In the coming weeks and months, Taliban leaders will likely sit down to hammer out a new constitution for Afghanistan. This will restart a process that was, for them, rudely interrupted by the American invasion: twenty years ago, the Taliban were drafting a document before they were jettisoned from power. A new Taliban constitution would replace or modify the one ratified in 2004, which in turn superseded a number of constitutions imposed and violently discarded in the blood-soaked past half century of Afghan history.

Any Afghan law code produced by a group of heavily armed Taliban fighters will, no doubt, significantly turn back the clock on rights, freedoms, and progress. But a historian like Linda Colley might point out that, regardless of the Taliban’s antediluvian world view, such an exercise would also be a thoroughly modern one. It would be similar to many other instances when armed men (bearing swords or rifles instead of RPGs) have drafted constitutions in the past.

Colley has produced a book which upturns many of our notions of written constitutions and history. We usually associate constitution-making with freedom, the spread of democracy, and the unique histories of particular nation states. The Gun, the Ship, and the Pen, in contrast, presents a profoundly global story of how constitution-writing was shaped by war.

Military men

From the 1750s onward, increased global conflict spurred on constitutional projects for funding and manning armies and navies. Political elites, including a surprising number of monarchs, used constitutions to strike a grand bargain of sorts: political rights for men (and deliberately not women) in return for conscription and increased taxation. As the costliness of naval and land-based warfare spiraled out of control, such constitutions were “a gamble worth taking.”

At first, this can seem like an overwhelmingly cynical argument. It appears to have little to do with our impressions of constitution-making as an exercise infused with lofty, Enlightenment-influenced debates on inalienable rights or the rule of law. But the remarkable feature of Colley’s book is how it forces us to see so many elements of history – including Enlightenment thought – through the barrel of the gun.

Thinkers like Montesquieu or Rousseau observed horrific new levels of violence in global warfare. They, in turn, offered rulers with ideas on how to remodel and reorder their states to recover from conflict and prepare for the next battles. Written constitutions emerged from this crucible.

Consequently, many of the characters in Colley’s book are military men: and their constitutions reshaped society with military logic in mind. Instead of a James Madison or a BR Ambedkar, Colley focuses on people like Pasquale Paoli, who drafted a constitution for the island of Corsica in 1755 to assert its sovereignty and ward off any future invasions. Paoli specifically linked political rights with defence of the country.

His fellow Corsican, Napoleon Bonaparte, went even further. Amidst the churn and chaos of the Napoleonic Wars, he imposed upon conquered territories constitutions which matched a remarkable degree of new freedoms – the emancipation of Jews and serfs – with expectations of military service. Napoleon’s soldiers were themselves missionaries of constitutional change: many of them went on to advise new governments in places like Haiti or South America.

In the shadow of conflict

This geographical breadth is perhaps the most striking aspect of the book. Constitutional history is a genre with far too much focus on Europe and the United States. Madhav Khosla has recently noted how “India’s own constitutional moment has been snubbed” by scholars and “thought to lack any historical significance.”

Colley breaks down these geographical barriers, taking us to places far removed from the limelight and arguing for their centrality. Thus, around halfway through the book, we find ourselves in Pitcairn Island amidst the descendants of the mutiny of the HMS Bounty. Here in 1838, for the first time in world history, a constitution granted female suffrage equal to men.

The Spanish-speaking world emerges as a dazzling hub of global constitutional thought. Spain’s Cádiz constitution of 1812 (which, incidentally, was dedicated to Rammohan Roy when it was reissued some years later) circulated around the world, inspiring developments from the Philippines through Latin America. Mexico’s 1821 Plan de Iguala quickly reached Bengal where Roy republished it in the Calcutta Journal. Rather than being generated organically within particular nation states, constitutions were global creations, the results of ideas fiercely traded and contested across borders.

The shadow of war coloured such global exchanges. Colley explains how non-Western societies deployed constitutions to ward off violent imperialist takeovers, what she describes as “defensive modernisation.” By the nineteenth century, a written constitution was the hallmark of modernity, and a ruler in Tahiti or Tunisia, therefore, had an enormous incentive to draft such a document and publicise it globally. With a constitution, a vulnerable polity was effectively telling British, American, French, or German cruisers lurking in nearby waters, “No need to invade here; kindly look elsewhere.”

This strategy didn’t always work. But in Japan, something happened which forever changed the way constitutions spread across the world. The 1889 Meiji constitution, which emerged some twenty years after a transformative civil war, was the product of “pick and mix,” borrowing heavily from its Prussian and German equivalents (including its emphasis on military conscription). But it was not simply an exercise in overt Westernization. The constitution’s drafters used the figure of the emperor to deeply anchor the document in Japanese culture and tradition.

