Liberalism and Empire
“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.
Twilight Falls on Liberalism, by Rudrangshu Mukherjee, Aleph Spotlight, pages 161, Price: ₹399
Behari Lal Gupta