Our Indian Stewardship


As a humble unit of the great English public, I have read with feelings of dismay the terrible indictment brought by Mr. Seymour Keay, in the last number of this journal, against our Indian administration. Hearing such things we must all ask ourselves to what extent are the charges set forth in 'The Spoliation of India' well founded? The allegations are specific, and involve charges of national breach of trust on a great scale. How are such charges to be either proved or disproved? England is herself ultimately responsible for the work of her servants in India. What means does she possess of taking an account of this Indian stewardship, so that her servants in the far East may be either acquitted or condemned? In the parable, the householder planted a vineyard, and hedged it round about, and let it out to husbandmen, and went into a far country. But a day of reckoning came at last. Wherever there is a trust, due account should be rendered. If the present charges are false, they should, after proper inquiry, be declared so, in justice to the Indian administration. If they contain even a portion of truth, still more necessary is it that justice should be done in fulfilment of a great national duty.

Mr. Seymour Keay does not blame individuals or even classes. He blames the system. And the essence of his argument is that the defects of our rule in India are simply what, under such circumstances, must be expected from the ordinary and admitted weaknesses of human nature. Individuals will always be found who follow the golden rule of unselfishness. But ordinary men naturally prefer their own interests to those of others. And he points out that a government of officials, not responsible to the people of India, and practically unsupervised even by their own countrymen at home, would naturally and almost unconsciously establish a system favourable to their own patronage and power, 'a system providing too much for the interests of the governors themselves, and too little for the welfare of the governed.' A presumption of this sort seems not unreasonable. It is in accordance with our experience of bureaucratic rule in France and other European countries. And the evil is naturally intensified where the officials are foreigners, and aliens in race and language. Relentlessly following up this clue, the writer examines one after another the great departments of Indian administration; the army expenditure, the land revenue, the civil courts, the police, salt, opium, and spirituous liquors; and as regards each he adduces evidence to prove that the institutions we have set up are unsuited to the people of India, and that their great cost is with difficulty provided by means of excessive taxation. Summing up his case he maintains that 'after making full allowance for the not inconsiderable benefits conferred on India by its connection with this country, the balance is still woefully against our Indian Government; that it is still an alien bureaucracy living chiefly for itself, with little or no sympathy with the people; that, while sadly unsuitable to the wants of the people, it is ruinously expensive; that its ruinous expense is now only defrayed by a resort to the most merciless expedients, and that the result is poverty, ruin, and starvation to the people.' So miserably poor are these our Indian fellow-subjects after all these years of our rule, that forty millions, or one-fifth of the whole population, go through life on insufficient food, while it is officially admitted that upwards of six millions of men, women, and children, have died from actual starvation during the last seven years. Such is the accusation, and such are the facts brought forward in evidence. And the appeal is made to the people of this country on behalf of two hundred millions of their law-abiding and inoffensive fellow-subjects, who are unrepresented and unable to help themselves or even to make their voice heard.

Now let us try to approach this great question in a businesslike way. An independent Englishman of undoubted personal acquaintance with India has brought these charges. As public accuser he has done his part. What is now our duty as members of the English public? What can we do in order that this appeal may be heard by a competent tribunal, and decided in accordance with justice and those broad principles of public morality which have been accepted by the English people, and set forth in the memorable words of the Queen's Proclamation in 1858?

