History on trial

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The trial of the Orientalist

During the trial, Edward Law interpreted Indian history with the object to justify the policy and action of Warren Hastings. The knowledge of Indian history at that time was based on those travelers’ account who visited India during the Mughal period

When Warren Hastings, governor general of Bengal (1773), was impeached by the British Parliament, history was used to defend as well as to accuse him. He was an Orientalist and was well versed in Persian and Urdu languages. He founded the Madarsa-i-Alia in Calcutta to promote Persian language and classical Indian literature. He established Bibliotheca Indica in order to publish the classical literature of Persian, Arabic, and Sanskrit languages. He implemented the policy that the service of the East India Company should learn local languages in order to have contacts with people. He patronised the academic activities of William Johns, who founded Asiatic Society of Bengal in 1784 with the object of undertaking research Projects in different aspects of Indian history, culture and languages. However, besides these laudable works, Warren Hastings was involved in some of the cases which damaged his reputation and subsequently lead to impeachment by the British Parliamentbetween 1788 and 1795. He supported the ruler to extract money from the widows of the late Nawab. He also aided the Nawab to attack Hafiz Rehmat Khan (d.1774), the leader of Rohilas to destroy his power. He mistreated Cheet Singh, the Raja of Banaras. He was also suspected in the execution of Nand Kumar, who charged him for taking bribe. During the trial he was defended by Edward Law and fearlessly criticised and condemned by Edmon Burk (1797), who was a fiery orator and reputed intellectual.

During the trial, Edward Law interpreted Indian history with the object to justify the policy and action of Warren Hastings. The knowledge of Indian history at that time was based on those travelers’ account who visited India during the Mughal period such as Thomas Roe, Terry, Hawkins, Bernier, Taver Nier, and Mandeslo. Some of the reports of the East India Company also provided some information about Indian history. Edward Law’s approach was that in India there was the despotic ruler whose authority was unchallenged. He traced the military career of Chingis Khan and Taimor who caused bloodshed, looting and rapine. The Mughal ruler of India inherited this character and contemptuously treated their Hindu subject by plundering, ravaging, and massacring them. There was no law in the country, consequently disorder and anarchy prevailed. He argued that the East India Company was fulfilling the civilising mission in India by restoring peace and order and protecting the people from the tyranny of their rulers. Therefore, he justified the action of Warren Hastings, who promoted the cultural values in India by establishing institutions for useful knowledge and whatever he did was aimed at to consolidate the authority of the Company.

Edmon Burk refuted this interpretation of Indian history. His argument was that the Mughal ruler was not despotic but consulted his counsel of minister before undertaking any project. Moreover, the Rulers followed a policy of religious toleration and not of discrimination against their Hindu subject. He also proved that it was wrong to believe that there was no law. The judicial system was existed and functioning satisfactorily. He accused Warren Hastings of destroying and eliminating the Rohilas, who were brave and ideal soldiers. Therefore, he found Hastings responsible for such crimes and should be punished. Burk also criticised the role of the East India Company in India where it destabilised the political, social and economic institutions of society and discontinued its process of history preferring its benefits in trade and commerce. India suffered heavily because of its policy.

To some historians, by strengthening the outdated Institutions, such as implementing Hindus and Muslims religious laws, he checked the progress of the Indian society

Finally, Warren Hastings was acquitted by the British parliament. However, his impeachment shows that the Indian history was interpreted differently. Afterwards the Company and its servants made an attempt to write Indian history either sympathetically or critically finding no positive aspect in it. It shows that in view of a group of historians, Warren Hastings was a conservative and classical Orientalist governor general, who made efforts to restore the old traditions and institutions. To some historians, by strengthening the outdated Institutions, such as implementing Hindus and Muslims religious laws, he checked the progress of the Indian society. The judgment of the British parliament to acquit him from all charges shows that it recognised the policies of the Company and the role of its servants not on the basis of moral values but for the benefit and advantage of the British government.