Tuesday, May 03, 2011

The debriefing sessions

The British had a meticulous system of ‘examining’ their officers returning from India and collecting evidence. These were  elaborate sessions and the evidence was patiently recorded and documented. The questions could cover a wide assortment of issues- administration, governance, justice, feedback on the perception of the natives and many other.  

This compilation of ‘minutes of evidence taken before the Select Committee on the affairs of the East India Company” and published in the year 1832 makes interesting reading. Here is an extract from one of the questioning sessions ( begins on page 153)


SIR JAMES MACDONALD, BART., In The Chair.

Captain Turner Macan, called in; and Examined.

In what service are you?

The King's military service, in the 16th Captain T. Macan. Lancers.

For how many years were you in India?

Twenty-three years

During that period did you discharge also any civil functions in India?

For the last 12 years of my residence in India, I held the situation of Persian interpreter to three successive Commanders-in-chief, Lord Hastings, Sir Edward Paget, and Lord Combermere. It cannot be called a civil function, it has always been held by a military officer.

Did the duties of that situation necessarily bring you in contact with the civil servants of the Company ?

With the exception of the Persian secretary to government, the residents at native courts, and political agents, the duties of that situation did not bring me in official contact with the civil servants of the Company, but it brought me in contact with the natives of India, both in correspondence and in personal intercourse.


Were you conversant with any other Oriental languages than the Persian?

The Persian, Arabic and Hindostanee are the languages I am conversant in, but most so in the Persian.

You have stated, that during your 23. years residence in India you have had occasion to make frequent tours in the provinces; has your intercourse with the natives on those occasions been considerable ?

It has, partly from official duty, partly from my Oriental pursuits. I have occasionally corresponded and held personal intercourse with almost every native of rank and talent

Generally speaking, how have you found the natives affected towards the British Government?

I think they have almost universally acknowledged the superiority of the British government over all former Asiatic government; and the learned men have frequently observed, that we have realized in practice the theoretical perfection of the Institutes of Acbar. They admit our intentions to be always good, but they censure many of our regulations and much of our system, both judicial and revenue, as not being founded on sufficient experience and data. The tardiness of justice they complain of as the greatest of evils. In giving these favourable sentiments of the natives on our government, I do not mean that there is one man of them that would take up arms to defend it; on the contrary, except the mercantile population of Calcutta, or those connected with the mercantile interests generally, I do not believe there is a native in India who would not desire a change.

You find, then, the educated natives universally conversant with the details of the British government in India?

Not universally conversant either with the regulations or details, but with the practical effects of the administration.

You have stated that you consider that for the most part they would desire a change; will you define more particularly what you contemplate by the word change ?

Any native government instead of that of the British; I mean that our rule in India is supported, not by the justice and wisdom of our laws or the love of the people, but by our military supremacy alone.

Do you consider that they appeared to feel themselves aggrieved by their exclusion from what they would deem a share of the civil administration of the affairs of their country ?

I think a due share in the administration of the country would tend to attach them more to our government, and make them feel an interest in it, which they now do not.

Will you state to the Committee your opinion of their capacity for being admitted to a larger share of the administration of the government ?

Their intellectual capacity is undoubtedly great; their moral capacity has been much doubted; but under an arbitrary government, where every man who holds a public situation was supposed to be necessarily corrupt in extent to his powers, and was treated as if he had been, whether innocent or not, there was no encouragement to morality or virtue, and a man who could not escape the suspicion of corruption, would endeavour to have the sweets of it. The natives of India are acute and intelligent, have great capacity for business, and, in fact, much of the business of India is now transacted by the native Omlah, without the responsibility attaching to it.

By what means should you propose to ameliorate any existing moral defects in the character of the natives ?

By education; more particularly instruction through the means of the English language, and employment in civil administration.

Do you believe that a general system of education, coupled with opening to the natives all such civil offices as they might become competent to fill, would have that tendency ?

I think it would; if you give a man something to lose, he will be cautious how he loses it. I think their employment should be limited to the judicial and revenue branches of the service. A great part of the expense of our executive administration would undoubtedly be lessened by the employment of more natives and fewer Europeans.

You have stated that you consider the introduction more generally of English language as a great object, with a view to the better establishment of our power in India; by what system does it occur to you that it might be more generally introduced ?

I would propose, that a proclamation be issued in Calcutta, stating, that at the end of a specific period, say five years, which I think sufficient, the proceedings in all the courts under the Calcutta circuit should be conducted in the English language. In the schools in Calcutta there are many Hindoo boys who can read English, even Milton and Shakspeare, with much fluency, and explain difficult passages in those authors. The language now used in the different courts of justice is as foreign to the natives of the country as the English language, except Bengal and Orissa, because in those provinces the use of the vernacular dialect is optional; in all other provinces the Persian language is used: it was forced into judicial proceedings by Mahomedan conquerors, and is not understood by any one of the witnesses that are usually examined, and but imperfectly by the native officer who takes down the evidence, and perhaps still more imperfectly by the judge.


(Remember that this was in the year 1832, much before the rumblings of the freedom movement were heard or felt. In fact, it was much before the British Govt took over the administrative responsibility from the East India Company)

4 comments:

Ramesh said...

raj i am astounded by what i read .. i don't know if you were as affected as me when I read this, but i was left amazed by the sheer foresightedness of this guy .. everything of the future was interpreted by this fellow, like introduction of english, gradual absorption of indian officials etc .. i don't know but sometime i think that if the britishers hadn't come we would have become a min asian africa .. with tonnes of small states, dictators and poverty

Debu said...

"their moral capacity has been much doubted; but under an arbitrary government, where every man who holds a public situation was supposed to be necessarily corrupt in extent to his powers, and was treated as if he had been, whether innocent or not, there was no encouragement to morality or virtue, and a man who could not escape the suspicion of corruption, would endeavour to have the sweets of it."

Interesting...Looks like corruption was a way of life in India even as early as in 1832.

Raj said...

Ramesh, I found it amazing too that a young officer was so perceptive as to catch the pulse of the native sentiment.

About your concluding line, all I can say is, my extensive reading of the material available on Google Books ( on the British india period) has given me a sense of balance. Yes, terrible things were done by the Britis exercisting what they called as the 'rights of the conqueror", but for every ruthless guy, there was also a compassionate guy who genuinely wanted to bring in better lives for the natives.

Debu: Corruption has been part of our DNA, I guess.

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