Japan could be both non-Western and modern. This landmark affirmation, coupled with the shock military defeat of Russia at Japanese hands in 1905, made colonised and non-Western peoples around the world stand up and realize that they could form modern, sovereign, constitutionally governed entities, as well. Many Indian nationalists were mesmerised by Japanese achievements.

Out of the book

Colley’s book concludes with the First World War, so the 1950 Indian Constitution does not really feature in the narrative. She notes antecedents—such as the Dastur-ul Amal issued by rebels during the Mutiny-Rebellion of 1857 and the 1895 Swaraj Bill, most likely authored by Bal Gangadhar Tilak –as well as constitutional activity in princely states. Indeed, what is likely India’s first modern constitution was drafted by T Madhava Rao for Baroda state at a time of great political crisis, culminating in a lightning-quick British invasion which removed Malharrao Gaikwad from power in 1875.

How else does India’s historical experience buttress the global story Colley sets out in her book? I offer some thoughts below, focusing on the early Indian National Congress.

The early Congress provided fertile ground for constitutional thought, something which has largely evaded investigation by Indian historians. In many ways, the Congress resembled more a state-in-waiting than a political party, with an elaborate system of franchise for selecting delegates, sponsorship of educational and cultural institutions, and, eventually, the adoption of its own constitution.

Its members borrowed ideas and forms originating in Britain but put a distinctly Indian spin on them. Queen Victoria’s Proclamation of 1858, for example, was regularly hailed as India’s Magna Carta but was eventually (and subversively) associated with notions of swaraj.

Allan Octavian Hume, whose experience of intense warfare during the Mutiny-Rebellion of 1857 had a profound influence on his political ideas, likely drew on his own family experience when establishing the Congress: his father, the MP Joseph Hume, had worked with leaders of the Chartist movement, who rallied around a written People’s Charter demanding certain rights in Britain.

Meanwhile, Dadabhai Naoroji surveyed constitutional developments around the world to press for Indian rights. At the 1906 Congress session, he justified swaraj for India on the grounds of recent events: constitutional revolutions in Persia and Russia and the dizzying rise of Japan. Why should India be left behind? Indians therefore had a responsibility to deliver a “Petition of Rights” to the British Parliament and demand change.

What about Colley’s thesis on the role of warfare and militaries? As Hume’s Mutiny experiences indicate, there were some definite parallels in India. When Naoroji sought to expose the hypocrisy of British colonialism, one of his tactics was publicising “race-distinction” which kept Indians out of the highest ranks of the British army. Elsewhere, nationalists protested that they paid for imperial military adventures without enjoying the benefits of citizenship.

But perhaps the best example of how warfare informed early Congress politics is the so-called volunteering movement. In its early years, for reasons which might seem odd to us, the Congress pressed for the rights of Indians to set up their own voluntary military corps which could augment the fighting power of the British Indian army.

Why on earth would Indians want to further strengthen the military might of the British Empire? As Colley demonstrates in her book, nineteenth and early-twentieth century militaries were institutions bound up with ideas of citizenship and nationalism. This was also the case in colonised India.

Indians, if they were only given the opportunity, could demonstrate their capacity for leadership and bravery on the battlefield – and perhaps this could help demolish racial stereotypes and therefore push along political reform. This mode of thought survived through the First World War, when nationalists, including Mahatma Gandhi, hoped that Indian military sacrifices would pave the way for some measure of self-government.

Additionally, military service was a great way to evade restrictions on access to firearms, another grouse of the early Congress due to race-based ownership laws. A little practice with military hardware never hurt a political movement.

Leaving out women

These South Asian attempts to link the gun with the pen bring us back to the current moment in Afghanistan. The early Congress and the Taliban might be galaxies apart in their social and political outlook, but both are good examples of organisations run by males, for male interests. Colley believes that the link between warfare and constitutions helps explain how these documents could be tools for exclusion of women. For the drafters of eighteenth and nineteenth century constitutions, women simply did not figure in the grand bargain of political rights for conscription.

Instead, these documents “often amplified, as opposed to merely reaffirming in words, constraints on female political involvement.” With the few strokes of a pen, constitution makers could curtail the limited political liberties women enjoyed. One senses that a similar dynamic will soon take place if Taliban fighters momentarily put down their newly captured US-made weapons and draft a constitution for Afghanistan.

At a moment when political polarisation has pushed even the most stable democracies to the brink of constitutional crises, The Gun, the Ship, and the Pen makes for timely reading. Like all great works of history, it conveys complex ideas in a clear, accessible, and engaging way, making for a powerful contrast with the inscrutable and theory-laced prose which plagues so much scholarly output (historians of South Asia, please take note). It is one of the best books which I have read in recent years.

The Gun, the Ship, and the Pen

The Gun, the Ship, and the Pen: Warfare, Constitutions and the Making of the Modern World, Linda Colley, Profile Books