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The Oft-Ignored Mr. Turton: Part Two

In Arts & Letters, Britain, Conservatism, Eastern Civilizaton, Fiction, History, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, Law-and-Literature, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Philosophy, Politics on April 16, 2012 at 7:55 am

Allen Mendenhall

The following originally appeared here at Libertarian Papers.  Full Works Cited to appear in Part Three.

The Role of District Collector

Partly because of Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay’s codes, and partly because of the British need to establish powerful offices that would entice colonizers to remain in India rather than return to England, collectors gained extraordinary powers between 1857 and 1909 (Arora and Goyal 243). “In him [the Collector] was created a ‘little Napoleon,’” Ramesh Kumar Arora and Rajni Goyal explain, “who, being part and parcel of the steel-frame, made it possible for the British to govern and control the vast subcontinent” (244). It is fair to say that Mr. Turton is one of these little Napoleons—an official forced to countenance Indian interests while pledging ultimate allegiance to the British sovereign. In fact, Forster goes so far as to call Mr. and Mrs. Turton “little gods” (20).[1] Thus cast, Mr. Turton is problematic—for like other collectors he “had to adjust his autocratic rule and at times benevolent administration to a climate of representative politics” (Tummala 126).[2] In other words, he had to straddle two societies and to pander to multiple interests; but his loyalties were to remain unchanged. Turton is a conflicted, ambivalent character in part because his occupation is itself conflicted. He is a site and symbol of British power but also of British mercy and tolerance. As such, he is the perfect character through which to critique colonial programs in general and utilitarian jurisprudence in particular. Forster uses Turton to show that British rule of law is either a myth or a pretext for nation-building, and that Brahman Hindu philosophy is a jurisprudentially sound alternative to rule of law.

The district collector was a major locus of power in the centrally planned Indian Civil Service. Arora and Goyal describe the current office of district collector as “the kingpin of district administration in India” (243). “The office,” Arora and Goyal continue, “is the result of a long process of evolution of about two hundred years of the British rule” (243). Forster’s productions came about during the late stages of this British rule. Although the “administration of revenue, civil justice and magistracy was united in the office of District Collector,” thus making the District Collector “the executive machinery in the district,” District Collectors did not become “the symbol of imperial rule” until after the 1857 revolt (Sarkar 117). Before the revolt, also known as the Indian Mutiny or the First War of Independence, the district collector signified an “extremely powerful civil servant running the executive machinery in the district” (Sarkar 117). The causes of the Indian Rebellion are disputed,[3] but the ramifications seem to have been, in one contemporary’s words, “a persistent attempt to force Western ideas,” including Benthamite utilitarianism, “upon an Eastern people” (Malleson G. B. 412).

By the time Forster visited India,[4] the office of district collector would entail “powers of the magistrate and the judge too” (Tummala 126), the former power being limited to small claims and ceremonial rights (Brimnes 222). During Forster’s visit, district collectors would have spent “more time on the office desk and less on tours which provided [them] an opportunity to come in direct contact with people,” including tourists like Forster (Parashar 83). The prepositional phrase “on the office desk” seems suggestive of any number of activities (some sexual) besides simply work. Anyhow, district Collectors worked closely with District Magistrates (represented by the character Ronny in Passage) and District Police Superintendents (represented by McBryde) to keep local populations under constant surveillance as required by Macaulay’s legal codes (Kumar and Verma 66–67).

Macaulay was a British statesman and a man of letters who participated on the Supreme Council of India in the early 19th century. In this position, Macaulay advised George Lord Auckland, the Governor-General of India, regarding the laws of India. The best known of these efforts is probably the Indian Penal Code, the introductory footnote to which proclaims, “These papers […] are by no means merely of Indian interest, for, while they were the commencement of a new system of law for India, they chiefly relate to general principles of jurisprudence which are of universal application” (Macaulay, The Complete Works 551). This short footnote exemplifies the extent to which doctrinaire utilitarian paternalism had come to mark British administration in India. Indeed, Macaulay’s codes pivot on the assumption that British utilitarian jurisprudence is so enlightened as to be universal. By this logic, anything at odds with this jurisprudence would be unenlightened and backward and thus would require replacement.

