The advent of Lord William Bentinck ushered in a new era in the annals of India in many ways. Although his tenure of office covered only a short span of seven years, it saw a period of enduring reforms. They may be classified as financial, administrative, social and educational.
When Bentinck assumed the Governor-Generalship in 1828, the financial position of the Company was poor. The exchequer was very weak. The state budget showed a deficit of one million rupees. It became necessary on the part of the Governor-General to take effective steps to improve the financial condition. To achieve this he adopted the following measures:
He reduced the salaries and allowances of all officers and additional staff were removed. In the military department, he abolished the system of double batta. (Batta was an allowance to troops on active service.) By these financial reforms at the time of his departure, he left the treasury with a surplus of Rs.1.5 millions.
Bentinck's administrative reforms speak of his political maturity and wisdom. In the judicial department he abolished the provincial courts of appeal established by Cornwallis. They were largely responsible for the huge arrears of cases. This step was readily accepted by the Directors since it cut down their expenditure. Another good measure of Bentinck was the introduction of local languages in the lower courts and English in the higher courts in the place of Persian. Even in matters of revenue Bentinck left his mark. He launched the revenue settlements of the North West Province under the control of R.M. Bird. This settlement was for a period of 30 years and it was made either with the tillers of the soil, or with the landowners.
The social reforms of William Bentinck made his name immortal in the history of British India. These include the abolition ofSati, the suppression of Thugs and the prevention of female infanticide.
The practice of sati, the age old custom of burning of widows alive on the funeral pyre of their husbands was prevalent in India from ancient times. This inhuman social custom was very common in northern India more particularly in Bengal. Bentinck was greatly distressed when he received a report of 800 cases of sati in a single year and that from Bengal. He determined to abolish this practice which he considered an offence against natural justice. Therefore, he became a crusader against it and promulgated his Regulation XVII on 4 December 1829 prohibiting the practice of sati. Those who practiced sati were made liable for punishment by law courts as accessories to the crime. The Regulation was extended to the Madras and Bombay Presidencies in 1830.
The most commendable measure which Bentinck undertook and which contributed to the material welfare of the people was the suppression of the 'thugs'. They were hereditary robbers. They went about in small groups of fifty to hundred posing as commercial gangs or pilgrims 'strangling and robbing peaceful travellers'. They increased in number in central and northern India during the 18th century when anarchy reigned after the disintegration of the Mughal Empire. A campaign was systematically organised by Colonel Sleeman from 1830 against the thugs. During the course of five years nearly 2000 of them were captured. A greater number of them were exterminated and the rest were transported to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. For his role in the suppression of thugs, Sir William Sleeman was known as 'Thugee Sleeman'.
Female infanticide was one of the horrible and heartless deeds committed even by civilized people. This practice killing female infants was very much prevalent in places like Rajputana, Punjab, Malwa and Cutch. Bentinck took effective steps to prevent the ritual of child sacrifice at Saugar Island in Bengal. He not only prohibited female infanticide but declared them as punishable crime.
The introduction of English Education was a significant event of Lord William Bentinck's administration. He appointed a committee headed by Lord Macaulay to make recommendations for the promotion of education. In his report, Macaulay emphasized the promotion of European literature and science through English medium to the people of India. This recommendation was wholeheartedly accepted by William Bentinck. The Government Resolution in 1835 made English the official and literary language of India. In the same year, William Bentinck laid foundation of the Calcutta Medical College.