Rambles and recollections of an Indian official!
Major-General Sir W. H. Sleeman, K.C.B.

The people of Britain are described by Diodorus Siculus (Book V, chap. 2) as in a very simple and rude state, subsisting almost entirely on the produce of the land, but as being 'a people of much integrity and sincerity, far from the craft and knavery of men among us, contented with plain and homely fare, and strangers to the luxuries and excesses of the rich'.

n India we find strict veracity most prevalent among the wildest and half-savage tribes of the hills and jungles in Central India, or the chain of the Himālaya mountains; and among those where we find it prevail most, we find cattle-stealing most common; the men of one tribe not deeming it to be any disgrace to lift, or steal, the cattle of another.

I have known the man among the Gonds of the woods of Central India, whom nothing could induce to tell a lie, join a party of robbers to lift a herd of cattle from the neighbouring plains for nothing more than as much spirits as he could enjoy at one bout.

I asked a native gentleman of the plains, in the valley of the Nerbudda, one day, what made the people of the woods to the north and south more disposed to speak the truth than those more civilized of the valley itself.

'They have not yet learned the value of a lie,' said he, with the greatest simplicity and sincerity, for he was a very honest and plain-spoken man.

Veracity is found to prevail most where there is least to tempt to falsehood, and most to be feared from it. In a very rude state of society, like that of which I have been speaking, the only shape in which property is accumulated is in cattle; things are bartered for each other without the use of a circulating medium, and one member of a community has no means of concealing from the other the articles of property he has.

If they were to steal from each other, they would not be able to conceal what they stole—to steal, therefore, would be no advantage. In such societies every little community is left to govern itself; to secure the rights, and enforce the duties, of all its several members in their relations with each other; they are too poor to pay taxes to keep up expensive establishments, and their Governments seldom maintain among them any for the administration of justice, or the protection of life, property, or character.

All the members of all such little communities will often unite in robbing the members of another community of their flocks and herds, the only kind of property they have, or in applauding those who most distinguish themselves in such enterprises; but the well- being of the community demands that each member should respect the property of the others, and be punished by the odium of all if he does not.[1]

It is equally necessary to the well-being of the community that every member should be able to rely upon the veracity of the other upon the very few points where their rights, duties, and interests clash. In the very rudest state of society, among the woods and hills of India, the people have some deity whose power they dread, and whose name they invoke when much is supposed to depend upon the truth of what one man is about to declare.

The 'pīpal' tree (Ficus religiosa) is everywhere sacred to the gods, who are supposed to sit among its leaves and listen to the music of their rustling. The deponent takes one of these leaves in his hand, and invokes the god who sits above him to crush him, or those dear to him, as he crushes the leaf in his hand, if he speak anything but the truth; he then plucks and crushes the leaf, and states what he has to say.[2]

The large cotton-tree is, among the wild tribes of India, the favourite seat of gods still more terrible,[3] because their superintendence is confined exclusively to the neighbourhood; and having their attention less occupied, they can venture to make a more minute scrutiny into the conduct of the people immediately around them.

The 'pīpal' is occupied by one or other of the Hindoo triad, the god of creation, preservation, or destruction, who have the affairs of the universe to look after;[4] but the cotton and other trees are occupied by some minor deities, who are vested with a local superintendence over the affairs of a district, or perhaps, of a single village.[5]

These are always in the view of the people, and every man knows that he is every moment liable to be taken to their court, and to be made to invoke their vengeance upon himself, or those dear to him, if he has told a falsehood in what he has stated, or tells one in what he is about to state. Men so situated adhere habitually, and I may say religiously, to the truth; and I have had before me hundreds of cases in which a man's property, liberty, or life has depended upon his telling a lie, and he has refused to tell it to save either; as my friend told me, 'they had not learned the value of a lie', or rather, they had not learned with how much impunity a lie could be told in the tribunals of civilized society.

In their own tribunals, under the pīpal-tree or cotton-tree, imagination commonly did what the deities, who were supposed to preside, had the credit of doing; if the deponent told a lie, he believed that the deity who sat on the sylvan throne above him, and searched the heart of man, must know it; and from that moment he knew no rest—he was always in dread of his vengeance; if any accident happened to him, or to those dear to him, it was attributed to this offended deity; and if no accident happened, some evil was brought about by his own disordered imagination.[6]

In the tribunals we introduce among them, such people soon find that the judges who preside can seldom search deeply into the hearts of men, or clearly distinguish truth from falsehood in the declarations of deponents; and when they can distinguish it, it is seldom that they can secure their conviction for perjury.

They generally learn very soon that these judges, instead of being, like the judges of their own woods and wilds, the only beings who can search the hearts of men, and punish them for falsehood, are frequently the persons, of all others, most blind to the real state of the deponent's mind, and the degree of truth and falsehood in his narrative; that, however well-intentioned, they are often labouring in the 'darkness visible' created by the native officers around them.

They not only learn this, but they learn what is still worse, that they may tell what lies they please in these tribunals; and that not one of them shall become known to the circle in which they move, and whose good opinion they value.

