Social Reforms in India During Lord William Bentinck’s Era in 1828

The advent of Lord William Bentinck in 1828 opened an era of monumental social reforms in India. His seven years rule proved a peaceful interlude between two periods of severe and costly campaigning, and thus made it possible to achieve reforms which were long over due.

Helped by his previous experience in Madras and a more efficient staff of officials, he consolidated and reorganised the administration which since the time of Cornwallis has been hastily adapted to the newly conquered countries. His own instincts were those of a liberal reformar.

He believed in peace retrenchment, and reforms in free competition, free trade and a strictly limited sphere of state of action. These touched nearly every side of Indian life and formed the basis of the parental government of the Victorian era. Bentinck initiated new policies in the sphere of finance, justice and education. Freedom from wars gave him a larger European staff and greater confidence in taking unpopular measure.

He was able to turn his attention to the civilisation of savage tribes and abolition of certain religious and social customs, such as Sati and female infanticide. He was first Governor-General who began his work with firm conviction that “the end of Government is the welfare of the governed and that British influence must be founded on Indian Happiness”.

Abolition of Sati:

Social reform which reflects great credit on the administration of Lord Bentinck was the abolition of Sati and Thugee.

The word is probably derived from ‘Sat’ the nearest English equivalent of which is ‘truth’. In course of time the word ‘Sati’ began to be applied to the act of self-immolation itself. How and when the practice originated is hidden in obscurity but its long tradition and reference to if found in ancient books gave it the colour of a religious ceremony.

The custom, however, was not universal but was confined to the higher castes. Sati should however, in no case be mixed up with the custom prevalent in certain parts of Central and Western Asia and Eastern Europe of burying alive widows and slave- girls at the death of their master in his grave.

Sati was voluntary act a privilege and an honour accompanied by the recitation of sacred verses and involving the burning of the widowed woman on the funeral pyre, the former was an out of compulsion having its origin probably in the jealousy of the dead master rather than in the devotion of the living widow.

The custom, even before the British, was being increasingly looked upon as revolting to the conscience of humanity. The greatest of Mughal Emperors, Akbar had ridden forth from his palace to save a Sati from funeral pyre, Albuquerque had forbidden it in Goa and the Peshwa had prohibited it within his territories.

But none before Bentinck had made Sati a crime and punishable under the criminal code. British conscience had long been touched but their policy of non-interference in religious customs, and serious consequences were apprehended. Lord Amherst invited opinions, but the diversity of view expressed served only to confuse him.

Bentinck came determined to end the matter finally this way or that. The opinions of the Civil and Military officers whom he consulted coupled with the support of Raja Ram Mohan Roy who encouraged him in the belief that no serious consequences would fellow legal prohibition.

Accordingly by a regulation of December, 1829, he declared the practice of Sati illegal and punishable by the Criminal courts as ‘Culpable Homicide’. Except the orthodox section, the prohibition found favour among the enlightened Hindu.

The use of law to affect a social reform was a new experience to many. But no body doubts that the measure has proved highly beneficial to an over-whelmingly large section of the Indian community.

Suppression of Thugs:

Another measure which freed society from a great post was the establishment of thugs. “Thug” as we knew means a cheat, and thugee was a profession practised alike by the Hindus and Muslims.

The Thugs moved about in gangs, strangled their victims to death and fleed them of all their property. The lack of sufficient police force encouraged their notorious activities. Travelling becomes absolutely insecure. Bentinck was the first to make determined efforts on a large scale to break up the system.

The new department which he created was placed in charge of Sir William Sleeman whose strenuous labours ended in finally breaking up the gangs with the help of approvers. The thugs were pursued from place to place, eventually caught and punished.

For the improvement of the situation these steps were not taken guilty of heinous crimes. An industrial school was opened at Jubbalpore where they were taught useful crafts and induced to settle down as civilized citizens.

