The Ilbert Bill was a bill introduced in 1883 for British India by Viceroy Ripon that proposed an amendment for existing laws in the country at the time to allow Indian judges and magistrates the jurisdiction to try British offenders in criminal cases at the District level, something that was disallowed at the time.
It was named after Courtenay Ilbert, the recently appointed legal adviser to the Council of India, who had proposed it as a compromise between two previously suggested bills. However, the introduction of the bill led to intense opposition in Britain and from British settlers in India that ultimately played on racial tensions before it was enacted in 1884 in a severely compromised state. The issue served to make clear the ceiling of Indian advancement in their own country. The bitter controversy deepened antagonism between the British and Indians and was a prelude to the formation of the Indian National Congress the following year.
The most vocal opponents of the bill were British tea and indigo plantation owners in Bengal, led by Griffith Evans, who feared that, unlike British judges, Indian judges would not overlook their mistreatment of Indian workers. At the same time, rumours began circulating of an English female being raped by an Indian in Calcutta. In reference to the Indian Rebellion of 1857, when it was alleged that English women and girls were raped by Indian sepoys, many British colonialists expressed great concern over the humiliation English females would have to face appearing before Indian judges in the case of rape. The British press in India even spread wild rumours about how Indian judges would abuse their power to fill their harems with white English females. The propaganda that Indian judges cannot be trusted in dealing with cases involving English females helped raise considerable support against the bill. John Beames, a long serving civil servant in India, stated "It is intensely distasteful and humiliating to all Europeans...it will tend seriously to impair the prestige of British rule in India...it conceals the elements of revolution which may ere long prove the ruin of the country".
English women who opposed the bill further argued that Bengali women, who they stereotyped as "ignorant", are neglected by their men, and that Bengali babu should therefore not be given the right to judge cases involving English women. Bengali women who supported the bill responded by claiming that they were more educated than the English women opposed to the bill, and pointed out that more Indian women had academic degrees than British women did at the time, alluding to the fact that the University of Calcutta became one of the first universities to admit female graduates to its degree programmes in 1878, before any of the British universities had done the same.
At first, as a result of popular disapproval of the Ilbert Bill by a majority of English women, Viceroy Ripon (who had introduced the Bill) passed an amendment, whereby a jury of 50% Europeans was required if an Indian judge was to face a European on the dock. Finally, a solution was adopted by way of compromise: jurisdiction to try Europeans would be conferred on European and Indian District Magistrates and Sessions Judges alike. However, a defendant would in all cases have the right to claim trial by a jury of which at least half the members must be European. The bill was then passed on 25 January 1884 as the Criminal Procedure Code Amendment Act 1884, coming into force on 1 May of that year.
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