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Cambridge University Press
Expected online publication date:
October 2024
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Book description

Trials of Sovereignty offers the first legal history of mercy and discretion in nineteenth and twentieth-century India. Through a study of large-scale amnesties, the prerogative powers of pardon, executive commutation, and judicial sentencing practices, Alastair McClure argues that discretion represented a vital facet of colonial rule. In a bloody penal order, officials and judges consistently offered reduced sentences and pardons for select subjects, encouraging others to approach state institutions and confer the colonial state with greater legitimacy. Mercy was always a contested expression of sovereign power that risked exposing colonial weakness. This vulnerability was gradually recognized by colonial subjects who deployed a range of legal and political strategies to interrogate state power and question the lofty promises of British colonial justice. By the early twentieth century, the decision to break the law and reject imperial overtures of mercy had developed into a crucial expression of anticolonial politics.


‘Trials of Sovereignty offers a compelling history of the ensnaring promise of mercy and its rejection in colonial India. Breaking with the conventional idea that sovereignty was solely built on state violence, Alistair McClure traces how terror and mercy were wielded as related expressions of sovereign power in the courtroom. From the last Mughal emperor to Mohandas Gandhi, McClure's meticulous analysis of modern India’s iconic political trials unearths mercy's fingerprints throughout colonial legal history. Because mercy was a crucial colonial tool for curtailing political rights and upholding a hierarchical social order, its rejection was pivotal to ideas of anti-colonial liberation. Trials prompts us to ask: who has the right to punish and by what measure? Posed as a question for the historian, McClure lays bare its significance to our unfinished present.’

Bhavani Raman - author of Document Raj: Writing and Scribes in Early Colonial South India


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