Thoughts on economics and liberty

Raja Rammohun Roy’s incessant work for India

In 1826 a jury Bill for India was passed, which came into operation in the beginning of 1827. Rammohun Roy prepared and sent up to both Houses of Parliament petitions against it signed by Hindus and Mahommedans. On this occasion the Raja took his stand on the injustice and injudiciousness of making invidious religious distinctions in the administration of a country like India.

The circumstances of the case will be clearly understood from the following concise statement in a letter written by Rammohun Roy on the 15th August, 1828 to Mr. J. Crawford: “In his famous Jury Bill, Mr. Wynn, the late President of the Board of Control, has by introducing religious distinctions into the judicial system of this country, not only afforded just grounds for dissatisfaction among the Natives in general, but has excited much alarm in the breast of everyone conversant with political principles. Any Natives either Hindu or Mahommedan, are rendered by this Bill subject to judicial trial by Christians, either European or Native, while Christians including Native converts, are exempted from the degradation of being tried either by a Hindu or Mussalman juror, however high he may stand in the estimation of society. This Bill also denies both to Hindus and Mussalmans the honour of a seat in the Grand Jury, even in the trial of fellow Hindus or Mussalmans. This is the sum total of Mr. Wynn’s late Jury Bill of which we bitterly complain.” 

Rammohun Roy supported his contention by referring to the miseries of Ireland arising out of civil discriminations between different religious beliefs. With reference to this letter, the biographer of the Raja remarks: “There is here in germ the national aspiration which is now breaking forth into cries for representation of India in the Imperial Parliament, ‘Home Rule for India’ and even ‘India for the Indians.’ The prospect of an educated India, of an India approximating to European standards of culture, seems to have never been long absent from Rammohun’s mind, and he did, however vaguely, claim in advance for his countrymen the political rights which progress in civilisation inevitably involves. Here again Rammohun stands forth as the tribune and prophet of New India.” 

Indeed, the thoroughness and vigour of the Raja’s political efforts were astonishing. Even at that early age he carried his political agitations to the very centre of the seat of authority.

His visit to England … had a far-reaching effect on the politics of India. One of the main objects which he had in view in going to England was to lay before the British public the cause of India, and in this mission, he was remarkably successful.

“Rammohun Roy’s presence in this country,” says the English biographer of the Raja, “made the English people aware, as they had never been before, of the dignity, the culture and the piety of the race they had conquered in the East. India became incarnate in him, and dwelt among us, and we beheld her glory. In the court of the King, in the halls of the legislature, in the select coteries of fashion, in the society of philosophers and men of letters, in Anglican church and Nonconformist meetinghouse, in the privacy of many a home, and before the wondering crowds of Lancashire operatives, Rammohun Roy stood forth the visible and personal embodiment of our eastern empire. Wherever he went, there went a stately refutation of the Anglo-Indian insolence which saw in an Indian fellow subject only a ‘black man’ or a ‘nigger’, As he had interpreted England to India, so now he interpreted India to England. But it was not merely by his silent presence and personality in England that he advanced the cause of India; but during his three years’ stay in that country he worked strenuously and incessantly on her behalf.*

He lost no opportunity of pressing the claims of India on those who were responsible for her good Government. He went to England at a very opportune time. The Charter of the East India Company was to be shortly renewed. Rammohun Roy had purposely chosen this time for his European visit that he might influence the authorities in inserting, in the new Charter provisions for the better administration of his country. His hopes were amply realised.

He was asked to give his evidence before the Select Committee of the House of Commons appointed in February and reappointed in June 1831 to consider the renewal of the Company’s Charter, and he submitted his evidence in writing. His two papers on the Judicial and the Revenue systems of India, which appeared in the blue books and were subsequently reprinted by him, are masterpieces of political information and insight, and might be read with profit even at this day, while they must have largely influenced the decision of the authorities in his time. One cannot but be struck with the accuracy and exhaustiveness of the information and the soundness and breadth of the views of the writer. Among the principal measures he advocated were the substitution of English for Persian as the official language of the courts of law, the appointment of native assessors in the civil courts, trial by Jury, separation of the offices of Judge and Revenue Commissioner, of those of Judge and Magistrate, codification of the criminal law and also of the civil law in India, large employment of Indians in the civil service of the country and consultation of public opinion before enacting legislation.

It is remarkable that, though himself a Zamindar, Rammohun Roy earnestly pleaded the cause of the agricultural peasants as against the Zamindars. He showed that, though the Zamindars had greatly benefitted by the Permanent Settlement of 1793, the condition of the actual cultivators continued as miserable as ever, the Zamindars being at liberty to enhance the rent constantly. “Such is the melancholy condition of agricultural labourers, “he wrote, “that it always gives me the greatest pain to allude to it.” The remedy he asked for was, in the first place, the prohibition of any further rise in rent and, in the second, a reduction in the revenue demanded from the Zamindar so as to ensure a reduction in rent. Thus Rammohun was the champion of the people at large and not of the class to which he himself belonged, Many of the reforms advocated by him have already been carried out, and the political leaders of the present day are still working out the programme laid down by him.

Babu Surendra Nath Banerjee thus acknowledges in the address already referred to the political foresight of the Raja: “It is remarkable how he anticipated us in some of the great political problems of today.” 

Raja Rammohun Roy's social work (abolition of sati)

To turn next to the social work of Raja Rammohun Roy. The great reform with which his name will remain associated for ever is the abolition of Sati. But for his timely cooperation it is doubtful if the British Government could have suppressed this flagrant evil; it would certainly have continued for a much longer time. This inhuman custom had prevailed in India for many centuries and a few fitful efforts under the Hindu and Mahommedan rule to abolish it had ended in failure, At the time when Rammohun Roy turned his attention to this shameful wrong, it was, if anything, steadily on the increase. Though individual kind hearted officers looked upon the custom with abhorrence, the attitude of the Government itself was that of laisser faire; successive Governors declined to interfere with it for fear of wounding the religious susceptibilities of the people, which might lead to trouble. 

Rammohun Roy, by incessant agitation prepared the public mind on the one side and strengthened the hands of the Government on the other. By means of his writings and discussions he created a powerful public opinion in favour of the abolition of the cruel custom. He showed conclusively that the Hindu Shastras did not enjoin the burning of widows along with their husbands, and thus disarmed the objection of interference with the religious rites of the people. He removed all obstacles real or interposed, in the way of Government action. But even then the Government hesitated for a considerable time, and Rammohun Roy had to appeal to them in the name of humanity with all the earnestness of his nature, before they could be persuaded to take the momentous step. 

[Extracted from  The Life and Letters of Raja Rammohun Roy (Word version here)]

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