In former days the whole administration of India was subjected by Parliament at prescribed intervals to an impartial, intelligent, and searching inquiry. On each occasion before the East India Company's Charter was renewed, there was a reckoning and stock was taken; so that once at least in twenty years the British nation looked into Indian affairs, and scanned narrowly the conduct of their agents in the East, a terror to evil-doers and a praise to them who did well. Then every grievance was sifted before the House of Commons. The veil of secrecy was removed, and a Burke and a Fox arose to judgment. A wholesome jealousy also existed of the powers and privileges of the Company, and this sentiment operated in favour of the Indian races. If periodical inquiries of this scope and solemnity were held at the present day, we might well be content to await the decision of such a tribunal upon the charges now brought forward. For when we look into history we find that the renewals of the Charter were the epochs when abuses were checked, when great reforms were initiated, and the most valuable principles asserted for the governance of our great Eastern Empire. In this way the commercial monopoly was removed, India was opened to the private enterprise of Englishmen; while for natives were secured the rights of citizens, and a claim to a fair share in the administration of their own country. Further, by means of these debates a salutary feeling of responsibility with regard to India was maintained among English public men, who kept a watchful eye upon the doings of their countrymen in the East, recognising the fact that the Company could not be trusted to carry out in practice the mandates of the English people. Accordingly, when complaints were made, strong men were found ready to insist that justice should be done, and the offender was brought to public trial, even though his services were as illustrious as those of Lord Clive, and though he was as highly placed as Warren Hastings. Now, unfortunately, since the old Company has disappeared, and the Crown has taken its place, this periodical stock-taking, this day of reckoning and of judgment has been lost to India. As there is no Charter to be renewed, there is no Parliamentary inquiry, and the Indian administration drifts on from year to year without independent scrutiny or control. Thus it happens that since 1858, when the Crown took over charge, a quarter of a century has elapsed without any independent audit of this great Indian trust, this estate of 576 millions of acres and 200 millions of souls. The actual management remains in the same hands as before. And the practical effect of the change is simply to relieve the Indian officials of their responsibility to Parliament, and to make perpetual the temporary lease of power which they before enjoyed. Moreover, the change from the Company to the Crown, though in many respects a mere change of name, has had a mischievous effect in lulling the wholesome jealousy and watchfulness of our public men in England, so that people are apt to indulge in a careless optimism, trusting that all is well, and that our great official hierarchy is administering India with singleness of heart for the good of the people, unswayed by personal interests or by the prejudices of class and race.

If a formal Parliamentary inquiry, such as was considered essential at each renewal of the Charter, is not now practicable, what is the substitute in the existing order of things? What are the resources at the disposal of the English nation for testing the results of the Indian administration during the last quarter of a century, and for controlling its future action? I will try to indicate what these resources are, as they appear to one of the outside public deeply interested in the welfare of India. I will also submit some suggestions, in the hope that the question of an independent check and control may be taken up by those specially qualified to advise. But before doing so I would repeat that the demand for inquiry is made in no unfriendly spirit to the great Indian Civil Service—a service of noble traditions—a service which Lord William Bentinck pronounced to be superior to that of any country in the world. On the contrary, it would appear that an independent audit is required in justice to the Indian administration itself, as well as in the interest of the peoples of India and the people of England. The agents of our great Indian estate are probably the best agents, the most honest, enlightened, and laborious, that the world has ever seen. But that is no reason why the English nation should keep its eyes closed and neglect a manifest duty as master and trustee. Even if the management were a simple affair and invariably successful, still an account should be taken; for otherwise the good name of the administration is open to attack not only from genuine complaint, but also from railing accusation. Much more, however, is it necessary, when the estate is so vast and the interests so complex, that absolute success is impossible for poor human efforts. If after all our labour the bulk of the Indian population remains so perilously near the verge of subsistence that deaths by starvation can be counted by millions, we must with sorrow confess that we are but unprofitable servants; and the best worker in the Indian vineyard will not ask for himself a judgment more favourable than that which was inscribed on the tomb of Sir Henry Lawrence, 'He tried to do his duty.'

What machinery, then, is there for making an impartial, intelligent, and searching inquiry, in order that the Crown, with the Parliament representing its people, might know, by itself making the inquiry, how has been carried out the spirit of the Queen's Proclamation of twenty-five years ago, proclaiming with regard to our relation to the native races, governed by the Crown without Parliament and without people, that there are to be no race distinctions; that where there is fitness the employment of natives and Europeans is to be alike; that race is not to be a qualification or a disqualification; that, in the words of the Queen herself, 'our subjects, of whatever race or creed, be impartially admitted to offices in our service, the duties of which they may be qualified by their education, ability, and integrity duly to discharge'?[1]

Such an inquiry is now imperatively called for. What are the present resources in England from which a tribunal may he constituted to make inquiry and exact an account of the Indian stewardship? What is it to be? By whom is it to be made?

By Parliament? Parliament will not make it; it counts itself out. It is clear that some standing machinery is necessary: this is proved by the impossibility of getting members of the House of Commons to give careful consideration to any Indian question.

India has no members to represent it.[2] Members are responsible to their own constituents, and are too busy and pre-occupied. Indian questions are difficult and distasteful, and without technical knowledge an independent member can hardly speak effectively. Hence even for the Indian Budget once a year forty just men can hardly be brought together to keep a House.

