HL Deb 29 February 1856 vol 140 cc1563-73

My Lords; I beg to move that the Returns which I have placed on the notice-paper be laid on the table of the House. All these documents are intended as notes and illustrations to a Blue-book which has lately been laid before both Houses of Parliament, appropriately headed "Torture." In this official folio of 325 pages your Lordships will find enumerated a series of atrocious cruelties perpetrated upon Her Majesty's male and female subjects within the Presidency of Madras by Government officers, for Government purposes. Sometimes, as the Report states, torture is resorted to for the purpose of extracting confessions in criminal and police cases; at others, for the purpose of extorting an arbitrary and excessive revenue; at others, for what, under the old French régime, was known as corvée, compulsory and unrequited labour on public works; and at others, again, after the old fashion of negro slavery in our colonies, to enforce compulsory and unrequited labour, with this difference, that whereas in the West Indies the extraction of labour by means of the whip was for the benefit of private individuals, here it is in order to enrich the Government, to which the people are entitled to look for the protection of their property and their persons. Into the horrible details of this volume it is not, at this moment, my intention to enter:—I shall invite your Lordships' attention to it at a more favourable period. In the meantime, I would most respectfully entreat your Lordships to peruse the contents of this volume. You will there see that those grievous wrongs which, in common with other Members of your Lordships' House, I have, from time to time, brought before your notice are realities; your Lordships will also see what atrocities have been perpetrated in India under the name of the people of England. The first Return for which I move is, a Report from the Second Judge in the Supreme Criminal Court of Madras. The writer, Mr. Malcolm Lewin, was a Judge who served in the East India Company with great ability and fidelity for many years, and passed from the office of Circuit Judge to that of Judge of the Sudder Adawlut, the court of the highest criminal and civil jurisdiction in India. The Report is to all intents and purposes a "torture Report." It is dated September, 1840; and up to this year no attention has been paid to its statements. There is a strong family resemblance between the Report of 1840 and this Report of 1855, and the one throws light upon and corroborates the statements of the other; both tally in the description they give of those officers to whom the East India Company has intrusted the lives and property of the people of Madras—they give those officers the same character for rapacity, cruelty, and tyranny. Mr. Lewin states that "there is no degree of guilt which a police officer will hesitate to incur when the object is to convict." He states that they as frequently figure as gang robbers as in their proper calling, that their cruelties are systematic and universal. With respect to torture, he says, "Torture is almost universal in this district"—the district being double the circuit of an English Judge. He gives instances of them, but of course he does not give as many instances as are contained in the Report of last year, and some not of equal atrocity. What he states is sufficiently appalling. He says, ''One prisoner appears before me with the loss of an arm from maltreatment, the amputation having been performed after the prisoner reached the court." He then states, "Two prisoners appear with their bodies branded, the sores still fresh, and the arms of one of them swollen from the effects of a tight ligature." If your Lordships wish to know the description of torture by tight ligature applied to the arms of prisoners, you will find it throughout this Report of 1855; but I prefer referring your Lordships to a dispatch of the Court of Directors themselves, under the date of 1826, to be found at the beginning of this volume. Now, my Lords, I ask, would it be possible under a responsible Government—by which I mean a Government directly opposed to that which now exists—to subject these unfortunate inhabitants for fifteen years to such a horde of fiends as these officers are described in the Report, after the facts had been brought to the knowledge both of the local and the home Government? But it is not a case of fifteen years' wrongdoing; it is a case of fifty years. Your Lordships will find from the evidence, that the East India Company have been cognisant of the system of torture existing in India from the year 1806. Here, then, we have proof of torture extending over a population nearly as large as our own, and over a territory half as large again as the United Kingdom; and yet such has been the mystification of an irresponsible Government, that the first knowledge of the existence of torture, communicated either to Parliament or the country, is by this Blue-book, which is almost wet from the printers' hands. My Lords, it is with difficulty that I can express myself upon a subject so painfully harrowing. An attempt has been made to draw a distinction between torture employed for extorting confession, and torture for extracting revenue—the attempt has been made in a dispatch which, if your Lordships allow it to be placed on the table, I shall subject to a severe analysis—the dispatch of the 12th of September, 1855, from the Court of Directors to the Government. The distinction is a mere evasion. The torturer in police cases and the torturer in revenue cases are one and the same person. By a most atrocious and wicked regulation, continued from 1818 to the present day, the revenue and police offices are blended, and thus the administration of justice is avowedly rendered subservient to the collection of revenue. I have spoken of the character of these torturers. Another important point is their number. I shall, therefore, move for the number of Native officers employed in the joint conduct of the police and the collection of land and other revenues in the several provinces of the Presidency of Madras; and, I am sure, when this Return meets your Lordships' eyes, you will be utterly astonished and appalled at the enormous proportion these torturers bear to their unhappy victims. I shall also move for a return of the number of Native officers who have committed malversation, corruption, torturing, and other crimes within the several provinces of Madras in the years 1813, 1833, and 1853. One peculiar effect of this