Depicting Ronny as foolish and Turton as misguided, Forster rejects British utilitarianism and its assertion of consequentialism and legalism. Forster constantly refers to India as a muddle; he celebrates the chaos and confusion of the Gokul Astami festival, a rapturous Hindu “muddle” that is not only “the approaching triumph of India” but also “a frustration of reason and form” (258). During this festival, Godbole, a Brahman Hindu who teaches with Fielding, detaches “the tiny reverberation that was his soul” (258, 260). This scene reveals “a positive attitude toward chaos,” which is “completely un-Western” (Singh 272). It shows that the seemingly disordered is really spontaneously ordered. Chaos, here, recalls Brahman Hindu philosophy, which blends dualities into a single state and renders all things inclusive or unified. Forster portrays Hindu as organizing despite its inherent anarchy. It is the ultimate reality and thus the ultimate law. Forster, then, reverses the British utilitarian’s assumption about the universality of his jurisprudence. The truly universal system is Indian and, paradoxically, ordered by chaos.

Roughly half a century before Forster’s experiences in India, Macaulay and others would see in these Hindu or Indian forms of lawlessness an excuse for imposing and implementing centrally planned British rule of law in India. “[I]f we had found India in possession of a system of criminal law which the people regarded with partiality,” Macaulay claims in his introduction to the penal code, “we should have been inclined rather to ascertain it, to digest it, and moderately to correct it, than to propose a system fundamentally different” (Macaulay, The Complete Works 553). Both Hindu and Muslim laws existed, but Macaulay appears to downplay them in his introduction to the penal code, saying that the “criminal law of the Hindoos was long ago superseded” (553), and likewise that the “Mahomedan criminal law has in its turn been superseded, to a great extent, by the British Regulations” (553). Because India’s existing laws lacked uniformity and consistency, Macaulay sought to reshape Indian society within a British-drawn grid that squashed pluralistic complexities and local subtleties.

Interestingly enough, the office of district collector was supposed to embody something different from rule of law. Law was the province of district judges, for whom “the rule of law, though built on English ideas, was presumed to embody universal principles of justice, and assumed as well that men everywhere would, unless checked, abuse power to their own advantage” (Metcalf 27). For the district collectors, however, “India was a different kind of place from England, so much so that even despotism, so long as it was exercised by enlightened rulers, might properly flourish” (Metcalf 27). The district collector seems to have been an English official with interests in Indian ways.

Turton embodies this tension in the novel. While Forster shows his readers that rule of law is but a farce in Chandrapore because it completely fails to secure justice for Aziz and others, Forster also implies that the office of district collector is bound to fail because there are too many contradictions at its core. Aziz is not convicted, but that is because the courtroom is not British-controlled but rather presided over by an Indian judge. Although Turton tries to straddle English and Indian societies, he ultimately throws in his lot with the British, his own kind. Supplanting the laws and offices of the land with the laws and offices of the colonizer turns out to be disastrous for both the British and Indian characters. Even the office of district collector, which is supposed to pander to Indian interests, cannot endure for too long because it is bound up with empire. Although the office is a rare anti-utilitarian icon of the British raj, it is nevertheless part of the utilitarian system; therefore, Turton succumbs to utilitarian values, which is to say that he succumbs to the negation of all values save for utility, happiness, and pleasure.

Macaulay’s codes signify these “values” of utilitarianism. They enable paternalistic beliefs and assumptions about native lawlessness because they are meant as a newer and better system. The operation of these codes “depended not on the execution of one chapter but on all with equal importance” (Kumar and Verma 67). Nothing if not panoptic, in the Foucaultian sense of the term,[5] these codes also “provided a degree of security to life and property of the natives, but at the same time introduced [previously] unknown legal concepts that deterred resistance against the colonial state” (Kumar and Verma 67). These legal concepts[6] sought to achieve consistency and uniformity in law, since Macaulay believed that Indian law, particularly the Hindu variety celebrated by Forster, was inconsistent and disordered. One example of Macaulay’s belief that Hindu law was inadequate is his approving citation of Sir Francis Macnaghten, who proclaims that “it is a delusion to fancy that there is any known and fixed law under which the Hindoo people live; that texts may be produced on any side of any question; that expositors equal in authority perpetually contradict each other; that the obsolete law is perpetually confounded with the law actually in force; and that the first lesson to be impressed on a functionary who has to administer Hindoo law is that it is vain to think of extracting certainty from the books of the jurist” (Macaulay 76). These perceived shortcomings lead Macaulay to conclude that Hindu laws are “arbitrary” and not actually law but a “kind of rude and capricious equity” (Macaulay 76). For Forster, however, the Hindu arbitrariness is a good thing precisely because of its equity, its rejection of general rules in favor of case-by-case approaches, and its denial of legal clichés.

