Public Feeling in India (letter)

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"Creating Public Feeling in India" is the title of a letter to the editor of The Times of London, written by A. P. Sinnett on May 17, 1883, and published on May 19. It is mentioned in Mahatma Letter No. 112 (or Number 81 in the Barker numbering system).

Background

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PUBLIC FEELING IN INDIA.
TO THE EDITOR OF THE TIMES.

Sir,—Having just returned from India after ten years spent in editing one of its leading newspapers, I venture to ask permission to put forward some considerations which seem to me of importance in connexion with the state of public feeling in that country.

The present trouble has arisen, as readers of your valuable Monday telegrams will be aware, from the action and reaction of three causes. The Jurisdiction Bill would not have given rise to the painful excitement we have witnessed but for the general impression created by the whole course of Lord Ripon's local self-government policy ; that policy, on the other hand, would have quietly progressed towards very promising results if it had not been thrown back by the recent agitation; and, finally, the wretched incident in the Calcutta High Court would hardly have assumed the unfortunate importance it actually wears but for the independent circumstances by which it happens to be surrounded. Just as the coincident effects of tide, rain, and wind will sometimes produce disastrous floods, when each of the three influences would have been harmless by itself, we now have to face a period of grievous political agitation in India by reason of an ill-omened confluence of three public difficulties. The practical question is whether the tumult of feeling thus engendered will operate to undo the good preliminary work of Lord Ripon’s earlier self-government policy, or whether it may be possible merely to undo the grievous mistake into which he has been recently misled, leaving the earlier work to develop at leisure? It seems to me that if the final difficulty, the contempt of Court case, is properly made use of, it may help us to a solution of the whole entanglement.

First, the Jurisdiction Bill must, of course, be greatly modified or Abandoned. It may be painful to give way in face of the violent and disagreeable manifestation of face feeling the measure has excited. But the Bill was a blunder from first to last. No native interest claimed it nor could have been benefited from it. That the law as it stood was anomalous matters nothing. Every practical political system is replete with anomalies. The personal claims of a handful of native civilians should have been flattened out of might as soon as asserted when great public interests were obviously compromised by their assertion. Native magistrates or Judges who cared to worry about their personal claims should have been regarded as unpatriotic self-seekers, considering the plain certainty that the disturbance of the question would embarrass really important native interests. And now the only difficulty in the way of throwing the Bill right overboard lies in the fear that the prestige of the Government may thus be lowered, and that, though the country at large never demanded the Bill, the public sense of justice may be dangerously outraged by the withdrawal of what claimed to be a measure of justice at the bidding of a domineering prejudice. Certainly the Government of India, will be placed for a while in a rather humiliating position by an unconditional surrender, bat if the surrender is inevitable — the just retribution of indiscreet action—can it be successfully counterbalanced by some independent action along another line?

It seems to me that the contempt of Court case suggests a way in which the Government of India may, while frankly giving way to Anglo-Indian prejudice in the affair of the Jurisdiction Bill, effectually bar the growth of any bad feeling on the native side in consequence, and do this, moreover, by a course of action which carries with it every possible recommendation as regards its own merits.

Certainly the article written by the unfortunate Bengalee journalist was technically indefensible, but this was merely due to the fact that the writer was unskilled in the art of public criticism — an art which few of his countrymen have yet acquired. True, he criticized the action of the Judge in the idol case on a misconception of the facts; but newspaper articles are written in all parts of the world every day on misconceptions of fact. He found fault with a public man who was not to blame, and dozens of English gentlemen do the same thing in the London Press every day. He has been put in prison because he ran his head against an ugly remnant of mediaeval customs — the right of Judges who consider themselves aggrieved by a public writer to revenge themselves on him at their own discretion. This is a right accorded to no other public official, one which is clearly out of harmony with the tendency of modem thought, and which legislation must ultimately abolish. There is nothing so contemptible about courts of justice, constantly as they err and grievously imperfect as they are in many respects, as their nervousness about contempt.

Our reasonable reverence for the Judicial office, due to the part it has played in our own history, has left it invested with a privilege in this matter which it could hardly have retained so long except by an indulgence directed towards no other institution. If legal tribunals were new under construction for the first time, it is inconceivable that Judges would be armed with the power to deal out criminal punishments against public writers who condemn their action in the public Press. It does not matter whether such writers may be wise or foolish, clever or clumsy in manipulating their weapons; the supreme doctrine of modern political civilization is that men shall have liberty of speech about public affairs, and it is childish to contend, as the contempt of Court doctrine practically contends, that this right must only be exercised within the limits of perfect discretion. What can more deeply wound all delicate perceptions of justice than the spectacle of Judge Norris sending a respectable man of letters to prison as a malefactor for writing an article in a newspaper on a public matter in a hasty way, which happened to ruffle the Judge’s sense of the respect due to himself? It is monstrous that he should have had the power to do this; it is disgusting that he should have exercised it.

No words that I can use in this matter will do more than faintly indicate the feeling educated natives of India will entertain about this case. The British régime in India is irresistibly strong, and is not imperilled by such feeling in the least degree, but that is not the point which serious philanthropists in India, will think about. Bad feeling of this sort is disastrously unfavourable to the development of the British régime in India into something which shall altogether get above that melancholy view of the subject which regards the inhabitants of India as still divisible into conquerors and the conquered. There are many influences at work to promote true unity of sentiment among natives and Europeans in India; administrative institutions can only be slowly modified, but good seed has lately been sown, which promised even to develop these gently and naturally in the right direction. In the face of such hopeful efforts, however, it has been reserved for the Calcutta High Court to be guilty of putting the British official before the popular mind in the attitude of the bully and the oppressor; the native, in the person of a cultivated representative of University education and social respectability, in the position of the victim of bitter and humiliating wrong.

It was to avert the application to erring native journalists of the rough and unsuitable penalties wielded by the Courts that Lord Lytton’s Government introduced that much misunderstood measure the Vernacular Press Act. The effect of that Act was to substitute the comparatively gentle restraints of warning and suspension for the relatively brutal punishments of the Courts; and I am far from saying that the native Press can be left quite free from control. But to follow out that matter would claim too much space.

The practical course which might now be taken would be to direct the liberation of the native editor, and the introduction of a Bill which should bring the doctrine of contempt of Court into harmony with modem sentiment in respect to liberty of the Press, and relieve native journalists, and the large community interested in their welfare, from the danger which they ran at present of incurring a punishment appropriate to thieves if they happen to wound the vanity or supersensitive dignity of a High Court Judge by departure from the unwritten rules of journalistic etiquette. A little timely concession to sentiment is often more important in public affairs than benefits of a more substantial nature. With such a companion order as that I suggest, the Secretary of State might safely direct the surrender of the Jurisdiction Bill as a frank submission to a prejudice on the part of Europeans in India, which, however exaggerated and unreasonable, has shown itself too tenacious to be flouted just yet for the mere sake of administrative symmetry. The Secretary of State, by taking on his own shoulders a little responsibility that will not hurt him, can easily save the dignity of the Viceroy in regard to that surrender, which, in some way or other, has now become inevitable, and which managed cleverly need not leave very enduring traces on the face of Indian affairs.

A. P. SINNETT, late Editor of the Pioneer. Empire Club, Grafton-street, May 17.

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