system is the infamous character which, from the beginning, all the officers have borne in whom irresponsible power has been lodged. Sir Thomas Monro, the founder, though not the originator of the system that rendered these men necessary, stated that, in 1841, out of 100 superior officers, there were only six who had not been convicted of peculation; and yet these persons, from 1806 to the present time, have continued in the irresponsible administration of the revenue and police. This Report states that the excessive exactions in the way of revenue are the cause of torture. No other conclusion can be come to by any one acquainted with the system, but that it is impossible the revenue can be collected without torture. Under the Native government of India, a twelfth, a sixth, and, lastly, a maximum revenue of one-fourth of the gross produce was levied by the State. When the Mahommedans took possession of the country they, regarding themselves as true believers and the Hindoos as heretics, and being also conquerors, doubled the tax; and, when we Christians succeeded to them, we adopted their reasoning, and accepted the doubled tax. It would have been well if we had stopped there, but by arbitrary exactions, and by an absurd system of collecting the revenue by means of irresponsible gangs of robbers, we have actually doubled the amount of taxation, and brought it up to 100 per cent. Of course, under such circumstances, it is impossible to collect revenue, except by means of torture. This Blue-book will show the inhumanity and cruelty of that practice. The Returns I now move for, relative to the taxation of the Madras provinces, will show its impolicy. The next Return which I move for is, the amount of property which formed the subjects of trials in the courts of circuit in the Madras Presidency. My reason for moving for that Return is that, having been in communication with a very intelligent gentleman who has discharged the office of a Judge in that country, he said that he regarded as an alarming indication of the wretched state of the people of Madras the smallness of the amounts of property in litigation; and the Return I ask for will, I think, show not only the smallness of the value of property in dispute, but also the number of suitors, and thus prove the impoverished condition into which that country has been brought by English government. Another Return which I ask for is, of the total amount of the land-tax, and the number of contributors. My object is to show to your Lordships and the country the enormous number of contributors to the land-tax, the smallness of their holdings, and, consequently, their excessive poverty, and the utter impossibility on the part of the Indian Government, or of any government, especially a government of strangers, to collect the revenue without resort to oppressive measures. These Returns will go to show the extent of the evils under which India is suffering. The next Return is to enable your Lordships to examine the remedies which are proposed for these evils. I have an utter disbelief in the efficacy of those remedies, or of any remedy except that of placing the hundred and odd millions of people in India on an equality with the inhabitants of other Crown possessions, by giving them the benefit of a responsible Government. I wish to see the amount of the taxation—its large nominal amount and really small produce. I believe that hitherto what are called remissions are, in fact, formal renunciations of property that cannot be collected, because there is nobody who is able to pay it. In this, and in other matters, I think it is the duty of the Legislature to regard with more than ordinary mistrust anything which proceeds from the Indian Government, which has ever been most merciless in its administration whenever fiscal matters were concerned. In that dispatch which I have moved for the House will find materials for much deliberation, and, although it has been said that the Government of this country are to some extent responsible, that is only true according to the letter of the law; for where there is, as in this case, a divided responsibility, the result is really no responsibility at all. By the letter of the law the Government is partly responsible for some acts of the Directors, but not for all; for what a pretty responsibility it is which permits torture to be inflicted during fifty-one years among 22,000,000 people, without any one here being aware of it! So long as there is, I will not say a double government, but a double agency in Indian affairs—so long as responsibility can be bandied from Leadenhall Street to Cannon Row—so long it will be absurd to speak of an effective responsibility in the Government. No doubt, in some respects the Act of 1853 was a gain. It made the Ministers of the Crown more responsible than heretofore; that was one gain. It made a portion of the Directors responsible to somebody; that was another. By that Act the twenty-four Directors were reduced from twenty-four to eighteen in number—three of whom are, and six will hereafter be, nominees of the Crown. They will form a responsible body; but the remaining twelve Directors, elected by the ladies and gentlemen who happen to hold Indian scrip, to whom are they responsible? To neither man, woman, nor child—and yet they are invested with most extraordinary powers. They may spend and do spend enormous sums wrung by extortion from the people of India in guzzling in London, and I have seen it reported in the public papers that the responsible head of the Indian Government in the other House has stated that it depends upon the interpretation of the words of an Act of Parliament whether he had any control over the expenditure of money to an immense amount in a protracted and expensive litigation. Those Directors can elect superior law officers without any person having a right to question the fitness of their appointments. They can recall any servant, civil or military, from the Governor General down to the junior ensign of their army, without asking the permission of any one. They are responsible, indeed, neither to the Queen, the Parliament, nor the people—not even to their own constituents. I have thought it right to bring the subject before your Lordships, and now I ask whether the present state of things is consistent, I will not say with common sense— for upon that point we should, I am sure, be unanimous—but is it consistent with the principles of the constitution under which we live? The noble Earl then formally moved for the Returns referred to.


