NATIVE LIFE IN TRAVANCORE
The REV. SAMUEL MATEER, F.L.S.
Of the London Missionary Society
RECENT MEASURES OF REFORM
The system of Government in Travancore practically consists of two benevolent despotisms, the Native and the British, the one acting as a counteraction to the other. The desirability of some kind of constitution has been spoken of, but the practical difficulties are great, the people being not yet fitted by education, training, or solidarity for a share of sovereign power. At present, therefore, the public are unrepresented and unable to explain their requirements.
Indeed, it would be no great exaggeration to say that there is no public, no community. The Travancoreans are not a nation, but a congeries of artificially and widely-separated, for the most part mutually opposing, sections of population. Yet a capacity for the conduct of representative government can never be developed except by the practice of it. The Supreme Government are leading the way by legislative councils; by the publicity given to legislative proceedings, and opportunities afforded to the public of examining them and expressing an opinion on them, and by raising trustworthy natives to high office and position.
In proportion as we thus show the example native rulers will follow it; and so will the higher castes among the Hindus, who are as much separated from the low-castes as Europeans are from Indians, or more; as much afraid of their rise, and as unwilling to concede liberty and social rights to them as the most intolerant and selfish individuals that can be found amongst Europeans.
Some action, however, in the direction of popular deliberation and representation has recently been taken by the Sirkar, in imitation of the Mysore Government, who hold meetings of representative landholders and others, to listen to an exposition of the annual budget and of the aims and plans of the Government. The survey and re-assessment of garden and rice lands just entered upon in Travancore is essential to an equitable and proportionate adjustment of the land tax, as many properties brought under cultivation, and trees into bearing, within the half-century which has elapsed since the last general survey, have not been entered in the Government records.
The result will be a large increase to the public revenue if the present rates of assessment are maintained, and for such increase of revenue there is no immediate or urgent need. Much, however, depends upon the use that is to be made of the expected increment to the income of the State — whether the rates of taxation on trees and land are to be lowered, or customs and other imports repressive of industry and interfering with the operations of trade abolished, so as to keep the income at the present figure — or whether the overplus is to be spent on the increased support of temples and priests, on great religious ceremonies, or military display; or to be devoted wholly to elementary education, so loudly called for by the degraded condition of the low-caste population; and to roads, railways, post offices, hospitals, vaccination, and other civilizing agencies and remunerative works; and to the adequate remuneration of subordinates in the judicial, revenue, and medical departments.
Some uneasiness has been felt throughout the country with regard to the re-assessment, as the people are beginning to look into such subjects; and also those landowners who now escape taxation for portions of their property, desire to continue to profit by their exemption.
A representative assembly of land- holders from all the taluks was, therefore, invited to meet the Dewan at the capital, on 24th March, 1883, to receive information respecting the proposed new survey and settlement. On this occasion an able and statesmanlike speech, exposing present evils and inequalities, and explaining proposed reforms and the benevolent intentions of the Sirkar, was delivered by the Dewan to the gratification of those assembled.
It is to be hoped that this will prove but a beginning in this direction, and that the public. Christians as well as Hindus, will be taken into confidence in questions affecting legislation, taxation, and expenditure of public funds; and that instead of passing empirical measures hatched in private consultation alone, without sufficient criticism from without, as has sometimes been done, the evils of which are only discovered by their practical working after the lapse of years, various sections of intelligent people will be consulted, and the influence of any given measure upon the humbler, as well as upon the higher classes, taken into consideration.
Again, a very serious form of oppression, from which some of the poorer classes have just been released, was the compulsory supply of firewood for temples and ootooperahs. Large quantities of firewood are daily consumed, while the sum allotted for the purchase was a third, or a sixth, or even a much smaller ratio of the fair market value. Ilavars especially were the sufferers. At Ambalapuley and Quilon this long-standing grievance was remedied in 1864, though not without much difficulty; and the increased expense was actually met by funds realized from the same institutions by the suppression of abuses.
At Vaikkam, Ilavars and others not enjoying a single acre of Devassam or Government lands, and under no contract or special obligation to this service, were forced by the Provertikars to supply the entire quantity of fuel demanded by the temple authorities, at almost nominal prices, while there were ample funds available from the temple revenues to meet the just expenditure; and much of the fuel went, not for direct temple service, but to meet the demand of private individuals connected with the temple.