Might it be possible (I speak as a fool) for independent members who take interest in India to organise themselves into a voluntary committee, so as to sift complaints, rejecting those undeserving of support and co-operating to bring forward effectively in the House any real grievance?

By Select Committees of the House of Commons?

These have done good service in throwing light upon Indian affairs, especially Mr. Fawcett's Finance Committee, but that committee never made a report or produced any direct results. Parliamentary committees have some want of purpose, some want of definiteness. They are an inquiry, somewhat desultory, and nothing more—there is no execution of judgment. If the voluntary committee referred to were to bring questions before a Select Committee, the Select Committee might make a preliminary inquiry and prepare issues for trial by a more specially constituted tribunal.

By the Secretary of State for India in Council?

This is the statutory machinery through which it is at present sought to enforce Parliamentary control over the administration of India. So far as the will of Parliament makes itself felt through this machinery, the influence is for the most part good. The machinery is defective, (1) because the appointment of the Secretary of State depends upon the exigencies of party, so that usually he is not chosen for special knowledge of India and seldom remains long in the office, and (2) because his Council (by which the current work of the India Office is performed) is filled almost exclusively by representatives of the Indian official classes. It is chiefly an assembly of the retired officials whose admirable work in India may be called the world's wonder. But, speaking generally, public opinion scarcely sanctions our considering a tribunal quite unprejudiced which sits upon the administration of which they were themselves a distinguished part.

And may one not go even further and ask if the Council scarcely represents more than the dominant party or views among Indian officials; for naturally those who coincide with that party, or adopt those views, are likely to attain such high position in India as will give them the chance of selection for the Council in England?

We have seen such great men, and men of such different cast of greatness, sitting on the Indian Council, that this question might well be answered in the negative, were it not that every year our position in India is changing. We have ourselves worked great changes, unexpected to ourselves. The undercurrent of feeling or opinion among the natives scarcely finds its way to England—nor even the great bulk of the facts which the comparatively unknown English officials might tell us.

But, however this may be, when the successful official dies he goes to Westminster. When there, he can hardly be regarded as an unprejudiced and disinterested judge to sit in appeal on the measures which he himself initiated, and on the men whom he himself placed in authority. It is almost impossible for the Secretary of State, unacquainted with technical details, to hold his own against their Indian 'experience' and knowledge of official technicalities.

The India Office cannot rightly, in accordance with English ideas, sit upon itself. These truly great Indian proconsuls and Indian officials who now sit in England, under whom the present system has grown up, who are responsible for the present official routine, the status quo, are hardly constituted by English polity, it is said, to sit in judgment upon their own work, excellent as it is. [The more excellent the work the less they must desire it.] They are said to give a sort of piecemeal judgment, as it were, from day to day, upon the system they have created or grown up in.

Yet is this not the only audit? Does a company appoint its manager, however great and well deserved the confidence reposed in him, to audit his own accounts? Yet the largest company's affairs are a mere toy compared with these over which the Government of India presides. These are the affairs of 200 millions of people—a fifth of the human race. And there is no representation, and scarcely can there be at present; nor yet hardly any public opinion or publicity. Far less, to use a yet more homely simile, would an English proprietor ask his coachman or his gardener what stable or garden retrenchments should be made. Yet there seems no ultimate court of appeal to decide this stupendous question of retrenchments, concerning not hundreds or thousands, but millions of pounds sterling a year.

Ought such an independent account-taking to be?

Will it unsettle the natives?

Will it wound the esprit de corps, the high principle, the disinterested conscience, of the Civil Service?

Will it embarrass the Government of India?

To the first question it may be answered that Lord Ripon's measures have, instead of unsettling the natives, given them for the first time a feeling of rest and peace. Instead of their being like toads under the unwilling harrows of various departments, they begin to realise that England means them to have some local self-government.

With regard to the just esprit de corps of the Civil Services: it is the privilege of the Civil Services, as it is of the Government of India, to have a trial.

Compare, for instance, charges brought against a military officer. He calls for a court-martial. It is his privilege that he should be tried, so that the world shall know whether he has been acting fairly, honestly, intelligently, according to his instructions.

