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In Retrospect

The Trial of
Warren Hastings

Azizul Jalil

“An event has happened on which it is difficult to speak, and impossible to be silent.”
“This geographical morality we do protest against.... We think it necessary, in justification of ourselves, to declare that the laws of morality are the same everywhere, and that there is no action which would pass for an act of extortion, of peculation, of bribery, and oppression in England, that is not an act of extortion, of peculation, of bribery, and oppression in Europe, Asia, Africa and the world over.”
-Edmond Burke in his speech during the trial of Hastings

Warren Hastings, First Governor-General of India.

Orphaned early, Warren Hastings arrived in India from England as a clerk of the East India Company in 1750. After some years, he was posted as the British Resident in Murshidabad. In 1769, he became a member of the Madras Council, later becoming the Governor of Bengal in 1771. When the company achieved control over large areas the Indian sub-continent, Hastings was elevated to the newly created position of Governor-General of India in 1773. He is regarded by many as the man who planted the roots of the British Empire in India.

In his new position as the paramount British ruler of India for eleven years, Hastings showed great ability and drive to further expand British rule over India. He also did a lot of wise things that benefited British relations with the local communities. For example, he founded the Madrasah Aliya at Calcutta in 1781 and supported the establishment of the Bengal Asiatic Society. He sponsored at his own cost the first British expedition to Tibet and the first translation into English of the Bhagavad Gita. He valued the acquisition of knowledge of the native languages and books by the British administrators. In 1784, he remarked that:

“Every application of knowledge and especially such as is obtained in social communication with people, over whom we exercise dominion, founded on the right of conquest, is useful to the state … It attracts and conciliates distant affections, it lessens the weight of the chain by which the natives are held in subjection and it imprints on the hearts of our countrymen the sense of obligation and benevolence… Every instance which brings their real character will impress us with more generous sense of feeling for their natural rights, and teach us to estimate them by the measure of our own.”

In pursuit of the Company's and British interest, brilliant and autocratic, Hastings was, however, often complicit in many unethical actions. His treatment and alleged torture of the people of the Rohillas, extortion and maladministration against the Raja of Benares (Chait Singh), seizure of the wealth of the Begums of Oudh, extravagances and bribery, and manipulations to condemn to death Nandalal on allegedly fabricated evidence, brought him disrepute. Most of the company officials at the time were profiting from their own side-business in India and other corrupt measures that brought detriment to the company's and Hastings was not an exception. But it was his indiscrete and ruthless exercise of power in promoting the company's interests and control that came to the attention of the liberal members of the British parliament. Hastings resigned and finally returned to England in 1784 but without the customary title of lordship, which is customarily bestowed by the British crown on such dignitaries. Instead, impeachment proceedings were leveled against him in the parliament. Edmond Burke, a member of parliament and one of the managers of the impeachment, brought a total of 22 charges of high crimes and misdemeanour against Hastings, which could have carried the death penalty. Of these, the managers ultimately limited their case to the four they considered to be the strongest. It took Burke two days to read the charges.

At first, Hastings bore all the expenses of this protracted trial and was nearly bankrupted. Later, the company helped out with finances. Hastings did not take the matter seriously enough, thinking it could not happen to him. However, when the House of Commons approved most of the charges, he procured a formidable and effective legal team for his defense. It was the rule in Britain that people undergoing impeachment were confined to the Tower of London. Hastings, however, was not- he was formally arrested but released on a bail of forty thousand pounds. During the actual trial, the oratory on the part of Edmond Burke, Charles Fox and Richard Sheridan, the three managers of the impeachment proceedings, were spellbinding. Fanny Burney, a novelist, who attended most of the sessions, recorded her impressions in her Journal. About the performance of Burke, she wrote: “When he narrated, he was easy, flowing and natural; when he declaimed, energetic, warm and brilliant. The sentiments he interspersed were as nobly conceived as they were highly coloured; his satire had a poignancy of wit that made it as entertaining as it was penetrating.” The sessions were often dramatic and were thronged by Londoners in the crowded hall -some of these would go on till early next morning. The Queen was present at the first session.

Burke started with the proposition that the tribunal of the parliament should be guided not by narrow jurisprudence but by solid principles of state morality. Those who have abused their power have violated the spirit of the law. So they can never hope to be protected by any of its forms and never hope to escape through any of its defects. The House of Lords before which the actual trial was held, however, decided that it was a judicial process and that the usual laws governing a trial by jury applied. Burke then turned his attention to what he called “geographical morality.” He rejected the notion that one morality applied to the affairs of England and another to India. The laws and institutions of England under whose power and authority Hastings went out to India in the first place should be the ones used to judge Hastings.

The trial was held at the historic Westminster Hall. It was dramatic and long, taking seven years. At the conclusion of the proceedings in April 1795, the Lord Chancellor informed that a large majority of the lords present had found Hastings not guilty. He then declared “that Warren Hastings, Esq. is acquitted of the Articles of Impeachment exhibited against him for High Crimes and Misdemeanor, and all things contained therein.” It was not until 1814 that Hastings was given the high honour of membership of the Privy Council.



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