Forty-One Years in India
From Subaltern to Commander-In-Chief
FIELD MARSHAL LORD ROBERTS
The India of to-day is altogether a different country from the India of 1857. Much has been done since then to improve the civil administration, and to meet the legitimate demands of the Native races. India is more tranquil, more prosperous, and more civilized than it was before the Mutiny, and the discipline, efficiency, and mobility of the Native army have been greatly improved. Much, however, still remains to be done, and a good deal might with advantage be undone, to secure the contentment of the Natives with our rule.
Our position has been materially strengthened by the provision of main and subsidiary lines of communication by road and railway; by the great network of telegraphs which now intersects the country; and by the construction of canals. These great public works have largely increased the area of land under cultivation, minimized the risk of famine, equalized the prices of agricultural produce, and developed a large and lucrative export trade. Above all, while our troops can now be assembled easily and rapidly at any centre of disturbance, the number of British soldiers has been more than doubled and the number of Native soldiers has been materially reduced. Moreover, as regards the Native equally with the British army of India, I believe that a better feeling never existed throughout all ranks than exists at present.
Discontent of the Natives Nevertheless, there are signs that the spirit of unrest and discontent which sowed the seeds of the Mutiny is being revived. To some extent this state of things is the natural result of our position in India, and is so far unavoidable, but it is also due to old faults reappearing—faults which require to be carefully watched and guarded against, for it is certain that, however well disposed as soldiers the men in our ranks may be, their attitude will inevitably be influenced by the feelings of the people generally, more especially should their hostility be aroused by any question connected with religion.
For a considerable time after the Mutiny we became more cautious and conciliatory in administrative and legislative matters, more intent on doing what would keep the Chiefs and Rulers satisfied, the masses contented, and the country quiet, than on carrying out our own ideas. Gradually this wholesome caution is being disregarded. The Government has become more and more centralized, and the departmental spirit very strong. Each department, in its laudable wish for progress and advancement, is apt to push on measures which are obnoxious to the Natives, either from their not being properly understood, or from their being opposed to their traditions and habits of life, thus entailing the sacrifice of many cherished customs and privileges. Each department admits in theory the necessity for caution, but in practice presses for liberty of action to further its own particular schemes.
Of late years, too, the tendency has been to increase the number of[Page 246] departments and of secretariat offices under the supreme Government, and this tendency, while causing more work to devolve on the supreme Government than it can efficiently perform, results in lessening the responsibility of provincial Governments by interference in the management of local concerns. It is obvious that in a country like India, composed as it is of great provinces and various races differing from one another in interests, customs, and religions, each with its own peculiar and distinct necessities, administrative details ought to be left to the people on the spot. The Government of India would then be free to exercise a firm and impartial control over the Empire and Imperial interests, while guiding into safe channels, without unduly restraining, intelligent progress.
Successful Administrators In times of peace the administration is apt to fall too exclusively into the hands of officials whose ability is of the doctrinaire type; they work hard, and can give logical and statistical reasons for the measures they propose, and are thus able to make them attractive to, and believed in by, the authorities. But they lack the more perfect knowledge of human nature, and the deeper insight into, and greater sympathy with, the feelings and prejudices of Asiatics, which those possessed in a remarkable degree who proved by their success that they had mastered the problem of the best form of government for India. I allude to men like Thomas Munro, Mountstuart Elphinstone, John Malcolm, Charles Metcalfe, George Clerk, Henry and John Lawrence, William Sleeman, James Outram, Herbert Edwardes, John Nicholson, and many others. These administrators, while fully recognizing the need for a gradual reform, understood the peculiarities of our position in the east, the necessity for extreme caution and toleration, and a 'live and let live' policy between us and the Natives. The sound and broad views of this class of public servant are not always appreciated either in India or England, and are too often put aside as unpractical, obstructive, and old-fashioned.
Amongst the causes which have produced discontent of late years, I would mention our forest laws and sanitary regulations, our legislative and fiscal systems—measures so necessary that no one interested in the prosperity of India could cavil at their introduction, but which are so absolutely foreign to Native ideas, that it is essential they should be applied with the utmost gentleness and circumspection.
I think, also, that the official idea of converting the young Princes and Nobles of India into English gentlemen by means of English tutors and English studies should be carried out with great care and caution. It has not hitherto invariably succeeded, and the feeling in many States is strongly opposed to it. The danger of failure lies in the wholesome restraint of the tutor being suddenly removed, and in the young Prince being left at too early an age to select his advisers and companions. The former, perhaps not unnaturally, are interested[Page 247] in proving that the training of their young Ruler by his European governor or tutor has not resulted in good either to himself or his people, while the latter are too often of the lowest class of European adventurers.
The proceedings and regulations of the Forest Department, desirable as they may be from a financial and agricultural point of view, have provoked very great irritation in many parts of India. People who have been accustomed from time immemorial to pick up sticks and graze their cattle on forest lands, cannot understand why they should now be forbidden to do so, nor can they realize the necessity for preserving the trees from the chance of being destroyed by fire, a risk to which they were frequently exposed from the Native custom of making use of their shelter while cooking, and of burning the undergrowth to enrich the grazing.
