Front Page Titles (by Subject) THE MORAL OF THE INDIA DEBATE 1858 - The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXX - Writings on India
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THE MORAL OF THE INDIA DEBATE 1858 - John Stuart Mill, The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXX - Writings on India 
The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, XXX - Writings on India, ed. John M. Robson, Martin Moir, and Zawahir Moir (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1990).
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THE MORAL OF THE INDIA DEBATE
London: Penny, 1858. No running titles. Unsigned. Not republished. There are no emendations in the Somerville College copy. Identified in Mill’s bibliography as “The Moral of the India Debate,” the fourth item under the heading: “The following short pamphlets on the India Bills and Resolutions of the Session of 1858 viz:” (MacMinn, 91).
The Moral of the India Debate
the proceedings at home, consequent on Lord Canning’s proclamation,1 have a most important bearing on the intended changes in the mode of administering India. They are a timely warning, how a Minister governs India, when he is under no check but responsibility to Parliament, and how Parliamentary responsibility, when really enforced, is likely to work.
In writing his despatch, Lord Ellenborough was in the position, in which the Minister for India will always be, under the proposed new constitutions.2 He was without a Council: or rather, he passed over his Council. The despatch was in the Secret Department, that is to say, it was not brought before the Court of Directors. There was no compulsion on Lord Ellenborough to write on this subject in the Secret Department. It would have been perfectly regular to lay the papers before the Directors, and allow, or if necessary require them, to prepare a despatch to the Governor-General on the proposed proclamation. But no such despatch as Lord Ellenborough’s could have passed the Court of Directors; nor could such a despatch have been substituted for theirs by his authority as President, without giving rise to remonstrances and protests which no Minister would have liked to see produced in Parliament.
This despatch is therefore a fair specimen of what a Minister may do, when he is at liberty to disjoin himself from his Council. Let us now for a moment consider the despatch itself.
Observe, that it is the production of a man who is a favourable specimen of an Indian Minister. He is not such a man as we may generally expect, ignorant of India, appointed because a Cabinet office must be found for him, and because public opinion will not allow him to be placed in any other than that of Indian Minister. Again, the despatch was written with the very best intentions. Not only was its purpose good, but its principles were sound. Its principles were, to stigmatize confiscation, and condemn vindictive severity against a conquered enemy.
Wherein then did the despatch err? Its epigrammatic style was a minor fault, to which importance was only given by the publication of the despatch. Its errors were substantial and serious.
In the first place it gave Lord Canning no benefit from his well-ascertained and dearly-earned character for mercy. It did not allow the presumption drawn from the whole of his past conduct, to count in explanation of the particular act incriminated. If instead of firmly resisting the ravenous cry for blood, which by its effects has nearly rendered the good government of India impossible for a generation to come, Lord Canning had implicitly yielded to that savage howl, a worse interpretation could scarcely have been put on his intentions, than Lord Ellenborough hastened to put upon a single unexplained act of the man who had merited the designation of “Clemency Canning.”
But the despatch had another fault no less grave, and which would have been equally a fault, even if Lord Canning had been less deserving of consideration. In a time of emergency, it arrested a policy in mid-course. There could be no doubt that Lord Canning had made a deliberate choice among several modes of action, each of which had its peculiar advantages. Lord Ellenborough might think that he had not chosen the best; but unless he was totally unfit to be Governor-General, the course he selected must have had some considerable recommendations, some chances, to say the least, of attaining the object. To have instructed him beforehand not to adopt that course, would have been one thing, which might have been either wise or foolish. But to stop him when he had adopted it, and committed himself to it, but before it had produced its results, was to throw away the chances of good which that course held out, without gaining those of any other. It was as if the Minister, under the belief that it would have been better to clear Rohilcund before attacking Oude, had by telegraph recalled Sir Colin Campbell from the gates of Lucknow.3
Contrast with this the conduct of the Court of Directors.
A few days after the date of Lord Ellenborough’s despatch, but without being aware of it, they framed instructions to Lord Canning respecting the treatment of the Oude insurgents, which have been laid before Parliament, and which embodied all the sound and humane principles of the despatch, without its irritating language.4 As soon as they were made acquainted with the unmerited censure passed on Lord Canning, they recorded a vote of undiminished confidence in his merciful intentions.5 They thus combined the inculcation of what is admitted to be the right rule of conduct, with full justice to the functionary who was prematurely charged with having infringed it.
This is what took place under the calumniated double government. Lord Ellenbourgh’s despatch exemplifies the single government of a Minister responsible only to Parliament.
Let us now consider the second lesson to be derived from these proceedings; the light which they throw on the natural working of the boasted Parliamentary responsibility. For, through the rare accident that a Ministry is in office which does not possess a majority in the House of Commons, the present has happened to be the one case in a thousand in which the responsibility is real. The Minister really has lost office in consequence of his despatch.6 Now see at what price this result has been obtained.
