For over a century and a half, the publication of the Madras Torture Report remained the singular instance of a metropolitan state openly acknowledging the use of illegal violence by its functionaries. It was not until 2012, when the British government declared in High Court that Kenyans were tortured during the anticolonial Mau Mau Rebellion that another such admission occurred. To date, these are the only instances of self-proclaimed liberal regimes admitting torture. More recently, the United States of America, which is widely acknowledged to have used torture under the guise of national security, has stopped short of actually admitting to the practice. Nonetheless, torture in Madras remains an understudied and relatively unknown aspect of South Asian history. This thesis examines the Madras “torture question,” as it was known among contemporaries, and argues that the structure of the British East India Company’s government in Madras long knew of and did little to end the violence exercised by its officials in the collection of revenue. Instead, its policies and laws sought to maximize taxation at the expense of the justice and good governance it claimed as the justification, legitimization and hallmark of its rule.
The British East India Company operated an extractive and coercive system of government that had deep impact, sometimes leaving physical scars as reminders, on the lives and bodies of those existing on the margins of its rule.
The thesis looks at the structure of Company governance in India and begins with the cooperative efforts of British and Indian reformers who brought torture to the public’s attention, resulting in the Madras Commission of Enquiry. I then move on to discuss the investigatory proceedings and findings of the Commission. The chapters that follow deal with the economic conditions of Madras and the administrative structures that prioritized revenue extraction. Additionally, nonstate responses to revenue violence are examined in a chapter on missionaries, which questions their popular image as humanitarian reformers. Finally, the adjudications of cases of revenue violence are looked at in detail to demonstrate how the Company was able to legally absolve itself of complicity in the use of extrajudicial violence for the ends of state.
The research undertaken demonstrates that the Company operated an extractive and coercive system of government that had deep impact, sometimes leaving physical scars as reminders, on the lives and bodies of those existing on the margins of its rule. It focuses specifically on revenue violence used in the collection of taxes primarily due on land by raiyats and other agricultural cultivators during the first half of the nineteenth century, with a particular attention on the 1850s, ending with the outbreak of the 1857 Rebellion. In the mofussil, away from the centers of Company power, torture to secure taxes in land was a regular and overlooked fact of Indian agricultural life. By looking at this kind of physical coercion, so central to the exigencies of the state, this research contributes to a growing body of scholarship seeking to expose the violence inherent in the colonial project.