The action taken by the Government in sanitary matters has also aroused much ill-feeling and apprehension. Sanitary precautions are entirely ignored in eastern countries. The great majority of the people can see no good in them, and no harm in using the same tank for drinking purposes and for bathing and washing their clothes. The immediate surroundings of their towns and villages are most offensive, being used as the general receptacles for dead animals and all kinds of filth. Cholera, fever, and other diseases, which carry off hundreds of thousands every year, are looked upon as the visitation of God, from which it is impossible, even were it not impious to try, to escape; and the precautionary measures insisted upon by us in our cantonments, and at the fairs and places of pilgrimage, are viewed with aversion and indignation. Only those who have witnessed the personal discomfort and fatigue to which Natives of all ages and both sexes willingly submit in their struggle to reach some holy shrine on the occasion of a religious festival, while dragging their weary limbs for many hundreds of miles along a hot, dusty road, or being huddled for hours together in a crammed and stifling railway carriage, can have any idea of the bitter disappointment to the pilgrims caused by their being ordered to disperse when cholera breaks out at such gatherings, without being given the opportunity of performing their vows or bathing in the sacred waters.1
Paternal Despotism Further, our legislative system is based on western ideas, its object [Page 248] being to mete out equal justice to the rich and poor, to the Prince and peasant. But our methods of procedure do not commend themselves to the Indian peoples. Eastern races are accustomed to a paternal despotism, and they conceive it to be the proper function of the local representatives of the supreme Power to investigate and determine on the spot the various criminal and civil cases which come under the cognizance of the district officials. Legal technicalities and references to distant tribunals confuse and harass a population which, with comparatively few exceptions, is illiterate, credulous, and suspicious of underhand influence. An almost unlimited right of appeal from one court to another, in matters of even the most trivial importance, not only tends to impair the authority of the local magistrate, but gives an unfair advantage to the wealthy litigant whose means enable him to secure the services of the ablest pleader, and to purchase the most conclusive evidence in support of his claims. For it must be remembered than in India evidence on almost any subject can be had for the buying, and the difficulty, in the administration of justice, of discriminating between truth and falsehood is thereby greatly increased. Under our system a horde of unscrupulous pleaders has sprung up, and these men encourage useless litigation, thereby impoverishing their clients, and creating much ill-feeling against our laws and administration.
Money-lenders and the Press Another point worthy of consideration is the extent to which, under the protection of our legal system, the peasant proprietors of India are being oppressed and ruined by village shop-keepers and money-lenders. These men advance money at a most exorbitant rate of interest, taking as security the crops and occupancy rights of the cultivators of the soil. The latter are ignorant, improvident, and in some matters, such as the marriage ceremonies of their families, inordinately extravagant. The result is that a small debt soon swells into a big one, and eventually the aid of the law courts is invoked to oust the cultivator from a holding which, in many cases, has been in the possession of his ancestors for hundreds of years. The money-lender has his accounts to produce, and these can hardly be disputed, the debtor as a rule being unable to keep accounts of his own, or, indeed, to read or write. Before the British dominion was established in India, the usurer no doubt existed, but his opportunities were fewer, his position more precarious, and his operations more under control than they are at present. The money-lender then knew that his life would not be safe if he exacted too high interest for the loans with which he accommodated his customers, and[Page 249] that if he became too rich, some charge or other would be trumped up against him, which would force him to surrender a large share of his wealth to the officials of the State in which he was living. I do not say that the rough-and-ready methods of Native justice in dealing with money-lenders were excusable or tolerable, but at the same time I am inclined to think that, in granting these men every legal facility for enforcing their demands and carrying on their traffic, we may have neglected the interests of the agriculturists, and that it might be desirable to establish some agency under the control of Government, which would enable the poorer landholders to obtain, at a moderate rate of interest, advances proportionate to the security they had to offer.2
Another danger to our supremacy in India is the license allowed to the Native press in vilifying the Government and its officials, and persistently misrepresenting the motives and policy of the ruling Power. In a free country, where the mass of the population is well educated, independent, and self-reliant, a free press is a most valuable institution, representing as it does the requirements and aspirations of important sections of the community, and bringing to light defects and abuses in the social and political system. In a country such as Great Britain, which is well advanced in the art of self-government, intolerant and indiscriminate abuse of public men defeats its own object, and misstatements of matters of fact can be at once exposed and refuted. Like most of the developments of civilization which are worth anything, the English press is a plant of indigenous growth, whereas in India the Native press is an exotic which, under existing conditions, supplies no general want, does nothing to refine, elevate, or instruct the people, and is used by its supporters and promoters—an infinitesimal part of the population—as a means of gaining its selfish ends, and of fostering sedition, and racial and religious animosities. There are, I am afraid, very few Native newspapers actuated by a friendly or impartial spirit towards the Government of India, and to Asiatics it seems incredible that we should permit such hostile publications to be scattered broadcast over the country, unless the assertions were too true to be disputed, or unless we were too weak to suppress them. We gain neither credit nor gratitude for our tolerant attitude towards the Native press—our forbearance is misunderstood; and while the well-disposed are amazed at our inaction, the disaffected rejoice at being allowed to promulgate baseless insinuations and misstatements which undermine our authority, and thwart our efforts to gain the[Page 250] goodwill and confidence of the Native population.
