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Bombay’s ‘Compassionate’ Governor

Bombay’s ‘Compassionate’ Governor

Stroll along M G Road in the heart of South Mumbai and you’re instantly dwarfed by the row of grand Gothic buildings that line the street. Among these is Elphinstone College, an arresting monument to a former Governor of Bombay in whose honour the college has been named.

The Governor, Mountstuart Elphinstone, was not only an able statesman but also a compassionate administrator who introduced sweeping educational reforms for the ‘natives’. Known for the progressive changes he brought to the then Bombay Presidency, much against the will of his contemporaries, Elphinstone will be remembered for marrying his own mandate with the interests of the locals, a tough balancing act that sometimes seemed to tilt in favour of the people he governed.

Elphinstone stared his career in India at the tender age of 17.

Born in Scotland in 1779, he landed in Calcutta in 1796 after an eight-month voyage at sea. Thanks to family connections, he enrolled with the Civil Service of the British East India Company and was straightaway appointed as an Assistant to the Magistrate of Benares.

The young but awfully bright administrator-in-the-making was soon embroiled in a series of events that kicked off his diplomatic and political career on the subcontinent. In 1799, the deposed Nawab of Awadh, Wazir Ali Khan, had organized an uprising in which five East India Company officials and civilians were killed, including the Resident of Benares, George Cherry.

Battle of Assaye in Second Anglo-Maratha War, a painting by J.C. Stadler | Wikimedia Commons

Trial By Fire

Elphinstone narrowly escaped and this led to him landing his first diplomatic mission – ferretting out the conspirators. It was during this time that he acquired a love of reading, which was to become his most cherished activity in his leisure hours.

Two years later, in 1801, he was posted as Assistant to the British Resident at the court of Peshwa Baji Rao II in Pune. Not long after that, the Second Anglo-Maratha War broke out in 1803. After the fall of Mysore in 1799–1800, the Marathas were the only major power outside British control in India.

When Baji Rao II signed the Treaty of Bassein with the British, the other Maratha chieftains such as the Scindias and the Bhonsales protested. In the war, Elphinstone, despite the lack of any former military training, acted as a virtual aide-de-camp to Major-General Arthur Wellesley, who was impressed with his courage and tactics.

Baji Rao II signing the Treaty of Bassein | Pinterest

Wellesley put in a good word for Elphinstone to his brother Richard Wellesley, the Marquess and Governor-General of Bengal, and this was the beginning of Elphinstone’s road to rapid promotions. The 24-year-old was appointed as the Resident to the court of the Bhonsale in Nagpur, at a salary of Rs 3,000 a month!

In the four years he was here, he educated himself in local languages and traditions. In 1807, Elphinstone joined the court of Scindia of Gwalior, but, just two months in, he was appointed as the first British envoy to the court of Kabul in Afghanistan. His mandate was to secure a friendly alliance with the Afghan ruler, Shah Shuja, against Napoleon’s planned advance on India.

In 1811, Elphinstone returned to Pune, this time as Resident, a role that was very challenging this time around. He strategically kept the Marathas disunited and used the murder of an envoy, who had been travelling from Baroda to Pune to force a treaty on the Peshwa. The tenuous peace between the Peshwas was broken in 1817, with the Marathas declaring war on the British. However, Company troops managed to defeat the Marathas in the Battles of Khadki and Koregaon, and this led to Elphinstone becoming the Commissioner of the Deccan in 1818.

An Irresistible Offer

After this post, Elphinstone had planned to retire and return to England. But, just a year later, in 1819, he was offered the Governorship of Bombay. A hugely prestigious posting, Elphinstone accepted and introduced changes to the system that were so major that they are felt even today.

Mountstuart Elphinstone | Wikimedia Commons

He noted that the methods of revenue settlement and means of delivering justice were not only vague and outdated but also varied from one region to another. The written law was of the Hindus and Muslims and based on beliefs and customs, often influenced by the Kazi or Pandit and the ruling class. The crimes and their punishments were assessed based on the caste system. Besides being unfair, this also created an environment of chaos.

