On 9 February 1883, a bill was introduced during the Viceroyship of the Marquess of Ripon drafted by Sir Courtenay Peregine Ilbert. It concerned the jurisdiction of Magistrates or session Judges to try charges against European British subjects if they were themselves not European.
Ilbert Bill was named after Courtenay Ilbert, the legal member of the Council of the Governor-General of India, who had proposed it as a compromise between two previously suggested bills.
But the introduction of the bill led to intense opposition in Britain and from British settlers in India that ultimately played on racial tension before it was enacted in 1884 in a severely compromised state.
The intense controversy increased hatred between the British and Indians. It was an explanation for the formation of the Indian National Congress in the next two years.
Controversy related to Ilbert Bill
Courtenay Ilbert drafted the “Bill to amend the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1882, so far as it relates to the exercise of jurisdiction over European British subjects”.
On 2 February 1883, he moved for leave to introduce the bill and it was formally introduced on 9 February 1883.
The most expressed opponents of the bill were British tea and indigo plantation owners in Bengal, led by Griffith Evans. Rumors began circulating that an English female was raped by an Indian in Calcutta.
In reference to the Indian Rebellion of 1857, when it was claimed that English women and girls were raped by Indian sepoys, many British colonialists displayed great concern over the humiliation that English females would have to face appearing before Indian judges in the case of rape.
The British press in India spread wild rumors about how Indian judges would abuse their power to fill their harems with white English females. The propaganda that Indian judges could not be trusted in dealing with cases involving English females helped raise significant support against the bill.
John Beames, a long-serving civil servant in India, stated “It is intensely distasteful and humiliating to all Europeans…it will tend seriously to impair the prestige of British rule in India…it conceals the elements of revolution which may ere long prove the ruin of the country”.
English women who opposed the bill further argued that Bengali women, who they stereotyped as “ignorant”, are neglected by their men and that Bengali babu should therefore not be given the right to judge cases involving English women.
Bengali women who supported the bill responded by claiming that they were more educated than the English women opposed to the bill. They also pointed out that more Indian women had academic degrees than British women did at the time, alluding to the fact that the University of Calcutta became one of the first universities to admit female graduates to its degree programs in 1878 before any of the British universities had done the same.
At first, as a result of popular disapproval of the Ilbert Bill by a majority of English women, Viceroy Ripon (who had introduced the Bill) passed an amendment, whereby a jury of 50% Europeans was required if an Indian judge was to face a European on the dock. Finally, a solution was adopted by way of compromise: jurisdiction to try Europeans would be conferred on European and Indian District Magistrates and Sessions Judges alike. However, a defendant would in all cases have the right to claim trial by a jury of which at least half the members must be European. The bill was then passed on 25 January 1884 as the Criminal Procedure Code Amendment Act 1884, coming into force on 1 May of that year.