Was the British Raj benevolent

Written by YRK Reddy | Updated: Aug 6 2005, 05:30am hrs
As the Prime Minister recently observed, the world probably looks to India as a laboratory for democracy. India had also served as a lab for the utilitarian philosophy that looked so obscure and impractical. Coincidentally, Bentham and James Mill, the two great utilitarian thinkers, were directly involved with the foundations of the British empire in India from India House. It is another matter that some of the new-fangled experiments may have led to unexpected disasters.

In essence, utilitarianism implied that all actions must be to bring greatest happiness to the greatest numbers. This shaped the early structures, laws, and values of efficiency and duty, howsoever debatable. It led to the establishment of an independent and merit-based civil service that was copied elsewhere, including in Britain, much later. The experiments with indirect rule using local institutions were pioneering for those times. The utilitarian-inspired spirit in the governance in India sets it apart from colonial experiences anywhere else, many of which saw the massacre of natives and hard imposition of dogmas, without recognising local institutions.

Around the time Britain established itself in India, there were hundreds of kings and princes, most of whom were autocratic and despotic, despite sagacious advice from the scriptures and Kautilya. The subcontinent also saw several invaders, beginning with the capture of the Sind by the Arabs around 712 AD. The waves eventually culminated in the establishment of the Mughal empire around 1525 AD. These invasions were marked by massacres and destruction. It was only for a brief period during the Mughal rule that attempts were made for stability and reasoned integration. But the empire just collapsed some years after Aurangzeb.

Our sacrifices and struggle against the British were, indeed, for the right to self-government and some objectionable economic policiesnot against all aspects of their governance. Our venerable leaders made this distinction in speech, thought and action. This is the reason why many structures, laws and even parliamentary/legislative/judicial procedures continued even after Independence, whichever be the government. This certainly was not for lack of imagination, but for their continued appropriateness and utility.

Some of the early utilitarians were conscious of the sensitive issues relating to education, administration, relevance and use of local institutions, and even the potential for abuse of powers by the officers. The Calcutta Supreme Court, instituted by an Act of 1773, was to form a strong and solid security for the natives against the wrongs and oppressions of British subjects resident in Bengal. The institution of the district judge and magistrate, with higher powers than the superintendent of police and the collector in the initial years, was precisely to prevent abuse of power.

India, during British rule, served as a laboratory for utilitarian philosophy
Indias struggle against the British was not against all aspects of governance
Such segregation of powers, checks and balances were singularly different from the practice in the princely states to combine and vest in themselves the legislative, executive and judicial authorities. The Indian Penal Code, originally cast by Macaulay in the 1830s, was mostly structured on the utilitarian logic of Bentham. Laws relating to property rights, land settlements, records, civil rights, religious rights and trade union rights have the underpinning of much utilitarian debate. It is another matter that some of these may have not met our aspirations and that they may also have served British interests well.

The ideals expected from the civil servants is best reflected in a farewell speech by Lord Curzon in 1905: To fight for the right, to abhor the imperfect, the unjust or the mean, to swerve neither to the right hand nor to the left, to care nothing for flattery, odium or abuse, never to let your enthusiasm be soured or courage grow dim. Though many of us may abhor the British Raj for emotional, personal, political, social and economic reasons, it would not be shameful to rediscover the good parts of the legacy by studying the notes, chronicles and reports on the application of utilitarian thought, independence and professionalism in policy choices and administrationand their failures. Those who want to believe otherwise should remember that Ravana was also an outstanding king, scholar, veena maestro and devoteeat the end of the battle, Lord Rama ordered Lakshmana to benefit from his sagacious advice.