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Bent on Optimising the Benefits of the Raj

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Bent on Optimising the Benefits of the Raj

Ashok Mitra

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no difficulty in reconciling his utilitarian tenets with the ideologies of imperialism. Mill had never been to India. That did not prevent him from writing a tract, The H istory of British India, which was standard reading for British administrators coming out to rule India. It was also the

F
or the most part of the 20th century, The Times of India and The Statesman were two of the most important newspapers in the country. Is it not cause of some wonder that both papers were founded by a slightly eccentric Englishman who interpreted in his own manner, in the second half of the preceding century, the empirical correlate of the white man’s burden?

Robert Knight, son of a humble bank clerk, was born in London’s southern suburb, Lambeth, in 1825. He went to the local grammar school. The family lacked the means to provide him any opportunity for further studies. He was however a voracious reader and developed a mind of his own. His adolescence and early youth coincided with the blossoming of Britain’s liberal spring: the reforms act of 1832, the repeal of the Corn Laws, the new

Robert Knight: Reforming Editor in Victorian India by Edwin Hirschmann (New Delhi: Oxford University Press), 2008; pp xi + 272, Rs 795.

charter issued to the East India Company frowned upon racial discrimination in official appointments. With utilitarianism in the air, Robert Knight imbibed great quantities of the ideology of greatest good for the greatest number. He in due course became a starry-eyed worshipper of James Mill.

To understand Knight’s trajectory of life and career, it is indeed essential to refer a bit more to James Mill. That he was the co-inspirer, along with Jeremy Bentham, of the doctrine of Utilitarianism is well known. He nonetheless also happened to be in the employment of the East India Company and endorsed in full its aggressive pan-imperial activities. He in fact had

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book ordinary Britons depended upon to acquire some knowledge of their proudest imperial possession and its people. James Mill had a frozen view of India and her culture and civilisation. Having chanced upon the text of some of Manu’s arcane dictums, Hindu society, he concluded, was nothing more than a bundle of barbarian notions and practices further degenerated by the Islamic invasion; Islam, in Mill’s lexicon, was synonymous with bigotry. India was therefore a hellhole of semi-savage customs and manners; it had fallen on the British Empire, Mill was convinced, to assume the noble obligation to uplift that land and its inhabitants; the greatest good of the greatest number would be accomplished there by British rule, would weed out retrograde rules and customs and lead India and Indians on to the bliss of efficient administration, enlightening western education and, as

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spin-off, superior culture and standard of living.

From Commerce to Journalism

When Robert Knight touched the shores of Bombay, he was full of ideas how imperial rule could best serve the cause of utilitarianism in India. He came as a petty accounts clerk with a wine-importing firm. As a hard-working lad, he quickly found his niche in Bombay’s burgeoning commercial circle. He had, besides, a flair for writing and started sending articles to l ocal journals – either monthly or weekly

– such as the Bombay Gazette and the Bombay Times. The exuberance of his social philosophy was already evident in these pieces: the empire was not for exploitation, but for uplifting the conditions of the natives. Nobody paid particular a ttention to the young man’s views; what received notice was his prodigious capacity to produce copies. The editor of the Bombay Times went on leave and chose one of the journal’s more frequent contributors, Knight, to fill in for him during his absence. That was the beginning. Knight stayed on with the Bombay Times. Bombay was a rapidly growing city with a steady influx of expatriates. Briskness was in the air. As commerce flourished, so too did journalism and the Bombay Times. In a short while Knight became its co-owner. He gathered money from friends, set up a joint-stock company and converted the weekly into a full-fledged daily. Circulation grew; within a few years, Knight’s paper had swallowed most of its competitors and emerged in 1861 as The Times of India.

Everything was seemingly honkey-dory. Knight was financially comfortable; he could even buy a coffee plantation in Wynad. Driven by utilitarian principles Knight campaigned for greater native representation in the Bombay Municipal Council, of which he was a member. On such issues as rates structure and expansion of public utilities too, he sided with Indian interests and thereby alienated members of his own community. His zeal, often betraying a trace of naïveté, alienated British officials presiding over the provincial administration as well. Such developments led to strains within the internal management of The Times of India, and all of a sudden the sky fell. Knight one morning found

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himself ejected from the editorial chair by one of his own cronies. Almost simultaneously, the share market scam, with which the name of Premchand Roychand is associated, shook the Bombay gentry. Many Europeans who had invested with the Bombay Stock Exchange suffered heavy losses. Knight was one of them. He had to sell off the coffee plantation to meet his liabilities. And, he was without a job too.

