Who Was Basil James?

This is the third of a series of posts on colonial continuity in the Indian legal system. Previous posts in the series can be found here and here.

Basil Reginald James was admitted to the Indian Civil Service (‘without competition’) on 24 October 1927, After serving as a District Judge in Budaun, Saharanpur and Nainital, he served on the Allahabad High Court from 23 August 1954 until his death on 13 July 1960. He married J. L. Ralliaram. He had two sons, Vijay James and Deepak Ralliaram, and two daughters, Aruna Sunderlal (who founded the Bangalore School of Music) and Anita Kuruvila.

Beyond that, however, things become less clear.

In researching the histories of British judges remaining, or appointed, after India’s Independence the prospect of stereotyping or leaping to conclusions based on names alone must be resisted. (Particularly given that, for many of these judges, there is very little evidence of their identity beyond their names.) The inherent problem in identifying ‘British’ judges[1] is the notion that a bright-line distinction can be drawn between ‘British’ and ‘non-British’ judges, whether on the basis of naming or even place of ancestry; whereas many cases are clear-cut, to regard the two communities as entirely separate assumes the same level of inherent difference between the communities, and erases the substantial potential for overlap and hybridity. Such potential is most strongly evident in the Anglo-Indian community (and other communities of European descent in South Asia; Edmund Elmar Mack of the Madras High Court, for example, was a Sri Lankan Burgher who retired to England), but extends beyond ‘constitutionally’ Anglo-Indian residents to the broader subset of Indians of partially European descent whose names may indicate their ancestry – like Justice Vivian Bose of the Supreme Court. As Gadbois wrote, ‘Having an Indian father, an English mother, and an American wife, Bose jokingly described himself as a “mongrel”’.[2] (This diverse racial identity has similarly been attributed to Bose’s descendants, with The Hindu referring to his daughter Leila Bose Powar as a half-American born in Nagpur’.) To seize upon traditionally ‘British’ names as a sign of British descent, and to characterise judges or citizens in this light accordingly, also, of course, ignores or waves away India’s substantial Christian and Jewish communities, either of whom may bear such names by virtue of cultural traditions of long standing in India – as, for example, in the case of David Ezra Reuben of the Patna High Court, a son of the Bene Israel.

Vivian Bose’s life also demonstrates, in other respects, the fragility and artificiality of the ‘British/Indian’ dichotomy. As noted, Bose’s mother was English; like many Indian lawyers and professionals of his generation he lived in England for a substantial period as a young man, between the ages of 15 and 22. He served in the Nagpur Rifles and was awarded the Kaiser-i-Hind Medal.[3] A large number of Indians lived in and closely engaged with England during the Raj, just as many Britons lived in and closely engaged with India (even over the course of many generations) during the same period. Should we characterise individuals as ‘British’ or ‘Indian’ based upon how they would have been viewed by the occupying government authorities (and in doing so give further credence to colonising, Orientalist assumptions of the immutability of race), or should the analysis of British judges – which, in many respects, emphasises the Nehruvian conception of India as a palimpsest of cultures and traditions – eschew such distinctions? (After all, William Broome, the predominant subject of my research in this regard, spent more of his judicial service in India – 1958 to 1971 – as an Indian citizen than he had spent since Independence as a British citizen.) If ‘British judges’ hold any lasting significance, it is in the extent to which they served the Indian people in much the same extent as their counterparts of Indian ancestry during the period in question (demonstrating both continuity within the judiciary and the adaptation of colonial judges to suit the needs and legal climate of a new nation), and the extent to which at least one of them was accepted by a nation – in rejection of old racial hierarchies and assumptions of immutable difference – as Indian. That is, the way in which they are significant undermines their conceptual distinctiveness.

But returning to James. Although James was appointed to the Allahabad High Court earlier than Broome – and would not have faced equivalent hurdles in respect of the Citizenship Act 1955 in jettisoning British citizenship in order to be appointed – it remained the strongest indication that, had James’s been British, his appointment would presumably have been mentioned in the correspondence that surrounded Broome’s difficult ascension to the bench (in light of the latter’s continued British citizenship). Nonetheless, in writing my article on William Broome, I tried to be as cautious as I could in assertions about Broome’s significance – emphasising the limits of the available information and allowing that someone else, like James, might have done basically the same thing at an earlier point in time.

Thanks to Facebook, I have finally been able to put together the final piece of the puzzle; Vikrant Sunderlal Chandel, Basil James’s great-grandson, has advised that despite his ‘highly anglicised’ name Basil Reginald James was of Indian descent. James hence exemplifies the difficulty in assuming a clearly-manifested divide between coloniser and colonised in every sphere of life, including naming but extending to outlook and character – despite the extent to which the Raj itself rested on foundations of this assumed colonial difference.

I am very grateful to Abdaal M. Akhtar and to Vikrant Sunderlal Chandel for their assistance in researching this post.


[1] Beyond, of course, the obvious one: that of all the extraordinary diversity and complexity of contemporary India, all the myriad strains of political thought and experience, of all the experiences of groups characterised by religion or culture or race or outlook, the topic to which I, a white male lawyer, have devoted inordinate time is the experiences of a very small number of other white male lawyers of substantially diminished political and legal significance. The study of ‘what it was like for privileged white men exercising judicial power in India’ is surely the very opposite of subaltern studies.

[2] Judges of the Supreme Court of India, 1950-1989 (2011) 35.

[3] Ibid.

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