With regard to the ruler who is carrying out for the first time the spirit of the Queen's Proclamation, the instructions of successive Secretaries of State, the Acts and resolutions of successive Parliaments, so honestly and bravely, such an inquiry would be welcomed as tending to help, as it may most effectually, and not to embarrass him.

As all who understand how actual parties really stand will see, the onslaught of Mr. Seymour Keay's paper, above briefly noticed, is no attack upon the present Viceroy, but an attack upon a system which the present Viceroy is steadily but tentatively resisting, in pursuance of the decisions of Crown, Cabinet, and Commons at home—no complaint against Lord Ripon's Government, but against the evils which he is so manfully struggling to subdue. To prove that this is the case, in a subsequent paper will be noticed some of the leading measures of Lord Ripon's policy. Practically the great controversy is between this policy and those who oppose it.

As to the question between the Cabinet which gave the instructions and the Viceroy who carried them out, English public opinion will not be inclined to ask for reports and opinions from local officials. This is constituting them the judges. The Viceroy is the Cabinet's agent. If any man has a quarrel with his policy, the quarrel is with the Cabinet. The policy is theirs. If, as now, numerous complaints are lodged against this policy, English public opinion would insist on a court of appeal, if it existed, hearing the other side. This other side is rarely or never heard in England on Indian affairs as it is on all others.

Is the inquiry then to be by the English people?

The public can give a mandate and insist with no uncertain voice that a trial should be held before a competent tribunal.

But how are the British public (of whom the present writer is one), with neither technical nor official knowledge, to ask for an account to be taken and judgment to be given, it cannot even say by whom? It cannot say how judge and jury are to be appointed. But the British public fulfils an important function by sitting in Court, as audience, watching that justice be done, according to the principles approved by the British people and declared in the Queen's Proclamation of 1858—not indeed saying how it is to be done. They cannot try the issues, but they can suggest—indeed, it might almost be said they can demand—that the issues shall be tried. We are in the attitude of the inquiring public, not in that of disposing of the question. No one can find fault with us for desiring to be led. The author of the 'Spoliation of India' has pointed out many serious evils, and these he attributes not to any individual, but to the system. These allegations ought to be inquired into and decided upon by some competent tribunal. The indictment is brought. What is to be the tribunal? Not the India Council—the British public represented by Government. Let us, the British people—not partisans, but impartial listeners—acquit ourselves of our responsibility to the people of India. Let us consult together how best to perform our duties. It is evident that from want of knowledge and organisation we cannot ourselves carry out the trial.

What is wanted is that account should be taken and judgment given from time to time by a more specially constituted tribunal, whether by Royal Commission or otherwise, presided over by men with a conviction of their responsibility, determined to learn the facts, forming their policy while inquiring into the condition of things.

We have seen the President of a Royal Commission on the Sanitary State of the Army after the Crimean War, Sidney Herbert, making such an inquiry into facts, not opinions; then, when afterwards Secretary of State for War, embodying its decision in an effective policy and administration.

This seems to be the most hopeful method for trying great issues of Indian policy.

What is a Royal Commission? It is the Crown.

The Crown has assumed the direct government of India, and it seems fit and proper that the Crown should take account from time to time, in order to see that the servants of the Queen are fully carrying out the orders laid down for their guidance.

The members of such a commission would be public men of the highest standing and reputation, such as would be suited to hold the office of Viceroy, or Governor of a Presidency, or Finance Minister of India—such men as, e.g., it might be Lord Dufferin or Mr. Goschen—such men as sit in the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council.

The natives of India ask for no new concessions. They simply claim the fulfilment of the pledges and assurances already given.


But the public in England are perhaps not aware of the very important steps which Lord Ripon has already taken to deal with these and other evils of the same class which have not been mentioned.

How does Lord Ripon's policy seek to deal with the grievances complained of?

The chief grounds of complaint, as stated above, are (a) the unsuitability of our institutions, and (b) the great cost met by excessive taxation.

Lord Ripon has struck at the very root of both these evils by his measures of decentralisation and local self-government, and by the steps he has taken for the employment of natives.

Under the local self-government scheme, much of the work now done by highly-paid foreigners and by low-paid corrupt native underlings will for the future be done for little or nothing by the villagers themselves; while by the due employment of natives in official positions great economy in salaries will be effected, and the administration, it is said, will be gradually brought into conformity with the needs and wishes of the various races.

