AN aspect of the British rule in India that has received little attention from the historians is the justice system. Elizabeth Kolsky, an assistant professor of History at Villanova has explored this aspect in a well documented book Colonial Justice in British India: White Violence and the Rule of Law.
“The goddess of British Justice, though blind, is able to distinguish unmistakably black from white” – this quote from Bal Gangadhar Tilak sums up the theme and spirit of the book. The narration in the book of cruelties inflicted by the white rulers on the coloured subjects knocks the breath out of the reader.
Kolsky says “physical violence was an intrinsic feature of imperial rule.” The acts of cruelties were perpetrated by planters, soldiers and even seamen on the poor Indians working for them and the courts that tried the ‘Europeans’ let them off with minimal or no punishment.
“India’s colonial rulers promised to treat all subjects equally, but at the end of the day, law’s paramount purpose was to maintain Britain’s hold. Despite a rhetorical stance of legal equality, legal practice and convention placed most Europeans in India above the law, and, in effect, tolerated and condoned widespread physical assault and above” the book says.
The author has discussed case histories. These are only some of the cruelties recorded in some form or the other. Most cruelties went unreported and untried. William Orby Hunter, an indigo planter maimed three female ‘slaves.’ They were found with their noses, ears and hair chopped off, their genitals mutilated and their feet fettered in iron chains. One of the girls had her tongue cut and all of them suffered from venereal disease. The three girls were the maids of the European’s Indian mistress. He was set free after a fine of Rs 1000 each to two girls (one had died during trial) and Rs 100 to the King. His mistress, who ‘voluntarily’ took the blame for the cruelties, because Hunter was her lord and master for seven and a half years, was imprisoned for six months and a fine of Re. one.
In a blood curdling case, Philip Charles Hogan, commander of the British trading ship Maria was tried for the death of a worker Muhammad Ruza. Hogan asked Ruza to scrap the exterior of the ship. When Ruza answered that rough waters and high-breaking winds were forcing him stop the work, Hogan ordered “beat him, tie him and throw him over.” Several witnesses testified that Ruza was suspended by a rope one cubit above the water for five days and nights with nothing to eat and drink. It rained the entire time and the swollen sea barely kept the body afloat. Hogan prevented anyone from assisting him, or even looking at him. On the fifth day, he was dead. At the trial, the defence argued that “there was a general order that men that did not work should have no food.” Hogan was, incredulous it may sound, acquitted.
There were several cases of Indians dying after being beaten, slapped, kicked and trampled upon by the whites. In all these cases, if ever they reached the courts, the white men got away with the plea that the native was “already sick.” The punishments given to the natives were accepted by the judiciary as just and needed for ‘disciplining’ the errant and lazy Indians. Describing the plight of the indigo workers, Faridpur magistrate E De-Latour said it was a “system of bloodshed” and that “Not a chest of indigo reached England without being stained with human blood.”
The British rulers appointed Indian men to sit in courts. But they were eligible only to try the locals. When one of the Indian judges, Behari Lal Gupta wrote to the government to give equal powers to the Indian judges, the British were not only taken aback, but got aggressive. During discussions on the issues, this is what a Barrister H A Branson said: “do you think that Native Judges will by three or four years’ residence in England become so Europeanised in nature and in character, they will be able to judge as well in false charges against Europeans as if they themselves were Europeans? Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard its spots?”….”freedom loving people” could never be judged “by a nation steeped in the tradition of the conquered”; “You cannot suddenly educate a Hindu into a full appreciation of his freedom…Look at the history of India. Here you have a country that has been from all historical times, I say, the victim of one conquering nation or another.” Clearly, in their legal system the crime was not important but the skin colour of the criminal. And Branson was talking about a nation that had codified law centuries before England was even literate!
What the book reveals is the scant regard the whites had for their coloured subjects. Nothing called human consideration was shown to them. In fact, according to Kolsky, Britons invariably saw their Indian victims in some way as inferior and sometimes sub-human. She says she has written the book in the context of the resurgence of scholarly and public interest in the history of empires and empire building. This revived interest has “culture, race, identity and theorizing difference” at centre stage and ignores the darker side of the colonial rule. “This book shifts attention away from questions of culture and takes up the history of physical violence as a site for reframing our view of the British Empire in India.”
Elizabeth Kolsky has written with the impartiality of an observer and the passion of a justice seeker. A commendable book, with a lot of research hours put into it. An eye-opener one may call it, to see the British rule in India in a fresh perspective for a reassessment.
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