The Cornwallis Code of 1793 (Notes)

In 1786, Lord Cornwallis came to Bengal as Governor-General. Before his appointment, he had acted as the Commander-in-Chief of the British army in the American War of Independence.

Enlisted with vast military and administrative experience, Cornwallis in every direction built on the foundations already laid or began to be laid by his predecessors, and especially by Hastings.

He was especially interested with the task of finding out a satisfactory solution to the land revenue problem, restructuring the commercial department, purifying administration and invigorating the judicial department. It was for his effort that the Pitt’s India Act was amended in 1786 so that he might combine in himself the power of the Governor- General and Commander-in-Chief.

He was also given the power to over-rule the members of his executive council; it was his virtue that he did not hesitate to take help of his subordinate officers. He carried out the following reforms in the different fields of administration.

Judicial Reforms:

Cornwallis found the judicial machinery suffering from much confusion, diversity of practice and uncertainty of jurisdiction. His reforms were aimed at removing these defects. The district, as a territorial unit, figured as the centre of all his reforms.

For the administration of civil justice there were the civil courts known as Diwani Adalatas Cornwallis placed them under the collectors who were given judicial powers. In addition, a court to try cases upto the value of Rs. 200 was established presided over by an Indian Registrar.

Above the district court are organised four provincial courts of Calcutta, Dacca, Patna and Murshidabad. These provincial courts presided over by European judges heard appeals from the district courts was the Court of Sadar Diwani Adalat at Calcutta which heard appeals from the District Courts and in general looked after the administration of Civil Justice.

Criminal justice concerned itself with he apprehension of the criminal and his punishment. At the time of Cornwallis there were English Magistrates who, however, had on power of punishment, but only that of apprehending the criminal, punishment being the function of Faujdari Adalats (Criminal Court) which were presided over by Indian judges at the Apex of which was the Sadar Nizamat Adalat presided over by Mohammad Raza Khan.

The reform of Cronwallis in this field of justice consisted chiefly in removing the Indian judges and replacing them by Europeans with defined powers. The Collector was invested with certain powers of Criminal justice which he exercises even today.

At the head of each district he appointed a session’s judge. In addition he appointed four provincial courts of circuit, at Dacca, Murshidabad, Patna and Calcutta. The judges of these courts were the same as those of the provincial civil courts, but in their capacity as courts of circuit they toured their provinces and administered criminal justice.

At the head was the Sadar Nizamat Adalat at Calcutta from which Mohammad Raza Khan was removed and his place was taken by the Governor-General and members of the Supreme Council assisted by Indian advisers, and the court was removed from Murshidabad to Calcutta.

The Law to be administered was Muslim law in criminal cases and the personal law of the parties in civil cases, supplemented by the ideas of English law. Often there was a conflict between the two and notions of English Law, strange to the parties, were imparted by the English Judges.

The Cornwallis Code:

A comprehensive body of rules dealing with every department of the state was drawn up. In accordance with these rules the business of the state was to proceed. A clear division between the administrative and commercial services was made and servants of the company were asked to make their choice.

By 1793 it became clear that the Board of Revenue could not deal with the huge number of cases concerning revenue that cropped up. Arrears accumulated, people lamented the laws delay, and some remedy became urgent.

Accordingly in each district ‘Mai Adalats’ were created at the head of which was placed the collector who was re-invested with revenue powers, his revenue functions developing on assistants.

Thus by 1793 Cornwallis, by strenuous labour had separated the administrative and commercial services and built up that fabric, which with certain modifications is in existence even today. In that fabric Europeans were to dominate the whole show and the collectors was the central piece, the main link between the District and the Supreme Government.

It is true that all the pieces of the administrative structure were in existence when Cornwallis put his hands to its, but it was his administrative acumen that give a shape, a cohesion and a harmony to them.

He put those pieces together in their proper places and hammered them into a system. That was the measure of his success and achievement. To safeguard the Indians against oppression it was provided that the collectors at revenue and indeed of all offices of Government shall be amenable to courts for acts done in their official capacities, and that government itself in cases in which it may be a party with its subjects in matters of property shall submit its rights to be tried in courts under the existing laws and regulations. By this provision Cornwallis introduced the rule of law in India.

Reform of Criminal Law:

If Warren Hastings had asserted the right of the company’s government to interfere with the administration of law, Cornwallis maintained that the company had the right to reform the Criminal Law itself. The Mohammedans take their criminal law to be divinely ordained.

During 1790-93 Cornwallis introduced certain changes in the criminal law which were regularised by a Parliamentary Act of 1797.

In December 1790 a rule was framed for the guidance of Mohammedan law officers that in all trials of murder they were to be guided by the intention of the murderer either evident or fairly inferable and not by the manner or instrument of perpetration.

Further in case of murder, the will of the heir or kindred of the deceased were not to be allowed to operate in the grant of pardon or in the demand of compensation money as a price of blood.

