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‘Government of Order’: Summary Executions & Official Impunity in Company India (c. 1818-1825)

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Duration: 0:20:46 | Added: 14 Jan 2022
Part of the International conference on Maharashtra in September 2021 - Nishant Gokhale, University of Cambridge

On 26th February 1819 Cheel Naik, a Bhil chief, was executed without trial on the orders of John Briggs, Collector & Political Agent in Khandesh. Briggs was the first holder of this office and was an army officer serving the English East India Company (“Company”). Khandesh was one amongst several vast territories in western India which had been recently conquered from the Marathas and placed under the “Sole Commissioner for the Settlement of Territories Conquered from the Peishwa” (“Commissioner”). The Collector & Political Agent reported directly to the Commissioner and both officers became key interlocutors between the Company and various communities in this region.

Despite the Company’s longstanding but fraught relationship with law in Britain, this engagement rarely guided actions of its officials in India. My research furthers recent imperial history scholarship which seeks to understand law through practises and writings of officials on the ground. Focusing on judicial records of capital cases, the paper contends that the ambiguous legal environment of the Commissioner’s territories was informed by both English law and perceived governmental practises of the Marathas. This paper situates Cheel Naik’s execution as one amongst several carried out in the Commissioner’s territories by a plurality of Company legal-- and often questionably legal—fora. While the Commissioner envisioned establishing a “government of order” for the territories under his charge, its precise nature was never clearly articulated. Despite the haziness surrounding this notion, studying the Company’s structure, penological and disciplinary practises in the Commissioner’s territories reveal some of the oddly specific elements of this iteration of order.

This paper not only provides a window into the Company’s internal dynamics and law’s role in its institutional culture, but also provides insights into various communities which engaged--- albeit in diverse ways--- with the Company’s legal system in early 19th century Maharashtra.

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