There was also a great deal of oppression and vexation in the measurement of the wood, loss of time in waiting, and personal annoyances pressing most heavily upon the poorest and most helpless. The people in some parts have now been released from the obligation, and arrangements made for purchasing the firewood in the open market.
Re-arrangements of the judicial machinery have also recently been made, promising much advantage to the public. Defective laws had been administered, in many instances, by judges devoid of judicial training and experience, with a community much given to litigation, the number of civil suits filed in M.E, 106 being 31,361. The Zillah Courts were clogged, not only with pending suits, but with judges so numerous that responsibility was hopelessly divided; the reduction of their number was, therefore, long contemplated. The pecuniary jurisdiction of the lowest grade of judicial officers, the Munsiffs, was restricted to suits not exceeding in value 200 Rupees.
The salaries of the Zillah judges and Munsiffs were altogether inadequate, considering their position and responsibility, while yet there was a superabundance of funds, and a large profit made on the administration of justice, the judicial revenue being nearly double the entire cost of the establishment. The number of Zillah judges was therefore reduced, and their pay somewhat increased.
The personnel of the Munsiffs was improved by the removal of some of the old school and the substitution in their places of better qualified men : their jurisdiction has been increased to suits valued at 500 Rupees, and their pay considerably augmented — a most necessary condition of successful reform. Appeals from the decisions of Munsiffs lie to the Zillah Courts; and appeals from the latter to the Sadr, now termed the High Court.
The last Court has again been re-organized, in order that in all civil and criminal appeals the parties might have the advantage of the presence of two Judges on the bench, and to find a mode of disposing of appeals to the Maharajah. Scarcely any one, indeed, knew that such appeals lay, but the theory is still tenaciously clung to that the power of appeal rests with the Maharajah, though happily it is rarely exercised.
The High Court has now five judges, two of whom sit in turn to hear and dispose of Criminal and Civil appeals coming from the Zillah Courts. If these two judges differ in their opinion the case is referred to a full Bench of five judges : the opinion of the majority prevails, and is final. If the two judges agree, a further appeal lies in special cases from the Division Bench to the remaining three judges, who are called the Judicial Committee. The decision of this Committee must in all cases be submitted to the Maharajah for approval. It is said, however, that the only appeal heard by the new tribunal was finished in February, 1882, and judgment had not yet been pronounced up to the end of the year.
The want of systematic substantive Law for the guidance of Courts in Criminal business having long been felt, and several attempts been made unsuccessfully to form a new Penal Code adapted to the backward civilisation and peculiar usages of Travancore, a Regulation has been passed, enacting that the Indian Penal Code (omitting chapter VII.), and also the Whipping Act, should come into force, excepting any customary Law exempting any classes from any particular kinds of punishment, e.g. Brahmans and females are exempted from capital punishment for murder; and only one person of a gang who unite to commit murder can be executed. Another Regulation introduces the Indian Criminal Procedure Code, excepting that no trial is to be by the aid of jurors or assessors.
Regulations are still required, or clearer precedents, to meet various needs, as with respect to Divorce in the one sole case allowed in Holy Scripture, Wills of Christians, Female Inheritance, Widow Re-marriage, and freedom from loss of property in case of conversion to another religion. But the measures recently passed may be regarded as placing the judicial affairs of Travancore on the fair road to uniformity, order, and efficiency, if the reform of prevailing corruption and incompetence could be so far effected as to ensure their due administration. May order and loyalty long continue, and keep pace with the progress of liberty and independence.
The Irrigation Works in the South, on which so much depends, have also been placed under special supervision, which is said to be giving satisfaction to the people generally.
By far the most important and fertile reform recently effected is the withdrawal from the Magistracy and Revenue Officials of their police functions, and the organization of a regular Police force after the British Indian Pattern, and in accordance with more enlightened and modern views of political economy than had previously prevailed.
