Given that the Indian Penal Code wasn't introduced until 1860 and then later the Punjab Laws Act of 1872 I am trying to gain a better understanding of the laws governing the Punjab under British rule during the Board of Administration between 1849 and 1853.

A Journal article titled "Development of Civil Service Punjab and Haryana (1849 - 1919)" noted that the newly annexed "territory was to be treated as a Non-Regulation Province" which meant "the civil service of the Punjab was not governed by any Act of the British Parliament or the Regulations of the Government of India." Instead it was "placed under the charge of a 'Board of Administration'".

In 1883 R. Bosworth Smith wrote (Page 252) on whether the Punjab was governed as a military government or by the East India Company he wrote "Neither, and yet both. Both, that is, in part".

To figure out who was in control of what Smith writes (Page 292) that Sir Henry Lawrence was President of the Board and "medium of communication with the Supreme Government" which was another name for the Indian Government. At the time, this would have meant the Board communicated with the East Indian Company which would have been under the Government of India Act 1833.

Despite communicating with the East India Company this appears to have been for shared objectives since another journal article titled "Institutional Development of Legislation in Punjab 1849-1947: An Historical Analysis" went as far to say that the Board "possessed absolute and supreme executive, military and judicial powers and unobstructed control all over matters regarding Punjab."

To figure out the specifics of what that meant Smith continues by saying Sir Henry Lawrence (Page 292) "was to be the head of the executive in all its branches, to take charge of the political relations with the adjoining states, to have the general control of the frontier force, of the Guide corps, of the military police, and of the Civil Engineer's department".

I found information on the "frontier force" (Punjab Irregular Force) and the "Guide corps" (Corps of Guides) but I assume the "Civil Engineer's department" was part of the East India Company. When it comes to the military police I assume that simply meant an armed police force which was created by the Board and was not part of the East India Company.

A journal article on the "Administrative Evolution of the Punjab and British Rule (1849-1859)" goes into further detail how the Board created Military Police that would be able to arrest people and present them in front of a court: "An armed Police Force, foot and horse was raised and partially organised, both for the protection of the Frontier and the preservation of internal peace. Civil and Criminal courts were established offenders were seized, and during the course of the year 8000 convicts were lodged in custody."

The journal article then goes on to describe how the Board then created commissioned officers with criminal and civil powers: "All officers were vested with triple powers, criminal, civil and fiscal. The commissioners were to be Superintendents of revenue and police, and to exercise the legal proceedings of a civil and the criminal powers of a Session's Judge."

Smith writes (Page 271) that for local matters Tahsildars were used as judges "of local matters of small importance, were confirmed in their judicial as they had already been in their police authority". This suggests there were laws the Board wanted to enact but left local laws in the villages alone.

The extent this is held true is unknown, Wikipeda refernces a book by Arvind-Pal Singh Mandair that states (Page 77) that the "Board maintained a strict policy of ‘non-interference’, or what amounted to secular governance, in regard to religious and cultural matters." That book in turn references "Imperial Encounters: Religion and Modernity in India and Britain" by Peter van der Veer that simply states (Page 21) "The government of Madras was forced by the anti-idolatry activists to retreat from their policies and accept a new policy of 'noninterference,' made into law in 1863." The author was most likely referring to The Religious Endowments Act, 1863 which obviously happened after the Board Administration and gives no mention of the Board itself.

An example of interference before the Board was created was by a Board member, John Lawrence, who was the Commissioner of the Tans-Sutlej States and in 1846 he wrote (Page 186) "proclamations and letters to all the chiefs" that practices such as "infanticide, suttee, and the destruction of leprous persons by burying them alive or throwing them into water" were met with "the severest penalties". Later these states became part of the Punjab province that the Board governed.

That's my attempt at trying to understand how things were governed and who was responsible but it says nothing about what laws were used. Were laws passed down from the East India Company, were proclamations created before the Board kept, were the courts based on English law, was there a High and Supreme Court?

  • 4
    You need to point out that this was still the East India Company controlling India rather than the British government.
    – Spencer
    Oct 28, 2022 at 22:22
  • 2
    Good point, the confusion comes when Wikipedia says it "was administratively independently" and Smith, R. Bosworth wrote on whether it was run as a military government or by the East India Company he wrote "Neither, and yet both. Both, that is, in part.". It looks like the courts could have been part of the East India Company justice system. I will look into this further and update my question accordingly. Oct 29, 2022 at 0:16

1 Answer 1


The best answer I could find was from Volume 1 of the "Punjab Customary Law" series which contained "a selection of the records from the Punjab Government".

In the book the author printed an extract of a letter (Page 49) written in 1849 from the "Secretary of the Government of India" (H. M. Elliot) which would have been the East India Company to the President of the Board, H. M Lawrence.

In it the Secretary communicated the wishes of the Governor General (The Earl of Dalhousie) to keep things simple by saying the "Governor General would wish to uphold Native institutions and practices, as far as they are consistent with the distribution of justice to all classes;" he then clarified this idea by saying:

With the knowledge now generally prevalent respecting village coparcenaries, there is no apprehension that our officers will not exert themselves to maintain those important bodies in all their integrity. In this and other respects, such as the local laws which regulate the tracing of criminals and the responsibility of landholders for their pursuit and apprehension, the popular institutions will be improved and consolidated by our measures, and the Native system of accounts and reports may also be adhered to, without any great and radical deviation; so that the only material alteration will consist in the introduction of Europeans as supervisors and executive officers.

He went on to specify that the policing were not be receiving any new laws:

With respect to the introduction of our System of police, the Governor General has no wish that our voluminous laws should be introduced into this new country. The several abstracts of our Regulations may be considered to contain sufficient for the guidance of our Magistrates, to whom necessarily a larger discretion must be left than they have in our older provinces.

The next letter in the book was written in 1853, after the Board was disbanded. This suggests the Board governed in a way that enhanced the police force and enforced the laws that were already in place.

What this meant for the people on the ground was most likely a continuation of the legal systems set in place by the Mughal Empire and as the British later discovered (Page 61) a mix of Hindu, Muhammadan and Lex Loci (the law of the place) Laws with the British commenting that people of the "Sikh persuasion, are in civil and secular affairs, generally bound by Hindu law".

This seems to suggest that any previous proclamations by John Lawrence on cultural and religious practices that were seen as harmful and to be met with "the severest penalties" were most likely lost.

What was also interesting, is how much control the General Governor of India had over a "Non-Regulation Province" which goes against the idea the Board had "absolute and supreme executive" control over the Punjab.

At this point it feels like if I want to know more I would need to start reading letters to and from Robert Montgomery who was the first Judicial Commissioner and C. G. Mansel who was entrusted with the administration of justice and the police.

After 1853 the Punjab Civil Code was created and became part of a whole history of Anglo-Muhammadan Law.

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