The Road to the Hindu Marriage Act 1955: William Bentinck

England in the eighteenth century was a society which was a democracy in name, but was ruled by a class of people who had their fingers in every pie from Commons to Lords. The 3rd Duke of Portland was a member of this class of people, and he was born to rule by virtue of the family in which he was born. He received his education at the finest schools, and mingled with the cream of society from childhood. He went on to hold every rank of peerage from Baron to Duke, and later became the Prime Minister of England not once but twice. He also had the honour of holding the position of the Leader of the House in the House of Lords.

He was, incidentally, one of the direct ancestors of the present queen of England through her maternal line. (This last is not something exceptional since half the nobility of Europe in those days were direct ancestors of Elizabeth II, although they probably did not suspect it then). He had six children –one of whom was the man we remember today as Lord William Bentinck.

Lord Bentinck was a lieutenant general, a governor, a governor-general, and an elected member of parliament in his life of 64 years, apart from being a member of the British nobility by birth. He also had a ship named after him within his lifetime, and he declined a peerage and a membership of the House of Lords. Lord Bentinck was the last governor-general of the presidency of Fort William in the former united Bengal. The East India Company appointed him to the post in 1828. He subsequently became the first governor-general of India in 1833, and remained in office till 1835. He is sometimes confused with his brother (the 4th Duke of Portland) or his father, who had the same first name –William– as him.

Earlier on, he had become Governor of Madras at the age of 29 in 1803 due to the good offices of his father. He had a tenure of about 4 years, and had to leave in 1807 due to a mutiny in Vellore triggered by his insistence to uphold an order which the native soldiers resented. The GoC of Madras had forbidden native soldiers from wearing turbans and beards, and Bentinck had upheld the order. This was nothing strange, coming as it did from an Englishman. It is not unknown in England for offices and banks to declare that beards may be worn by gentlemen employees, but not during office hours. India being India, the order was not received with much enthusiasm –indeed, with outright hostility and rebellion.

Bentinck decided that he had to come back to India to prove his worth again. India, after all, was the Jewel in the Crown. His family also had some history with India. The first government of the 3rd Duke of Portland had fallen when the coalition which he headed (called the Fox-North Coalition) tried to push through a bill nationalising the East India Company.

Lord Bentinck was a kind though pragmatic man who had acquired a deep-seated belief in the principle of the greater good for the greater number of people. A number of commentators have attributed his belief in this principle to the influence of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. There may be some substance in this logic but it is the sum total of a man's experience which shapes him, and Bentinck was a man who had travelled far and wide –and had met more people than anybody except the most privileged people in that era could. It might therefore be incorrect to attribute his belief solely to the influence of one or two men. He came from a liberal family, and his ideas would have been considered unconventional to the extent of being disruptive in the time and place to which he belonged –had it not been for his solid family background, which helped him to mainstream his ideas within his lifetime.

Bentinck came back to India after a gap of more than two decades, during which he had helped Sicily to establish its first written Constitution, and to abolish feudalism(!) He came here to turn around the fortunes of the East India Company, which was making losses in India, and was at risk of losing its charter to rule India. He was appointed by the shortest serving Prime Minister in the history of Britain. George Canning. Canning was married to the sister of Lord Bentincks's brother's wife, and he had served as Foreign Secretary during the second prime ministerial administration of the 3rd Duke of Portland. The 3rd Duke of Portland –as mentioned earlier– was Lord Bentinck's father.

The East India Company was at risk of losing its charter to govern India due to the losses which it was incurring. Bentinck was tasked with turning it around, and turn it around he did.

Bentinck cut the batta (active duty) allowance of the soldiery in India, and curtailed increases in the salaries of the civil service, a cadre of 416 officers which was the precursor of the modern day IAS. He introduced a direct licensing system for opium farmers to send their produce directly from their villages to Bombay, with the East India Company taking a share of the profits. He also reorganised the land revenue system in many parts of the country. Thus he was able to turn around the fortunes of the company, and its charter was renewed by the British government, though its commercial activities were abolished by the Whig government which ruled the UK in 1833 under Earl Grey. The company was reduced to a purely administrative role (just as Bentinck's father had desired in his time) and Bentinck was appointed the first Governor-General of India.