Robert Knight was not to be deterred. Alongside The Times of India, he had started a monthly publication, The Indian Economist, which collected detailed data and information from the outlying districts of Bombay Presidency as well as other parts of the country concerning cropping patterns, area under different crops, the r ainfall pattern, crop yields, crop rotation, revenue collection, epidemics, et al. The daily was gone; shortage of funds notwithstanding, he however continued to publish the monthly. It was shoestring existence, but Knight soldiered on. He had his idée fixe of optimising the benefits of imperial rule, and could not be dissuaded from pursuing his pet themes. He was dead set against the Permanent Settlement in Bengal Presidency since, he felt, it left the r yots at the mercy of the landlords, who did not bother to improve the infrastructure for cultivation. Besides, revenue collection in the Permanently Settled areas, he showed, was inordinately low compared to collections in the areas under temporary settlements. His liberal humanitarian instincts spurred him to come down heavily on the feeble and lugubrious ways the government organised relief during frequently occurring famines in different parts of the country. He stressed on the necessity of expanding public works as much for providing livelihood to the people in the distressed areas as for ensuring irrigation and potable water to the villages. He had strong – and often quite opinionated – views on several aspects of India’s political economy. His attack on the concept of “home charges” was an echo of Dadabhoy Naoroji’s “drain” theory: the money spent on this account, he did not have the least doubt, took away huge sums

– that could otherwise have been spent for the welfare of the Indian people – to finance activities of the imperial government in London instead. He went on to question

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the practice of loading the Indian budget with expenditure incurred by Her Majesty’s government for the unending Afghan expeditions. The empire, in his concept, was intended to serve the natives, not to squeeze them dry. At the same time, Knight looked askance at the official obsession over railway expansion while according a much lower priority to irrigation and road building. Never one to mince words, he sneered that such a pattern of public spending only served the interests of crooked contractors and the British steel industry. He had his eccentricities too. Constantly vocal on the predatory role of the zamindars, he was at the same time, quixotic enough to advocate the case of native princes who were, according to him, actually tragic figures and victims of machinations engineered by dishonest British resident officers.

And he had his romantic illusions, always believing that a Liberal Party government in Westminster would be more sympathetic to the plight of Indian natives than a Tory regime. His hopes were duly shattered, imperial policy remained exploitative policy whatever the colour of the party heading the Whitehall and irrespective of whether the Viceroy was named by a Tory or a Liberal prime minister. Knight nonetheless would not relinquish his dreams.

By the early 1870s, Knight knew his mission in life. Neither the hostility towards him on the part of both the administration and his compatriots could sway him. He had meanwhile bought the copyright of a defunct weekly journal in Madras, The Statesman. He re-floated it in Bombay. The Times of India had slipped out of his control, but he continued to bring out, along with the Indian Economist, this new weekly. Funds though were woefully short.

Then something happened. A wellwisher, a senior civil servant who was a major influence at the founding of the Indian National Congress, Allan Octavian Hume, gave the struggling editor an introduction to the Lieutenant Governor of Bengal, George Campbell. Knight entered into a correspondence with Campbell which resettled in a rather unusual arrangement. Knight would transfer himself to Calcutta as an employee of the government of Bengal, but he would be allowed to continue to edit the Indian Economist, which too would

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travel to Calcutta; it would henceforth be a quasi-official publication with an assured subscription list courtesy both the government of India and the government of Bengal. The Statesman would be in the care of some of Knight’s acolytes in Bombay.

Knight came over to Calcutta with high hopes. The deal, however, soon came unstruck. The Indian Economist, the authorities thought, would be only a compendium of data and statistics and nothing beyond. Knight had other ideas. In each issue, he appended his own comments on the a ffairs of the country and would often offer severe critique of the government’s land and revenue policies, or insert comments on the lacunae in public famine relief activities and on such other matters. He was warned by officialdom to desist. To no avail. The inevitable took place. Once a new lieutenant governor assumed office in Bengal, Knight was dismissed from his official position; government subscriptions to The Indian Economist too were cancelled forthwith.

