Lib­er­al­ism and Em­pire

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“Lib­er­al­ism moved out of its home­land, Great Bri­tain, on the back of em­pire. By rid­ing pig­gy­back on an es­sen­tially anti-demo­cratic idea and an au­thor­i­tar­ian in­sti­tu­tion, the orig­i­nal ten­sion with democ­racy that was in­her­ent in lib­eral the­ory be­came more pro­nounced in the ar­eas that the Bri­tish con­quered and then es­tab­lished their rule.” Thus be­gins the sec­ond chap­ter, en­ti­tled ‘Lib­er­al­ism and Em­pire’, of Twi­light Falls on Lib­er­al­ism, by Ru­drang­shu Mukherjee. In this ex­cerpt from the chap­ter, Mukherjee gives two ex­am­ples of how, for the Bri­tish, em­pire al­ways came above the ideals of lib­er­al­ism in colo­nial In­dia.

Re­form and the in­fu­sion of lib­eral val­ues would fol­low from the in­tro­duc­tion of West­ern ed­u­ca­tion and a West­ern le­gal sys­tem. In both these spheres the pri­or­i­ties of em­pire came into con­flict with the fun­da­men­tal prin­ci­ples of lib­er­al­ism. Two ex­am­ples will il­lus­trate this. The pro­mo­tion of West­ern ed­u­ca­tion was ini­ti­ated through the set­ting up of the Hindu col­lege in 1817 which was made pos­si­ble by the fund­ing pro­vided by some up­per caste wealthy elites of cal­cutta and the sup­port pro­vided by some Bri­tons and the gov­ern­ment of the time. Within the first ten years of the col­lege’s ex­is­tence the lim­its of how ‘lib­eral’ the founders of the in­sti­tu­tion could be were man­i­fest. among the teach­ers of the col­lege was Henry Louis Vi­vian derozio, still in his teens, of an­glo-por­tuguese ori­gin, a prodi­gious au­to­di­dact, a poet and an out­stand­ing teacher. He be­gan the process of ex­pos­ing his stu­dents to the first prin­ci­ples of ra­tio­nal and crit­i­cal think­ing. He em­pha­sized to his stu­dents the im­por­tance of think­ing for them­selves and the free ex­change of ideas; he en­cour­aged his stu­dents to read; and im­pressed upon them the im­por­tance of truth and virtue. What he at­tempted to do was noth­ing more and noth­ing less

than what good teach­ers in­vari­ably do, namely en­cour­age read­ing and crit­i­cal think­ing to open up the minds of their stu­dents. The im­pact of this on derozio’s stu­dents was not surpis­ing. as stu­dents be­gan to think for them­selves, they be­gan to crit­i­cally look at the world around them. These were boys, all of them, from up­per-caste elite fam­i­lies whose daily lives in their homes were en­veloped in blind obe­di­ence to re­li­gious rit­u­als and forms of def­er­ence. In­flu­enced by the new learn­ing ac­quired from their pre­co­cious teacher, some of the stu­dents be­gan to question reli­gion, rit­u­als and the pres­sures of the or­tho­dox­ies that clouded their lives. The first out­ward ex­pres­sion of this was the break­ing of Hindu di­etary taboos and caste re­stric­tions. This de­fi­ance alarmed many or­tho­dox par­ents and through them the Hindu mem­bers of the man­ag­ing com­mit­tee of the col­lege. They en­sured that derozio, de­scribed by one Hindu mem­ber of the man­ag­ing com­mit­tee as ‘the root of all evil’, was forced to re­sign from the col­lege. The man­ag­ing com­mit­tee had two Bri­tish mem­bers, david Hare and H.H. Wil­son, who ar­gued against the dis­missal of derozio since they be­lieved that he was a com­pe­tent teacher but when it came to a vote in the man­ag­ing com­mit­tee they ab­stained, ar­gu­ing that this was a mat­ter that af­fected only the feel­ings of ‘na­tives’. derozio was not even given the chance of de­fend­ing him­self even though ab­surd charges like he was an athe­ist, he sup­ported in­cest and he en­cour­aged dis­re­spect to­wards par­ents were brought against him. Thus derozio, the most out­stand­ing teacher of Hindu col­lege, left the por­tals of the col­lege, in his telling words, ‘un­bi­ased, un­ex­am­ined, and un­heard...with­out even the mock­ery of a trial’.