The duties of Tahsildars were manifold, some of them mutually incompatible, and they were overwhelmed with work, or at least in a position to make this an excuse for inattention to the business of the humbler classes. The Tahsildar was superintendent of Police, of minor Public Works, especially repairs of Temples, of Revenue Collections, of Escheat, Inam, and Survey departments, of Ootooperah and Pagoda administration; and various Magisterial duties devolve upon him, providing supplies, conveyances, and coolies for travellers; and all arrangements for the comfort, progress and public reception of members of the royal family when they travel, and for great religious ceremonies. Occasionally, a royal visit, a special ceremony, and two or three temple car-festivals occurring close together, sorely pressed these officials.
The heaping of so many onerous and multifarious burdens on one shoulder leads to the unsatisfactory performance of public business; and the time of the people is wasted in attending day after day at the Cutcherries. While one set of duties is receiving attention, another set lies in abeyance, and neither is performed satisfactorily. The authority conferred for one purpose is sure to be misused in the administration of other functions. The separation of police duties has now brought the first instalment of relief to these officials.
The Police force lately organized are as yet quite new to their duties, and can scarcely be expected to work satisfactorily till better trained and brought under thorough discipline. Indeed, it will require a firm hand, strict supervision, careful inquiry into complaints, and complete and equitable representation in the force of all classes of the population to see that they do not establish a system of general vexation and oppression, and become a terror to the poor people in out of-the-way places. The power of the Indian police has too often been used to gratify petty spite, and for motives of revenge and cupidity.
An oppressive police, which has hitherto been the rule in Travancore, is a thousand times more baneful than an inefficient one; and the new body will be tempted to incessant interference with the liberty of the subject through ignorance of the public rights, and to display their diligence and authority. Some little antipathy between the magistracy and the police is already discoverable, but mutual jealousy will work less harm than united conspiracy in wrong-doing. We hear of petty officious interference with missionary preachers, driving off people quietly assembled to listen or to obtain medical treatment, threatening with dismissal those who wish to receive tracts, driving Pulayars off the road, and so forth.
One head constable arrested and locked up a Mission Catechist of the highest character and standing, and kept him beyond the legal time, on a charge (proved false) of obtaining bambus from the jungles for mission work without permission. The officers concerned were, however, duly punished, which is likely to prove a warning for the future.
Great complaints are made in various quarters. The police are certainly not as yet effective; and there is reason to fear that they still collect evidence by the old methods, with which we are too familiar.
Some degree of relief has been afforded to a number of Vrittikar or feudal service tenants of the Sirkar, who were bound, in consideration of lands, free of all assessment, except a succession duty (Adukkuvathu) on every change of incumbency, or held at a light assessment, to supply at low rates vegetables and provisions for Pagodas, Ootooperahs, and for the royal birthday, to erect sheds, to thatch public buildings, to watch them in some places, and to do peon’s duty occasionally.
This service tenure dates from a period long back, many of the lands having been granted by former chieftains, but only as remuneration for personal service, while much more was afterwards demanded from most of the holders; and when prices rose in the market no increase was granted to the Vrittikars.
The original military pledge was converted into a permanent contract with Government to supply provisions for State needs, and especially for the temples; miscellaneous menial kinds of work were added by degrees. The grievance was felt especially in North Travancore, yet the holders are generally unwilling to surrender the lands and the position which they have so long enjoyed, preferring quietly to bear the loss.
It appears from recent inquiries that “about 5000 families, consisting of 25,000 souls, are directly subject to the operation of this system— that the full assessment of the lands held by them on favourable rent amounts in round numbers to Rs. 200,000, and that the amount of the loans of money to them or their ancestors in satisfaction of the interest on which service is rendered amounts to a further sum of Rs. 200,000. In process of time the obligation has become extremely onerous and oppressive, and the source of much abuse and demoralization. Prices of provisions and wages of labour have risen at least three or four times since M.E, 948 when the contract was entered into. Still, the Vrittikars are bound to supply provisions at the rates fixed in that year.”*
Various attempts at amendment have been made, and the evil sometimes limited, or again increased. Now the prices of the supplies furnished to the large feeding-house at Trevandrum by Vrittikars of that and the two adjoining Taluks, who “had almost sunk under the weight of their obligations and been reduced to poverty, have been raised to nearly the market rates; “which must be a great relief to those resident near the capital. It would, however, assuredly be a better and sounder policy if the Vritti system were entirely abolished all over the country, and money payments in all cases substituted for the service, relieving a large extent of valuable property from such restraints, and bringing in its train many advantages to the interests of agriculture.
