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Thursday, October 28, 2021

Karl Marx and British Torture of Malabar Peasants

Peasant revolts of Malabar in the 19th and 20th centuries have been researched and written about by historians from the one end of the ideological spectrum to the other. Those who supported the official British version interpreted the uprisings in terms of religious fanaticism. Others towards the middle of the spectrum saw frequent changes in the ownership and control of land as a result of the Mysore invasion and its aftermath, as the main cause for peasant protests. At the other extreme were the Marxian historians who saw the uprisings as class war. Perhaps there was an element of truth in all the above versions.
We do not propose to join hands in the debate. Instead we try to focus on the extent of torture and atrocities committed at the behest of the East India Company masters whose only goal was maximising revenue. At least, until their hands were stayed by the British government as a response to public outcry.
When the East India Company took possession of Malabar in terms of the Treaty of Seringapatam (1792), they noticed that the Mysore rule had already put in place a revenue collection mechanism. Although this was sufficiently rapacious, some of the Company officials thought that this could be further fine-tuned. However, it was only after 1801, when the Madras province was created, that Malabar could have a proper district administration.
One of the prime concerns of the first Collector of Malabar, Major Macleod was to further increase the land revenue by an arbitrary estimate of the produce. This led, in 1803, to the first recorded civic unrest in Malabar during the East India Company times. On the 1st of March, 1803, rebel peasants raided the Calicut jail and helped the prisoners to escape. Major Macleod, as the person who initiated the unrest, had to resign and leave Calicut.
In fact, Major Macleod had become so incapable of handling the situation that he just handed over his charge to Robert Richards, the Senior Judge of the Criminal Court without seeking permission from the Madras Government.
Edward Clive, the Governor of Madras (and the eldest son of Robert Clive of Plassey fame) viewed this dereliction seriously. He wrote:
‘I have perused with the utmost degree of surprise and regret the despatches from Malabar, announcing the transfer of the executive Civil Authority in that province from the Principal Collector to the Senior Judge of the Criminal Court, without any semblance of authority which could justify so extraordinary a dereliction of public duty on the one hand or the assumption of the executive on the other’.
W. Francis ICS who authored the District Gazetteer of the Nilgiris (1908) summed up the mess created by his non-ICS predecessor thus: 
‘…the unwise administration of the first Collector of Malabar, Major Macleod, had thrown the whole district into a ferment and enormously increased the number of malcontents.’
It is evident that the root cause for the peasant revolt was extortionary rents. Earl of Albermarle’s speech in the House of Lords on 14th April 1856 gave vent to the feelings of this group: ‘when rent could only be obtained by means of torture, it might safely be assumed that the land was rented too high’.
The introduction of cash into the rental payment made the situation of the peasantry worse. They had now to sell more and more of their produce in the market to earn enough cash to be able to pay the rent. As the cash in circulation was limited, this led to the price of paddy falling as more and more paddy was required to get the same amount of cash. This led to further impoverishment of the already indigent peasants.
Why was this change into cash payment of rent made? The Company needed cash for a variety of reasons. Most importantly, it had to pay the army, police and public officials in cash. It also required cash to transfer a portion of its Indian revenue to the home country. Naturally, there were defaults and these were followed by severe punishment, including incarceration. 

