Racist violence

Published : May 20, 2011 00:00 IST

Violence against Indians was central to British rule, and the courts served as its instruments.

DURING the Quit India Movement, the Chief Justice of the Federal Court, Sir Maurice Gwyer, consistently ruled in favour of the citizen, to the dismay of the Viceroy, Lord Linlithgow. But this is only one truth. There are two others which complete the picture. Not all the judges in colonial India were fair and impartial, as Tilak's trials for sedition and Bhagat Singh's trial for murder revealed. The Privy Council acted as a form of colonial control and systematically reversed Gwyer's rulings.

Lower down came the crimes against Indians committed by British planters, paupers, soldiers and sailors. The offenders were tried by white judges and white juries after white policemen had cooked up the case in their favour. It is this aspect of the British record on justice in India that Prof. Elizabeth Kolsky of Villanova University exposes in her work with meticulous documentation and cogent analyses. It is a product of 10 years of research and writing.

There was the celebrated trial of indigo planter William Orby Hunter in the late 19th century. He had tortured three of his female servants, who were discovered with their noses, ears, and hair cut off, their genitals mutilated, and their feet fettered in iron chains. He was sentenced to pay a nominal fine and immediately set free. Racial violence was a constant and constituent element of British dominance in India. This book examines how quotidian acts of violence simultaneously menaced and maintained British power in India from the late 18th to the early 20th centuries. Physical violence was an intrinsic feature of imperial rule. This fact is widely acknowledged but narrowly explored, particularly in the Indian historiography. Although the archive is replete with incidents of Britons murdering, maiming, and assaulting Indians and getting away with it white violence remains one of the empire's most closely guarded secrets.

The book ferrets out those secrets. Indians do not bother to recall those crimes. The absence of rancour among Indians towards the British is but right, but we tend to let some historians get away with their glosses on Britain's revolting record. The noted writer Akilesh Mittal, for one, never ceases to remind us of the prosperity in India before the British arrived. They exploited India into poverty.

By focussing on crimes committed by a mostly forgotten cast of European characters planters, paupers, soldiers, and seamen this study demonstrates that violence was an endemic rather than ephemeral part of British colonial rule in India. Violence against Indians was central to British rule, and the courts served as its instruments. Tilak remarked, The goddess of British Justice, though blind, is able to distinguish unmistakably black from white.

There was continuous tension between the rule of law, which did exist, and its breaches, which were not uncommon. The book is based on a detailed examination of cases that illustrate the contradiction and what the author rightly calls the persistent significance of race in British India. Worse than the officials were the non-official European community, a pillar of the Raj. While British tea, indigo, and coffee planters in India provided critical financial returns to the colonial government, their drunk, disorderly, and murderous conduct both presented a serious law-and-order problem and also was an embarrassment to the right sorts' of official Britons. The author highlights their misbehaviour and its condonation by the British rulers.

What outraged Indian journalists and nationalists in the late nineteenth century was not simply the fact of white violence but its handling in the criminal courts. Race had a clear, obvious, and ongoing influence over legal decision-making as Britons accused of assaulting and murdering Indians were booked on lesser (if any) criminal charges, which resulted in little to no punishment. Contrary to David Cannadine's controversial claim that rank and status were more important in the empire than race, British police, judges, and juries in India routinely collaborated across the hierarchies of class to buttress the racial basis of colonial dominance. Racially abusive language accompanied the violence. Violence was not an exceptional but an ordinary part of British rule in the subcontinent. The abuse in India was typical of British colonial rule everywhere.

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