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WE have given India justice — every authority agrees on that point; and, whatever else we may have done or left undone, this alone, we tell ourselves, is enough to justify our rule.
It is quite true, only it requires a little qualification. Most things in India, when examined, assume the features of a huge jest, and justice is like the others. We have offered India justice, only India will not have it. India prefers injustice. We have offered honest administration; India prefers dishonest. So that administration to-day means the light of a few honest Europeans shining in a naughty native world. Justice, when you come to see it in action, means the guess work of shrewd European magistrates steering through billowy seas of perjury.
From many cases in a district court let us take one or two. Din Mohammed and Abdul Kerim are charged, the one with stealing a down-calving buffalo, and the other with killing and skinning the same, well knowing it to have been stolen. The evidence against them has been heard already; to-day is for their defence. They crouch, salaaming, into the tent, shackled together by the wrists, with the other end of the chain in the hand of a blue-tunicked, khaki-breeched policeman. He is about half the size of the prisoners — two splendid fellows of six feet two or thereabout. Din Mohammed's demeanour is defiant: he has been here three times before. His blue-black moustache and beard bristle fiercely; his shining eyeballs are a splash in saucers of dazzling white. Abdul Kerim, inexperienced, thinks that a melting mood may better serve his turn: his crimson-turbaned head droops sideways like a peony in a shower, and his eyes are turned plaintively upwards.
There are three witnesses for the defence. Each stands over six feet, each has a beard and moustache like horsehair and eyes like onyx; they might all of them be blood relations to Din Mohammed — which is exactly what they are. They enter and stand with clasped hands and eyes directed unswervingly towards the top left-hand corner of the tent. Their story is simple and consistent. Din Mohammed bought the buffalo in their presence for seventeen rupees, and they solemnly swear that this is the truth. Every now and then one of the prisoners, standing also with folded hands and rubbing their bare toes together, throws in a word of encouragement or corroborative detail. Cross-examination brings out no discrepancy in their story: time, place, figures, names, tally exactly. And the last of them winds up: "O Presence, I have kept the Fast for forty years and never told a lie."
A judge at home would have no more to say: obviously not guilty. In India, unluckily, there are one or two further points to be considered. As, first, that Din Mohammed is a landless man, and has probably never eaten meat in his life — much less killed a down-calving buffalo, which in a month or so would be giving twenty quarts of milk a-day. Second, that a down-calving buffalo costs at least forty rupees, and up to three hundred — not seventeen. And, third, that Din Mohammed has been convicted of this same offence three times already; and that on each of these occasions exactly the same witnesses appeared on his behalf, including the Washington who never told a lie, and swore to exactly the same story.
"Bring in the prisoners." As they rattle in, the magistrate looks up: "Din Mohammed, seven years; Abdul Kerim, six months." Out they go. A district magistrate has no time to address the prisoner at the bar and dilate on the enormity of his offence.
That was a very simple case, and interesting only as illustrating the native idea of evidence. But some are brain-cracking perplexities. For example, a magnificently powerful Sikh is next brought in, his clothes blood-spotted, his jaw broken, and his mouth hideously on one side. As he enters he artistically drops off his turban, disclosing a big wound on his head, and bursts into lung-tearing sobs. When he is quieted, an equally superb Sikh, grey-bearded and patriarchal, steps in to testify against him. "Rushed up with a sword," he begins. "When?" "The fifth of January." "Where?" "In front of my house." "Who rushed up with a sword?" "Jagta did." It is a further amiable peculiarity of the Indian witness that he begins his evidence in the middle, and all pronouns and adverbs and similar embellishments have to be dragged out of him by a corkscrew of cross-examinations.
The case appears to be this. All the witnesses agree that the prisoner rushed up with a sword and assaulted the old man, that the old man's son rushed between and got a cut in the thigh, the which he displays with triumph. Further, that the son then hit prisoner on the hand with a bamboo and got the sword from him — the sword lies on the tent floor, alive to testify the fact — and that the prisoner was thereupon given into custody. The flaw in their evidence is that, whereas it is obvious that the prisoner thereafter got a most tremendous thrashing, and was indeed half killed, every one of the witnesses denies with an oath that anything of the kind happened. On the other hand, the prisoner cannot account for the illegal possession of the sword, which is evidently a cast police sabre: he says it is not his, and that he never saw it before. And the civil surgeon — native — who examined the son's wound, reports that it could not have been inflicted by Jagta, but was probably manufactured by the son himself.