Although Forster never details specific Hindu laws, he establishes Hindu as a spiritual force that signifies order and justice—things that the British administrators purport to seek. In Chandrapore, though, the British system merely bungles justice. Brahman Hindu and its mystical appearances in the novel seem to unify people and groups and to be profoundly present whenever justice is served. Before Adela retracts her false accusation, the courtroom crowds deify Mrs. Moore as a Hindu goddess. This scene is ironic and perhaps even farcical. It casts British characters as buffoons compared to the rational Indians whose legal system works despite the British claims otherwise. When collectivized to achieve governmental and legal objectives, British characters act herd-like, but collectivized Indian characters, uninterested in government as such, harmonize in spiritual communion. After Aziz’s innocence is established at trial, the punkah-wallah becomes deified in the courtroom. It seems that Forster constantly flips the statement of the Nawab Bahadur, who remarks to Adela and Ronny, “I have little experience of Hindu States […] yet I cannot imagine that they have been as successful as British India, where we see reason and orderliness spreading in every direction” (80). In fact, reason and orderliness never come about by the British system but instead by emotive and disordered Hindu worship and celebration.

Macaulay’s codes derived from Benthamite jurisprudence. Sir Leslie Stephen indicates that “The ‘Penal Code’ drawn by Macaulay […] was the first actual attempt to carry out Bentham’s favourite schemes under British rule, and the influence of the chief of Bentham’s disciples [James Mill] at the India House may have had something to do with its imitation” (36). As if to bolster this claim, Stephen adds that “Macaulay’s chief subordinate […] Charles Hay Cameron, was one of the Benthamites” (36). Benthamite jurisprudence is hard to summarize simply. Eric Stokes’s landmark work The English Utilitarians in India remains the most definitive and detailed account of this workaday jurisprudence. Two recent books, Liberalism and Empire (1999) by Uday Singh Mehta and A Turn to Empire (2005) by Jennifer Pitts, pick up on Stokes’s precedent and explain how the liberal legacy of utilitarianism—and its jurisprudential significations—led to empire and British domination. Inherent in liberalism and its utilitarian manifestations, Mehta and Pitts argue, is the paternalistic assumption that one worldview is more advanced than another and that therefore those who do not share that worldview require conversion or updating. J. S. Mill’s nuanced utilitarianism in On Liberty would add complexity to this understanding, but it falls outside the scope of this essay.

Mehta in particular holds up Edmund Burke’s conservatism as being reluctant toward empire and also the “most sensitive to the complexities of imperial links and to the strengths and vulnerabilities upon which they draw at both ends” (2). Burke was an Irishman; he understood the evils of imperialism and foreign occupation. Mehta adds that “no thinker or statesman of the eighteenth or nineteenth century expresses anything like the moral and political indignation that Burke voiced against the injustices, cruelty, caprice, and exploitation of empire” (3). For Mehta, then, Burke represents not conservatism per se but a resistance to foreign intervention[7] and universalistic dogma. The conservatism of Burke, in short, stands in contradistinction to Benthamite utilitarianism.

The liberal universalism of Bethamite utilitarianism treats Indians as monolithic and their society as fixed. On this score, it bears noting that the universalities contemplated by Brahman Hindu are more like natural law theories than the universalities contemplated by Bentham’s analytical positivism. Brahman Hindu is above all spiritual, and natural law theories derive their lexicon from divine law and the belief that rules are immanent in nature.

Brahman Hindu technically does not espouse a particular jurisprudence at all. When I speak of Brahman jurisprudence, I speak of the motifs in Passage rather than of Brahman philosophy as understood outside of Forster’s appropriation of it. Brahman jurisprudence is mostly Forster’s revision of Brahman ideas about an infinite consciousness and infinite truth. Forster may or may not have fully understood Brahman. Nevertheless, Brahman served, on a rhetorical or metaphorical level, to challenge the Benthamite system that celebrated a different variety of inclusion: one with prerequisites for admission—adherence to British rules, submission to British centralized authority, and participation with British mercantilism. Brahman is universal in that every person or idea, however different, is already part of the Brahman conception of the cosmos; Benthamite utilitarianism is therefore universal in a way that refuses differences and assumes an intersection of all philosophical paths.

