A Passage to India
While the novel is certainly a critique of the British Empire (see our discussion of "Power"), it is not a wholesale rejection of everything British, European, and "Western." Why? Well, Western civilization has some plusses. There's the whole notion of civil rights, for one – the notion that all human beings have rights under the law, such as the right to a fair and timely trial, the right to confront your witnesses, and that whole innocence until proven guilty thing. And let's not forget habeas corpus – your legal right not to be imprisoned without getting charged. In addition to this vibrant tradition of civil liberties, Western civilization also values dialogue as a way of mediating conflicts and reaching consensus. And last but not least, let's not forget that the idea of universal human rights is also critical to the Western European tradition.
Of course, we're not saying that these ideas are the exclusive property – or invention – of Western civilization. Forster's novel itself invokes both Muslim and Hindu traditions to show how there is a global tradition at work weaving the fabric of a common humanity.
But what Forster's novel does is focus in on what happens to lofty Western ideals when they get caught up in a morally corrupt institution such as the British Empire. Individual British colonial administrators such as Turton, McBryde, and Ronny Heaslop all struggle between their baser desire to mistreat Indian "natives" and their obligation to uphold the finer aspects of British culture and Western civilization. Looming in the historical background is not only the 1857 Mutiny, but also the Amritsar Massacre of 1919, which marked the radical curtailment of civil liberties for Indians (see "Setting" for the specifics). The novel takes the occasion of Aziz's trial to show how justice becomes contaminated by the institutions – the civil administration, the military, the court system – of empire.
Questions About Justice and Judgment
- Consider some of the ways that the British characters take advantage of their powerful positions to treat Aziz unfairly. How is Aziz's situation complicated by the fact that he's an Indian subject in a British colony?
- How do stereotypes about the "Oriental" and the Indian color the British perception of Aziz? What are some of the ways that his behavior is misinterpreted in light of those stereotypes?
- Take a look at how Aziz is treated in the days leading up to the trial. What are some of the rights built into the British judicial system that prevent the British from punishing Aziz without a trial?
Chew on This
The novel reveals how racial stereotypes about the inherent criminality of the "Oriental" prevent the fair treatment of Indian subjects in the British Empire.
Despite the general fiasco of the trial, the novel demonstrates that British institutions such as civil rights are a necessary barricade against the machinations of a fundamentally unjust empire.