The impact of Whig and utilitarian philosophies on the formative phase of local administration in British India.

Author:Abedin, Najmul
Position:OTHER PAPERS - Report


The foundation of local administration (called district administration) in British India was laid during the first hundred years of British rule in the subcontinent though its origin may be traced much earlier. The Mughal/Moghal/Mogul (variously spelled) emperor Akbar (1542-1605) developed a highly organized and efficient system of administration and bureaucracy. He divided the vast Mogul empire into subhas (provinces) each of which was in turn split up into sarkars (districts). (1) The officials in charge of the provinces and districts acted as the agents of the emperor. "The Mogul dominion ... was a government of discretion ... The safety of the people, the security of their property and prosperity of the country depended upon the personal character of the monarch. By this standard his delegates regulated their own demeanor." (2) After his death Akbar's system continued for a considerable period of time. But after the death of Aurangzeb (1707), the vast Mogul empire fell to pieces and began to degenerate at an accelerated speed. Almost all traces of Akbar's elaborate administrative organization rapidly disappeared. (3) "The British found the wreck of this system and admired it even in decay." (4) It served as the foundation upon which they later built an efficient administrative system. Vincent Smith thus observed that:

" ... from the time of Warren Hastings in the last quarter of the eighteenth century, the newly constituted Anglo Indian Authorities began to grope their way back to the institutions of Akbar. They gradually adopted the principal features of this system ... The structure of bureaucratic framework of government also still shows many traces of this handiwork. His institutions, therefore, are ... in some degree the foundation of the system of administration now in operation." (5)

As the administrative system had almost completely broken down long before the British assumed the administration of India, the government had to pass through a long and weary process of repeated experiments in order to develop a sound administrate system. The process of repeated experiments began in the mid-1760s. Towards the close of the 18th century some definite principles of the pattern of local administration in British India were formulated. But it was still in a fluid state and was undergoing further changes. During the first half of the 19th century the process of evolution became further complicated, as we will see later, by the doctrinal conflict between two schools of thought--the Cornwallis (Whig) and the Munro (Utilitarian/Paternal) schools. It was not until the very end of the 1850s that local administration in the Indian subcontinent took final shape to a fairly considerable extent.

As the subcontinent was primarily agricultural, land revenue was the traditional mainstay of government finance. (6) From time immemorial the bulk of the income of the government and of the people was derived from the land. Thus the system of land holding and the collection of land revenue were of "fundamental importance both to the administration and to the people themselves." During the early part of the British administration in South Asia each stage of development both in the field of general administration and in the field of revenue administration passed through the same process of evolution and the former can only be understood with reference to the latter. In the course of our discussion we will see that general local administration, in fact, evolved from revenue administration.


The victory of the East India Company in the Battle of Plassey in Bengal in 1757 led to the establishment of British authority in the eastern part on India. From there the British Empire gradually expanded to other parts of the subcontinent. "Robert Clive wrote in a letter 'It is scarcely hyperbole to say that tomorrow the whole Moghul Empire is in our power.' in retrospect, it is hard to dispute the truth of his declaration: subjugation of Bengal paved the way for the British conquest of the subcontinent." (7) For this reason, "the Battle of Plassey is regarded as the event that laid the foundation of the British Empire in the subcontinent." (8)

In 1765 the Diwani (revenue administration) of Bengal (including Bihar and Orissa) was assumed by the East India Company. The criminal administration remained mainly in the hands of the Nawab (local king) who remained subservient to the Company. Although it assumed the Diwani it was felt that it would be difficult for the officials of the Company to undertake direct responsibility for collecting revenue because they did not have adequate knowledge of the civil and revenue institutions in South Asia, the interior state of the country and the local language. (9) Moreover, the bulk of such revenue records as existed were in the hands of local Kanungoes (hereditary registrars) (10) and it was also felt that for political reasons the sovereignty of the Company should be "masked." Taking all these factors into consideration, Lord Clive decided that the administrative machinery of the Nawab should also continue along with that of the Company. This system is famous as Clive's "Duel System" (11).

