Criticising a Despotic Colonial Government: How Much Is Too Much?




In the last half of the 19th century in the Bombay Deccan, Indian professionals and merchants began to openly challenge some practices of the colonial government. A major vehicle for this forthright criticism was the Poona Sarvajanik Sabha. Through its quarterly journal, the Sabha’s interactions with government gave rise to a competition of ideas and identities, between government and its Indian critics. This competition embraced many topics, but the denouement concerned government policies during two outbursts, some twenty years apart, of famine in the Deccan. Each side was convinced that its approach was right, with the government comfortable doing what it had always done, and the critics increasingly finding fault because of the failures of the government’s famine policy. The question was, which was more important, clinging to Utilitarian doctrine, or implementing a “newer” doctrine that emphasized saving human life? The Sabha not only accepted a “newer” doctrine, but also chose to hold the government accountable for not implementing it. More important, when the government failed to implement needed action, the Sabha took action to right the wrong. Eventually, government reacted to this criticism by acting to crush the Sabha. The eventual outcome is visible even today.


Colonial Governance, Criticism of Government, Famine, Famine Relief Policy, Government Accountability, Poona Sarvajanik Sabha


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Author Bio

Michael D Metelits

Michael D. Metelits is a retired U.S. ambassador who earned an MA and a PhD in history (specialization—modern India) from the University of California, Berkeley, and an MA from the National War College in National Security Studies. Career moves required him to stop formal law training. His diplomatic service has been worldwide, at the UN, New York, the UN Food Agencies in Rome, and has headed U.S. delegations to UNEP, Nairobi, and negotiations at the European Economic Commission in Geneva. He has also served in three African nations. Upon his retirement he has returned to working on India’s colonial past.