Indian Legislative Council Enacts the Ilbert Bill Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

British India’s Ilbert Bill allowed Indians to try Europeans in courts of law. It caused an uproar among Europeans in India, who launched a successful protest movement. The bill was modified to favor Europeans, but the agitation over it helped develop India’s national consciousness. The Indian National Congress was founded two years later, in 1885.

Summary of Event

Founded in 1600, the British East India Company British East India Company became the dominant power in India after the Battle of Plassey in June, 1757. It established the three presidencies of Bengal, Bombay, and Madras, each of which had its own legal system and high court. In addition, on an ad hoc basis, the British established law courts in the districts that covered criminal and civil procedure for Indians based on Hindu, Islamic, or local common law. Such law was dispensed through British magistrates by members of the Indian civil service. It had been established that Europeans had the right to be tried in a high court before a jury of their (European) peers, and this practice was confirmed by the code of criminal procedure of 1861. Thus, in the event that an Indian had cause to engage in legal action against a British subject, both the British defendant and the Indian plaintiff would have to be transported as many as one thousand miles to one of the three presidencies’ high courts. Ilbert Bill of 1884 India;Ilbert Bill India;criminal law British Empire;and India[India] India;and British Empire[British Empire] [kw]Indian Legislative Council Enacts the Ilbert Bill (Jan. 25, 1884) [kw]Legislative Council Enacts the Ilbert Bill, Indian (Jan. 25, 1884) [kw]Council Enacts the Ilbert Bill, Indian Legislative (Jan. 25, 1884) [kw]Enacts the Ilbert Bill, Indian Legislative Council (Jan. 25, 1884) [kw]Ilbert Bill, Indian Legislative Council Enacts the (Jan. 25, 1884) [kw]Bill, Indian Legislative Council Enacts the Ilbert (Jan. 25, 1884) Ilbert Bill of 1884 India;Ilbert Bill India;criminal law British Empire;and India[India] India;and British Empire[British Empire] [g]British Empire;Jan. 25, 1884: Indian Legislative Council Enacts the Ilbert Bill[5380] [g]India;Jan. 25, 1884: Indian Legislative Council Enacts the Ilbert Bill[5380] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Jan. 25, 1884: Indian Legislative Council Enacts the Ilbert Bill[5380] [c]Colonization;Jan. 25, 1884: Indian Legislative Council Enacts the Ilbert Bill[5380] [c]Government and politics;Jan. 25, 1884: Indian Legislative Council Enacts the Ilbert Bill[5380] Ilbert, Sir Courtenay Peregrine Ripon, first marquis of Stephen, Sir James Fitzjames Hunter, Sir William Wilson

The difficulty and expense of providing transportation to high courts persuaded the government in 1872 to allow district magistrates very limited powers to imprison and fine Europeans. Immediately, the question arose of whether Indian magistrates could try Europeans, but the issue was moot because all of the magistrates were British. In 1882, however, Behari Lal Gupta Gupta, Behari Lal , an Indian member of the judicial section of the Indian civil service, was promoted to the post of sessions judge in upper Bengal, a post in which he would preside over European defendants. The promotion thus brought the issue to a head and led to the introduction of the Ilbert Bill, which was aimed at bringing fairness and uniformity to the legal system in Bengal by putting Indian judges on the same footing as British judges.

Editorial cartoon by John Tenniel (1820-1914). Titled “The Anglo-Indian Mutiny,” the cartoon is captioned “A bad example to the elephant!” The cartoon comments on the outrage felt by British residents of India who were outraged by the prospect that offering “equal rights” to native Indians might subject them to being tried by Indian magistrates.

Lord Ripon Ripon, first marquis of had been sent to India as viceroy by the Liberal prime minister William Ewart Gladstone. He was instructed to reverse the conservative and belligerent policies of the previous viceroy, the first earl of Lytton (viceroy 1876-1880), and to reestablish good relations with leading Indian figures. The Ilbert Bill was one of several liberal measures he promoted. As soon as the legislation was proposed, however, a storm of protest arose from the European community in Calcutta. The idea of Europeans being tried by Indians was anathema to most of the British colonials. Ripon came in for enormous enmity, he was boycotted, and there were even threats to kidnap him and take him to England.

On February 2, 1883, Sir Courtenay Peregrine Ilbert Ilbert, Sir Courtenay Peregrine , the law member of the executive council, introduced the bill in the Imperial Legislative Council of India. Three days later, on February 5, the attack on the bill and the administration began. Opponents of the bill created the European and Anglo-Indian Defence Association to defend their privileges. Indians supported the bill, and the stage was set for a major confrontation.