What this in­ci­dent high­lights is that the cham­pi­ons of lib­er­al­ism and lib­eral ed­u­ca­tion ea­ger to re­form In­dian so­ci­ety could eas­ily ac­qui­esce to Hindu or­tho­doxy and dis­cour­age the teach­ing of rea­son and free ex­change of ideas. This sup­pres­sion was made eas­ier per­haps be­cause the vic­tim of this act of cen­sor­ship, in­tol­er­ance and sup­pres­sion was an in­di­vid­ual of mixed parent­age from a hum­ble back­ground. Two dif­fer­ent strands of elitism acted to dis­miss derozio from Hindu col­lege. The question of treat­ing him as a free and equal in­di­vid­ual did not cross the minds of those in author­ity. To do so would be to dis­turb the sub­tle net­work of col­lab­o­ra­tion that was emerg­ing as the scaf­fold­ing of im­pe­rial dom­i­na­tion.

The other ex­am­ple, drawn from the le­gal sphere, is equally if not more re­veal­ing of the pri­or­i­ties of em­pire over­rid­ing lib­eral prin­ci­ples.

By an act passed in

1872, euro­pean Bri­tish sub­jects en­joyed the priv­i­lege of trial by a judge of their own race: no In­dian judge was al­lowed to try a euro­pean crim­i­nal. In 1882, an In­dian mem­ber of the civil ser­vices, Be­hari Lal gupta, pointed out this anom­aly. He protested that if In­di­ans were in the­ory el­i­gi­ble for all posts in the ad­min­is­tra­tion, it was im­proper and dis­crim­i­na­tory to deny them ju­ris­dic­tion over eu­ro­peans. This struck a chord in the mind of Lord ripon, the viceroy, who, as a glad­stone appointee was an up­holder of the prin­ci­ples of lib­er­al­ism. so af­ter due con­sid­er­a­tion, in Fe­bru­ary 1883, the new law mem­ber of the viceroy’s coun­cil, court­ney Il­bert, in­tro­duced a bill abol­ish­ing the prin­ci­ple of ju­ris­dic­tion on the ba­sis of race. ripon and the en­tire ad­min­is­tra­tion were taken aback by the scale and in­ten­sity of the op­po­si­tion from the en­tire nonof­fi­cial Euro­pean com­mu­nity -- es­pe­cially the planters, traders and lawyers-to what came to be known as the Il­bert bill. The viceroy was con­vinced that the Bill pro­posed the right idea and that the time had come to move away from the dis­tinc­tion made in 1836 by Thomas Babing­ton macau­lay, a pre­vi­ous law mem­ber, that there were two sorts of jus­tice in In­dia--a rough and coarse one meant for In­di­ans and an­other of a su­pe­rior and so­phis­ti­cated va­ri­ety meant for the Bri­tish. The op­po­si­tion turned so rowdy, so or­ga­nized and so abu­sive that The En­glish­man, the mouth­piece of Bri­tish opin­ion in cal­cutta, made the com­ment that ‘we are on the eve of a cri­sis which will try the power of the Bri­tish gov­ern­ment in a way which it has not been tried since the mutiny of 1857’. meet­ings were or­gan­ised to con­demn the Bill which de­scribed it as an at­tempt to take away ‘a much-val­ued and prized and time-hon­oured priv­i­lege of euro­pean Bri­tish sub­jects’.

The Bill, its crit­ics said, ‘aroused a feel­ing of in­se­cu­rity as to the lib­er­ties and safety of the euro­pean Bri­tish sub­jects em­ployed in the mu­fas­sil and also of their wives and daugh­ters’. The english lan­guage press, with The en­glish­man tak­ing the lead, an­nounced a call to arms and claimed that the eu­ro­peans were ‘fight­ing against their own ruin and the de­struc­tion of Bri­tish rule in In­dia’. a euro­pean and an­glo-in­dian de­fence as­so­ci­a­tion was formed, func­tions at gov­ern­ment House were boy­cotted and there was even a plot to ‘over­power the sen­tries of gov­ern­ment House, put the Viceroy on board a steamer at chand­pal ghat and send him to eng­land via the

Two dif­fer­ent strands of elitism acted to dis­miss Derozio from Hindu Col­lege. The question of treat­ing him as a free and equal in­di­vid­ual did not cross the minds of those in author­ity. To do so would be to dis­turb the sub­tle net­work of col­lab­o­ra­tion that was emerg­ing as the scaf­fold­ing of im­pe­rial dom­i­na­tion.

cape’. The viceroy with­drew the orig­i­nal bill and in­tro­duced as a face-saver, a much-wa­tered down ver­sion. The protest con­vinced ripon, as he wrote to glad­stone, that most english­men be­longed to ‘the type who re­gards In­dia and her in­hab­i­tants as made for his ad­van­tage and for that alone, who never looks upon him­self in any other light that that of con­queror, and upon the na­tives oth­er­wise as “sub­ject races”. Hark­ing back to the sen­ti­ments of macau­lay, ge­orge cooper, a Bri­tish civil ser­vant, dis­missed all no­tions of equal­ity be­tween black and white. He wrote, ‘We all know that in point of fact black is not white... That there should be one law alike for the euro­pean and na­tive is an ex­cel­lent thing in the­ory, but if it could re­ally be in­tro­duced in prac­tice we should have no busi­ness in the coun­try’. There could be no clearer ex­pres­sion of the con­flict be­tween univer­sal­ist premises and as­pi­ra­tions of lib­er­al­ism and the pri­or­i­ties of em­pire. The lat­ter al­ways won.