Bentinck shut down the circuit courts of appeal in the provinces. These courts were causing unbearable delays and much pain to petitioners, prisoners, prosecutors, and witnesses, because the judges took six month holidays between hearings. The prisoners were held for all that time, and the rest of the parties had to wait or to hang around at their own expense.

He changed the language of the courts from Persian to the vernacular in the lower courts. In the higher courts he introduced English. He also appointed Indian judges, and was the first British administrator of India to do so. He made Indian judges eligible to adjudicate disputes between natives of up to 300 rupees, as also criminal cases, and gave them the charge of Boards of Revenue and Sadar Nizamat Adalats –which were the lowest courts. He also set up a second tier of courts run by Indians, which were called munsif courts. Another level of courts –the highest level administered by Indians exclusively– were the Sadar Amin courts. Europeans remained judges of higher courts for the most part, though a few Indians were allowed to sit on the bench of these higher courts too. It can be seen in these actions that he was a proponent of the right to equality, which became a cornerstone of free India's Constitution in the 20th century.

Lord Bentinck is claimed to have been interested in establishing a free Press in India by his admirers, although this is not borne out by at least one of his recorded comments in which he said that a free Press can lead to the spread of knowledge in India, and endanger British rule in this country. Charles Metcalfe –who was one of Bentinck's ablest lieutenants along with Mackenzie– is usually credited with taking the first concrete steps towards a free Press in India during his tenure as the acting Governor-General of India. Metcalfe Hall, a major landmark in Calcutta, was built to commemorate Metcalfe's contribution in this direction. He was also honoured a number of times by the Bengali elite for his efforts.

Bentinck deemed the practices of tantric child sacrifice and Sati savagery of the worst kind. He banned both of these, and he made great strides in finishing off the menace of Thuggee or thuggery, which was practiced by thugs in India. The English word 'thug' is of Indian origin. Sir William Henry Sleeman carried out Bentinck's mandate with great energy, and practically wiped out this variety of bandit from the face of this country within the span of a decade.

Bentinck tried to implement the traditional law which made it illegal for Hindus to convert to Islam and still remain eligible to inherit wealth from their parents. He did this through the Hindu Law of Inheritance, 1832. This was praised by Hindus and condemned by Muslims, who had traditionally not allowed this law to function by virtue of being occupants of all judges' positions under Muslim rule in India. Hindus had traditionally been forced or allured to convert to Islam, and the Muslim judges had ensured that these converts got their inheritance even after abandoning their religion. This action was to later find resonance in the Hindu Marriage Act in 1955, in the provision relating to conversion.

Bentinck also made it illegal to bar native Hindu or Muslim converts to Christianity from public service. This was –again– one of the practices which the British had inherited from their Muslim predecessors. He made it illegal for caste, religion, or ethnicity to hinder anyone from government service. This provision was later seen in Article 14 of the Indian Constitution more than a hundred years later.

Bentinck realised that European officers in India were being paid exorbitant salaries. He wanted to cut this expenditure down to as low an amount as possible in order to increase the revenue generated by the company. Indian men could not do their job because they were not conversant with the English language to the extent needed. Local men in Calcutta were also clamouring to learn English and European science and literature. Added to tht was Bentinck's desire as a nationalist to propagate British culture.

There were opposing forces in the form of orientalists like Horace Wilson, to be sure; but there were also great allies like Thomas Macaulay (who was the first law member of the governor-general's council), and Macaulay's brother-in-law, Sir Charles Trevelyan. He was also greatly influenced in this (as indicated earlier in this piece) by the utilitarian ideas of John Stuart Mill, one of the great influencers of his liberal ideology along with his (Whig) party, his father, and Jeremy Bentham.

Macaulay implememented Bentinck's initiative in a concrete fashion, and is to this day credited with the introduction of English medium education in this country.

You may also wish to read The Road to the Hindu Marriage Act: Legislatures under the British Raj and/or The Road to the Hindu Marriage Act: Laws 'Enacted' in/for India during the Victorian Era (part 1) and/or The Road to the Hindu Marriage Act: Laws 'Enacted' in/for India during the Victorian Era (part 2) and/or The Road to the Hindu Marriage Act: Laws 'Enacted' in/for India during the Victorian Era (part 3) and/or The Road to the Hindu Marriage Act: The Anand Marriage Act 1909 and/or The Road to the Hindu Marriage Act: The Indian Succession Act 1925

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Published by Manish Udar

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Last updated on 27th November 2018
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