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The Oft-Ignored Mr. Turton: Part Three

In Arts & Letters, Britain, Fiction, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, Law-and-Literature, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Philosophy, Politics on April 20, 2012 at 7:10 am

Allen Mendenhall

The following originally appeared here at Libertarian Papers.  Full Works Cited below.

From Turton Towards a New Jurisprudence

For much of the novel, Turton tries to balance his allegiance to Britain and his duties toward Indians. He hosts bridge parties, for instance, and fraternizes with Indians. In the scene at the club, wherein the Englishmen discuss the charges against Aziz and what should be done about them, Turton tries to remain “scrupulously fair,” although he also wants to “avenge Miss Quested and punish Fielding,” who has, it seems, taken Aziz’s side over the British (164). Despite his anger, Turton resolves to go about “the old weary business of compromise and moderation” (164). He reminds himself that, “in the eyes of the law, Aziz was not yet guilty” (165). Yet the law does not matter in Chandrapore because Aziz has been found guilty in the court of British public opinion. Moreover, law in the colony amounts to public opinion. Justice may be blind, but injustice is not—it holds Aziz accountable for his foreignness and for the color of his skin.

Even if Turton discourages violence against Indians, telling the room, “Don’t start carrying arms about,” he can no longer occupy the space between the British and Indian binary (166). He comes down on the side of the English and thereby demonstrates that law is not merely a written text or a code of rules but a bundle of biases and personal preferences. British law rests on prejudices outside of the pure, divine law that is Brahman Hindu. Turton shows, in other words, that rule of law can never work in a society controlled by one group that is culturally distinct from the less powerful group.

Like a good utilitarian, Turton abides by rationality and logic. The result is a gross legalism that compels a segregated worldview. Turton supports one “simple rule” above all: Indians and English belong in separate societies (147). “I have had twenty-five years’ experience of this country,” he pontificates to Fielding,

and during those twenty-five years I have never known anything but disaster result when English people and Indians attempt to be intimate socially. Intercourse, yes. Courtesy, by all means. Intimacy—never, never. The whole weight of my authority is against it. I have been in charge at Chandrapore for six years, and if everything has gone smoothly, if there has been mutual respect and esteem, it is because both peoples kept to this simple rule. (147)

This rule anticipates the end of the novel when Fielding asks why he and Aziz cannot be friends and the land and sky seem to answer, “No, not yet,” and “No, not there” (293). One could argue that this vision of segregated society—which may not have been Forster’s vision—is offensive and against the all-inclusive Brahman Hindu spirit of the story. And yet it is a vision that Fielding and Aziz seem to share. It flies in the face of the “aesthetic of clutter and confusion” at the Gokul Astami festival (Singh 274). It denies the forces of nature that unite everyone as a marvelous energy. It therefore is not law at all but rather an unjust perversion of law. Not being true law, it is not morally binding. Assuming that Spencer’s thesis (above) is correct and Passage is a Hindu magnum opus, Turton’s segregated worldview gainsays the general oneness articulated in Brahman philosophy and privileges that British fiction—rule of law—that seeks to establish opposition structures rather than to embrace hybrid, transcultural unities.

Although English characters call for rule of law in the colonies, they go to great lengths to violate true law, unjustly prosecuting the innocent Aziz with shoddy evidence. Although they aspire to logic and calculation, they become like emotional herd animals with no ability to reason. Forster likens emotion, which always has to do with racial difference, to herd-like behavior. He employs this tactic when describing Fielding as having no racial feeling, “not because he was superior to his brother civilians, but because he had matured in a different atmosphere, where the herd-instinct does not flourish” (52, my italics).[1] If this sentence is representative of Fielding’s character, then Fielding’s racial enlightenment is the product of a distinct cultural system, an inherited behavior not necessarily chosen. More than Fielding, then, Turton straddles English and Indian societies, occupying an interstitial space and resisting “herdism” by asserting his individuality. Turton is, to that end, the only English character who invites “numerous Indian gentlemen in the neighbourhood” to his home,[2] an action that “caused much excitement” (35). Unlike Fielding, however, the conflictual Turton maintains a clear distance from these Indians, lending critical substance to Mahmoud Ali’s belief that “Turton would never [invite Indians to his house] unless compelled” (35). Turton’s hospitable gestures and high-minded aspirations to neutrality amount to little more than subtle, apologetic pleadings to and for existing social norms. Turton is, despite himself, a servant of British culture.