I was not prepared by the notice of my noble Friend for his entering into the question as to whether or not it is necessary to retain a Board of Directors for the government of India. That is a great question, but, whether rightly or wrongly it is no less true that three years ago in this House, after much inquiry and debate, a decision upon that point was adopted by an enormous majority of your Lordships' House. All I can do is to repeat to the fullest extent what my noble Friend has referred to as ray expression on a former occasion—that the Government is responsible for misgovernment in India. As to the Returns for which the noble Earl has moved, they will cause much trouble and expense, and some delay consequent upon the necessity of referring to India for certain information; but the Government are so anxious that no information should be refused upon this great and important question, that we do not intend to offer the least objection to the production of the documents which the noble Earl asks for.


thanked the noble Mover (Lord Albemarle) for having added to the services he had on former occasions rendered to the people of India, the new obligation conferred on them this evening in bringing the Report of the Commissioners on Torture under the notice of Parliament. The duty which he (Lord Albemarle) had so efficiently performed was urgent, but the disclosures he made could not but be as painful to him as to the House and the public. The President of the Council had not denied the responsibility of the Government for any acts of oppression or injustice perpetrated in India. But what was required, was not merely a theoretical, but a real and effectual responsibility, leading to the prevention of crime, rather than to its punishment. Before entering upon the immediate question, he must be permitted to protest most strongly against the assertion of the President of the Council that the last Charter Act was the result of due deliberation, and that it expressed the will and judgment of Parliament, or, of the country. He (Lord Monteagle), on the contrary, believed it to have been an example of hasty and ill-considered legislation. It should be borne in mind that the inquiries of the Committee, on which the Charter Act professed to be founded, had never been closed. Even in their incomplete state they had not been laid before Parliament, and no attempt to report had been made. No other precedent of this kind could be shown in all our Parliamentary proceedings. The question of Indian finance, and more especially that of land revenue, though shown to be the cause of the barbarities now proved to exist, had hardly been opened or touched upon. None of their Lordships, whether as Members of the Select Committee, or as attending the service of the House, had the remotest reason to suspect, or could have believed, that a system of Torture for the extortion of money existed in British India, or, indeed, in any part of the Queen's dominions. And was it just to describe the Charter Act as being passed after much inquiry and debate, when all knowledge of these most disgraceful practices had been excluded from the knowledge of Parliament? So far from leading Parliament to entertain a suspicion of the existence of such cruelties, the adherents and advocates of the East India Company had gloried in the assumed amelioration of the condition of the natives of India, and their assertions were but too generally admitted and believed. We were led to look with exultation at the improvement stated to have been produced by the influence of British dominion. Their Lordships could not but recollect the honest pride that was felt some years back, when an intelligent French traveller, who had visited India expecting to find in that vast empire proof of our cupidity, tyranny, and oppression, had in his very interesting letters given us the most unqualified praise for the beneficence and success of our Indian administration. M. Jacquemont had visited India prepared to condemn us, but the facts presented to his observation induced him to bless us exceedingly. Again, in an able work by Mr. Rickards, as also in the evidence taken before the Select Committee, we were assured that a word in the Hindostanee language denoting blood, rapine, and desolation, as the result of tyranny and injustice, had not only passed out of use under the influence of our Government, but that its very meaning had been forgotten within British India; whilst, in the Native and Independent States, that word continued in familiar use, and was but too well understood. Yet now, to our horror, we find it proved upon the most unquestionable official evidence, that a system of cruel torture had, at the very time of these publications, been practised, extending over a wide area of our territory, and affecting millions of the Queen's subjects. This must have been either unknown to the authorities at home and abroad—unknown to the Court of Directors, to the Board of Control, and to the Government of India—or it must have been wilfully concealed by them, at the very time when its existence was indignantly denied. To escape from this dilemma was impossible. He preferred to adopt the first of these alternatives; yet he felt that such culpable ignorance constituted one of the most frightful and alarming parts of the case. If a system of cruel torture can have prevailed for years, undetected, and therefore unpunished, by the rulers of India, what security have we that similar atrocities may not still be practised with equal impunity? How do we know but that like cruelties may not continue to prevail in other districts besides those in which they have been detected? What would have been said of such crimes had they been exposed in the days when Warren Hastings was denounced by the burning eloquence of Burke and Sheridan? In those glorious times Englishmen did not restrain their noble indignation at injustice and oppression, wherever committed. Yet in those times much that was complained of was attributable to the ambition and tyranny of individuals rather than to the iniquities of cold-blooded and systematic rapacity—practised under colour of law by the servants of the Government itself. He trusted that no Englishman existed, who would not blush at the disclosures made in the official Report now before Parliament, more especially when it was evident that the baseness of these proceedings was equal to their injustice. The low, sordid, and contemptible object kept in view was but to wring a little more money out of the hands of the natives of India, broken down and oppressed as they were. The glory of England was more deeply clouded by the facts disclosed in this Report, than by any events which had taken place since our possession of India. Unless the facts rested on authority above all suspicion, no Peer now present could believe that such an iniquitous system had existed on British territory in the nineteenth century. It would, however, be unjust if he did not acknowledge with satisfaction before he sat down, that the Government, as soon as a knowledge of the real state of things was forced upon them, had acted resolutely and earnestly, showing their desire to probe the subject to the very bottom, and to lay before Parliament, with entire frankness, the result of their investigation. At the present moment, when all true Englishmen cannot but deplore the stain left on the national honour by the culpable neglect, or the yet more culpable misfeasance of too many of the authorities acting under the direction of the East India Company, it is some consolation to have reason to hope that active measures have been taken for the correction of these atrocious cruelties, and for making their recurrence impossible.