In the first place, the greatest practical evil of the despatch arose from the publicity given to it. As long as its existence was a secret between Lord Canning and the Minister, it might have tied his hands in an emergency, but it could not have impaired his influence in India, and his justification might have arrived in time to change the reproof into approbation. But the publication of the despatch, which the Government itself condemns, and which all agree in regarding as the worst part of what has taken place, is the direct consequence of the accountability to Parliament. But for that accountability, Mr. Bright would not have asked for the despatch,7 nor would Lord Ellenborough have produced it. Neither was this premature publicity a casual consequence. It will be a natural and frequent one, when there is no check upon the administration of India except the control of Parliament. If the Minister is to be called to account there for the mistakes he commits in governing India, it must be done immediately. What Minister ever was censured by Parliament for the part he took in events long past and gone? His party opponents will seize on the subject while the public mind is intent on it; and unless he is strong enough to defy responsibility, all he has done or written will be published then, and will then become the text of criminatory or defensive declamation; while the effect of the publicity on the interests of India, or on the security of our empire there, will be secondary to the important question, whether one man, or another much the same as he, shall sit for a while on the Treasury bench.
The accountability of Ministers to Parliament was carried into effect in this instance by a debate of one night’s duration in the House of Lords, and three nights in the House of Commons.8 A full half of the discussion, and the whole of the result, turned not upon India, but upon whether Members of Parliament desired, for English purposes, that Lord Derby’s Government should or should not continue in office. Had it been known beforehand which of these was the desire of the majority, the issue of the debate could have been predicted. It issued in nothing at all, because neither party knew, and both shrunk from having it brought to the test of a division, whether there was a majority or not for turning Lord Derby out of office. This fortunate uncertainty has prevented great mischief. For if the debate had ended in any vote, that vote would have been understood in India either as a condemnation of clemency, or as a condemnation (followed probably by the resignation) of Lord Canning, the patron of clemency. Even as it is, the mischief is not trifling. On those great questions relating to the future government of India on which it was of the utmost importance that England should seem to be unanimous, she has been held forth as divided. Our enemies in Europe have been supplied with a fresh stock of calumnies against us from our own lips; while all Indian malcontents have had arguments put into their mouths which they themselves would never have dreamt of, and have been encouraged to hope that they may make or find a party in Parliament. All respect and fear of England as a nation will be materially weakened in the East; for, that there may be firm action notwithstanding divided councils, or that a government can be really formidable which allows itself to be bearded and its acts railed at to its face, is a truth which it requires a much higher civilization than that of Orientals to understand or credit.
All these things are necessary results of the play of the machinery through which Parliamentary responsibility operates. And if all other checks are taken away, these results may be expected more and more. No one denies it to be necessary that Parliamentary responsibility should exist in reserve; but the object should be, to dispense as much as possible with the need of actual recourse to it, by providing another restraint; a restraint acting before the mischief is done, not after, and producing its effect not by acrimonious controversy in the face of the world, but by peaceful discussion in a council-room. This can only be done by giving the Minister an independent Council, having the initiative of business, and by making it impossible for him to take any important measure without first listening to their advice.
[1 ]Charles John Canning (1812-62), Viscount Canning, Governor-General of India 1856-58 and then Viceroy, “Proclamation” (18 Mar., 1858), in “Papers Relating to the Proclamation Ordered to be Published in Oude,” PP, 1857-58, XLIII, 409-10. This proclamation, issued after the reconquest of Lucknow, thanked those who remained loyal, confiscated the lands of the insurgents, and threw them on the mercy of the British government.
[2 ]See “The Secret Committee of the Court of Directors of the East India Company to the Governor-General of India in Council” (19 Apr., 1858), ibid., pp. 410-11. Ellenborough criticized Canning’s proclamation, and requested that its severity be mitigated.
[3 ]Colin Campbell (1792-1863), Baron Clyde, became Commander-in-Chief during the Mutiny; he began the attack on Lucknow in November 1857, though the city was not finally relieved for four months.
[4 ]See “Copy of a Letter from the Court of Directors of the East India Company to the Governor-General of India in Council” (5 May, 1858), PP, 1857-58, XLIII, 113-16.
[5 ]See ibid., pp. 117-20.
[6 ]Following the debate in the Lords on 7 May (PD, 3rd ser., Vol. 150, cols. 228-47), reported in “The Revolt of Oude,” The Times, 8 May, p. 9, Ellenborough resigned on 10 May.
[7 ]John Bright (1811-89), Question on Confiscation of Land in Oude (6 May, 1858), PD, 3rd ser., Vol. 150, col. 181.
[8 ]In the Lords on 7 May (see n6 above); in the Commons on 14, 17, and 20 May (ibid., cols. 674-761, 764-857, and 931-1059).