Ilbert Bill Controversy

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Ilbert Bill Controversy (1883) has acquired a special significance in the legal, constitutional and political history of British India, especially in Bengal on the ground that it quickened the processes of nationalism and anti-colonial mobilization. The Ilbert Bill has a background. The administration of British India was an all-white affair until the Civil Service Act of 1861, under which a Subordinate Executive Service was created for Indians and Anglo-Indians. The Civil Service was further Indianized under the Act of 1879, which provided for increasing number of Indians to the civil service.

By 1880, many Indians, especially from Bengal, joined the subordinate executive service and through seniority and competence, a good number of them became district magistrates and session judges. As under law, the European offenders were also tried in the courts of the native magistrates. This development hurt the ruling class pride of the Europeans many of whom were already convicted to various punishments according to law. Racially charged Europeans, particularly in business and industries, put up pressure on the authorities to exempt them from the jurisdiction of the courts of the native judges and magistrates. Under their pressure, the Criminal Procedure Code was amended in 1872. The amendment provided that henceforth the native magistrates and judges in the mofussil courts would not have magisterial jurisdiction over the Europeans involved in the criminal cases in the mofussil. This exclusion was not, however, applicable for the native magistrates stationed in Calcutta.

The amendment was indeed a glaring racial discrimination, which the liberal governor general and viceroy lord ripon was not disposed to recognise. He wanted to place all magistrates and judges on the same legal footing as regards their jurisdictions. He believed that the Indian subjects must be allowed to enjoy the fruits of free institutions of Britain. Accordingly, Sir CP Ilbert, the Law Member of the Central Legislative Council in 1883, introduced a bill which proposed to establish the European and Indian judges on the same footing as regards their magisterial jurisdictions and powers. But the Bill generated a strong controversy among the Europeans living in India. The sense of racial superiority drove them to resist the enactment of the Bill into a law. The educated middle class Indians did not like the way the Europeans opposed the Bill. The Ilbert Bill thus divided the Indian public opinion sharply into two blocs–the Indian bloc which supported the Bill enthusiastically, and the European bloc which opposed it tooth and nail. In the end, the European bloc won and succeeded in forcing the government for modifying the Bill in the line of European demands.

Lord Ripon, in fact, agreed to take the charge of governor general and viceroy of India to materialise a mission. The mission was that India must enjoy the blessings of the free institutions of Britain. The liberal Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone (1880-85) attested his dream. The liberal Prime Minister Gladstone considered it as a failure on the part of Britain that British liberal institutions and ideas could not yet be introduced in India. Governor General Ripon was very much influenced by his Prime Minister Gladstone when he introduced a series of liberal reforms including the Ilbert Bill. However, Ripon and his law member C.P Ilbert were unable to comprehend how strongly the British imperial capitalist interests and members of the British bureaucracy were entrenched in the administration and economic system of British India.

The tea and indigo planters, jute bailers and exporters, mineral and railway investors, shipping and inland waterways interests, banking and insurance interests, were all united under their various Chambers of Commerce in Calcutta, Bombay and Madras and put up fierce resistance to the enactment of the Bill into a law. To them, the proposed law was to be calamitous not only politically but also economically. Politically, because they apprehended that equality in the eyes of law would undermine the imperial authority and the very basis of the British Empire in India; and economically because, the British industries, plantations and other businesses were very largely dependent on the exploitation of local labours, who were exploited as virtual slaves. Whipping, maiming and murdering labouring people were a regular phenomenon as was admitted by Ilbert while introducing the Bill. Ilbert argued that in spite of regular crimes committed by the Europeans on the natives, the injured parties were not allowed to seek justice from the courts on equal basis. The native judges were excluded from trying cases in which Europeans were parties and the European magistrates seldom took complaints from the injured natives into cognigance.

The European and Indian responses to the Bill, however, were opposed to each other. All the Anglo-Indian newspapers, which were controlled by the European business interests in India, became the vehicle of the European opposition to the Ilbert Bill. They put up monstrous pressure on the authorities by way of newspaper propaganda, meetings, deputations to concerned authorities, including the Governor General, India Council, Prime Minister and Parliament. Their agitation received silent support from many Europeans in the administration and in army. The Indian educated middle class, on the other hand, tried to counteract the resistance of the European and Anglo-Indian stakes by way of organizing meetings, sending memoranda to authorities and newspaper columns and writings. The Indian concern about the European reaction to the Bill led to the convening of the first Indian National Conference in December 1883 in Calcutta, which drew delegates from all over India. The delegates condemned the racial discriminations practiced by the British rulers and business interests and called for a national resistance movement against the malevolent commercial and bureaucratic elements. Nevertheless, compared to the movement of the British racist forces the Indian movement in support of the Bill was very weakly organized. Their squeaky protestations were no match to those of their counterparts. Lord Ripon finally surrendered to the demands of the racist forces and agreed to introduce the Bill in the Council in an amended form, which was eventually enacted into a law. Under this law, the native magistrates were given powers to try criminal suits against the European offenders in the mofussil, but with the qualification that the native magistrates were required to try the European offenders with the help of a jury that would include at least fifty percent of its members drawn from the European community. The European magistrates and judges were exempt from this jury system. By enacting this law, the Ripon administration introduced a new type of racial discrimination in the magisterial powers and functions. Only the native magistrates and judges were required to conduct criminal trial under jury system. Their European colleagues were exempt from it.

The Ilbert Bill controversy however made a deep impact on the mind of the educated middle class of India, especially of Bengal. They felt, for the first time, the need for stronger and widespread political organisation to defend and promote their rights. Thus out of the Ilbert Bill agitation had emerged first the indian association (1883) and then the indian national congress in 1885. [Sirajul Islam]