Updated September 15, 2019


Munshi Umrao Ali (Usmani) wrote The Ilbert Bill in 1884 as a historical, political and satirical play about the White Mutiny that arose in India and Britain when a bill of that name was introduced to bring parity between Indian and British magistrates and to allow Indian judges to preside over cases involving Europeans. It was an act of courage and defiance by Munshi Ali — maternal grandfather of Mirza Azeem Baig Chughtai and Ismat Chughtai and a renowned writer of his time, best known for the novel Razam Bazam — as writing and performing works on political subjects was considered seditious under the Dramatic Performances Act of 1876, punishable with fines and imprisonment.

After the 1857 War of Independence, the British crown took over the ownership and administration of India from the East India Company. Eager to keep the Indians quiet and relatively content, and the jewel in the crown in the palm of their hands, the British decided to extend some measures of self-government to the ‘natives’ — as the Indians were called. Thus, the Indian Civil Service (ICS) was introduced. Indian candidates sat for the same exam as the British, underwent a rigorous training programme and were eager to play an active role in the management of their country. But to their dismay, they very soon found out that although they had the same education and training as their British counterparts, they didn’t have the same powers. As magistrates they could only hear cases regarding Indian defendants, whereas the British and Europeans residing in India were to be judged for their crimes only by British judges.

The British and Europeans — in particular the tea and indigo plantation owners — treated their labour worse than slaves. The labourers were cheated of their incomes and verbally and physically abused. They were brutally flogged, and hunted and killed like game, without any consequences, as the courts and magistrates were in cahoots with the criminals. This injustice was visible to all, including the viceroy, but the first Indian to raise his voice against the system was Behari Lal Gupta.

The 1884 satirical play The Ilbert Bill is a classic and, like all classics, it is speaks to us even today

Gupta was the third Indian to join the ICS in 1869 and was posted as a district commissioner to Cachar, which was then annexed to Bengal and heavily populated with British tea plantation owners and indigo growers. The locals, directly or indirectly employed or beholden to their white masters, suffered daily indignities and cruelties. Appalled by the treatment levied towards the Indian labourers and citizenry, horrified by the favouritism of the courts and realising that, as an Indian, he was not privy to judge the white population, Gupta — along with the lieutenant governor of Bengal — approached the Marquess of Ripon, then viceroy of India, about the atrocities being committed in the name of the British crown.

Sir Courtenay Peregrine Ilbert, legal advisor to the Viceroy of India’s Council, was assigned to address and correct this injustice. A bill written by him was passed in 1883 that placed all magistrates and judges on the same legal footing regarding their jurisdiction and powers. Sir Courtenay argued that, in spite of regular crimes committed by the Europeans against the natives, the injured parties were not allowed to seek justice from the courts on an equal basis. Native judges were excluded from trying cases in which Europeans were the miscreants and European magistrates seldom took complaints from the injured natives into cognizance.

This ill-fated bill generated strong controversy among the Europeans, creating a racially motivated movement that was termed the White Mutiny. The sense of racial superiority drove the British and Europeans to resist the enactment of the bill into law. The educated, middle-class Indians did not like this opposition and the Ilbert Bill thus divided public opinion into two groups: the Indian group that supported the bill and the European bloc which opposed it.

The tea and indigo planters, jute bailers and exporters, mineral and real estate investors, shipping and inland waterways interests, banking and insurance interests were all united under the various chambers of commerce in Calcutta [Kolkata], Bombay [Mumbai] and Madras [Chennai] and put up a fierce resistance to the enactment of the bill into law. To them, the proposed law was calamitous as it threatened their racial superiority and economic interests.

The British, Europeans, Anglo Indians and their Indian toadies placed pressure on the authorities by way of newspaper and magazine propaganda in India, Europe and Britain. Among the false propaganda were accusations of natives raping white women, claims that the natives were genetically inferior and licentious, and that native judges would endorse the kidnapping of white women to fill up the harems of native debauchery. The Europeans organised meetings, demonstrations and deputations to the authorities concerned, including the governor general, and extended threats — both veiled and explicit — of rebellion and armed resistance to the British prime minister and parliament.

