HL Deb 16 July 1855 vol 139 cc873-9

THE EARL OF ALBEMARLE rose, pursuant to notice, to present a petition from the native inhabitants of the presidency of Madras, praying for a redress of grievances, and that the administration of the British territories in India be transferred from the East India Company to the Crown. The petition emanated from a public meeting convened by the sheriff, and was signed by 14,000 persons. The petitioners acknowledged the wisdom of that provision by which the government of the East India Company ceased to be definitively fixed for a period of twenty years; but they expressed their regret that the entire Bill contained no reference to anything calculated to improve the condition of the people of India, or any promise, definite or implied, for the redress of their grievances, to which he had called the attention of their Lordships on a former petition. He passed over many important parts of this petition, but he must especially advert to some of those "grinding exactions," as the petitioners called them, for which no redress had been given, and to which it did not appear likely that the Act of 1853 would give any relief. The inhabitants of Madras, who possessed more industry and intelligence than most of the other peoples of India, were in the lowest stage of misery and degradation, on account of the manner in which they had been threatened by the Government, to whom power had again been delegated. He would not again advert to that dreadful monopoly, the salt monopoly, as he had on previous occasions pointed out how productive it had been of misery, disease, and death; but he would refer to the tobacco monopoly. In a country like this, a tobacco monopoly might, perhaps, be advantageous to the revenue without being detrimental to the people; but the case was different in the hot climate of Madras, where tobacco was a staple produce of the soil. The petitioners adverted to a number of petty taxes which were peculiarly of Madras growth. One of them, which had not, he believed, hitherto been alluded to, was the Maturfa—a word signifying taxes on trade and professions—to which the East India Company gave a most extended signification. It embraced weavers, carpenters, workers in metals, salesmen, and shopkeepers. It was laid sometimes on the shop in which a trade was carried on, sometimes on the implements of trade, such as a weaver's loom; sometimes on the tools of artisans, such as a carpenter's saw; and it did not even disdain a barber's razor. It was most unequal and capricious in its assessments, being 1s. in one village and 10s. in another, and exempting the rich while it bore hardly on the poor. The European merchant, in his luxurious dwelling, was exempt, while the old woman at his gate was compelled to pay. Its hardship was greatly aggravated by the mode in which it was collected, and it was the cause of great cruelty and oppression. The amount raised by it from a population of 22,000,000 was not more than 115,519l., the miserable smallness of the sum arising from the abject poverty of the taxpayers. This, however, was not all that came out of the pocket of the unfortunate Hindoo—as out of every 1l. paid by him the Government received only 6s. 8d., while 13s. 4d., went towards the promotion of bribery and the encouragement of extortion in the officers of justice. There was another insignificant tax called "the small farms and licences," which was made up of several execrable petty monopolies. He would give the House a specimen of them. There were exclusive privileges of measuring corn and other articles, of sweeping the goldsmiths' workshops, of dyeing betel-nuts, of cutting jungle-wood, of gathering wild fruit and honey, of catching wild fowl, of cutting grasses for thatch and basket-making, and of gathering cow-dung. The tax brought 4,000l. a-year to the revenue, and any one would imagine that it must have been imposed exclusively for the promotion of bribery and extortion. The great tax to which he wished to call their Lordships' attention was the ryotwarree, a land tax àssessed and called by the Government from each individual ryot or cultivator of the soil, without the intervention of a third party, and renewed every year. The tenancies ranged from ten acres to a single acre, and the population, purely rural, was as large as that of Great Britain, and comprised persons of every trade, profession, and calling. The professed object of the tax was to protect the cultivator of the soil from oppression, but that protection they were utterly unable to afford, and the cultivator was thereby deprived of his natural protection and handed over to the subordinate native officers. When an underpaid, necessarily corrupt, officer of the Government came into constant contact with the actual occupants of the soil, the greatest excesses must be expected to prevail, and legions of such underpaid officers were let loose upon the unfortunate inhabitants. Even when the assessment was light this tax was unjustifiable, but where it was exorbitant the hardship was, of course, greatly aggravated. Under the ancient Hindoo Government the maximum amount levied was ¼th, or 25 per cent. The Mahommedan conquerors doubled that