The fall of Tipu Sultan led to the Company acquiring a large province without the resources to administer it. This led to ad hocism in police and judicial administration. 
How did a private trading company come to assume extensive judicial powers? The earliest charters of 31 December 1600, 31 May 1609 and 4 February 1622 gave the East India Company power only to make reasonable laws for its own government and to ‘chastise and correct all Englishmen committing any misdemeanour in the East Indies’.
The Charter of 1661 gave the Agent or Governor in Council to judge all persons ‘including natives under their power’ in civil and criminal cases according to the Law of England. The Regulating Act of 1773 gave sanction to a system which later came to be known as the Cornwallis system. When Malabar was annexed, it was this system with its component of the Zamindari structure as practised in Bengal, which was attempted to be grafted on to the new territory. 
The shock expressed by Governor Edward Clive of Madras when Collector Macleod had handed over his charge to the criminal judge Richards should be seen in the context of the Cornwallis system. For, under the system, once a Zilla Court existed, all judicial powers exercised by the Collector stood transferred. The Collector had only revenue duties and did not have magisterial powers. The Cornwallis system maintained a strict separation between executive and judicial powers, which was breached by Major McLeod by handing over executive powers to the judicial officer.
However, the Company authorities found this system wanting in many respects. They appointed Thomas Munro as Special Commissioner for a revision of the Madras judicial system in 1814. Munro, assisted by his fellow Commissioner, George Stratton, laboured for two years and came up with a comprehensive reform of the judicial system of the Madras province in 1816.  
Munro, from his field experience of Salem, Kanara and the Ceded Districts, knew that Judges hardly had an opportunity to obtain accurate knowledge of the people in remote areas, as they presided over the court in the Zilla headquarters. Collectors, on the other hand, toured the districts intensively, primarily to ensure that revenue which was due to the government was collected promptly. In the process, they acquired deep knowledge of the people and their problems. Munro, therefore, felt that Collectors should have control over the police as well as exercise magisterial powers. 
This proposal was not acceptable to the Madras High Court and the Board of Revenue, influenced as they were by the Cornwallis legacy. However, these were finally adopted by the Governor, Hugh Elliot. Munro was convinced that his recommendations suited ‘the manners and institutions of the people whose use they are intended, and to that end that were made as simple as possible’. The most important objective of the reforms was to employ Indians more extensively in the internal administration of the country. In every department, whatever could best be done by native servants should be entrusted to them, as he felt that Indians not only cost less, but being infinitely better qualified, were more efficient than Europeans.
A consequence of this reform was the sudden expansion of the local judicial and magisterial bureaucracy. Subordinate revenue officials were entrusted with magisterial powers. This helped them collect the revenues faster. Having the Police under them made it easier to use coercive powers against not just criminals, but also mere defaulters of land revenue. This led to several instances of torture and consequent peasant protests. Such protests were not confined to Malabar alone, as is evident from the series of peasant uprisings in Coimbatore and nearby districts in the 1830s.
When the peasants could not pay the dues (and often the bribe, over and above the dues), it was common for the revenue officials to attach and sell their properties. Very often, the moveable items like farming implements were also confiscated and sold. T H Baber, the Sub Divisional Magistrate  of Tellicherry wrote to his Principal Collector, Warden :’a catalogue of effects seized and sold by your Parbutties during the last two years exhibit no less than 509 brass gendies, ginnum, oraly and lamps, 45 kaikots, and other implements of husbandry and 104 cattle, amount realised on which account is eight hundred and odd Rupees, a sum comparatively nothing to what will be required to replace those necessary articles; it is impossible such a system can last long’.
This was a rare candid opinion coming from a bold Company civil servant. Generally, news of the plight of peasants was not allowed to travel up the chain to Leadenhall Street or the Parliament. Hon’ble Mr. John Bright, speaking in the House of Commons on 11th March 1853, pointed out how civil servants were prevented from giving out such inconvenient news: every attempt made to communicate information as to the actual condition of the ryots, on the part of the native servants of the Company, was met by threats of instant dismissal. 
Quoting from a petition submitted by the natives of Bombay, he lists out their grievances: ‘…that the law is administered in the Company’s Courts under circumstances which are productive of great delay and expense, and which eventually amount to an effectual denial of justice – that the police of India is such as to afford little security for life or property – that the police themselves are in many cases little better than dacoits or gangs of robbers that infest the country – and that the taxes levied on the people are not levied in such a manner as to inflict the minimum amount of injury to the industry of the country, but that they are besides extremely onerous.’
The murder of Conolly, the Collector of Malabar and subsequent events exposed the utter worthlessness of the police force in maintaining order. S B Tod, the Assistant Collector of Malabar, who was the first to reach the scene of Conolly’s murder and had ‘the melancholy duty’ of informing his bosses and taking follow-up action, reflected this general sense of anarchy: ’The dread these men have inspired is so great that I am anything but sanguine of them being captured alive by civil powers’.
The extortionist practices of the East India Company towards the ryots of Madras province was the subject of discussion in the British Parliament when the Company’s Charter came up for renewal. Liberal newspapers also wrote about the plight of the impoverished peasants. All of this led to the appointment of the Madras Torture Commission consisting of E F Elliot, Chief Magistrate of Police, H Stokes, Madras Civil Service and J B Norton, barrister ‘to conduct an enquiry into the alleged cases of torture in the Presidency’.

