The British introduced the modern concept of the rule of law. This meant that their administration was to be carried out, at least in theory, in obedience to laws, which clearly defined the rights, privileges and obligations of the subjects, and not according to the caprice or personal discretion of the ruler.
In practice, of course, the bureaucracy and the police enjoyed arbitrary powers and interfered with the rights and liberties of the people. The rule of law was to some extent a guarantee of the personal liberty of a person. It is true that previous rulers of India had been in general bound by tradition and custom.
But they always had the legal right to take any administrative steps they wanted and there existed no other authority before which their acts could be questioned. The Indian rulers and chiefs sometimes exercised this power to do as they wanted.
Under British rule, on the other hand, administration was largely carried on according to laws as interpreted by the courts though the laws themselves were often defective, were made not by the people through a democratic process but autocratically by the foreign rulers, and left a great deal of power in the hands of the civil servants and the police.
But that was perhaps inevitable in a foreign regime that could not in the very nature of things be democratic or libertarian.
Equality before Law
The Indian legal system under the British was based on the concept of equality before law. This meant that in the eyes of the law all men were equal. The same law applied to all persons irrespective of their caste, religion, or class.
Previously, the judicial system had paid heed to caste distinctions and had differentiated between the so-called highborn and low born. For the same crime lighter punishment was awarded to a Brahmin than to a non-Brahmin.
Similarly, in practice zamindars and nobles were not judged as harshly as the commoner. In fact, very often they could not be brought to justice at all for their actions. Now the humble could also move the machinery of justice.
There was, however, one exception to this excellent principle of equality before law. The Europeans and their descendants had separate courts and even laws. In criminal cases they could be tried only by European judges.
Many English officials, military officers, planters and merchants behaved with Indians in a haughty, harsh, and even brutal manner.
When efforts were made to bring them to justice, they were given indirect and undue protection, and consequently light or no punishment, by many of the European judges before whom alone they could be tried. Consequently, there was frequent miscarriage of justice.
In practice, there emerged another type of legal inequality. Justice became quite expensive as court fees had to be paid, lawyers engaged, and the expenses of witnesses met. Courts were often situated in distant towns. Lawsuits dragged on for years.
The complicated laws were beyond the grasp of the illiterate and ignorant peasants. Invariably, the rich could turn and twist the laws and courts to operate in their own favour.
The mere threat to take a poor person through the long process of justice from the lower court to the highest court of appeal and thus to face him with complete ruin often sufficed to bring him to heel.
Moreover, the widespread prevalence of corruption in the ranks of the police and the rest of the administrative machinery led to the denial of justice. Officials often favoured the rich.
The zamindars oppressed the riots without fear of official action. In contrast, the system of justice that had prevailed in pre-British times was comparatively informal, speedy and inexpensive.
Thus, while the new judicial system marked a great step forward insofar as it was based on the laudable principles of the rule of law and equality before the law and on rational and humane man-made laws, it was a retrograde step in some other respects: it was now costlier and involved long delays.