In contrast to Turton, McBryde, the District Superintendent of Police, stands for all that is absolute in British culture; he epitomizes the absurdity of English assumptions about the nature of Indian men, believing that “all unfortunate natives are criminals at heart, for the simple reason that they live south of latitude 30” (149). From this position, McBryde infers that Indians are guilty by nature, or, in Calvinistic terms, predestined for sin; therefore, he reasons, the English cannot hold Indians accountable for crimes because “[t]hey are not to blame, they have not a dog’s chance—we should be like them if we settled here” (149). This claim is both resonant and politically charged, rooted as it is in the belief that individuals are products of their environment. Such a belief would seem to further justify imposing colonial rule by suggesting that changing the environment would also change the people in the environment. If Indians are culturally conditioned subjects, their tendencies and behavior assigned them by their communities, then they lack the requisite mens rea for their crimes; they are blameless, having “transgressed” without mental fault. The irony, of course, is that McBryde himself was born in Karachi (south of latitude 30) and “would sometimes admit as much with a sad, quiet smile” (149).

A self-proclaimed paradox, McBryde reveals how Anglo-Indian relationships depend upon the signification of negative biological characteristics, how Englishmen presuppose an innate and unchanging origin for these characteristics, and how these presuppositions “justify” the double-standards of the English legal system—a prime example being Mrs. Turton’s acceptance of bribes. “When we poor blacks take bribes,” submits Mahmoud Ali, an Indian lawyer, “we perform what we are bribed to perform, and the law discovers us in consequence. The English take and do nothing. I admire them” (5). Ali realizes that law in Chandropore is a discursive construct and so mocks its purely notional grounds.

Isolated from the English in his supervising role as collector, Turton ruminates and forms judgments by process of logic; but among the English in his support for Adela, he grows irrational. At times the reason and emotion binaries collapse into each other in his ambivalence. For example, after Aziz is accused of raping Adela, Fielding approaches Turton to inquire about Adela’s condition. Frustrated with Fielding, Turton ends the interview and walks onto a platform overlooking the everyday goings-on of Chandrapore. He feels “his sense of justice function” even while he is “insane with rage” (149). Later, his emotion does seem to prevail over reason as he drives through the streets, seeing “the cookies asleep in the ditches or the shopkeepers rising to salute him on their little platforms,” and saying to himself, “‘I know what you’re like at last; you shall pay for this, you shall squeal’” (149). These passions call for a “justice” that is more like revenge than retribution.[3] But so far neither Turton’s passion (emotion) nor his reason fully coheres. His commitment to impartiality—or to the ideal of impartiality—sets him apart from the erratic, temperamental Englishmen who would mete out punishment swiftly and extra-judicially were it not for prescribed legal procedures—neutral in theory but discriminatory in practice—that putatively restrain emotion and compel rational adjudication. Yet after Adela’s rape and Turton’s abortive meeting with Fielding, Turton seems to exemplify English irrationality. Rather than ensuring justice or equality, Turton and the legal system formalize bigotry in that they do not fully realize the impartiality and non-arbitrariness so popularized by rule of law rhetoric.

Rational and polarized society fails Turton when the two worlds, English and Indian, become intimate vis-à-vis Aziz and Adela. When he suspects Aziz and Adela of becoming not just intimate but sexually intimate, he breaks down, “involved in his own emotions,” for he thinks it “impossible to regard a tragedy from two points of view” (148).[4] His inability to see society as anything but two isolated spheres causes a shift in the balance of power: he cannot “avenge the girl” and “save the man” and thus cannot occupy that space between binaries (148).[5] No longer the midpoint between reason and emotion, he surrenders to emotion and, as it were, tips the scales—becomes, at last, fully English. Completely disassociated from Indianness, having abandoned the principles of neutrality supposedly characteristic of all collectors, Turton appears in the final chapter in name only as Aziz declares, “Clear out, all you Turtons and Burtons. We wanted to know you ten years back—now it’s too late![6] […] Clear out, clear out, I say” (292). Like Fielding, and even like Forster himself,[7] Turton is a failed cultural intermediary whose increasing prejudice calls into question the equality and consistency of the entire legal system of Anglo-India. If only Turton had abided by the law of Brahman Hindu and obliterated vacant categories like English/Indian or reason/emotion, distinctions essential to the hegemony of British rule of law, the novel might have played out differently.

