereign immunity was deliberately overridden on the grounds of his status as a protected king, the gravity of his crimes or on both grounds. Unprecedented in 1858, these grounds formed the basis for later challenges to the doctrine of sovereign immunity by plaintiffs in Britain. While neither ground found support in the law of the time, they signalled a new appetite to pierce the shield of sovereign immunity. The thesis concludes that the trial of the deposed and protected King of Delhi, Bahadur Shah, by a British court-martial in 1858, was both invalid according to the international law of the time and heralded an emerging international trend in favour of Head of State accountability.
KeywordsEast India Company; violation of sovereignty; International law; Mogul empire; India; history; Sepoy Rebellion; 1857-1858
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