Suppression of Infanticide and Child-sacrifices:

The practice of killing infant girls prevailed among some Rajput tribes. Many dubious methods were used to destroy female children; some neglected to suckle the child, others administered poisonous drugs (mostly opium) through the nipple of the mother’s breast.

Still some dare-devils put the girl in a sack and threw it into a river. Infanticide was found to be prevalent among some Rajput tribes in the provinces of Banaras, among the Jharija Rajputs of Cutch and Gujarat and cases were also reported among the Rathors of Jaipur and Jodhpur and even the Jats and Mewatis were not immune from this evil practice.

Although infanticide had been declared illegal by Bengal Regulation XXI of 1795 and Regulation III of 1804, inhuman practice still continued. William Bentinck took vigorous steps to suppress this immoral and inhuman practice.

William Bentinck’s attention was also drawn to the ritual of offering child sacrifices at special occasions in Saugar Island in Bengal. Bentinck issued prompt order to stop this evil practice.

Recruitment to Public Services:

In matters of recruitment to public services, William Bentinck sought to efface the humiliating distinctions between Europeans and Indians introduced by Cornwallis and upheld by subsequent Governor-General.

Fitness was now laid down as criterion for eligibility, Section 87 of the Charter Act of 1833 provided that no Indian subject of the company in India was to be debarred from holding any office under company “by reason of his religion, place of birth, descent, and colour,” It is believed that this charter clause was inserted at the instance of Lord Bentinck. Though the immediate effect of this clause was very little, it laid down a very important and healthy principle.

Educational Reforms:

Perhaps the most significant and of far reaching consequences were Bentinck’s decisions about education in India. As early as 1825 Elphinstone had written that the only effective path to Social Reform and only remedy to social abuses was education.

The Macaulayian system of education has profoundly affected the moral and intellectual character of the people of India. Bentinck’s Government defined the aim of education in India and the medium of instruction to be employed.

How was the government grant for education to be spent? Were government subsidies to be spent for the encouragement of oriental language and Indian literature and through the medium of English?

The members of the committee of public instruction were divided into two groups of equal strength; the orientalists led by Hayman Wilson and Prince Brothers and the accidentalists or Anglicists led by Sir Charles Trevelyar and supported by Indian liberals like Raja Ram Mohan Roy.

The Charter Act of 1813 allotted a sum of Rs. one lakh a year for the “revival and promotion of knowledge of the sciences among the inhabitants of the British territories”. The Government of India could not make up its mind as to how the money was to be spent and the same was allowed to accumulate every year.

In 1823 Mr. Adams appointed a committee of public instruction to make suggestions. However, much could not be done on account of pre-occupation with the first Burmese War; William Bentinck had to tackle the problem. The arrival of Lord Macaulay as law member strengthened the hands of those who stood for the expenditure of money on English Education.

Ultimately the issue was decided in favour of the English language. Practical considerations were responsible for deciding the issue. It was felt that not only the Government of India would get cheap clerks but there would be greater demands for English goods.

Even Indians like Raja Ram Mohan Roy were in favour of the English language. By a resolution of March 1835, William Bentinck declared that, “the great object of British Government ought to be the promotion of literature and science among the natives and the funds appropriated for education should be best employed on English education alone.

English was made the official language of India in the higher branches of administration. Since then English language, English literature, English political and natural sciences have formed the basis of higher education in India.

It cannot be denied that the English education gave the Indians a lingua franca and thereby helped the cause of nationalism in the country. The Indians were introduced to the treasures of western knowledge.

In 1835, a medical college was opened at Calcutta. Thus the knowledge of the western theory of medicine began to be given to the students in India.

Following were some of the advantages of English education introduced during the Governor-Generalship of William Bentinck:

1. It broadened the view point of the Indian and they started expressing themselves against the social evils prevalent in the society.

2. The western literature and science awakened the feeling of nationality and love of their country and made them aware of the English administrative policy and diplomacy.