Turton’s failure to connect with Indians recalls the similarly failed connections of Mrs. Moore and Fielding. These three characters, taken together, suggest that hegemonic or colonial systems prevent the triumph of personal relations by injecting both colonizers and colonized with spite and contempt. The machinery of the system makes friendship improbable if not impossible. Forster’s firsthand knowledge of the colonial experience increases the likelihood that his satirizing extends far beyond the pages of the novel and into the schema of colonial law. Turton’s botched mediations implicate this schema in ways that Mrs. Moore’s and Fielding’s mediations cannot. That is because Turton, as district collector, holds the system in place. He is a linchpin. Without him, the structure, as it were, falls apart. Forster uses Turton to show not only that the system is doomed to fail, but also that the system is based on purely British behaviors, philosophies, and norms. The system is a function of the ideological needs of colonizers. As the British characters rehearse racial scripts and act superior to their Indian counterparts,[8] as they revise their cultural classifications, they demonstrate that the system is anything but universal. If it were universal, the Indians—Hindu, Muslim, or otherwise—would at least have some familiarity or appreciation for it. If it were universal, it would work. If it were universal, it would achieve, not deny, justice.

Turton’s role in exposing the inconsistencies and vagaries of British rule of law and its concomitant utilitarianism suggests that the Brahman Hindu philosophy celebrated by Forster provides a better starting point for governing and for mediating between cultures. The all-inclusive framework of Brahman Hindu better protects, or could better protect, basic rights. Put differently, Brahman Hindu could go some length towards establishing a system of polycentric law, a relatively new concept celebrated by philosophers and sociologists alike. Polycentric law refers to the overlapping and amalgamating of rules and jurisdictions in contrast to the legislating of a monolithic legal code that denies cultural particularities.[9] Polycentric law is not centrally planned. With the emergence of alternative dispute resolution, Internet law, transnational law, and private adoption and child kidnapping disputes, debates over polycentric law will become even more pressing. Novels like Passage can tell us a great deal about the social and political implications of a legal system—informed by jurisprudence in keeping with Brahman Hindu—whereby individuals and localities assert and defend their culturally specific rules and regulations. Such novels can dispel monopolistic claims on law and “de-universalize” repressive jurisprudence that arrogantly presumes the backwardness of other cultures.

Works Cited

Allen, Glen O.  “Structure, Symbol, and Theme in E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India.”  PMLA, Vol. 70, No. 5 (1955).

Arora, Ramesh Kumar and Rajni Goyal. Indian Public Administration: Institutions and Issues. New Age International, 1995.

Baken, Robert Jan. Plotting, Squatting, Public Purpose, and Politics. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2003.

Bell, Tom W.  “Polycentric Law.”  Humane Studies Review.  Vol. 7, No. 1 (1991–92).

Benson, Bruce.  “Enforcement of Private Property Rights in Primitive Societies: Law without Government.” The Journal of Libertarian Studies.  Vol. 9, No. 1 (Winter 1989).

Bentham, Jeremy. The Principles of Morals and Legislation. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 1998.

Brimnes, Niels. Constructing the Colonial Encounter: Right and Left Hand Castes in Early Colonial South India. Curzon Press, 1999.

Dicey, Albert Venn. Introduction to the Study of the Law of the Constitution. 8th ed. London: Macmillan and Co., Ltd., 1915.

Ellickson, Robert.  Order without Law: How Neighbors Settle Disputes.  Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991).

Fisch, Jory.  Cheap Lives and Dear Limbs: The British Transformation of the Bengal Criminal Law 1769-1817.  Wiesbaden: Fraz Steiner Verlag, 1983.

Forster, E.M. “Reflections in India, I: Too Late?” The Nation and the Athenaeum, 21 January 1922, p. 625.

Fremont-Barnes, Gregory. The Indian Mutiny 1857–58. Westminster, MD, and Welingborough, UK: Osprey Publishing, 2007.