The system, he realised, needed a thorough overhaul. Elphinstone thus embarked on the mammoth task of introducing a general code. With the help of a committee, the Code of Regulations became effective from 1st January 1827 in Bombay Presidency. It popularly came to be known as the ‘Elphinstone Code’. He was also the first governor of Bombay to codify civil and criminal procedures of law, which embodied his life’s work for the cause of British consolidation in India.

Elphinstone was also a great believer in education at a time when opinion in Britain was against educating the ‘natives’. He belonged to the ‘Liberal School’, which stood for the introduction of Western ideas and values but only if integrated with traditional institutions and people’s sentiments.

With this template of integrating old and the new, Elphinstone’s next major contribution was the foundation of schools and colleges and the present system of higher education in Maharashtra dates back to Elphinstone’s minutes of 1823, which stressed the need for establishing schools for teaching English and the European sciences.

Along with educated Indians, he started the ‘Native School and School Book Committee’ to raise funds for the purpose.

He wanted Indians to have access to subjects like science, literature and history but found it difficult to attract students.

He figured that education in the vernacular might help. Thus, he devised a system of employing educated Indians to compose indigenous works or translate regional/European works for handsome rewards. The first Gujarati novel, Karan Ghelo, was an outcome of this.

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Although his reforms greatly benefitted Indians, his concern for spreading education was related to political expediency, for creating an extended base for British rule – the expanding administrative machinery needed a large number of administrators of various cadres to carry of routine clerical work.

Walking A Tightrope

Elphinstone found himself in an awkward position, one where he had to show his loyalty to both, the British Empire as well as Indians. In the interests of the latter, he founded the Hindu (Sanskrit) College at Pune as he was aware of the importance of the caste system. His move was aimed at gaining the support of the Maratha nobility and Brahmins for a smooth governorship and for the consolidation of a new regime.

In this college, education would be imparted from the Shastras and available only to a certain class of people. But in 1823, this institute was highly criticised by the Court of Directors of the East India Company, which said he had committed the same mistake as the Benares Hindu College and the Calcutta Madrassa, where in lieu of providing Hindu learning and Mohammedan learning, there wasn’t enough “useful learning”.

Elphinstone was determined that the lower classes, especially labourers and peasants, learn to read and write so that they could ratify contracts and not be taken for a ride by moneylenders. He emphasized the importance of educating in vernacular languages known to the locals, such as Marathi and Gujarati, unlike Sanskrit, which was known only to the Brahmins.

Elphinstone College in the late 19th century | Wikimedia Commons

Motivated by his views, the wealthy inhabitants of Bombay, with the help of public subscription of Rs 2,29,636 founded Elphinstone College in his honour. On one instance, Elphinstone is reported to have said: “We are bound under all circumstances to do our duty to them (Indians).”

During the eight years of his term as Governor, he visited each part of the Bombay Presidency twice. One of his biographers reports, “In his youth, Elphinstone espoused radical political opinions but became more conservative with age and experience, a trait emphasized by his respectful treatment of the Indian nobility in his settlement of the Deccan.”

To the Raja of Satara, he restored a kingdom; to the great territorial chieftains he returned lands and privileges; and to the Brahmins he gave back temple lands and provided awards for learning. He tried to maintain the authority of the village headmen and of tribunals, wherein village elders could administer the law locally. The period during which Elphinstone held the reins of the government was one of profound peace in Western India – giving progress and prosperity to flourish.

After unbroken service of 30 years, Elphinstone felt his work was done and, in 1826, he resigned from office. He was later offered the post of Governor-General of India twice but refused, preferring instead to finish his comprehensive two-volume work, The History of India. It dealt with ‘Hindu’ and ‘Mohamedan’ periods and includes the acute observations he gained during his extensive travels across the subcontinent and interactions with the people. It includes detailed chapters on the history of India, besides the socio-economic-cultural practices being followed.

From England, Elphinstone continued to advise the British government and influence public affairs in India, a land he cherished and governed with astuteness but also with kindness. After a long and fruitful inning on the subcontinent, Elphinstone died on 20th November 1859, at the age of 80.

Did you know?
Mountstuart Elphinstone built the first bungalow in Mumbai’s upscale Malabar Hill neighbourhood, which was then a jungle, and following his example, many other prominent people took up residence there. It soon became a fashionable locality and has remained a posh neighbourhood to this day.

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