Rise of the Calcutta Statesman

Robert Knight could not still be bound down. He packed off his family to Agra where the cost of living was low; he himself stayed back in Calcutta. It was once more a fresh beginning. Old friends and well-wishers chipped in, Knight gathered the last of his savings, The Statesman was closed down in Bombay and brought over to Calcutta. The Calcutta Statesman saw the light of day as a weekly venture. In a couple of years, it was converted into a daily. Because of his sustained efforts over the years to gather economic data from different parts of the country, Knight could arrange a network of correspondents who started contributing to The Statesman. The paper soon commanded attention, particularly because of the wealth of data it carried. Alongside of course were Knight’s editorial outpourings, hated by his compatriots – and the administration – but doted upon by the emerging Indian middle class. Circulation was healthy, commercial advertisements began to flow in; The Statesman became a profitable proposition.

Success could not subdue Knight’s restlessness. He was still fulminating over the inequity of “home charges”, the inadequacy of public works, the gaps in famine relief, the lack of reforms in the country’s land revenue system and the denial of opportunities to native Indians to serve in the different rungs of administration. Once the Calcutta Statesman was stabilised, he took a year off and proceeded to London. By now he was convinced that, in case he wanted to see results, he must carry his campaigns on home ground, right in Westminster itself. He decided to start a weekly edition of The Statesman in London. It failed to take off and Her Majesty’s government did not change a bit; both its imperial policy in general and its approach towards issues concerning self-government in India remained what they were.

A disheartened Knight was back in Calcutta to pursue his causes, including some new ones, such as his fight to undo the supposed wrongs done to the Hyderabad Dewan, Nawab Salar Jung, by the British Resident. He campaigned long and hard to increase native representation on the Calcutta municipal body. In most instances, his outspokenness bore little fruit, and, on the contrary, landed him into trouble such as libel suits. Knight, however, remained the indomitable battleaxe till his death in 1890.

Persistent Faith in Utilitarianism

Making allowance for his eccentricities and a certain lack of proportion, Knight remains a remarkable character. His role as pioneer of English journalism in this country in any case should evoke gratitude and admiration. What is of greater significance is the persistence of his faith that if utilitarianism is to be true to itself, it must be extended even to people who are under the bondage of imperial servitude. Many of the causes he had advocated actually became the platform of the Indian National Congress, for example, the demand for greater entry of Indians in the different layers of administration, the abolition of home charges, and a reconsideration of the burden of land revenue. What made him a noble hero to India’s emerging middle class was his support for the Ilbert Bill seeking to validate the right of Indian judges to try Europeans as well as his opposition to the 1878 legislation gagging the vernacular press.

It is surprising that till now Robert Knight had been without a proper biography. That lacuna has been filled by Edwin Hirschmann’s effort. Hirschmann has laboured over decades to prepare this book, locating sources and references, digging into documents, poring into motheaten newspaper files, reading up obscure reports, visiting Bombay, Calcutta and other places in India with a Knight connection, and looking into family memorabilia. It is a meticulous piece of work. While one wishes Hirschmann had a less turgid style, every chapter contains nuggets of information which, had this book not been written, would have faded into nothingness.

Hirschmann laments that The Times of India office in Bombay could provide hardly any facts concerning Knight; visiting The Statesman office in Calcutta, in contrast, was an altogether different experience. Is not this only to be expected? Bombay-Mumbai, always on the fast forward track, cares little for history; Calcutta-Kolkata’s lone asset, many will say, is its past.

Ashok Mitra (ashok3@vsnl.net) has been a contributor to both EW and EPW for more than five decades. He was also on the board of Sameeksha Trust until 2004.

EPW Archives (1966-1998)

EPW is pleased to offer to its readers digitised pages of the journal from the years 1966-98. The archives are hosted at the EPW web site. Please see “Archives 1966-1998” on the home page. The address is: http://epw.in/epw/user/library.jsp?archive=true These archives are available to all subscribers of EPW. They are hosted on a separate page and in a format different from the post-1999 archives.

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