Now, five years ago, Jagta was concerned in abducting the daughter of the old man. He and another were condemned, but having appealed before a native judge and paid him 1500 rupees, were acquitted. Since then Jagta has brought a criminal charge against the old man and his son, supported by abundant evidence, which was adjudged false and malicious, and for bringing which he was fined. The two parties will go on with their accusations and counter-accusations for a generation.
There are, therefore, two hypotheses. First, the old man's party may have fallen on Jagta and beaten him; then, to cover themselves, rushed off to the police, accused him of murderous assault, and bribed them to supply a cast sword to support the allegation. Second, Jagta may have actually made the attack, and got the unacknowledged thrashing in return; and then his friends may have bribed the assistant surgeon to say that the son's wound was self-inflicted. Both hypotheses are in the nature of native things probable; only both cannot be true — and how in the world is the wretched magistrate to decide between them?
And now you understand the nature of Indian justice. The case is dirt-common, and quite typical. Of course the wretched magistrate has to take full notes of all the evidence, of which half must be, and all may be, false. Indian law allows great freedom of appeal — with the possible result that when, after years of trouble, the magistrate has caught the master cattle-lifter of his district, an inexperienced appellate judge sets him free again because the evidence appears equal on each side. In one case out of ten he may be right; but who is to blame him when he is wrong? To give India justice would demand second-sight. India loves litigation: the court is the ryot's parish council — as good as a circus. It would probably be wrong to say that the native does not appreciate honesty in his judges; but he appreciates it mainly with the sporting notion that it is a good thing to be sure that the litigant who cheats best will win. Every day cases come into court in which every word of the evidence is carefully, lovingly fabricated beforehand. Prosecution and defence are alike masterly and elaborate perjuries, for the native — especially in cases where, as usual, both sides are to blame — will never be content without improving on the truth. It is the morality of the country, and you live longer if you laugh at it than if you weep; yet sometimes you get a case that is truly devilish. The false witness begins before the crime is even committed. In the districts about Peshawar especially, where murder is the equivalent of writing to the newspapers with us, men will go to the police, at intervals, for months, to point out that So-and-so hates Such-an-one, has threatened to kill him, is believed to be lying in wait for him. Sure enough, in the fulness of time, Such-an-one is found dead with a knife through his back, and So-and-so is arrested. But the real murderers were the men who had warned the police; so that magistrates will hardly ever dare to convict a man lest he be an innocent victim, and murders have gone up about Peshawar to four hundred or so a-year.
Not a single native is to be trusted. Many no doubt are impeccable; but with instances of dishonesty among the ablest and longest unsuspected, it is next to impossible to be sure of anybody. The truth is, that native opinion does not utterly condemn corruption. The jail authorities encourage prisoners to write petitions that they may get backsheesh from the dealers who provide the Government paper. The police are notoriously corrupt, the officials are corrupt, the officers of the court are corrupt, the very native magistrates and judges are corrupt. A case is adjourned and adjourned and adjourned, every time on a plausible pretext, for months; meanwhile the judge's jackals are out in the villages hinting to the suitor that if he will but agree to this or that compromise, the cause shall be heard and settled at once. As a rule, they take bribes from each side, and then decide the case on its merits. The man of really scrupulous honesty takes the same present from each side, and then just like our own Lord Bacon — returns the money to the loser.
Only why, you ask, is this allowed to go on? Because, though everybody suspects, and hundreds of natives know, you cannot get a man to come forward and say, "I paid this magistrate such a sum," and prove it. Of course not, for the man who paid is usually the man who profits. It is one of the superlative jests of India to see a superior tell the equivalent of a county court judge he strongly suspects him of taking bribes, and the learned gentleman sobbing on the floor and challenging anybody that has bribed him to come forward and say so, yet in no way resenting the charge. But only last year one of the ablest native judges in the Punjab was found guilty of venality in its very grossest form. He had taken 1500 rupees from Jagta and his friend; from the brother of a maharajah he had had as much as 60,000 in one case. His cleverness was such that every one of his decisions looked plausible. His wealth, of course, was prodigious; and, when the crash came, he was off to Pondicherry: much of his money was invested in native States, and bags of rupees or bars of gold were found hidden in the homes of professional thieves.
"Our pay," said a Government official — retired "is but the chutni which we eat with our meat."