Brahman adheres to the belief in transcendent reality. Law, for Forster, is an element of this transcendent reality. Only the Indian judge, Das, and the punka wallah subaltern, who lends the courtroom an air of spirituality and divinity, bring about the kind of justice that the utilitarian schema fails to bring about. Even if Das applies British law—a possibility not made clear in Forster’s portrayal of the Anglo-Indian legal system—his oversight in the courtroom allows the spectators to chant uncontrollably and to force Adela to retract her accusation. Unlike Brahman Hindu, British views on law are calculated and mathematical. Moments before the Muslim Aziz resolves to become a doctor and a poet in a Hindu state, Hamidullah points out that the British legal system leads to occasional disaster and even reveals the “secret thoughts” that British people maintain against Indian character (and characters) (299). A system of “true” law would not perpetuate bias or pander to majority interests. It would be a form of natural law such as that exposited in Forster’s appropriation of Brahaman. Nevertheless, Bentham despises natural law and fumes against natural law thinkers like William Blackstone.[8] Therefore, Bentham’s system does not result in justice in India. That is why Hamidullah remarks to Aziz, “If God himself descended from heaven into their [the English] club and said you were innocent, they would disbelieve him” (299). A system based on utility and happiness simply manufactures law into uniformity consonant with majority whim and preference. Law based on moral and divine prescription, however, is not so petty as to assimilate local laws into the laws of England; thus, it will not decimate the customs of a foreign and less powerful populace. Being immanent and a priori, it will not permit a group to suffer at the hands of legal administrators—district collectors, district superintendents, and the like—for whom general happiness means general British happiness.

For all of its emphasis on equity and fair play, the British system only solidifies inequality and unfairness. This irony is at the heart of Benthamite imperialism. Pitt lists three defining characteristics of utilitarians in this Benthamite tradition: a “narrow and hierarchical understanding of progress,” a belief “that British rule of ‘backward’ peoples was both morally justified (even a moral duty) and good for the conquered nations,” and a “conviction that certain peoples were unfit for self-government” (104).[9] Utilitarianism is predicated on “exclusionary conventions” pivoting on universal principles that necessarily delegitimize those constituents whose customs and conventions differ from the supposedly universal principles (Mehta 47–48). The thrust of utilitarianism is therefore bound up in awkward, self-serving logic: principle A is right and universal; people X recognize the rightness and universality of principle A; people Y fail to recognize the rightness and universality of principle A; therefore, people X need to civilize and educate people Y, lest people Y self-destruct by adhering to wrong principles. The problem, of course, is that people X are not motivated by a purely humane desire to civilize and educate, but instead are motivated, economically or otherwise, by the process of civilizing and educating. Altruism becomes part of the rationale for colonizing.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, district collectors played vital roles in transforming this rationale into actual practice. Tasked with countenancing Indian interests, district collectors like Mr. Turton were nevertheless agents of the British utilitarian system. Like Fielding, a schoolteacher, Turton fails to occupy the space between the British and Indian binaries, despite his desire to do so. No matter how hard he tries or how many bridge parties he hosts, Turton is unconditionally wedded to British ideas of ethnic and cultural superiority. He fails to recognize the follies of rule of law and misses the grave and healing import of Brahman Hindu.

[1] Ronny, so excited that Turton graced the party with his presence, announces, “It’s decent of the great man. […] Do you know he’s never given a Bridge Party before? Coming on top of the dinner too!” (21).

[2] Tummala’s suggestion is that this double-role did not materialize until 1919, but the other sources cited herein suggest that this double-role—this ambiguous social station—materialized as early as the mid- to late 1800s.

[3] For further reading, see Gregory Fremont-Barnes, The Indian Mutiny 1857–58, pages 14–20.

[4] Collectors’ duties had shifted and modified over the years. During the 1850s and 60s, for instance, collectors became the civil head of their districts (Kumar and Verma 66). As Robert Jan Baken explains,

With the extension of the British administration in India, the role of the District Collector grew in importance. He became, ‘the ears, eyes and arms of the government.’ In addition to his revenue-related tasks, he was a criminal judge. Daily he dealt with a wide array of matters: the police, jails, education, municipalities, roads, sanitation, dispensaries, local taxation and imperial revenue. Public officers posted in his district turned to him for help, advice and orders, and citizens flocked to his office whenever they had problems or grievances. (91)

[5] Borrowing from the model set forth by Jeremy Bentham, Michel Foucault popularized the panopticon, a prison facility marked by constant surveillance that trained prisoners, who felt they were always being watched, into submission.

[6] These legal concepts included, among others, offences against the state, offences against public justice, offences against public tranquility, offences relating to religion and caste, offences against property, offences related to marriage, and so on. The table of contents to the Indian Penal Code lists these basic concepts.

[7] This isolationism or non-interventionism is still the hallmark of conservatism—or perhaps more precisely stated, paleoconservatism—in America and Britain. It flies in the face of neoconservatism, which has its roots in democratic-socialism more than in classical liberalism. By way of analogy, paleoconservatism is the difference between the American Senator Robert Taft and president Woodrow Wilson.

[8] As a young man, Bentham wrote Comment on Blackstone’s Commentaries, which attacked the natural law thinking of William Blackstone.

[9] Pitt qualifies that Benthamite imperialism has more to do with the ideology of Bentham’s followers than with Bentham himself


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