The Commission submitted its report in 1855. Its findings and conclusions, despite the fact that it had no native members, were shocking in the extreme. 
‘Many a witness has declared to us that the people would be satisfied if the demand of the Revenue officers were restricted to just Government dues; we entertain no doubt but that the extortion of what are erroneously termed “Bribes” is universal, and that when payment cannot be obtained by fair means, foul will be resorted to’.
‘Thus is brought into play all that perfect but silent machinery which combines the forces of Revenue demands and Police authority; the most ingenious artifices which the subtlety of the native mind can invent had recourse to; and it seems highly probable to us that it is a common practice with the native officers to give their own illicit demands precedence, when pecuniary means being more plentiful or easily procurable’.
Torture of various sorts is resorted to when the tax and more importantly, the bribe is not forthcoming. The Commission describes graphically some of the techniques employed by the Police:
‘…twisting a rope tightly round the entire arm or leg so as to impede circulation; lifting up by the moustache; suspending by the arms while tied behind the back; searing with hot irons; placing scratching insects, such as the carpenter beetle, on the navel, scrotum, and other sensitive parts; dipping in wells and rivers, till the party is half suffocated; squeezing the testicles; beating with sticks; prevention of sleep; nipping the flesh with pincers; putting pepper or red chillies in the eyes, or introducing them into the private parts of men and women; these cruelties occasionally persevered in until death sooner or later ensues’.
Sadly, the Report attempted to whitewash the complicity of European officers in the organized torture. It argued that ‘… no native would knowingly venture to have recourse to any such practice in the presence of a European, sets at rest any surprise at the very few cases in which any of our countrymen have personally witnessed the operation’.
The Commission firmly believed that the people at large know that European officers detest these practices and that the people often turn to European officials for protection. ‘… the whole cry of the people which has come up before us, is to save them from the cruelties of their fellow natives, not from the effects of unkindness or indifferences on the part of the European officers of Government’.
It was the White Man’s Burden, all over again. Torture was, after all, a product of the ‘habits of the people’. Ill-treatment in revenue collection had ‘in the course of centuries come to be looked upon as “mamool”, customary, a thing, of course, to be submitted to as an everyday unavoidable necessity’. 
The duplicity of the Company and its directors is in pretending that all of this came to their notice only after the Torture Commission submitted its report in 1855. The fact is that it was known to everyone of consequence in the East India Company and the British government. Two decades before the Torture Commission gave its report, narrating the details of inhuman torture being practised by the native bureaucracy with the connivance of the British rulers, the Select Committee of the House of Commons on the Affairs of the East India Company had documented the gruesome details in their report submitted to the British Parliament way back in 1832.
‘The revenue officers under the Madras Government are vested with extensive unchecked authority in the department of the magistracy, including a considerable part of the administration of the penal law. They alone are competent to receive criminal charges against natives in the first instance, and many of their proceedings are unrecorded and exempt from control. Acts of great atrocity may be arbitrary and injurious, without any probability of their authors being called to account.’
The Report further goes on to narrate the level of torture, quoting from reports of British circuit judges:
‘Extreme cruelties have been practised on prisoners in Malabar, as detailed in the following extract from a Report of one of the circuit judges.”…The charges set forth in these complaints are for seizing and carrying bound the inhabitants from their homes to the parbutty, parbutty sheristodar or other revenue officer, either at their houses or cutcherries, and there confining them in stocks without food, tying, by means of ropes, or the fibres of cocoa-nut trees, or of the adoba vine, their neck and feet together, and in this posture laying stones upon their backs, flogging, kicking, and beating them with their fists; making them stand in water or mud, exposed to the heat or the clemency of the weather; making them stand upon one leg, and in that position, placing upon their heads large log of wood; also breaking open their houses and carrying off and selling their property, and even slaves, without due proclamation being made thereof; and all these acts of torture and personal violence to extract payment of alleged revenue arrears, and in some instances of presents of money under the head of koori kalyanam and chit fanam…’.

