Even though one of its most important scenes is a dramatic court trial, A Passage to India is only partially a book about justice. It is also about themes such as friendship, loyalty, visions, and the meeting of the cultures of East and West, and how this meeting is played out through the lives of its main characters. Further, as we will argue, it is-as are most books of more than momentary interest-about the nature of human life and relationships. Yet all of these things must be seen in relation to the trial of a young Indian doctor, Aziz, who is accused of assaulting or attempting to rape an Englishwoman in a cave near Chandrapore, the rather seedy and run down Indian provincial city which is the novel’s setting. For what Forster implies about justice and its limitations and problems in Chandrapore serves to illuminate and focus the other large issues with which he is dealing. When we view Passage from that perspective it turns out to have one important similarity with Pudd’nhead Wilson: in both novels the justice process is subverted by inequality. The institution producing this inequality is different-imperialism rather than slavery-but the effect is roughly similar. Lives are blighted;

the good suffer, and the bad flourish, at least temporarily, because of the assumption that some people are intrinsically better than others and, therefore, have the right and responsibility to rule them. Equality, as philosophers such as John Rawls and Jürgen Habermas have

emphasized, is a crucial component of any genuine justice process. How, Rawls asks, would a just society begin? It would originate in the meeting of its members who would be ignorant of their talents and positions in society and therefore would be willing to accept “equality in the assignment of basic rights and duties” (Rawls 1971: 14). Similarly, in Habermas’s formulation of how individuals would communicate in a properly functioning civil society and its public sphere, he emphasizes that, “All members must be able to take part in the discourse, even if not necessarily in the same way. Each must have fundamentally equal chances to take a position on all relevant contributions” (Habermas 1996: 182; emphasis in original). When Rawls and Habermas’s principles are applied to an empire or a

colonial society, the very term “imperial justice” would seem to be an oxymoron. For empires are built on force and historic conquests, not on equality or hypothetical meetings or communications among equals. This is especially true of the British Empire in India that was based historically on a violent act of resistance, the Mutiny or Rebellion of 1857, which was followed by an even more violent retribution as the British regained control. Moreover, imperialists, including those portrayed by Forster are almost invariably convinced that they are racially, religiously, morally, and/or culturally superior-not equal-to their colonial subjects. Therefore, according to a great deal of twentieth-and twenty-first-century thinking on this subject, a colonial society is by its very nature unjust. Imperialism or “the conquest of the earth,” warns Marlow, the narrator of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, “which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too closely” (Conrad 2002: 107). The language of a more recent commentator, Edward Said, is more temperate but just as negative: “At some very basic level, imperialism means thinking about, settling on, controlling land you do not possess, that is distant, that is lived on and owned by others. For all kinds of reasons, it attracts some people and often involves untold misery for others” (Said 1994: 7). Seen through the lens of Forster’s novel, many aspects of Indian life are not

“pretty,” including some which would foster justice and equality in a nonimperial society. Politics, for example, is a major area in which the “disadvantaged” can improve their positions if they have the opportunity to do so. In Passage, however, politics is an activity in which the British have most of the power while the Indians mostly have slogans, protests, meetings, and promises.1 As for Indian nationalism, the idea that Indians have an equal right to govern themselves and have their own laws, Forster’s brief comments on that subject are not especially serious or respectful. Thus one of the

consequences of Aziz’s trial is the formation of a “committee of notables, nationalist in tendency, where Hindus, Moslems, two Sikhs, two Parsis, a Jain, and a Native Christian tried to like one another more than came natural [sic] to them. As long as someone abused the English, all went well, but nothing constructive had been achieved, and if the English were to leave India, the committee would vanish also” (Forster 1952: 114-115). On the other hand, more vigorous or violent efforts by the Indians to gain

power could be disastrous. This possibility was dramatized most memorably by an ugly incident that occurred shortly before Forster began writing his novel, which was published in 1924. This event is not mentioned explicitly in Passage-even though it almost undoubtedly influenced the behavior of some of Forster’s characters. In April 1919, political rallies in the Punjabi city of Amritsar turned violent. Banks were looted, buildings were burned, dozens of Europeans were attacked, four were killed, and an Englishwoman, named Marcia Sherwood, was beaten by a gang of Indian youths. Punjab’s Lieutenant Governor, Sir Michael O’Dwyer, decided that the province was on the verge of becoming the scene of a second 1857 Mutiny and called in the army. When troops commanded by Brigadier General Reginald Dyer arrived, the General banned meetings and ordered punishments, including one forcing Indians to crawl down the lane where Sherwood was attacked. When Indian leaders called a meeting at a walled garden called Jallianwalla Bagh to protest these punishments, Dyer responded by bringing troops to seal the garden’s only exit and then ordering them to open fire, even though the crowd of 10,000 was unarmed and peaceful. Nearly 400 were killed, and 1,500 were wounded, but the General was neither court-martialed by the army nor prosecuted in a civil court.2 Twenty years later Sir Michael O’Dwyer was assassinated by Udham Singh, a Sikh militant who had witnessed the massacre and vowed to avenge it (Lal 2008), but Dyer escaped retribution. Instead, in a strictly political process he was relieved of his command by the Secretary for War, Winston Churchill, and forced to retire from the army (Swaminathan 2002). Though this leniency outraged Indians, it mollified Dyer’s British

supporters, a group that included powerful members of parliament and the nation’s media establishment, particularly the Morning Post, which raised a sum of £26,000 for the General. An additional sign of Dyer’s popularity in England was that when Churchill defended the government’s decision, he did not condemn the General himself, though he made it clear that he abhorred the massacre. It was, he said, “an episode which appears to me to be without precedent or parallel in the modern history of the British Empire. … It is an extraordinary event, a monstrous event, an event which stands in singular and sinister isolation.” But it was not, he asserted,

the British way of doing business. … The British power in India does not stand on such foundations. It stands on much stronger foundations. …

Our reign in India or anywhere else has never stood on the basis of physical force alone, and it would be fatal to the British Empire if we were to try to base our-selves only upon it. The British way of doing things… has always meant and implied close and effectual co-operation with the people of the country.