Thoughts on economics and liberty

Macaulay’s insistence on the same standard of justice for the British and the Indians in India

In continuing with my analysis of Macaulay's works, here's an extract from his life and works that talks about the calumny and unpopularity he suffered at the hands of British citizens in India by insisting that they access the same justice system that was available to the Indians

EXTRACT (p.394-6)

The motive for the scurrility with which Macaulay was assailed by a handful of sorry scribblers was his advocacy of the Act familiarly known as the Black Act, which withdrew from British subjects resident in the provinces their so-called privilege of bringing civil appeals before the Supreme Court at Calcutta. Such appeals were thenceforward to be tried by the Sudder Court, which was manned by the Company's judges, "all of them English gentlemen of liberal education; as free as even the judges of the Supreme Court from any imputation of personal corruption, and selected by the Government from a body which abounds in men as honourable and as intelligent as ever were employed in the service of any state." The change embodied in the Act was one of little practical moment; but it excited an opposition based upon arguments and assertions of such a nature that the success or failure of the proposed measure became a question of high and undeniable importance.

"In my opinion," writes Macaulay, "the chief reason for preferring the Sudder Court is this–that it is the court which we have provided to administer justice, in the last resort, to the great body of the people. If it is not fit for that purpose, it ought to be made so. If it is fit to administer justice to the great body of the people, why should we exempt a mere handful of settlers from its jurisdiction? There certainly is, I will not say the reality, but the semblance of partiality and tyranny in the distinction made by the Charter Act of 1813. That distinction seems to indicate a notion that the natives of India may well put up with something less than justice, or that Englishmen in India have a title to something more than justice. If we give our own countrymen an appeal to the King's Courts, in cases in which all others are forced to be contented with the Company's Courts, we do in fact cry down the Company's Courts. We proclaim to the Indian people that there are two sorts of justice–a coarse one, which we think good enough for then, and another of superior quality, which we keep for ourselves. If we take pains to show that we distrust our highest courts, how can we expect that the natives of the country will place confidence in them?

"The draft of the Act was published, and was, as I fully expected, not unfavourably received by the British in the Mofussil. [The term "Mofussil" is used to denote the provinces of the Bengal Presidency, as opposed to the Capital.] Seven weeks have elapsed since the notification took place. Time has been allowed for petitions from the furthest corners of the territories subject to this Presidency. But I have heard of only one attempt in the Mofussil to get up a remonstrance; and the Mofussil newspapers which I have seen, though generally disposed to cavil at all the acts of the Government, have spoken favourably of this measure.

"In Calcutta the case has been somewhat different; and this is a remarkable fact. The British inhabitants of Calcutta are the only British-born subjects in Bengal who will not be affected by the proposed Act; and they are the only British subjects in Bengal who have expressed the smallest objection to it. The clamour, indeed, has proceeded from a very small portion of the society of Calcutta. The objectors have not ventured to call a public meeting, and their memorial has obtained very few signatures. But they have attempted to make up by noise and virulence for what has been wanting in strength. It may at first sight appear strange that a law, which is not unwelcome to those who are to live under it, should excite such acrimonious feelings among people who are wholly exempted from its operation. But the explanation is simple. Though nobody who resides at Calcutta will be sued in the Mofussil courts, many people who reside at Calcutta have, or wish to have, practice in the Supreme Court. Great exertions have accordingly been made, though with little success, to excite a feeling against this measure among the English inhabitants of Calcutta.

"The political phraseology of the English in India is the same with the political phraseology of our countrymen at home; but it is never to be forgotten that the same words stand for very different things at London and at Calcutta. We hear much about public opinion, the love of liberty, the influence of the Press. But we must remember that public opinion means the opinion of five hundred persons who have no interest, feeling, or taste in common with the fifty millions among whom they live; that the love of liberty means the strong objection which the five hundred feel to every measure which can prevent them from acting as they choose towards the fifty millions, that the Press is altogether supported by the five hundred, and has no motive to plead the cause of the fifty millions.

"We know that India cannot have a free Government. But she may have the next best thing–a firm and impartial despotism. The worst state in which she can possibly be placed is that in which the memorialists would place her. They call on us to recognise them as a privileged order of freemen in the midst of slaves. It was for the purpose of averting this great evil that Parliament, at the same time at which it suffered Englishmen to settle in India, armed us with those large powers which, in my opinion, we ill deserve to possess, if we have, not the spirit to use them now."

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