Karl Marx in the New-York Tribune 1857

Investigation of Tortures in India

Source: New-York Daily Tribune, September 17, 1857;
Transcribed: by Tony Brown.

Our London correspondent, whose letter with regard to the Indian revolt we published yesterday, very properly referred to some of the antecedents which prepared the way for this violent outbreak. We propose to-day to devote a moment to continuing that line of reflections, and to showing that the British rulers of India are by no means such mild and spotless benefactors of the Indian people as they would have the world believe. For this purpose, we shall resort to the official Blue Books... on the subject of East-Indian torture, which were laid before the House of Commons during the sessions of 1856 and 1857. The evidence, it will be seen, is of a sort which cannot be gainsayed.

We have first the report of the Torture Commission at Madras, which states its “belief in the general existence of torture for revenue purposes.” It doubts whether

“anything like air equal number of persons is annually subjected to violence on criminal (barges, as for the fault of non-payment of revenue.”

It declares that there was

“one thing which had impressed the Commission even more painfully than the conviction that torture exists: it is the difficulty of obtaining redress which confronts the injured parties.”

The reasons for this difficulty given by the Commissioners are: 1. The distances which those who wish to make complaints personally to the Collector have to travel, involving expense and loss of time in attending upon his office: 2. The fear that applications by letter

“will be returned with the ordinary indorsement of a reference to the Tahsildar”

the district police and revenue officer — that is, to the very man who, either in his person or through his petty police subordinates, has wronged him; 3. The inefficient means of procedure and punishment provided by law for officers of Government, even when formally accused or convicted of these practices. It seems that if a charge of this nature were proved before a magistrate, he could only punish by a fine of fifty rupees, or a month’s imprisonment. The alternative consisted of handing over the accused

“to the criminal judge to be punished by him, or committed for trial before the Court of the Circuit.”

The report adds that

“these seem to be tedious proceedings, applicable only to one class of offenses, abuse of authority – namely, in police charges, and totally inadequate to the necessities of the case.”

A police or revenue officer, who is the same person, as the revenue is collected by the police, when charged with extorting money, is first tried by the Assistant Collector; he then can appeal to the Collector; then to the Revenue Board. This Board may refer him to the Government or to the civil courts.

“In such a state of the law, no poverty-stricken ryot could contend against any wealthy revenue officer; and we are riot aware of any complaints having been brought forward under these two regulations (of 1822 and 1828) by the people.”

Further, this extorting of money applies only to taking the public money, or forcing a further contribution from the ryot for the officer to put into his own pocket. There is, therefore, no legal means of punishment whatever for the employment of force in collecting the public revenue.

The report from which these quotations are made applies only to the Presidency of Madras: but Lord Dalbousie himself, writing, in September, 1855, to the Directors says that

“he has long ceased to doubt that torture in one shape or other is practiced by the lower subordinates in every British province.”

The universal existence of torture as a financial institution of British India is thus officially admitted, but the admission is made in such a manner as to shield the British Government itself. In fact, the conclusion arrived at by the Madras commission is that the practice of torture is entirely the fault of the lower Hindoo officials, while the European servants of the Government had always, however unsuccessfully, done their best to prevent it. In answer to this assertion, the Madras Native Association presented, in January, 1856, a petition to Parliament, complaining of the torture investigation on the following grounds: 1. That there was scarcely any investigation at all, the Commission sitting only in the City of Madras, and for but three months, while it was impossible, except in very few cases, for the natives who had complaints to make to leave their homes; 2. That the Commissioners did not endeavor to trace the evil to its source; had they done so, it would have been discovered to be in the very system of collecting the revenue; 3. That no inquiry was made of the accused native officials as to what extent their superiors were acquainted with the practice.

“The origin of this coercion,” say the petitioners, “is not with the physical perpetrators of it, but descends to them from the officials immediately their superiors, which latter again are answerable for the estimated amount of the collection to their European superiors, these also being responsible on the same head to the highest authority of the Government.”

Indeed, a few extracts from the evidence on which the Madras Report professes to be founded, will suffice to refute its assertion that “no blame is due to Englishmen.” Thus, Mr. W. D. Kohlhoff, a merchant, says:

“The modes of torture practiced are various, and suitable to the fancy of the tahsildar or his subordinates, but whether any redress is received from higher authorities, it is difficult for me to tell, as all complaints are generally referred to the tahsildars for investigation and information.”