Two Naib-Dewans (Deputies of the Nawab in the field of revenue administration) remained directly responsible for the collection of revenue (12) and under their control and supervision Zamindars (somewhat like feudal landlords) collected land revenue from the ryots (cultivators/peasants). Originally the Zamindars had been hereditary tax collectors. In the 18th century when the Mogul empire had almost completely degenerated, the Zamindars had consolidated their position and strengthened their hold over the land, the revenue of which they collected. They had begun to dispense justice among the villagers and to maintain peace within their jurisdiction. They had succeeded in reducing the cultivators to a position almost similar to that of tenants. By 1765 "they possessed many of the attributes of an established aristocracy." (13) But "they were not landowners nor a landed aristocracy in the British sense ... Their estates resembled those of British landlords in appearance, but were essentially different in texture." (14) Although their position as landholders "had never received the sanction of a legal title" (15) before the very end of the 18th century, later in 1793 they received the sanction of a legal title and emerged as what could be compared with feudal landlords. (16)

Two officials of the Company were responsible for supervising the functions of two Naib-Dewans. But they failed to maintain an adequate control over revenue administration. Inadequate and imperfect control over the Naib-Dewans proved "disastrous both to the Company as well as to the People." (17) While the Naib-Dewans and Zamindars amassed great wealth, the Company incurred great financial losses, and the cultivators suffered great hardship caused by the "exactions and harshness of the Zamindars." (18) Verelst, the Governor, and his committees felt that the Company's officials were kept in "complete ignorance" and were not given any idea of the "real produce and capacity of the country by a set of men who first deceive us from interest and afterwards continue the deception from the necessary regard of their own safety." (19)

In 1769 Supervisors of collections were appointed. Though they were supposed to be consulted in doubtful cases, they were not directly connected with the collection of revenues. Their main mission was to make a comprehensive and systematic study of the revenue, the economic condition, and the administration of justice, the produce and capacity of the land, the causes of arbitrary taxes, the manner of collecting them, the background and the history of the society, its customs, usages, etc. They were, in fact, to lay the foundation of knowledge upon which a satisfactory revenue system could be built." (20) But the Supervisors soon encountered very strong and formidable passive opposition from the Zamindars and the Kanungoes who made a point of seeing that the Supervisors could not get access to correct information which would enable them to have real knowledge of the amount of revenue actually paid by the cultivators to the Zamindars. "Between them, the Zamindars and Kanungoes, held all the essential information, but the Kanungoes were the dominant figures." (21) it was during the reign of Emperor Akbar that the Kanungoes had come into prominence. Their main purpose had been to see that the monarch received his dues and that the cultivators were not oppressed. They had been required to record the usages of the area concerned, the rates and modes of assessment and all regulations relating thereto, etc. Thus in the course of centuries all necessary information with regard to land revenue had come into the possession of this corrupt and hereditary revenue agency. (22) Thus the Supervisors failed in their mission.

In 1772 the Court of Directors of the East India Company declared from London that it had decided "to stand forth as Dewan and by the agency of the Company's servants to take upon themselves the entire care and management of the revenue." (23) 1772 witnessed several important administrative changes and reorganization: Warren Hastings was appointed Governor of the Bengal Presidency (Bengal, Bihar and Orissa). The posts of the Naib-Dewans were abolished and the revenue administration was placed under the direct control of the Governor-in-Council. The Supervisors were appointed Collectors with local Dewans to assist them. Hastings found that the operation of the courts of law was confined to a very limited area around "the city of Murshidabad (the Mogul capital of Bengal) and that justice was beyond the reach of the majority of the people." (24) To remedy this, two courts, namely Diwani Adawlat (civil court) and Fauzdari Adawlat (criminal court), were established in each district. The...

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