Warren Hastings

It was this state that Warren Hastings inherited when he became Governor of Bengal in 1772. Noteworthy in his 13-year rule were his internal administration, his dealings with his council, and his foreign policy. Hastings inherited a state that in the five years since Clive’s departure had again backslid toward the corruption from which Clive had partly rescued it. But Hastings was armed with authority by the directors, so that the first two years of his government were a period of real reform.

  • He abolished dastaks, or free passes, the use of which had again become common since Clive’s departure.
  • A uniform tariff of 2.5% was enforced on all internal trade.
  • Private trade by the company’s servants continued but within enforceable limits.
  • Bengal became more secure under a relatively settled order.
  • The company took over the responsibility for the revenue collection from Rida Khan, who was indicted for corruption; however, the authorities were unable to prove the charges.
  • Hastings substituted British for Indian collectors working under a Board of Revenue. However the new collectors were often as corrupt as their predecessors, as well as more powerful.
  • Hastings also instituted a network of civil and criminal courts in place of the deputy nawabs.
  • The same legal system was now administered by British judges, who were often incompetent, but a model was developed into which Western ideas and practices could later be applied.

These changes enabled Hastings to provide a viable state but there were some serious problems in the system.

  • Criminal and personal law cases were virtually in the hands of Indian assessors for British judges who did not know Persian.
  • Revenue administration was distorted by the collectors’ desire for both personal gain and increased returns for the company.

In consequence, the efforts of Hastings to reform revenue administration were largely unsuccessful. First a five-year settlement made in ignorance proved unsuccessful, and later annual settlements were introduced, which meant ad hoc arrangements with the traditional zamindars.

The Dispute between Hastings and his Council

Another major problem of Hasting’s administration was in his relations with his council. Under the Regulating Act of 1773, Hastings became governor-general of Fort William in Bengal, with powers of superintendence over Madras and Bombay. He was also given a supreme court, administering English law to the British and those connected with them, and a council of four, appointed in the Regulating Act. The leading council member, Sir Philip Francis, hoped to succeed him, and, because Hastings had no power of veto, Francis was able, with two supporters, to overrule him. For two years Hastings was outvoted, until the death of one member enabled him to use his casting vote.

But the struggle continued until Francis-wounded by Hastings in a duel-returned to London in 1780, to continue his vendetta there. The conflict culminated with charges of corruption against Hastings by an Indian official, Nand Kumar, and with the latter’s conviction before the Supreme Court of perjury and his execution under English law despite there being no grounds for this sentence under Indian law. The episode exposed the weakness of the council majority, which failed to reprieve Nand Kumar as well as exposed the arbitrary nature of the British rule.

This struggle, lasting for years, left Hastings triumphant but also embittered; he had to deal not only with the opposition in Calcutta, which never ceased, but also with the constant threat of supersession in the involved politics of London at that time. In fact, Hastings was subsequently impeached over the cases of Raja Chait Singh of Varanasi and his deposition in 1781 , and the pressurising of the Begums of Awadh with monetary demands.

The impeachment of Hastings in the British Parliament took place at the initiative of Edmund Burke and the Whigs, after his return from India. It ended in his acquittal but also led to his retirement in 1795, and was a kind of rough justice for what had happened during his tenure. Hastings had saved for the company its Indian dominions, and he was relatively incorrupt. But the charges served to establish that the company’s servants were responsible for their actions toward those they governed, and for these actions they were answerable to the British Parliament. Hastings was so identified with the company’s rule that he was the inevitable target for any such assertion of principle.

Regulating Act of 1773

This was the legislation passed by the British Parliament for the regulation of rule in the British East India Company’s Indian territories, mainly in Bengal. It was the first intervention by the British government in the Company’s territorial affairs and marked the beginning of a takeover process that was completed in the year 1858.

The occasion for the Regulating Act was the Company’s misgovernment of its Bengal lands, brought to a crisis by the threat of bankruptcy and a demand by the Company for a government loan. The act sought to “regulate” the affairs of the company, in both London and India. The key provisions of the act were

  • The appointment of a Governor General of Fort William in Bengal with supervisory powers over the presidencies of Madras and Bombay was provided for.
  • The Governor General had a council of four and was given a casting vote but no veto.
  • A supreme court with a chief justice and three judges was set up in Calcutta.

In Great Britain annual elections of 24 directors were replaced by the election of six judges an year, and their terms were extended from one to four years, with an year’s gap before re-election, and the qualification for a vote was raised from £500 to £1,000. This change made it more difficult for private groups to control policy and places by manipulating votes. This also ended the soliciting of votes for the control of policy by private interests and gave continuity of policy for the direction of the Company.

Hastings was given four named councillors, but future appointments were to be made by the Company. The Regulating Act was thus a first step toward taking the political direction of British India out of the hands of the company and of securing a unified overall control.

But it had very serious defects, which complicated administration in Bengal and made India (despite the British preoccupation with the American Revolution during this period) a leading subject of controversy in British politics over the next two decades.

  • The Governor General possessed no veto in his council.
  • Three political councillors from Britain, each ready to take Warren Hastings’s place, led to his virtual supersession by the majority for two years and to a paralysis of the executive.
  • Hastings had to use his energy mainly for fighting his council instead of focussing on the reforming of the Bengal system.
  • The superintending power added responsibility with little power to enforce it.
  • The supreme court decided to administer English law (the only law its judges knew) and to apply it not only to all the British in Bengal but also to all Indians connected with them; in practice this meant all those Indians based in Calcutta, and it led to such grave abuses as the hanging of Nand Kumar for an offence not recognised as being capital in any Indian code.

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