In the past, it was a practice between two nations to have political and commercial contracts with each other to facilitate mutual relationships. In the early period, these contracts were oral in nature and the parties promised not to violate the terms of the contract.
With the emergence of writing, treaties and contracts were written down. They were often inscribed on stone slabs. In this case, these contracts could not be altered. In Ancient Arabia, the document of the contract was divided into two parts and each party was given one part. In case of disagreements or amendments, the parties brought their half of the agreement and, after putting both portions together, either framed a new contract or accepted the old one.
However, we have observed that in case of war the victorious nation concluded an unequal treaty with the defeated enemy. Such treaties were temporarily accepted. But as soon as the vanquished regained power, they violated the terms of the treaty and tried to restore their lost honour.
We have the example of Germany in this regard. When the country was defeated in the First World War, the Allied Powers forced it to accept the Treaty of Versailles (1919). The terms were humiliating and insulting. Hitler used it to popularise his party and as soon as Germany acquired military power, the country violated the treaty and retrieved all of its lost territories. The Allied Powers remained silent and could not challenge Germany’s actions. This shows that such unequal treaties will never remain immune from violation and could not retain peace and harmony among nations.
When the Europeans occupied America, Australia and New Zealand, they forged a number of treaties with local tribes to not occupy their land and property. However, these treaties were violated and the new immigrants from Europe, after expelling the local tribes, seized their land and deprived them of their properties. Some tribes still have copies of the treaties that the Europeans flouted and from time to time appeal to the courts to uphold the terms of these agreements and help them get their properties back. History shows that when powerful groups violate treaties, the weaker sections of society have found it difficult to win back their rights. Therefore, these tribes are living under the political domination of the European nations.
In India, the East India Company (EIC) ratified treaties with the local states through which they promised not to interfere their internal affairs and pledged to defend them from any foreign invasion. However, when the Company expanded its territory, it started to annex the state on various pretexts. For example, after the Battle of Buxar in 1764, the EIC concluded a treaty with Shujaud Daulah, the nawab of Oudh. In exchange for his loyalty to the Company, his state was not annexed. These terms were violated when the Company sponsored Saadat Ali Khan (d 1814) as the candidate for Oudh’s nawab wazir. A new treaty was signed and half of his state was confiscated by the Company. Finally, in 1856, the EIC decided to end the rule of Wajid Ali Shah and include Oudh within its territory.
This was a violation of the terms of the treaty signed after the Battle of Buxar and Wajid Ali Shah reminded the ‘Resident’ of the promises that the Company had made to preserve the independence of Oudh. But his protest could not change the EIC’s policy. He was exiled to Calcutta and his state was taken over by the Company.
One of the causes of 1857 war was the Company’s policy of seizing those states whose rulers had no successors. Previously, rulers would adopt someone as their heirs if they did not have successors. The Company abolished this practice. This created discontent among the rulers of the Indian state – especially the Rani of Jhansi (d 1858) and the Maratha ruler Nana Sahib, who feared that their states would be besieged by the Company after their death. This motivated them to fight against the British rule in 1857.
When the great war of 1857 was crushed, Queen Victoria published a proclamation of amnesty which promised that no Indian state would be annexed and the British would not interfere in their internal affairs. Begum Hazrat Mahal (d 1879), one of the wives of Wajid Ali Shah, who fought valiantly against the British, left India and settled in Nepal where she continued her resistance.
She responded to the Queen’s proclamation by issuing a counter-proclamation, which stated that: “the Company professed to treat the chief of Bhurtpur [sic] as a son, and then took his territory; the chief of Lahore was carried off to London, and it has not fallen to his lot to return; Nawab Shumsuddin Khan, on [the] one hand, they hanged, and on the other hand, they saluted him; the Peshwa they expelled from Poona Sitara and imprisoned for life in Bithoor; their breach of faith with Sultan Tipu is well known; the Rajah of Benares they imprisoned in Agra”.
The Company neither apologised nor expressed shame on violating these treaties.
The writer is a veteran historian and scholar.