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Discuss the reforms of William Bentinck

Discuss the reforms of William Bentinck

How far were they inspired by Utilitarian Ideas ?

Lord William Bentinck Governor General from 1828 to 1835 was responsible for many administrative, social and economic reforms. As Governor General Bentinck proved that he was not afraid of innovations and his period was marked by significant changes in social and economic life of the country. Bentinck was a great reformer and was influenced by the contemporary liberal and reformative movements in Europe. After coming to India he got an opportunity to bring into play his liberal policy because all the preceding Governor Generals had followed a policy of non interference in the social and religious matters of the natives. In this answer an attempt is being made to discuss the socio-economic reforms of Bentinck and examine how far they were influenced by Utilitarian ideas.

Administrative Reforms

According to Eric Stokes Bentinck was sent out to set the East India Company’s house in order and his immediate task was to improve the efficiency of Civil Service and to wipe out the annual deficit of Two and a Half Crores. He first turned his attention to the functioning of the executive. Holt Mackenzie prepared a detailed plan form for reform. Its essential feature was the abolition of Provincial Board and the setting up of local commissioners, each in charge of a division comprising a number of districts. The executive officials were placed under the new Commissioner to whom they would be personally accountable. The commissioner’s work was confined solely to the work of inspection and checking and not to undertake any executive duties. These ideas were in conformity with Munroe’s reforms in Madras Presidency but they also adhered closely to Bentham’s administrative notions. His advocated the principle of “single seatedness”, i.e., individual officers as against the Collective Board. It was also close to his principle of inspectability and of reducing the field of service, so as to limit the area in which personal control could be effectively exercised.

This scheme was widened to deal with judicial problems. Butterworth Bailey suggested in 1828 that the problems of the judiciary would be eased if the judges of the Provincial Court of Appeal were relieved of their function as Criminal Judges. A regulation was passed in 1829 by which the Bengal Presidency was partitioned into 70 divisions each under a Commissioner who also took over the functions of Sessions Judge to deal with criminal cases. The Commissioner principle was now firmly entrenched at the heart of the administration. It was gradually adopted throughout the whole field of British colonial administration. The credit for its establishment must be given to the paternalistic tradition but Holt Mackenzie its final author spoke for it with all the arguments of a Benthamite. It may justly be regarded as one of the examples where paternalism blended with authoritarianism of Bentham’s thought.

Bentinck began appointing Indians in the service of the company as the territory of the
company had been greatly extended it was not possible to control it with the help of English
officers alone. Indians were appointed to the post of Deputy Magistrate and Deputy Collector
according to their ability. In this way Bentinck took significant steps towards the Indianisation of
government services

Land Revenue Administration

At the heart of Indian administration lay the land revenue system. Bentinck expressed his agreement with James mill that the original right to soil belonged to the ryots and that the tenures of the great Zamindars and Taluqdars were artificial creations of the state.

The government suspected that after the permanent settlement of 1793 considerable areas of land had been brought under cultivation, the revenues of which appropriated by the Zamindars illegally. There were also La-kharaj lands enjoyed by the Zamindars whose documents needed scrutiny.

In February 1819 Regulation II was passed which provided for the assessment of all lands brought under cultivation after the permanent settlement. Finally, in June 1828 Regulation III was passed which empowered the Commissioner to deal with all such cases of revenue mismanagement.

Judicial Administration

The overhaul of revenue and executive administration cleared the path for major reforms of judiciary. The Regulation of 1831 provided for the appointment and extension of power of subordinate judges. Under this act munsifs were empowered to try cases valued at Rupees 300, Sadar Amin up to Rupees 5000.

Appeals from the decisions of all grades of subordinate judges were to be made in the court of the District Judge. Regulation VII of 1831 transferred the criminal jurisdiction from the Commissioners to the District Judges. In this way the Judiciary was made distinct from the executive. But at the same time the authority of the collector was powerful reinforced.

The double institution of Divisional Commissioner and district officer permanently modified the administrative structure introduced by Lord Cornwallis and supplied the model for future British colonial administration.

What motivated Bentinck was the need for efficiency and economy and as a consequence Indians were advanced to places of greater trust.

It was during his rule that the Law Member Thomas Babington Macaulay undertook the task of codification of law and the Indian Penal Code was the product of his strenuous efforts.

The act of 1833 provided for the enhancement of the legislative power of Governor General-in-Council and its legislative acts were given the status of parliamentary statues. So in practice the utilitarian ambition was fulfilled.

Educational Reforms

The period of Bentinck’s Governor-Generalship saw the abandonment of oriental principles in education policy. As early as 1829 he looked to the English language as one of the agents in the making of a united and regenerate imperial India.

At the same time the Government was anxious to economise the cost of administration by getting a cheap supply of educated Indians to fill in the large and increasing number of subordinate posts in administration.

The resolution of 7th March 1835 declared that the great object of British government was to be the promotion of European literature and science among the native’s of India and this purpose would be best served by employing the English language. Thus, in framing the new education policy Bentinck was guided not only by liberal sentiments but also by practical considerations.

Social Reforms

Bentinck directed his attention to social reforms and tried to exorcise the evils which were rampant in the Indian society. The abolition of Sati was the greatest achievement of Bentinck. He succeeded where his predecessors had failed.

Raja Rammohun Roy raised his voice against the evil but the humanitarian and utilitarian outlook of Bentinck convinced him that a cruel custom like Sati could never be a part of any moral order. Governor General William Bentinck prohibited the horrific practice of Sati on 4th December 1829, by enacting Regulation XVII and declaring it a cognizable offence. Bentinck successfully crushed the Thugs who had become a menace to the society. The Thugs moved about in gangs robbing not only their hapless victims but often strangulating them to death. He formed a separate Department for the suppression of the thugs under Colonel William Sleeman. Colonel Sleeman caught and killed a number of thugs and freed the people from the dangerous menace.


Lord William Bentinck occupies the highest pedestal among all the Governor Generals in India due to his shining deeds.

He was most popular among the Indian people and the seven years of his regime came to be known as ‘Age of Reforms’. He had a firm belief that reforms should be undertaken in every sphere of Indian life, in fact, Bentinck was very much influenced by the utilitarian ideals of Bentham.

He held the view that the British had a moral obligation to do good for the people of India. All this has led David Kopf to observe, “If he arrived in Calcutta with a philosophy it was derived from the pure milk of Benthamite world.

” In practical terms it meant he would go some way towards bringing about the “true happiness” of Indians by rooting out customs repugnant to human morality. But at the same time he often saw the need for caution and compromise.

This has led to a great controversy among the historians as according to them it is not proper to consider Bentinck as a utilitarian.

In his book ‘Lord William Bentinck: The Making of a Liberal Imperialist 1774-1839’ John Rosselli gives a different opinion. The term Benthamite, according to him can be used in different senses.

On the one hand the Benthamites were a close group of men who were associated with Jeremy Bentham and James mill. But Bentinck had never met Bentham.

Historians have also remarked that in the early 19th Century the evangelical and the utilitarian paths often converged and it would not be proper to explain the reforms of Bentinck only in utilitarian terms.

Eric Stokes remarks, “Reform was not prompted solely by the happy conjunction of a reforming Governor General with the new school of ideas, it was dictated by hard facts.

” R.C. Dutt thinks that in undertaking reforms he was guided by imperialistic attitudes and tried to protect the interests of merchants and capitalists of England.

Thus, to conclude Bentinck was not a utilitarian in his affiliation or in his performance. His strong believe in favour of centralisation was derived from his military experience. So, in a general sense we can say that Lord William Bentinck and the utilitarian shared certain attitudes and beliefs.

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