Anonymous Review of Trials in Burma by Maurice Collis

This is an unpretentious book, but it brings out with unusual clearness the dilemma that faces every official in an empire like our own. Mr. Collis was District Magistrate of Rangoon in the troubled period round about 1930. He had to try cases which were a great deal in the public eye, and he soon discovered the practical impossibility of keeping to the letter of the law and pleasing European opinion at the same time. Finally, for having sentenced a British Army officer to three months’ imprisonment for criminal negligence in driving a car, he was reprimanded and hurriedly transferred to another post. For the same offence a native would have been imprisoned as a matter of course.

The truth is that every British magistrate in India is in a false position when he has to try a case in which European and native interests clash. In theory he is administering an impartial system of justice; in practice he is part of a huge machine which exists to protect British interests, and he has often got to choose between sacrificing his integrity and damaging his career. Nevertheless, owing to the exceptionally high traditions of the Indian Civil Service, the law in India is administered far more fairly than might be expected-and incidentally, far too fairly to please the business community. Mr. Collis grasps the essential situation clearly enough; he recognises that the Burman has profited very little from the huge wealth that has been extracted from his country, and that the hopeless rebellion of 1931 had genuine grievances behind it. But he is also a good imperialist and it was precisely his concern for the good name of English justice that got him into hot water with his fellow countrymen on more than one occasion.

In 1930 he had to try Sen Gupta, one of the leaders of the Congress Party and at that time Mayor of Calcutta, who had paid a flying visit to Rangoon and made a seditious speech. The account of the trial makes curious reading-an Indian crowd roaring outside, Mr. Collis wondering whether he would be knocked on the head the next moment, and the prisoner sitting in the dock reading a newspaper to make it clear that he did not recognise the jurisdiction of an English court. Mr. Collis’ sentence was ten days’ martyrdom. Afterwards the two men were able to meet privately and talk the affair over. The description of the Indian and the Englishman meeting in perfect amity, each fully aware of the other’s motives, each regarding the other as an honourable man and yet, in the last resort, as an enemy, is strangely moving and makes one wish that politics nearer home could be conducted in an equally decent spirit.

Published by The Listener, 9 March 1938. CW 429. As with all reviews published anonymously in The Listener, attribution to Orwell has been made from the journal’s records.