It was left to Karl Marx to expose the hypocrisy of the British establishment. Writing in the New York Tribune on 17th September, 1857, he argued that such torture could have been part of ‘the antecedents which prepared the way’ for the 1857 Revolt. 
Commenting on the report of the Commission, he wrote: ‘The universal existence of torture as a financial institution of British India is thus officially admitted, but the admission is made in such a manner as to shield the British Government itself. In fact, the conclusion arrived at by the Madras commission is that the practice of torture is entirely the fault of the lower Hindoo officials, while the European servants of the Government had always, however, unsuccessfully, done their best to prevent it.’
Marx quotes the Madras Native Association’s petition submitted to the British Parliament in 1856 to expose the hollowness of the proceedings of the Commission. There was scarcely any investigation at all; the Commission sat in Madras and did not stir out of the comfort of the city to ascertain facts from the aggrieved; nor did it examine the native subordinates to find out as to what extent their superiors were acquainted with the practice.
Marx quotes the case of a Deputy Commissioner of Ludhiana (Mr. Brereton) to prove the point that torture was not confined to Madras province, but was part of state policy in the entire country. Confronted with proof of Mr. Brereton’s deep involvement in torture and extortion, Lord Dalhousie was forced to act. The action consisted of merely demoting Mr. Brereton from the post of Deputy Commissioner to that of a first-class Assistant.!
Finally, on to Malabar. It was again Karl Marx who quoted from a petition from the inhabitants of Malabar coast on how they had led a peaceful life till the East India Company got possession of the area after defeating Tipu. ‘We were not subjected to privations, oppressions or ill-usages in collecting the revenue. On the surrender of this country to the Honourable Company, they devised all sorts of plans to squeeze out money from us. With this pernicious object in view, they invented rules and framed regulations, and directed their collectors and civil judges to put them into execution. But the then collectors and their subordinate native officials paid for some time due attention to our grievances, and acted in consonance with our wishes. On the contrary, the present collectors and their subordinate officials, desirous of obtaining promotion on any account whatever, neglect the welfare and interests of the people in general, turn a deaf ear to our grievances, and subject us to all sorts of oppression’.
How lone voices of dissent from among the white rulers, like that of T H Baber, were suppressed by the British establishment, forms the story for another post.


  1. So engaging a read. Calicut Heritage brings aspects of our history historians simply avoid or do not care to know. Congratulations CH!

    1. Many thanks for your comments! We are greatly encouraged by your appreciation

  2. An excellent study of the period between the Mysore rule and the early days of the British establishment. The period witnessed not only a desire of the EIC, the British establishment and the local cronies to increase their profits, but also proved to be a period when they established control using force. Perhaps this was the reason why the police in India have since then been feared, more than respected, unlike many other countries of the world. In fact native persons with authority also frequently misused their powers to exact revenge.
    True TH Baber was one of the lone voices dissenting. Studies of N Malabar shows this often, how he never hesitated in calling a spade a spade.
    Wonderful post, CK!


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