3. The mutual exchange of the eastern and western languages made the westerners aware of many things from the easterners. Indians also learnt many things from the westerners.

In 1835, William Bentinck opened a Medical College at Calcutta for the benefit of the Indians. Thus for the first time knowledge of the western theory of Medicine began to be given to the students in India.

Financial Reforms:

The Financial Reforms of Bentinck had two endo in view. One was retrenchment and the other was increase in revenue.

Immediately on his assuming the reins of office, Bentinck appointed two committees Civil and Military to enquire into the increased expenditure and suggest means of reduction. As a result of their suggestions he abolished many sine-cure offices, cut down inflated allowances and reduced the salaries of Civil services.

In the military establishment not much reduction was possible except the curtailment of the ‘bhatta’ allowances. In November 1828 an order was issued reducing bhatta to half it’s fixed’ amount at all stations within 400 miles of Calcutta. Immediately uproar was created; the Governor-General was openly insulted and the Anglo-Indian press added its venomous shafts to the onslaught. But Bentinck kept his head and storm died its natural death. The saving effected was Rs. 20,000 a year.

Another measure of retrenchment affected by Bentinck concerned the judicial structure set up by the company. This was the abolition of the provincial courts of Appeal and Circuit. The some judges as courts and as courts of circuit held session’s trials twice a year. The system was defective in the extreme.

The judicial acumen of the judges was beneath contempt and Bentinck justly. Characterized the courts as resting places for those members of service who were deemed unfit for higher responsibilities. The abolition of the courts was a measure of economy as well as judicial reform.

Administrative and Judicial Reforms:

The administrative structure of British India had been given shape by Cornwallis. But since the days of Cornwallis the company had made great advances, and defects in that structure became apparent as it had not kept pace with the advance.

The judicial system especially suffered from the three great evils of “delay, expense and uncertainty”. Calcutta, the nerve centre of administration, had become too distant for the newly acquired territories. Bentinck set his head to the remodelling of the judicial structure ably assisted by Sir Charles Metcalfe, Butterwarth Bayley and Holt Mackenzie.

He abolished the provincial counts of Appeal and Circuit. The duties of the sessions he transferred to the District Judge and established Sadar or chief court of the north-west province to hear appeals from the original courts. These institutional changes removed many of the miseries of the litigant public and helped in the quick disposal of cases.

In reconstituting the administrative mechanism be followed in general the path suggested by Metcalf viz., native functionaries in the first instance in ali departments.

European superintendents’s, uniting the local powers of judicature police and revenue in all their branches, through the district over which they preside; commissioners over them and a Board over them communicate with and subject to the immediate control of the Government.

Accordingly he appointed a Board of Revenue at Allahabad for the N. W. Provinces, appointed Commissioners of Revenue and Circuit; combine the office of collector with that at the District Magistrate with certain judicial power.

In his administrative reforms Bentinck combined economy with simplicity and the machinery which he set up, with alternations in minor details, exists to this day.

Another anomaly which he removed was the use of Persian as the court language, a language unknown to the judge as well as the litigants. Bentinck abolished the use of pension and in its place substituted the vernacular. This change greatly benefited the people and enabled them to express their grievances in the language know to them.

Policy towards the Press:

Bentinck’s policy towards the press was characterised by a liberal attitude. He used it as a safety valve for discontent.

Lord William Bentinck was one of the most successful Governor-generals who came to India. It is undoubtly Thai he achieved far more popularity and fame than could be achieved by any one of his predecessor. Dr. Ishwar Prasad says “Bentinck’s glories were the glories of peace.” P.E. Roberts says the peaceful and financially prosperous administration undoubtly did the East India Company a great service.

It has been rightly remarked “while the administration of the marques of Hastings was marked by triumphs of war that of William Bentinck will always be remembered for the triumphs of peace.”

His beneficient reforms which he conceived in an enlighted and humanitarian spirit have earned for him a high place in Indian History and he deserves the everlasting gratitude of the Indian people.