assessment on the ground that the Hindoos were Infidels, and our Christian Government accepted this double assessment. A few years after we had brought the system into operation, instead of taking payment in kind we exacted a money payment, by which means the tax was raised from 50 to 75 per cent. By the exactions of subordinate officers the tax was virtually raised to 90 per cent, and, as it was impossible that this amount could be collected, Sir Thomas Munro, in 1820, reduced the assessment to 33 per cent upon some descriptions of land, and to 25 and 20 per cent upon other descriptions, and a similar reduction was made by Sir Charles Wood when he was President of the Board of Control. But these were mere nominal reductions. They were mere formal renunciations of that portion of the revenue which could not be collected, because the cultivators could not pay it. What was the practical effect of this system? The ryot was called upon for an amount of taxation, to pay which he must deprive himself and family of their means of subsistence. Was it surprising that he should try to evade such a payment by every means that cunning could suggest? But the Indian Government were peremptory: their order was rem quocunque modo, and there was no doubt of the mode in which the collection was effected. It was no longer a secret, for, from a report which would shortly be laid upon their Lordships' table, it would be seen that these taxes were wrung from the people by torture. It was now nearly a year ago since the employment of torture for these and other purposes was indignantly denied; but Sir Charles Wood—to his honour be it spoken—knew the value of such denials, and he caused an inquiry to be instituted in India, and a most voluminous book, which was about to be placed on their Lordships' table, would show the extent to which this abhorrent system had been carried. If they were not shortly about to enter into a full investigation of these horrible practices, he was prepared to show, from documents of a public and private nature, the frightful extent to which it had been carried in the presidency of Madras. He had mentioned this now, because he distinctly traced the employment of torture as a sort of inseparable condition attached to the ryotwarree system to which the inhabitants had been so long victims, and from which neither the Government of this country nor the Indian Act of 1854 had extricated them. Their Lordships had often heard in this House and the country the expression, that "property had its duties as well as its rights." We have seen how they exerted their rights as landlords, let us now see how they had performed their duties to their tenants. They had wrung from the people an enormous amount of taxation in proportion to their means; but had they afforded them any facilities, or done anything to enable them to bear the dreadful burdens imposed upon them? Every page of the 400 which were contained in that volume (Madras Public Works Report), to which he had alluded, would afford evidence of the gross and culpable neglect and mis-management of the East India Company. It would be seen that, from the neglect of means of transit, and in consequence of neglecting the works of irrigation—even the ancient works—the failure of the monsoon or periodical rains had been attended with famine of a greater or lesser degree. From 1802 to the present time no less than Seven famines bad visited this un- happy land. In 1832, in one of the twenty provinces of Madras, no less than 200,000 people had died from famine and the evils attendant upon it. But neither this nor subsequent enormous loss of life had been sufficient to warn the East India Company, or to cause them to adopt measures to prevent or mitigate these calamities. Another famine took place in 1838, but even this was insufficient to rouse the apathy of the Company, and the next famine found them almost equally unprepared; and when did their Lordships think the last famine took place?—in 1853–4, a few months after their Lordships had re-delivered into the hands of the Company that power which they had so uniformly abused. There was another point to which he desired to allude, and that was the management of the temples belonging to the Hindoos. This subject had caused much irritation in the minds of the people, and they regarded the way in which they had been treated both as an insult and an injury. Down to 1840, the East India Company took upon themselves the exclusive administration of the funds of the temples, and during the period of the Company's management the temples were allowed to go to decay, and the funds which should have been devoted to their repair found their way into the Christian treasury. In the year which he had mentioned, the Company, either from some feeling of compunction or twinges of conscience, transferred the management of those funds to some native churchwardens, but, as no precautions were taken, a vast number of cases of fraud and embezzlement on the part of the churchwardens occurred, and there were no means of bringing the offending parties to punishment. The petitioners give a curious illustration of this. The revenue of the Temple of Tripetty, amounting to 10,000l. a