The height of the protest movement was reached on the afternoon of February 28, when a large protest meeting against the bill was held in Calcutta’s town hall. The meeting was attended by an estimated three to five thousand people. European shops and offices were closed so people could attend the meeting, which was presided over by the sheriff of Calcutta. A motion was made stating that, among other things, the bill was unnecessary, it was based on no sound principle, and it would stir up race antagonism and jealousy not seen since the Sepoy Mutiny (1857-1858). The speeches that followed were intemperate and generated a great deal of rancor, as speakers argued that Indians could never be trusted with power over Europeans.

Opponents of the bill in England, such as the jurist and former legal member of the viceroy’s executive council Sir James Fitzjames Stephen Stephen, Sir James Fitzjames , believed they were arguing not on racist grounds but on the principle that India was fundamentally different from Europe. The British had acknowledged this difference Islam;in India[India] India;Islam by earlier creating separate codes for Hindu and Muslim law. A country such as India with its diversity of people and traditions could not be governed by one uniform system of law. It was natural, then, to have a special code for Europeans.

Stephen’s critics, especially Sir William Wilson Hunter Hunter, Sir William Wilson , argued that British rule in India was committed to the eradication of special privileges for any one community and the creation of a common system of law applicable to all. The Ilbert Bill was one of a series of measures designed to whittle away class privilege. Stephen’s reply to this was that if the British wanted to treat everyone equally then they had no right to rule India, because the British Raj (government in India) was an absolute government not based on consent but on conquest. The only way to establish equality in India, Stephen Stephen, Sir James Fitzjames pointed out, would be for the British to leave the subcontinent.

The argument that if the British wanted equality in India they should leave was one that liberals could not answer and preferred to avoid. The debate on the issue was carried on in both the House of Commons in London and in the Imperial Legislative Council in Calcutta. Informally, it was the talk of the town in the clubs and homes of Europeans in India.

On December 22, a “concordat” was finally reached between Sir Griffith Evans Evans, Sir Griffith (1840-1902), a member of the legislative council arguing on behalf of the European and Anglo-Indian Defence Association, and Sir Aukland Colvin Colvin, Sir Aukland (1838-1904), representing the government. The compromise established that session judges would be ex officio justices of the peace with the ability to try Europeans and to assess fines of up to two thousand rupees and imprisonment of up to six months. The most important component of the “concordat” was that European and British-born subjects had the right to be tried by a jury, half of which would consist of Europeans or Americans. As a result of this compromise, which had the reluctant blessing of Ripon Ripon, first marquis of , who had lost the support of his entire cabinet apart from Ilbert Ilbert, Sir Courtenay Peregrine , the bill was finally passed on January 25, 1884, and became law.


As a result of the Ilbert Bill controversy, Indians realized they could not expect justice or fairness from the British when it came to their own interests. They saw more explicitly than ever the connection between British colonialism and British racism. One of the major Indian political leaders of the time, Sir Surendranath Banerjea Banerjea, Sir Surendranath (1848-1925), said that when the Ilbert Bill was introduced no self-respecting Indian could sit idle, as it was a patriotic duty to oppose it. The controversy, therefore, helped crystallize Indian national consciousness. It taught Indians the power of organization. It showed them how the government could be forced to change its legislation through an organized campaign of opposition. The year following the passage of the bill, the first all-India political party, the Indian National Congress Indian National Congress (INC), was founded at Bombay. The INC became the primary party of Indian nationalism and led India to independence in 1947. The Ilbert Bill was an important step in the nascence of the independence movement.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hirschmann, Edwin.“White Mutiny”: The Ilbert Bill Crisis in India and Genesis of the Indian National Movement. New Delhi, India: Heritage, 1980. Standard study on the Ilbert Bill. Offers a detailed analysis of the crisis and its aftermath. Includes texts of the principal speeches given at the town hall meeting on February 28, 1883, and the final act of 1884.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ilbert, Courtenay. The Mechanics of Law Making. Reprint. Union, N.J.: Lawbook Exchange, 2000. A handbook for law makers written by the man who introduced the Ilbert Bill in 1883.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Metcalfe, Thomas R. Ideologies of the Raj. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1994. This volume in the New Cambridge History of India series deals with Great Britain’s justification and legitimation of its rule in India.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sinha, Mrinalini. “Reconfiguring Hierarchies: The Ilbert Bill Controversy, 1883-1884.” In Feminist Postcolonial Theory: A Reader, edited by Reina Lewis and Sara Mills. New York: Routledge, 2003. A feminist reading of the Ilbert Bill controversy and its relationship to gender hierarchies in colonial India.

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