If, by his lies told in such tribunals, a man has robbed another, or caused him to be robbed, of his property, his character, his liberty, or his life, he can easily persuade the circle in which he resides that it has arisen, not from any false statements of his, but from the blindness of the judge, or the wickedness of the native officers of his court, because all circles consider the blindness of the one, and the wickedness of the other, to be everywhere very great.

Arrian, in speaking of the class of supervisors in India, says: 'They may not be guilty of falsehood; and indeed none of the Indians were ever accused of that crime.'[7] I believe that as little falsehood is spoken by the people of India, in their village communities, as in any part of the world with an equal area and population. It is in our courts of justice where falsehoods prevail most, and the longer they have been anywhere established, the greater the degree of falsehood that prevails in them.

Those entrusted with the administration of a newly-acquired territory are surprised to find the disposition among both principals and witnesses in cases to tell the plain and simple truth. As magistrates, they find it very often difficult to make thieves and robbers tell lies, according to the English fashion, to avoid running a risk of criminating themselves.

n England, this habit of making criminals tell lies arose from the severity of the penal code, which made the punishment so monstrously disproportionate to the crime, that the accused, however clear and notorious his crimes, became an object of general sympathy.[8]

In India, punishments have nowhere been, under our rule, disproportionate to the crimes; on the contrary, they have generally been more mild than the people would wish them to be, or think they ought to be, in order to deter from similar crimes; and, in newly- acquired territories, they have generally been more mild than in our old possessions.

The accused are, therefore, nowhere considered as objects of public sympathy; and in newly-acquired territories they are willing to tell the truth, and are allowed to do so, in order to save the people whom they have injured, and their neighbours generally, the great loss and annoyance unavoidably attending upon a summons to our courts.

In the native courts, to which ours succeed, the truth was seen through immediately, the judges who presided could commonly distinguish truth from falsehood in the evidence before them, almost as well as the sylvan gods who sat in the pīpal- or cotton-trees; though they were seldom supposed by the people to be quite so just in their decisions. When we take possession of such countries, they, for a time at least, give us credit for the same sagacity, with a little more integrity.

The prisoner knows that his neighbours expect him to tell the truth to save them trouble, and will detest him if he does not; he supposes that we shall have the sense to find out the truth whether he tells it or not, and then humanity to visit his crime with the punishment it merits, and no more.

The magistrate asks the prisoner what made him steal; and the prisoner enters at once into an explanation of the circumstances which reduced him to the necessity of doing so, and offers to bring witnesses to prove them; but never dreams of offering to bring witnesses to prove that he did not steal, if he really had done so; because the general feeling would be in favour of his doing the one, and against his doing the other.

Tavernier gives an amusing sketch of Amīr Jumla presiding in a court of justice, during a visit he paid him in the kingdom of Golconda, in the year 1648. (See Book I, Part II, chap. 11.)[9]

I asked a native law officer, who called on me one day, what he thought would be the effect of an Act to dispense with oaths on the Korān and Ganges water, and substitute a solemn declaration made in the name of God, and under the same penal liabilities, as if the Korān or Ganges water had been in the deponent's hand.

'I have practised In the courts thirty years, sir,' said he, 'and during that time I have found only three kinds of witnesses—two of whom would, by such an Act, be left precisely where they were, while the third would be released by it from a very salutary check.'

'And, pray, what are the three classes into which you divide the witnesses in our courts?'

'First, sir, are those who will always tell the truth, whether they are required to state what they know in the form of an oath or not.'

'Do you think this a large class?'

'Yes, I think it is; and I have found among them many whom nothing on earth could make to swerve from the truth; do what you please, you could never frighten or bribe them into a deliberate falsehood. The second are those who will not hesitate to tell a lie when they have a motive for it, and are not restrained by an oath. In taking an oath they are afraid of two things, the anger of God and the odium of men.

'Only three days ago, 'continued my friend,' I required a power of attorney from a lady of rank, to enable me to act for her in a case pending before the court in this town. It was given to me by her brother, and two witnesses came to declare that she had given it.

"Now," said I, "this lady is known to live under the curtain; and you will be asked by the judge whether you saw her give this paper; what will you say?"

They both replied: "If the judge asks us the question without an oath, we will say yes—it will save much trouble, and we know that she did give this paper, though we did not really see her give it; but if he puts the Korān into our hands we must say no, for we should otherwise be pointed at by all the town as perjured wretches—our enemies would soon tell everybody that we had taken a false oath."

'Now,' my friend went on, 'the form of an oath is a great check upon this sort of persons. The third class consists of men who will tell lies whenever they have sufficient motive, whether they have the Korān or Ganges water in their hands or not. Nothing will ever prevent their doing so; and the declaration which you propose would be just as well as any other for them.'

'Which class do you consider the most numerous of the three?'

'I consider the second the most numerous, and wish the oath to be retained for them.'

'That is of all the men you see examined in our courts, you think the most come under the class of those who will, under the influence of strong motives, tell lies if they have not the Korān or Ganges water in their hands?'