Faddists Yet another danger to the permanence of our rule in India lies in the endeavours of well-intentioned faddists to regulate the customs and institutions of eastern races in accordance with their own ideas. The United Kingdom is a highly civilized country, and our habits and convictions have been gradually developed under the influences of our religion and our national surroundings. Fortunately for themselves, the people of Great Britain possess qualities which have made them masters of a vast and still expanding Empire. But these qualities have their defects as well as their merits, and one of the defects is a certain insularity of thought, or narrow-mindedness—a slowness to recognize that institutions which are perfectly suitable and right for us may be quite unsuited, if not injurious, to other races, and that what may not be right for us to do is not necessarily wrong for people of a different belief, and with absolutely different traditions and customs.
Gradually the form of Government in the United Kingdom has become representative and democratic, and it is therefore assumed by some people, who have little, if any, experience of the east, that the Government of India should be guided by the utterances of self-appointed agitators who pose as the mouth-pieces of an oppressed population. Some of these men are almost as much aliens3 as ourselves, while others are representatives of a class which, though intellectually advanced, has no influence amongst the races in whom lies the real strength of India. Municipal self-government has been found to answer well in the United Kingdom, and it is held, therefore, that a similar system must be equally successful in India. We in England consume animal food and alcoholic liquors, but have no liking for opium; an effort has accordingly been made to deprive our Asiatic fellow-subjects, who, as a rule, are vegetarians, and either total abstainers or singularly abstemious in the matter of drink, of a small and inexpensive stimulant, which they find necessary to their health and comfort. British institutions and ideas are the embodiment of what long experience has proved to us to be best for ourselves; but suddenly to establish these institutions and enforce these ideas on a community which is not prepared for them, does not want them, and cannot understand them, must only lead to suspicion and discontent. The Government of India should, no doubt, be progressive in its policy, and in all things be guided by the immutable principles of right, truth, and justice; but these principles ought to be applied, not necessarily as we should apply them in England, but with due regard to the social peculiarities and religious prejudices of the people whom it ought to be our aim to make better and happier.
It will be gathered from what I have written that our administration,[Page 251] in my opinion, suffers from two main defects. First, it is internally too bureaucratic and centralizing in its tendencies; and, secondly, it is liable to be forced by the external pressure of well-meaning but irresponsible politicians and philanthropists to adopt measures which may be disapproved of by the authorities on the spot, and opposed to the wishes, requirements, and interests of the people. It seems to me that for many years to come the best form of government for India will be the intelligent and benevolent despotism which at present rules the country. On a small scale, and in matters of secondary importance, representative institutions cannot perhaps do much harm, though I am afraid they will effect but little good. On a large scale, however, such a system of government would be quite out of place in view of the fact that ninety-nine out of every hundred of the population are absolutely devoid of any idea of civil responsibility, and that the various races and religious sects possess no bond of national union.
Cardinal Points In reply, then, to the question, 'Is there any chance of a Mutiny occurring again?' I would say that the best way of guarding against such a calamity is—
By never allowing the present proportion of British to Native soldiers to be diminished or the discipline and efficiency of the Native army to become slack.
By taking care that men are selected for the higher civil and military posts whose self-reliance, activity, and resolution are not impaired by age, and who possess a knowledge of the country and the habits of the peoples.
By recognizing and guarding against the dogmatism of theorists and the dangers of centralization.
By rendering our administration on the one hand firm and strong, on the other hand tolerant and sympathetic; and last, but not least, by doing all in our power to gain the confidence of the various races, and by convincing them that we have not only the determination, but the ability to maintain our supremacy in India against all assailants.
If these cardinal points are never lost sight of, there is, I believe, little chance of any fresh outbreak disturbing the stability of our rule in India, or neutralizing our efforts to render that country prosperous, contented, and thoroughly loyal to the British Crown.
FOOTNOTES, CHAPTER XXXI
[Footnote 1: Few acts have been more keenly resented than the closing of the great Hurdwar Fair in the autumn of 1892, on account of a serious outbreak of cholera. It was looked upon by the Natives as a direct blow aimed at their religion, and as a distinct departure from the religious tolerance promised in Her Majesty's proclamation of 1858. The mysterious mud marks on mango-trees in Behar have been attributed by some to a self-interested motive on the part of certain priests to draw the attention of Hindus to the sanctity of some temple outside the limits of British jurisdiction, where the devotees would be at liberty to assemble in any numbers without being troubled by officious inspectors, and where they could remain as long as they pleased, irrespective of the victims daily claimed by cholera, that unfailing avenger of the neglect of sanitary laws in the east.]
[Footnote 2: The proposal would seem to be quite a practical one, for I read in the Times of the 28th November, 1894, that the Government of New Zealand invited applications for Consols in connexion with the scheme for granting loans at a reasonable rate of interest to farmers on the security of their holdings.]
[Footnote 3: I allude to the Parsis, who came from Persia, and whose religion and customs are as distinct from those of the Natives of India as are our own.]