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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. Read the rest of this entry »

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