year, was consigned to the president of a college of Byraghees, a band of sturdy beggars, well known in that part of India. The new trustee had the decency, which his Christian predecessors had not, to defray the usual expenses of repair, amounting to 2000 and odd pounds, but pocketed the remaining 7,000 and odd pounds, having at this moment the irresponsible disposal of 110,000l. sterling He had on the present occasion selected but a few of the many grievances which oppressed the people of India, but he thought that he had stated enough to show that great mismanagement prevailed, that the people of India had intelligence sufficient to perceive that this was the case, and that they had spirit enough to call for its removal. He thought also that he had shown that, of all the departments of the State, that most requiring administrative reform was that which was connected with India. The people could not look for the redress of their grievances to those whose interests were so diametrically opposed to their own—they felt that this would be futile; and they looked to the Crown and Parliament for an administration which would at once be simple, efficient, and economical, as they thought; and in this he cordially agreed with them, that the evils under which they suffered were primarily to be traced to that which was the worst of all absurdities—namely, a double government. The petitioners pray, therefore, that the territories of British India may no longer endure the suffocation of the resources of the country, nor the misrule and oppression of the inhabitants, by the continuance of an administration differing from that of every other dependency of the Crown, but that they may be as early as practicable placed under the management of an individual and responsible authority, subject directly and immediately to the Imperial Parliament.


said, that he did not now deem it necessary to follow his noble Friend through all the points of his clear and judicious statement. He considered that the noble Earl had exercised a sound judgment in omitting to mention certain points in the petition he had been entrusted to present. At the same time, he thought that the noble Earl had attached a greater importance to the petition as representing the grievances of the people of India than it was entitled to. With regard to the neglect of the temples, he had no information on the point to which allusion had been made; but he would only say that some time ago, at the instigation of certain persons in this country, the Government determined that they would no longer interfere with the native temples, and he believed that this resolution had been generally approved by the people of India. He certainly could not be expected to go now into a discussion of the extensive and complicated ryotwarree system; that subject might, no doubt, be debated by their Lordships with great advantage, but whenever it was debated it would take at least a whole evening to itself. It must not be forgotten that some of the best friends of the natives of India were of opinion that in no other way could an equal amount of revenue be collected from the natives without inflicting on them greater hardships. With regard to the subject of torture, the noble Earl had himself borne witness to the energetic efforts made by the Government to arrive at the truth of the allegations which had been made on this point; and he might rest assured that all the steps would be taken without a moment's loss of time, which the evidence might show to be necessary for the extinction of so terrible a system. The noble Earl had chosen an unfortunate period for Warning the Indian Government for its neglect of public works and the means of transport, for there never was a year in which so much had been done in this respect as in the year which had just passed. Telegraphic communication had been established over 3,000 miles, by means of which messages could be transmitted at a much cheaper rate than was charged either in this country or the United States, and at the same time 120 miles out of the 1,200 miles of railway between Calcutta and Lahore had been completed, along which the poorer classes were carried at the very low rate of ¾d. a mile. A system of postage, too, had been established, by which a single letter was carried at the uniform rate of ¾d. A loan of about 3,000,000l. had been devoted to improvement, and under a system of guarantee, devised by the Governor-General, some 13,000,000l, had been advanced for the expenses of public works. With regard to the prayer of the petitioners, that India might be governed by a functionary responsible to Parliament, he believed that, under the Act passed two years ago, the President of the Board of Control had full and complete power over the Government of India, and that he was in every sense of the word responsible to Parliament. No doubt the various points touched on by the noble Earl were all deserving the attention of Parliament, and he thought great praise was due to the noble Earl for bringing them under their Lordships' notice in so calm, clear, and impartial a manner.

Petition ordered to lie on the table.

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