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Constitution: A tool of Resistance today as well as in Colonial Era

The 1857 constitution also shows the uses of Urdu/Persian and English terminologies. The use of Urdu/Persian script by the rebels in administration shows that the rebels were trying to show their association with the old Indian customs.

By Newsd
Published on :

The Citizenship Amendment Act has not only created anxieties across India but also united people who rose together as one against this discriminatory Act. What received renewed attention during this process is the Constitution which was used as an intermediary tool between the State and the protestors. The process reminds us of the colonial age when the policies formulated by the British rule faced resistance in 1857 and the rebels drafted a constitution of their own to run their newly established government in Delhi.

The scenario may be different today but what is common between the two ages i.e. 2020 and 1857, is that people fought with the help of constitution: in 1857 the fighting rebels formed a constitution and fought along the lines of it against the British government; in 2020 people are on the streets protesting against the policies of government invoking the Indian constitution.

First page of Indian Constitution and Rebels’ Constitution

The revolt of 1857 obstructed the smooth shift from Mughal Empire to Colonial rule and paved the way for a new/rebel administrative system, which lasted for four months and four days. The period was chaotic for British authorities, for locals as well as for the rebels. It was necessary to search for ways and means to deal with problems of disorder, appointment of new officials, raising revenues, solving judicial and other cases. The very first step of the rebel government in the direction to restore the order was drafting of a twelve-point constitution (Dastur-ul Amal) and establishing a court of administrations.

This Dastur-ul Amal or constitution was a remarkable document, which speaks volumes about the rebels’ vision of polity and the future government. It has been suggested that the sepoys background as the members of the Bengal army (which was one of the largest and the finest army in the east of the Suez) have helped the sepoys to work out such a Dastur-al Amal, where all the three branches of army namely, Infantry, cavalry, artillery, had a major role in the future administration.

The use of this document to organize and institutionalize the military power and to use this power for political and social domination was commendable. It is also significant that the rebels were very much thorough in drafting the constitution and therefore, we see that the clause five initially talked about the communal election, with one a Hindu and other a Muslim being the criteria. This, however, was struck through later, and was replaced with merit i.e. seniority and capability as the basis of election. This way, the document had no appeal to any religion, no reference to any religious authority, or even a claim to defend the faith.  This was a creative move to work in the direction of a unified struggle against the British power. It was important not only because the rebels had realized the significance of unity, but also because it was the question of negotiating their relative positions of power, which they (rebels) have now agreed upon. This is exactly what the protestors today have also understood. They rejected the communal polarization of India which CAA attempts to do. The Act violates the (article 14) Indian Constitution and resulted in country-wide protests, starting from Shaheen Bagh and spreading to all other regions and centers of education in India.

The 1857 constitution also shows the uses of Urdu/Persian and English terminologies. The use of Urdu/Persian script by the rebels in administration shows that the rebels were trying to show their association with the old Indian customs. At the same time the use of English words, like court administrations, president, vice-president, commander-in-chief, brigadier, general etc. shows their familiarity and readiness to adapt the modernity. They grabbed whatever they thought was beneficial to them and used it against the enemy.

The constitution carries twelve points regarding the running of the new administration. The first clause mentioned the establishment of a Court and it was to be named as Court Administration or Jalsa-e Intezamia Fauji wa Mulki. It had clear rules about election, duties and sessions of the Court. This Court should consist of ten members- six military and four civil. Of the military members two were to be selected from infantry, two from cavalry and two from artillery. All the members of military were to be elected by a majority of votes from amongst those seniors in service (qadeem-ul khidmat), intelligent (hoshiyar), experienced (wāqifkar), capable (lāyaq) and wise (aqeel). The rebels were careful in charting out of these rules and they also understood that the first condition could cause them a shortage of men and therefore, the condition was not made absolute and it was provided that this condition could be waived off in case of very capable and intelligent persons.

The President (sadr-e jalsa) and Vice-President (naib sadr-e jalsa) were to be elected by a majority of votes. The President had two votes. Every member was supposed to take an oath to be honest and selfless. The oath of the office created for the members of court of administration was noteworthy and was similar with that taken currently by our executive functionaries. There was no permanency or security of their position; the members were to be banished from the court if they were found dishonest, devious or nepotistic. This acted as an attempt to maintain excellence and to control corruption.

The rebels did not leave any ambiguity and each point was worked out in detail. The court was to divide itself into five committees to look after different departments. Each committee consisted of four members of the court and could have as many secretaries attached to it as were required. Proposals passed by a majority of vote in a committee were forwarded to the court for approval through members-in-charge. This idea of working with cooperation and consultation helped in checking the power of king and nobles.

The court held two kinds of sessions: the ordinary session for five hours each day in the Red Fort; special sessions for any urgent business at any time of day or night. The meeting hours of the Court were quite flexible. The rebels also realized the inevitability of being unanimous and therefore, it had provided for the process of the guillotine to avoid frisky proposals. The majority of votes were essential in all matters. Any decision taken in the absence of a member was considered as the decision of the full Court and was valid to his department also and this indicated joint responsibility.

No one else but the members of Court, Sahib-e Alam (Mirza Mughal) and Huzur-e Wala (the king) were allowed to attend the meeting of the Court. Mirza Mughal and King were important members of the Court. Most of the documents related to Court, in fact, carried the seal of Mirza Mughal, Commander-in-Chief. He had the authority to call for the daily sessions of the Court. Any matter was supposed to be presented first before Court, then to Sahib-e Alam and then to Huzur-e Wala. The decision of the king was final in all military and civil points. In actual practice, however, the Court resolved as it chose.

The Constitution was remarkably ahead of its time, which shows that the people involved in the drafting committee were well aware of the modern writings and situations at international level. Many of the people were going outside India not just to understand the scientific discoveries and innovations but also to see the society, culture and politics of a different world. A number of people like Fazl-e Haq Khairabaadi and Dr. Wazir Khan had good experience of working with the British system. Dr. Wazir Khan was in fact a renowned physician who returned from London. The connection of Azimullah Khan with the French government and with Pasha of Turkey shows the international links of the rebel leaders. The presence of huge collections of books by people like Nawab of Loharu shows that the reception of knowledge was definitely there.

Further, contemporary newspapers like Dehli Urdu Akhbar were reporting the happenings from the other parts of the Muslim world, like Egypt where Mohammad Ali Pasha was successful in challenging the Colonial hegemony or in Central Asia or Afghanistan where Russians were holding back the interest of the East India Company. Such newspapers showed great support to the rebel’s efforts and unlike the current TV and media, 1857 newspapers were very much vocal against the British government and were writing encouraging editorials to boost the morale of rebels. Therefore, despite the fact that the efforts of rebels were not successful and the British managed to re-control Delhi on 14th September 1857, the establishment of the Constitution and the Court were farsighted efforts by the rebels who tried to systematize the newly established government by working through the lines of a written document.

(The views expressed above are the author’s own. Newsd neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)


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