Among the cases of complaint from natives, we find the following:

“Last year, as our peasanum (principal paddy or rice crops) failed for want of rain, we were unable to pay as usual. When the jamabundy was made, we claimed a remission on account of the losses, according to the terms of the agreement entered into in 1837, by us, when Mr. Eden was our collector. As this remission was not allowed, we refused to take our puttahs. The tahsildar then commenced to compel us to pay with great severity, from the month of June to August. I and others were placed in charge of persons who used to take us in the sun. There we were made to stoop and stones were put on our backs, and we were kept in the burning sand. After 8 o’clock, we were let to go to our rice. Suchlike ill treatment was continued during three months, during which we sometimes went to give our petitions to the collector, who refused to take them. We took these petitions and appealed to the Sessions Court, who transmitted them to the collector. Still we got no justice. In the month of September, a notice was served upon us, and twenty-five days after, our property was distrained, and afterward sold, Beside what I have mentioned, our women were also ill treated; the kittee was put upon their breasts.”

A native Christian states in reply to questions put by the Commissioners:

“When a European or native regiment passes through, all the ryots are pressed to bring in provisions, &c., for nothing, and should any of them ask for the price of the articles, they are severely tortured.”

There follows the case of a Brahmin, in which he, with others of his own village and of the neighboring villages, was called on by the Tahsildars to furnish planks, charcoal, firewood, &c., gratis, that he might carry on the Coleroon bridge work: on refusing, he is seized by twelve men and maltreated in various ways. He adds:

“I presented a complaint to the Sub-Collector, Mr. W. Cadell, but he made no inquiry, and tore my complaint. As he is desirous of completing cheaply the Coleroon bridge work at the expense of the poor and of acquiring a good name from the Government, whatever may be the nature of the murder committed by the Tahsildar, he takes no cognizance of it.”

The light in which illegal practices, carried to the last degree of extortion and violence, were looked upon by the highest authority, is best shown by the case of Mr. Brereton, the Commissioner in charge of the Loodhiana District in the Punjaub in 1855. According to the Report of the Chief Commissioner for the Punjaub, it was proved that

“in matters under the immediate cognizance or. direction of the Deputy-Commissioner, Mr. Brereton himself, the houses of wealthy, citizens had been causelessly searched; that property seized on such occasions was detained for lengthened periods; that many parties were thrown into prison, and lay there for weeks, without charges being exhibited against them; and that the laws relating to security for bad character had been applied with sweeping and indiscriminating severity. That the Deputy-Commissioner had been followed about from district to district by certain police officers and informers, whom he employed wherever he went, and that these men had been the main authors of mischief.”

In his minute on the case, Lord Dalhousie says:

“We have irrefragable proof – proof, indeed, undisputed by Mr. Brereton, himself – that that officer has been guilty of each item in the healthy catalogue of irregularities and illegalities with which the chief Commissioner has charged him, and which have brought disgrace on one portion of the British administration, and have subjected a large number of British subjects to gross injustice, to arbitrary imprisonment and cruel torture.”

Lord Dalhousie proposes “to make a great public example,” and, consequently, is of opinion that

“Mr. Brereton cannot, for the present, be fitly intrusted with the authority of a Deputy Commissioner, but ought to be removed from that grade to the grade of a first class Assistant.”

These extracts from the Blue Books may be concluded with the petition from the inhabitants of Talook in Canara, on the Malabar coast, who, after stating that they had presented several petitions to the Government to no purpose, thus contrast their former and present condition:

“While we were cultivating wet and dry lands, hill tracts, low tracts and forests, paying the light assessment fixed upon us, and thereby enjoying tranquillity and happiness under the administration of ‘Ranee,’ Bhadur and Tippoo, the then Circar servants, levied an additional assessment, but we never paid it. We were not subjected to privations, oppressions or ill-usages in collecting the revenue. On the surrender of this country to the Honorable Com ally, they devised all sorts of plans to squeeze out money from us. With this pernicious object in view, they invented rules and framed regulations, and directed their collectors and civil judges to put them in execution. But the then collectors and their subordinate native officials paid for some time due attention to our grievances, and acted in consonance with our wishes. On the contrary, the present collectors and their subordinate officials, desirous of obtaining promotion on any account whatever, neglect the welfare and interests of the people in general. turn a deaf car to our grievances, and subject us to all sorts of oppressions.”

— We have here given but a brief and mildly-colored chapter from the real history of British rule in India. In view of such facts, dispassionate and thoughtful men may perhaps be led to ask whether a people are not justified in attempting to expel the foreign conquerors who have so abused their subjects. And if the English could do these things in cold blood, is it surprising that the insurgent Hindoos should be guilty, in the fury of revolt and conflict, of the crimes and cruelties alleged against them?