The measure known as Mr. Ilbert's Bill is an integral, by no means the most important part of this policy; offices of responsibility cannot be conferred upon natives unless they are at the same time granted the powers required to perform the duties of those offices.

In considering Lord Ripon's scheme of local self-government, these two points must specially be kept in mind, (1) that the measure is a necessity forced upon the Administration by financial and political considerations of the most pressing kind; and (2) that village and municipal self-government is no novelty in India, but a wholesome return to the ancient and natural order of things. The fact is, the strain upon our centralised official machinery has been greater than it can bear, and it threatens to break down altogether. To quote the words of an important State paper, 'The task of administration is yearly becoming more onerous as the country progresses in civilisation and material prosperity. The annual reports of every Government tell of an ever-increasing burden laid upon the shoulders of the local officers. The cry is everywhere for increased establishments. The universal complaint in all departments is that of overwork. Under these circumstances it becomes imperatively necessary to look around for some means of relief; and the Governor-General in Council has no hesitation in stating his conviction that the only reasonable plan open to the Government is to induce the people themselves to undertake, as far as may be, the management of their own affairs.' This dilemma has long been admitted. It was long ago seen that on the one hand the limit of taxation had been reached, while on the other hand additional funds were urgently required to remedy defects in our administration, and to provide roads, irrigation, schools, &c. On the one hand we incurred odium by employing a horde of ill-paid native subordinates who spread over the country like an army of locusts. On the other hand, if we sought to pay them better, and thus secure a better class of public servants, we incurred fresh odium while wringing the necessary funds from the over-driven ryot. All this was plain enough. And both Lord Lawrence and Lord Mayo took important steps to relieve the official strain by measures of decentralisation and municipal extension which have answered admirably; Lord Lawrence pointing out as early as 1864 that the people of India 'are perfectly capable of administering their own local affairs.' But it was reserved for Lord Ripon to deal effectually with the ever more pressing danger, both political and financial, and to do so in a way eminently satisfactory to the conservative instincts of the Hindoo race. By his cautious yet comprehensive scheme of local self-government he has gone to the root of the whole matter, restoring life to the ancient village and municipal institutions, under which, with due guidance, the real needs of the people can be supplied, cheaply and without oppression, by and through the people themselves. No greater mistake can be made than to suppose that anything novel or newfangled is being introduced. The object is not to import a foreign exotic, but to revive and strengthen a plant of home growth, stunted by ill usage and weakened, but firmly rooted in ancient custom and in the habits of the people. Philosophers and historians have always dwelt lovingly on the Indian village community as the natural political unit, and as the best type of rural life; self-contained, industrious, peace-loving, conservative in the best sense of the word. Upon this basis we must build. And we may hope some day to see the village communities throughout India not only restored to their ancient independence and prosperity, but further developed in their aspirations and public usefulness, furnishing a firm foundation upon which a great and a prosperous empire may safely rest.

I shall hope in a subsequent paper briefly to notice the directions in which, during the three years of his past government, Lord Ripon has been taking practical steps towards carrying out the best principles of our administration which have often been laid down.

The Viceroy is supposed to be a romantic statesman. But the policy he has pursued has been, as already said, in accordance with the instructions of successive Secretaries of State, with the Acts and policy of successive Parliaments, and with the proclamation of the Queen on assuming the government of India.

Florence Nightingale.

  1. 'The broad policy was laid down by Parliament, so long ago as 1833, that no native shall, by reason of his religion, place of birth, or colour, be disabled from holding any office; and Her Majesty's gracious Proclamation in 1858 announced her will that, as far as may be, 'our subjects, of whatever race or creed, be impartially admitted to offices in our service, the duties of which they may be qualified by their education, ability, and integrity duly to discharge.'

    'Since that period several of my predecessors in office, and especially Lord Halifax, Sir Stafford Northcote, the Duke of Argyll, and Lord Salisbury, have pressed upon the attention of the Government of India that the policy of Parliament, enforced as it was by the Royal Proclamation, was not to remain a dead letter, and two Acts of Parliament were passed to give further effect to it.'—Lord Cranbrook's Despatch to Lord Lytton's Government, November 7, 1878.

  2. We are tempted to quote Pitt's splendid peroration of 101 years ago and to paraphrase it, but this would lead us too far.

This work was published before January 1, 1925, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.