said, the subject closely touched the honour of the country. The Report referred to by the noble Earl (the Earl of Albemarle) amply confirmed his statements as to the system of torture which had existed in India, and gave details of the motives to torture, and the manner in which torture was inflicted. The motives were the extortion of treasure, the gratification of the basest rapacity and the vilest passions, and the manner of infliction was marked with every circumstance of brutality, and every refinement of cruelty. This had become an acknowledged fact through the whole of one Presidency; and the ignorance which could allow such a system to grow up under the eyes of our authorities bordered upon culpable indifference. But these facts, degrading to the national reputation, were not wholly unknown before. For a long time dark rumours had prevailed in this country as to atrocities perpetrated in India, under pretence of collecting British revenue, and in the name of British justice, those who denied them did so no doubt in perfect sincerity; but now the Report placed the matter beyond doubt. He believed the causes to which these things were attributable to be accurately stated. The first was the tendency to look for revenue, and revenue only, which pervaded all our administration, and overlaid every well-devised scheme for the amelioration of the condition of the people. This led to over-assessment, and this again to the perpetration of cruel atrocities. The second was the concentration of many different authorities—magisterial, judicial, fiscal—in the hands of one and the same class of functionaries, and those, too, ex- ercised by men taken from the lowest of the people, and but ill prepared for their duties by intellectual or moral qualifications. Hence came those connivances on the part of the heads of the police at the torture of their victims and the escape of the guilty; hence the delays interposed to allow time to obliterate the marks of violence from the bodies of the sufferers; hence the combinations and the widely-extended family connections, which enabled them to baffle the ends of justice and drive their own unholy traffic. The union of such duties under any circumstances ought to be considered only as a provisional expedient. The conscientious man, physically as well as mentally, was unequal to the task; the unconscientious took advantage of the trust only to abuse it. The results, in a class of men little fitted for any of them, could not but be grievous. It was doubtful how far it was wise to give revenue officers magisterial functions. Independently of the inadequacy of the punishment to the offence, the difficulty of obtaining redress practically conferred immunity upon the guilty parties, and the succession of appeals from one tribunal to another enabled a wealthy revenue officer with ease to baffle the suit of an impoverished ryot. But Parliament had taken upon itself, this task, it had stirred the question, it had elicited the existence of horrors worthy of Caffraria, and all that great Presidency had been agitated by the knowledge that we were prepared to examine into, and to redress their grievances. If the Imperial peninsula of India were to have its resources developed, its people must be rescued from such a state of oppression; and if the disclosures that had taken place were to be fruitless, and the subject permitted to relapse into its native and congenial darkness, we should henceforth make redress still more difficult, we should commit practically a greater injustice on the natives of India than if we had never mooted the question—and we were bound to acquiesce in no solution of the matter but such a fixed and settled system of law, as will provide protection for the oppressed, and justice upon the oppressor.


said, the Report did not inculpate the Indian Government. The tribunals themselves were not fixed with corruption or partiality.


said a few words in reply.

Motion agreed to.

House adjourned to Monday next.

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