Saturday, December 18, 2010

Strong-arm methods

“Household Words” a journal edited by Charles Dickens, carried this chilling narrative in one of the issues that it brought out in the year 1856. It describes the practice of torture in the Madras Presidency by the District Collectors appointed by the British East India Company.

Indifferent as we are in England about Indian affairs, there are few who do not know that more than one-half of the entire revenue of that vast empire consists of a land-tax or rent, which is exacted from the occupiers by the government.

In Madras, the Honourable Company is not only the head landlord; but the sole landlord. No proprietor, no middleman, no intermediate grade whatever interposes between the actual cultivator of the soil and the great company which is at once his seigneur and his sovereign. The Honourable Company itself lets the land, fixes the rent, raises or lowers the rent, and collects the rent.

For the purpose of rent-getting the presidency is divided into a number of pleasant little districts, each comprising some three or four thousand square miles and containing from half a million to a million of inhabitants ; and over each of these is placed a British head-collector, who, besides making his own fortune within the limited time is expected to supervise the collection of the entire revenue of the district.

To assist him in this duty a large staff of tahsildars, monigars, curnoms, duffadars, peons, taliaries, and other nondescript native officials of high and low degree, is spread through the several villages of the district—but, as this native staff is described by unexceptionable witnesses as little better than a delusion, it may be doubted whether on the whole their services are precisely such as we should desire to see employed in the collection of public money, or in the delicate negotiations between the Honourable East India Company and the miserable defaulters in the land-tax.

Connected with this department, there is also another Indian institution, which may seem, a little harsh to English readers. We at home should object if the collector of income-tax, poor-rate, or county-rate were empowered to proceed summarily, by his own authority and without the interposition of a magistrate, or of any civil process whatsoever, to arrest the person of the defaulter. Even in India itself, bad as things were, this used to be unlawful. But the Honourable Company is strict in money matters and, by an enactment, now about forty years old, all authority, whether of the revenue, the police, or the magistracy, is vested in the same set of officials—those very gentlemen who are declared thieves by their friends.

And now let us see how the case stands. Messrs. Elliot, Stokes and Norton have collected information from all parts of the Madras Presidency, and have heard evidence from every class, directly or indirectly concerned, from the rent-collectors and the rentpayers, and from every section of both. These gentlemen unhesitatingly report, as the result of their inquiries, that personal violence on the part of the native revenue and police officials prevails throughout the presidency, personal violence of such a character that, in five recorded instances, "death has followed upon its infliction." They declare this to be the only conclusion that any impartial mind could arrive at.

The use of wooden pincers (the kittie),trussing a man, bending him double (anandal), squeezing the crossed fingers with the hands, punches on the thighs, slaps, blows with the fist or a whip, twisting the ears,making a man sit on the soles of his feet with brickbats behind his knees,  putting a low caste man on his back, striking two defaulters  heads against each other,or tying them together by the hair, placing in the stocks,tying the hair of the head to a donkey's or a buffalo's tail, placing a necklace of bones, or other disgusting or degrading materials round the neck,— are some of the usual ways of expediting the receipt of money.

The police officials often however resort to more severe procedures, as, for instance, twisting a rope tightly round the arm or leg so as to impede circulation, lifting up by the moustache,  suspended by the arms while tied behind the back,searing with hot-irons, placing scratching insects such as the carpenter beetle on the most sensitive parts of the body, dipping in wells and rivers till the victim is half suffocated, beating with sticks ; nipping the flesh with pincers,  putting pepper or red chillies in the eyes, these cruelties being occasionally persevered in till death, sooner or later, ensues.

Rent-day, then, round Madras is not like Rent-day in Great Britain. The rents which are there collected are not the rents of a mere private proprietor, but of the Honourable Company itself.

The officials who figure on the Indian scene are not the steward, or bailiff, of some great estates in the Highlands, or in Connemara; they are every one of them the chosen and salaried servants of that great public body which represents England in India, and for every one of whose doings the good name of England is pledged to the countless millions whom we have taken under our paternal rule in that unhappy empire. For every official deed of theirs, for every act of cruelty, injustice, or rapine ; for every anna of the wretched ryot's substance wrongfully extracted ; for every torture or indignity inflicted upon his most miserable carcase, the Honourable East India Company is responsible.

While the account is quite shocking to read, it must also be recognized that there were conscientious citizens in Britain who brought to light these excesses committed by officials of the East India Company and raised awareness.

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