The prin­ci­ple of equal­ity so cen­tral to the lib­eral doc­trine ap­peared se­ri­ously com­pro­mised when those who were per­ceived as ‘sub­ject races’ laid claims to be brought into the am­bit of that prin­ci­ple. The rule of law, cru­cial to demo­cratic gov­er­nance, was sel­dom hon­oured in In­dia. Bri­tish rule in In­dia did not see it­self em­body­ing demo­cratic prin­ci­ples. It fash­ioned it­self as a despo­tism and was thus the man­i­fes­ta­tion of a para­dox: in the words of one of­fi­cial, ‘...the Bri­tish Gov­ern­ment of In­dia [was] the vir­tu­ally despotic gov­ern­ment of a de­pen­dency by a free peo­ple’. James Fitz­james stephen, a le­gal mem­ber of the colo­nial coun­cil in In­dia, was more forth­right. The em­pire ‘is es­sen­tially an ab­so­lute gov­ern­ment, founded not on con­sent, but on con­quest. It does not rep­re­sent the na­tive prin­ci­ples of life or of gov­ern­ment, and it can never do so un­til it rep­re­sents hea­thenism and bar­barism. It rep­re­sents a bel­liger­ent civ­i­liza­tion, and no anom­aly can be so strik­ing or so dan­ger­ous as its ad­min­is­tra­tion by men who, be­ing at the head of a gov­ern­ment... hav­ing no jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for its ex­is­tence ex­cept [the] su­pe­ri­or­ity [of the con­quer­ing race], shrink from the open, un­com­pro­mis­ing, straight­for­ward as­ser­tion of it, seek to apol­o­gize for their own po­si­tion, and refuse, from what­ever cause, to up­hold and sup­port it’.

It would be sim­plis­tic to as­sume that the two ex­am­ples nar­rated above were aber­ra­tions or were ac­ci­den­tal. They sprang in fact from a con­tra­dic­tion deeply em­bed­ded in lib­eral thought and ideas of the en­light­en­ment. The lat­ter, from which lib­er­al­ism sprang, ad­vo­cated cer­tain univer­sal prin­ci­ples like equal­ity, hu­man rights, progress, rea­son and so on. The en­light­en­ment and lib­er­al­ism were also deeply im­pli­cated with the project of em­pire. david Hume’s Po­lit­i­cal Dis­course aimed to be a book about a com­mer­cial so­ci­ety stretched across the globe. adam Fer­gu­son’s An Es­say on the His­tory of Civil So­ci­ety was about the virtues of mer­can­tile ac­tiv­ity and the cor­rup­tion of em­pire. a large part of The Wealth of Na­tions by adam smith was about em­pire and more specif­i­cally about the east In­dia com­pany. The english philoso­pher Jeremy Ben­tham, to­wards the end of his life, de­scribed him­self thus: ‘I shall be the dead leg­isla­tive of Bri­tish In­dia.’ ev­ery sin­gle im­por­tant Bri­tish pub­lic fig­ure as­so­ci­ated with lib­er­al­ism was con­cerned with In­dia and the Bri­tish em­pire in In­dia. This in­volve­ment brought out some re­veal­ing as­pects of their thought and at­ti­tudes. Hume, whose name is in­ex­tri­ca­bly linked to rea­son and scep­ti­cism, tucked away in a foot­note in his es­say ‘on na­tional char­ac­ter’: ‘I am apt to sus­pect the ne­groes to be nat­u­rally in­fe­rior to the whites.’ That non-whites were in­fe­rior and there­fore not quite pre­pared to re­ceive the gifts of lib­er­al­ism was a com­mon thread run­ning through the writ­ings of lib­eral thinkers of the nine­teenth cen­tury.n

No In­dian judge was al­lowed to try a Euro­pean crim­i­nal. Be­hari Lal Gupta pointed out this anom­aly. The Il­bert bill aimed to abol­ish ju­ris­dic­tion based on race. But the protests were so ve­he­ment the viceroy with­drew the orig­i­nal bill and opted for a wa­tered-down ver­sion.

Ashish asthana

Twi­light Falls on Lib­er­al­ism, by Ru­drang­shu Mukherjee, Aleph Spot­light, pages 161, Price: ₹399

Henry Derozio

Be­hari Lal Gupta

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