DALHOUSIE AND UTILITARIANISM

Lord Dalhousie was the one who introduced railways, electric telegraph and uniform postage in India. Born and brought up in an age which ideologically belonged to Bentham and his followers,9 it was indeed difficult for Dalhousie, though essentially a conservative, to escape their influence. Dalhousie gave first proof of his utilitarianism when in I845 he joined Peel Cabinet, which had succeeded Melbourne, as President of the Board of Trade. Dalhousie laid before Peel “a sound and statesman like scheme” for placing British railways under the direct control of the state. Dalhousie scheme was not accepted, for in those days Parliament looked coldly upon any scheme which savoured of state interference with individual or class interests. But what Dalhousie could not achieve in England, he achieved in India.Bentham thought that an absolute authority would be the best machine to produce the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people and the British colonies like India appeared to the philosopher as the best fields for experimentation in reforms. It is true that Dalhousie was not the only Governor-General to wield absolute powers in India; his predecessors also did the same. But what is interesting to note here is that, unlike his predecessors, Dalhousie actually looked upon himself as an Oriental monarch, the source of all power and dispenser of all favour. Dalhousie’s modus operandi was basically the same as that of an authoritarian reformer. While in India, he acquainted himself ‘thoroughly with the system of Government and its administration, with the condition, the resources and the wants of the country’. He made a clear distinction between those functions which must be carried out by an authoritarian government and those which were to be executed by a third party. While education, the electric telegraph and the uniform postage came under the first category, railways came under the second. The first group consisted of ‘works which affect the general wellbeing of the community … and which, producing no immediate return must be executed by the Government if they are to be formed at all’. Since the second group, such as the introduction of railways, would bring immense profits to some commercial groups in England, they must be executed by them.Dalhousie approached the problems of infanticide, female education and the remarriage of Hindu Widows with the spirit of a Bentham. In the connation his appointment of the Commissioners of the Post Office to investigate the abuses of the postal system is one of the most direct proofs of his utilitarianism during his stay in India. Indeed, the way in which he sought to execute his social measures for the material improvement of the people owes much to Bentham’s ideas. In India the origin of the departments of railways, electric telegraph and post office may be traced to the same influences which were at work in Dalhousie’s mind. ‘My own opinion’, he wrote on 30 June 1854, ‘has long been decidedly in favour of placing a single authority at the head of every public department. In that form only can sustained promptitude of action be maintained and real responsibility enforced.’In the utilitarian philosophy of an authoritarian government, unity of authority is as essential as uniformity of management. Dalhousie accepted this principle and he was always careful that his social measures should be uniform, in other words, systematic. He insisted that the railway codes in one Presidency should not vary from those in another. Since the railways were an all-India enterprise, the codes to govern them should be uniform. Local Government could modify them to suit local conditions but the basic codes must be the same for the three Presidencies. It must, however, be remembered that Dalhousie never gave explicit expression to his beliefs in utilitarian principles. The classic example among some of Dalhousie’s predecessors who had accepted utilitarian-ism as their second faith was provided by Bentinck. In a farewell dinner at Grote’s house, just on the eve of his departure for India as its Governor-General, in December i827, Bentinck had said to James Mill; ‘I am going to British India; but I shall not be Governor- General. It is you that will be Governor-General.’ Viewed as a whole, Dalhousie’s regime contributed greatly to the transformation of Oriental India into Western India. The series of Western innovations he had introduced and the reforms he had carried out, Dalhousie thought, would strengthen the grip of the British Raj over India. It was perhaps the greatest limitation of Dalhousie that he failed to see the future that a modern country would give birth to a modern nation. In history things often happen which their authors do not intend to happen, and after they have happened they make them famous.

In India today, Dalhousie is remembered more as a catalyst in the growth of Indian nationalism than as a torch-bearer of British imperialism or as the man at the root of the mutiny which swept the Indian sky in I857.