Again, the usual punishment of amputation of limbs of body was replaced by temporary hard labour or fine and imprisonment according to circumstances of the case. Regulation IX 1793 amended the law of evidence by providing that the religious persuasions of witnesses shall not be considered as a bar to the conviction or condemnation of a prisoner.

Thus non-Muslims could give testimony against Muslims in criminal cases not permitted so far according to the Muslim law of evidence.

Reforms in the Police:

Cornwallis also made reforms in the police. Hitherto it was the duty of the Zainindars to establish peace and order and arrested the suspected persons. Cornwallis changed the system. He took away the police power from the Zamindars and divided the district in the small units.

Each such small unit was placed under the charge of a ‘Daroga’, or superintendent and the representative of the company living in the district supervised over the incharges of these units. In the police service he also appointed European and fixed their duties and salaries.

Commercial Reforms:

Cornwallis found corruption rampant in the Commercial Department. The company’s servants made huge profits in the goods they sent to England on their personal accounts. Ever since the establishment of the Board of Trade at Calcutta in 1774 the company had pocured goods through European and Indian contractors.

The contractors usually supplied goods at high prices and the inferior quality. The members of the Board of Trade rather than checking the malpractices of the contractors were often found to be in league with them by accepting bribes and commissions.

Cornwallis remarked that “the warehouses at Calcutta were a sink at corruption and inequity”. Cornwallis reduced the strength of the Board of Trade from eleven to five members. The method of procuring supplies through contracts was given up and the method of procuring supplies through commercial residents and agents begun.

These Commercial resident made advances to the manufacturers and settled prices with them. The company started getting supplies at cheaper rates. Thus Cornwallis put the commercial department of the Company on a footing on which it remained so long as the company traded.

Suppression of Bribery:

Himself Cornwallis was above the greed for money that has tarnished the names of Clive and Warren Hastings. Cornwallis forebade the company’s employees the acceptance of bribes or presents or indulgence in private trade.

He required each officer to declare his property under oath before he left India. He enforced this rule even though he had to dismiss some high officials. Cornwallis does nothing with the infamous credits of the Nawab of Carnatic but he prevented the further spread of this evil among the company’s servants.

Cornwallis’s approach to the problem was basic. He realised that the low salaries of the company’s servants tempted them to supplement their meagre income by corrupt or illegal methods.

Responsibility be held must be paid for or public official would abuse his trust. He decided to raise the salaries of the employees of the company A collector was to get a salary of Rs. 1500 per mensem with an additional allowance of 1 per cent on total revenue collected. District officials were provided with European assistance on good salaries. Cornwallis resisted the recommendation of even Prince of Wales.

Europeanisation of Administration Machinery:

Cornwallis policy of recial disemination was reflected in the administration. He had a very low opinion about Indian character ability and integrity. So he closed the doors of covenanted services to Indians.

He sought to reserve all the higher service for the Europeans and reduce Indians to the position of hewers of wood and drawers of water. In the army the Indians could not rise above the position of Zamidars on Subedars and in the Civil service not above the status of munsifs, Sadar Amins or Deputy Collector. Cornwallis used the official seal on the policy of racialism which soured Anglo-Indian relation till the end of British Rule in India.

The Permanent Settlement in Bengal:

The revenue administration was a complicated affair and no permanent decision was taken about it prior to the arrival of Lord Cornwallis in India. Cornwallis was specially directed to device a satisfactory solution to the land revenue. So Cornwallis after his arrival here initiated deep discussion in which loading part was taken by Sir John Shore, the President of the Board of Control, Mr. James Grant and Governor-General himself. The discussion pointed out three questions:

1. With whom was the settlement to be made-the Zamindars on the actual tillers of the soil?

2. The amount of state’s in share confronted the decision­makers.

3. Should the settlement be for a term of year or permanent?

On these subjects two groups emerged James Grant pointed out that state was the owner of the all land in the country, the Zamindar was just the rent collecting agent and as such could be discarded at the will of the state.

On the other hand John Shore maintained that the Zamindar was the owner of the land subject to the payment of annual land revenue to the state. As such the Zamindar could bequeath the entire land to his children, sell it or mortgage it.

Another problem also confronted the decision-makers. The company officers did not possess adequate administrative experience to make a direct settlement with the ryot.

The system of farming estates to the highest bidder had been tried for long with undesirable consequence. So Cornwallis decided to make a settlement with Zamindars. First, it was proposed on the basis of the highest Mughal settlement, namely, that in force in 1765.

Ultimately it was decided that the settlement was to be made on the basis of the actual collections of the year 1790-91 which were put at Rs. 2, 68, 00,000.

Secondly, Cornwallis wanted to declare the settlement permanent and perpetual. He held the view that a ten year period was too limited to attract any Zamindar to improve the land.