Ilbert Bill 1883

By : Neha Dhyani

Updated : Jun 6, 2022, 8:29

Introduced in 1883, the Ilbert Bill was an act that allowed senior Indian magistrates to preside over cases that involved British people who lived in India, which included the European members living in India.

While this may seem normal in today's time, under the colonial prism, this Bill created a major furore in British India. So much so that the Bill was ultimately withdrawn.

In this article, we will understand the details of Ilbert and the key facts that we need to be aware of.

Snapshot on the Ilbert Bill

  1. The Ilbert Bill was titled so to honour Courtenay Peregrine Ilbert, a legal advisor to the Council of India.
  2. The Bill, which was instituted by Viceroy Ripon in 1883, sought to abolish racial prejudice that existed in the Indian Penal system. Ripon proposed an amendment to existing laws to allow Indian magistrates and judges to try British offenders in criminal cases and at District levels. This was unheard of before.
  3. The Bill stated that British and European subjects could be tried in session court by senior Indian judges. The rationale behind this decision was to lower the pressure on British judges; till then, only a British judge could preside over any cases where a British person was involved.
  4. Given the deep-rooted racial ideology of the time, the Bill created a huge controversy. Moreover, since India at that time was a dominion of the British Crown, European and British settlers felt the Bill humiliated them and thus opposed it vehemently.
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What was the Aftermath of the Ilbert Bill?

The idea that an Indian judge could try a British or European subject caused disapproval, especially among the Culcatta European business community, including indigo and tea plantation owners. The Bill was also opposed by English women citing multiple reasons, with statements that showed Bengali and Indian women in poor light.

In addition to unrest among the British population living in India, the Ilbert Bill had miffed even British officials, who had covert sympathy and support since they too did not like the idea of Indian judges getting the power to try Europeans, who, according to them, was superior.

English women also opposed the Bill, arguing that Bengali women, who they deemed ignorant, should not have any say in cases that involved women from England.

This statement was opposed by Bengali women who were in support of the Bill and responded by pointing out how the number of educated Bengali women was more than the number of educated English women.

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They also noted that more Indian women had gone through college-level education than British women, and the University of Calcutta in 1878 was the first to allow female graduates to pursue degree programs, well before any British university.

Due to major uproar and disapproval from the British subjects, Viceroy Ripon amended the Ilbert Bill. As per the amended Bill, the jury was required to be of at least 50% European judges if an Indian judge was to try a European subject. This compromise was adopted, and the Bill was passed on 25 January 1884.

However, the compromise and the ensuing controversy profoundly impacted the Indian educated middle class, who saw themselves as equal to the British. The discontent led to a new stage in the Indian freedom struggle, and later the Indian National Congress would be formed in 1885.

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FAQs on Ilbert Bill

Q1. What is the Ilbert Bill?

Ilbert Bill was a legislative bill formally introduced on 9 February 1883 and enacted by the Indian Legislative Council on 25 January 1884. The Bill allowed senior Indian magistrates to preside over cases that involved British people in India, including the European members living in India.

Q2. When was the Ilbert Bill passed?

The amended Ilbert Bill (called the Criminal Procedure Code Amendment Act 1884) was initiated on 25 January 1884.

Q3. Who opposed the Ilbert Bill?

Given the political and cultural situation of the time, the Ilbert Bill was disapproved of by the European community, mainly comprised of tea and indigo plantation owners. However, many officials too had covert sympathy, driven by the deep-rooted racial prejudices that were prevalent at the time.

Q4. What happened after the Ilbert Bill was withdrawn?

The strong reaction and racial controversy around the Ilbert Bill profoundly impacted the educated Indian middle class, especially from Bengal. They felt a strong need for political and social change to promote their rights for the first time. Out of the Ilbert Bill agitation emerged the first Indian Association and later the Indian National Congress in 1885