The Indians tried to counteract the resistance, but they were no match. The Indian concern about the European reaction to the bill led to the birth of the first Indian National Conference (a precursor of the Congress party) in December 1883 in Calcutta, drawing delegates from all over India that condemned the White Mutiny. In the end, however, the crown gave in to the white mutineers .The amended bill was written proof of British rhetoric, hypocrisy and injustice.

Munshi Ali begins his play with a couplet by Khwaja Haider Ali Atish stating the fait accompli of this bill:

Barra shor suntay thay pehlu mein dil ka
Jo cheera to ek qatra-i-khoon na nikla

Loosely translated for this particular case, it means: “The vociferous British claim, that their justice was blind, was a farce.”

Most refreshing about his play is that Munshi Ali was unaware of what we today consider ‘politically correct’. Yet he is never vulgar or distasteful.

Munshi Ali’s play chronicles those tumultuous times, exposing the duplicitous policies of the British and brings to life the turbulence from the initiation of the bill until its final dismemberment. The language is — much to one’s surprise and delight — as fresh, bold and vibrant as if written today by a modern writer. The cast of characters is composed of the real-life people that gave birth to the bill, those who supported it and those who opposed it. We have the viceroy Lord Ripon, and can hear his measured words in support of the bill, demanding that it be passed despite the monumental opposition. We can see Sir Courtenay fight to maintain the intent of the bill. We hear Behari Lal Gupta struggle to maintain the dignity of the Indians as he expresses his horror, dismay, frustration and anger at the racially motivated, inhumane treatment of the labour class. We see Surendranath Banerjee advise likeminded people, help organise demonstrations and organise the first Indian conference against British atrocities. We hear about his newspaper The Bengalee. We hear Indians that support the bill trying to gather momentum from among the sleepy, disjointed population; they lament the disunity and sectarianism that existed then, and still does, between Muslims, Hindus, Jews and Parsis. We can see and hear the mob of ordinary Bengalis with their refreshing colloquialisms shouting, shoving, spitting out slogans and their explosive anger against the British, attacking the Anglo Indians and spraying black paint on their faces to remind them of their ethnicity. We hear the echoing of the organised opposition to the bill in the hallowed halls of the legal chambers.

Munshi Ali gives his characters tongue-in-cheek names. There is the Maharaja of Sheep — the Indian toady who sings praises of the racial superiority of the British and admits to the genetic and intellectual inferiority of Indians. The white mutineers — named Mr Harsh, Mr Anger, Mr Prejudice, Mr Hunter etc — throw off their masks of the so-called British reserve and civility and stand red-faced, drinks in hand, in their Europeans-only clubs, shouting racial slurs and threatening armed rebellion with their hyper-English masculinity and swagger. The Anglo Indians are there, too, with names such as Mr Pilpilli and Mr Chandal, bowing and scurrying obsequiously.

Most refreshing about his play is that Munshi Ali was unaware of what we today consider ‘politically correct’; he doesn’t shy away from either the uncomfortable facts or the language that — at times — takes one’s breath away. Yet he is never vulgar or distasteful. He walks that fine line well, exposing the truth in a most engaging manner and making us acutely aware of how little we know of our own historical struggle for freedom.

The Ilbert Bill is a classic and, like all classics, it is for all times — lest we forget today as we speak of the status of forces agreements that exist between the United States and over 100 countries, including our neighbour Afghanistan, where US armed forces have killed civilians with impunity, but cannot be tried in the host country’s courts. When a state or society fails to protect the rights of individuals, literature stands sentinel, raising its voice against injustice and atrocities.

As William Faulkner wrote in Requiem for a Nun, "The past is never dead. It's not even past."

The writer is the great-great-granddaughter of Munshi Umrao Ali (Usmani)

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 15th, 2019