Furbank, P.N. E.M. Forster: A Life. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978.

Halévy, Élie. The Growth of Philosophic Radicalism. Translated by Mary Morris. Boston: Beacon Press, 1955.

Harden, Ian and Norman Lewis. The Noble Lie: The British Constitution and the Rule of Law. Hutchinson, 1986.

Hasnas, John. “The Myth of the Rule of Law.” 1995 Wisconsin Law Review 199 (1995: 1–39).

Hitchens, Christopher. “Victoria’s Secret.” January/February 2008. The Atlantic. [Available at

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2008/01/victoria-8217-s-secret/6565/%5D [last accessed Tuesday, July 20, 2010].

Iyer, Raghavan Narasimhan. Utilitarianism and All That. London: Concord Grove Press, 1983.

Kumar, T. K. Vinod and Arvind Verma. “Hegemony, Discipline and Control in the Administration of Police in Colonial India.” Asian Criminology. Vol. 4, No. 1 (2009: 61–78).

Lottieri, Carlo.  “European Unification as the New Frontier of Collectivism: The Case for Competitive Federalism and Polycentric Law.”  Journal of Libertarian Studies.  Vol. 16, No. 1 (Winter 1992).

Macaulay, Lord Thomas Babington. Speeches of Lord Macaulay corrected by himself. London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1877.

———. The Complete Works of Thomas Babington Macaulay, Vol. 9. Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin & Co., 1900.

Malleson, G. B. The Indian Mutiny of 1857. Longmans, Green, and Co., 1896.

McCormick, John P. Carl Schmitt’s Critique of Liberalism: Against Politics as Technology. Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Mehta, Uday Singh. Liberalism and Empire. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

Metcalf, Thomas R. Ideologies of the Raj, Vol. III. Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Moffat, Wendy. A Great Unrecorded History: A New Life of E.M. Forster. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2010.

Morriss, Andrew P.  “Hayek & Cowboys: Customary Law in the American West.”  NYU Journal of Law & Liberty.  1:1 (January 2005).

Parashar, P. N. History and Problems of Civil Services in India, Vol. II. New Delhi, India: Sarup & Sons, 2003.

Pitts, Jennifer. A Turn to Empire: The Rise of Imperial Liberalism in Britain and France. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2005.

Posner, Richard. “Cultural Studies and the Law.” Raritan, Vol. 19, Issue 2 (1999: 42–53).

Rothbard, Murray. Classical Economics: An Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought, Vol. II. Auburn, Alabama: Ludwig Von Mises Institute, 2006.

Sarkar, Siuli. Public Administration In India. New Delhi: PHI Learning Private Limited, 2010.

Sarker, Sunil Kumar. A Companion to E.M. Forster: Volume I. New Delhi: Atlantic Publishers & Distributors, Ltd., 2007.

Shklar, Judith and Stanley Hoffman. Political Thought and Political Thinkers. University of Chicago Press, 1998.

Singh, Francis B. “A Passage to India, the National Movement, and Independence,” Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 32, No. 2/3 (1985: 265–78).

Singha, Radhika.  A Despotism of Law: Crime and Justice in Early Colonial India.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Spencer, Michael. “Hinduism in E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India,” The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 27, No. 2 (Feb., 1968), pp. 281–95.

Stephen, Sir Leslie. The English Utilitarians. London: Duckworth and Co., 1900.

Stokes, Eric. The English Utilitarians and India. Oxford University Press, 1989.

Tummala, Krishna K. Public Administration in India. Allied Publishers, 1905.


[1] Biographer P.N. Furbank uses the term “herd-instinct” to describe the panic feeling, “which Britain handed over” during the First World War (1). By handed over, Furbank presumably means that the British spread their tendency to associate with their own kind in a hyper-patriotic way. This “herd-instinct” manifests itself in “slogans and bogus ‘cheeriness’” (1).

[2] Here Forster must have the collector Rupert Smith in mind. When Forster visited Smith in 1922, Smith was “no longer barking at his Indian subordinates” and, indeed, “the Smiths actually had an Indian friend staying in their house” (Furbank 92).