Most of the holders would be disposed to pay a reasonable rate of additional assessment, which would to a large extent reimburse the Sirkar for increased expenditure on the purchase of provisions for temples and Brahman feeding-houses in the open market. The annoyances and evils of the Vritti system, which is but one of the complications produced by the temple claims, would thus be judiciously done away with altogether.
In addition to these recent measures, a comprehensive scheme of Revenue reform is said to be in contemplation, to include “a separation of the duties connected with the management of the extensive religious and charitable establishments from purely revenue and magisterial duties,”— a most essential and urgent item of needed reform.
It is not easy to give in a few sentences an accurate and comprehensive view of the present state of public affairs in Travancore, as very divergent opinions are expressed by the Press and by individuals : no doubt the state of various departments and of various districts also differs to a corresponding degree, as it always did, so as to admit of a variety of criticism, improvement being shown in some respects and not in others.
In such a slow moving country progress is not speedily achieved, especially as to the raising of the moral character of the subordinate officials; which is after all the main point, and which, we believe, can never be completely accomplished while idolatry and superstition prevail. Some seriously doubt whether any recent ‘reforms ‘ have as yet touched the seat of the disease, the magistracy and revenue officials being, with certain praiseworthy exceptions, incapable, uneducated, and lazy; the police untrained; the subordinate judicial officers conducting business loosely and negligently, and requiring incessant supervision and frequent warning from the Sadr Court, as seen by their “Select Decisions and Reports”; and the Bar still to a great extent incompetent and promotive of unnecessary or unjust litigation.
Besides, the religious and caste difficulty still remains, and must operate prejudicially (except where the spirit of the age, and pressure from without, will not possibly allow of it), demanding large expenditure on the support of temples and Brahmans, and on special ceremonies, the maintenance of injurious caste distinctions and rules, and of ancient privileges, vested interests, and institutions inimical to true progress.
Much unfavourable comment, for instance, has been excited by the passing over of the second judge of the High Court, an English barrister and university graduate, of tried integrity, firmness and legal knowledge, for a young Brahman lawyer from Madras, introduced as Chief Justice, because no Christian, it is said, can be promoted to this high office. The religion of the Christian judge, it appears, disqualified him for further promotion, though it was freely admitted that he had every other qualification for the post.*
Still, there is no doubt that progress is being made, and that in the right direction. The present Maharajah before coming to the musnud at a mature age, enjoyed and fully availed himself of ample opportunity for study and travel in India, intercourse with the people, and familiarity with current affairs, and with the corruption which previously prevailed, and is certainly the most enlightened of all the princes of India. His knowledge of history enables him to appreciate the necessity of the British supremacy and its power for good; his sympathies are with what is good and right; and he evidently wishes to rule for the benefit of * “Dewan*s Address,”March 24, 1883. *
From a Photograph by Messrs. Bourne and Shepherd, by permission of the Publishers, Messrs. Marion & Co. *Madras Mail, December, 1881, and Madras Standard the people, hastening on the correction of abuses and the improvement of the administration during his reign. The Maharajah is prompt and decisive in business, and while naturally of a somewhat severe disposition, very gracious in private intercourse with those whom he esteems.
The present Minister also, Hon. V. Ramiengar, is generally admitted to be an honest man, firm, prudent, and of great ability, noted for absence of caste prejudices, doing his best to benefit the country, spite of opposition from parties who intrigue against every British-trained administrator. His aim appears to be the public weal, the removal of oppression, and the attainment of efficiency amongst the members of the public service. Officials are sharply looked after; and, of course, those who are set aside through re-arrangement, or dismissed for incompetence, or otherwise disappointed, bitterly complain.
A great work of improvement, reconstruction and reform, and of rendering of justice and freedom to the poor and oppressed, lies before the rulers and administrators of Travancore, to aid in which, if possible, in some small measure, I venture to offer sundry suggestions in the following chapter, not indeed of an original character, though always tallying with personal experience, but carefully compiled from intercourse with all classes, and from the writings of those who are competent judges of such matters.