[3] Philosophers like Robert Nozick have performed the hair-splitting operation of distinguishing revenge and retribution. A detailed treatment of the distinction is not practical in this essay. Suffice to say that revenge consists of a disproportionate, insatiable, indiscriminate, and perhaps unlimited retaliation, whereas retribution consists of a proportionate, restrained, “mirror image” deprivation whereby punishment “fits” the crime.

[4] Ronny, too, appears surprised when he realizes binarized society has broken down—”for he never dreamt that an Indian could be a channel of communication between two English people” (71).

[5] Likewise, when Turton visits Adela in her sickroom, he cannot negotiate competing allegiances to reason and emotion: “He wanted to avenge Miss Quested and punish Fielding, while remaining scrupulously fair. He wanted to flog every native that he saw, but to do nothing that would lead to a riot or to the necessity for military intervention” (164).

[6] Recall Forster’s own declaration in The Nation and the Athenaeum (1922) that although Indians had once looked to the English for support, now it was “too late” (Forster, “Reflections,” 615).

[7] Forster’s disenchantment with India had to do with the almost master/slave relationship he had with a young boy in the maharajah’s palace. Moffat records this experience as follows: “He [Forster, or Morgan] discovered with some disgust that complete power over the boy made him sadistic. […] With a clinical eye Morgan watched his own complicity in the privileges of race and caste. He came to see how his brief stint of perverse cruelty was part of the grander temptations of colonial power” (184).

[8] On this score, it is worth quoting from Christopher Hitchens:

Thus the British developed a sort of modus vivendi that lasted until the trauma of 1857: the first Indian armed insurrection (still known as “the Mutiny” because it occurred among those the British had themselves trained and organized). Then came the stern rectitude of direct rule from London, replacing the improvised jollities and deal-making of “John Company,” as the old racket had come to be affectionately known. And in the wake of this came the dreaded memsahib: the wife and companion and helpmeet of the officer, the district commissioner, the civil servant, and the judge. She was unlikely to tolerate the pretty housemaid or the indulgent cook. Worse, she was herself in need of protection against even a misdirected or insolent native glance. To protect white womanhood, the British erected a wall between themselves and those they ruled. They marked off cantonments, rigidly inscribing them on the map. They built country clubs and Anglican churches where ladies could go, under strict escort, and be unmolested. They invented a telling term—chi-chi—to define, and to explain away, the number of children and indeed adults who looked as if they might have had English fathers and Indian mothers or (even more troubling) the reverse. Gradually, the British withdrew into a private and costive and repressed universe where eventually they could say, as the angry policeman Ronald Merrick does in The Day of the Scorpion, the second volume of Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet: “We don’t rule this country any more. We preside over it.”

Hitchens, “Victoria’s Secret”. Interestingly enough, these claims lead Hitchens to quote Mr. Turton himself:

In this anecdotal theory, the decline of the British Raj can be attributed to the subtle influence of the female, to the male need to protect her (and thus fence her in), and to the related male need to fight for her honor and to punish with exceptional severity anybody who seems to impugn it. And so we may note with interest that it took one English homosexual, and one English bisexual, to unravel the erotic ambiguities of empire. ‘After all,’ says the district collector Turton in E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India, ‘it’s our women who make everything more difficult out here.’

Hitchens, “Victoria’s Secret”.

[9] For more reading on polycentric law, see Bruce Benson, “Enforcement of Private Property Rights in Primitive Societies: Law without Government,” The Journal of Libertarian Studies, 9:1 (Winter 1989) [available at www.mises.org/journals/jls/9_1/9_1_1.pdf]; Tom W. Bell, “Polycentric Law,” Humane Studies Review, Vol. 7, No. 1 (1991-92) [available at www.theihs.org/libertyguide/hsr/hsr.php/12.html]; Carlo Lottieri, “European Unification as the New Frontier of Collectivism: The Case for Competitive Federalism and Polycentric Law,” Journal of Libertarian Studies, Vol. 16, No. 1 (Winter 2002: 23-43) [available at www.mises.org/journals/jls/16_1/16_1_2.pdf]; Andrew P. Morriss, “Hayek & Cowboys: Customary Law in the American West,” NYU Journal of Law & Liberty, 1:1 (Jan. 2005); and Robert Ellickson, Order without Law: How Neighbors Settle Disputes (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991).

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