Sir Courtenay Ilbert wanted to bring about a change in the existing law because he wanted to change the existing law of the country with regard to the trial of Europeans. The Criminal Procedure Code of 1873 laid down that except in Presidency towns no Magistrate or Sessions Judge could try a European British subject unless he himself was a European by birth. By this time, many Indian members of the covenanted civil service were occupying posts of responsibility and dignity. As a result justice demanded that the Indian Magistrates be given the same authority as their European counterparts. The Government thus made up its mind to abolish the judicial disqualifications based on race distinction.
In 1883 Ilbert prepared a Bill to bring out the Indian and the European Magistrates on the same footing. The Bill in draft was generally approved by the Executive Council of the Viceroy and by almost all the Provincial Governments and was introduced in the Imperial Legislative Council. Within a few weeks, the whole of the British community joined in a vigorous denunciation of the Bill.
But to this denunciation Lord Ripon and some members of his Executive Council as well as the Home Government remained firm. However the Bill was ultimately modified by extending the power to try European offenders only to Indian Sessions Judges and District Magistrates and giving such European offenders the right to be tried by a jury if they so pleased. Ripon and his government were largely influenced in accepting the compromise by the desire to avoid the risk.
History says that political unrest in India received a great stimulus from the European Opposition to the Ilbert Bill. Due to the Ilbert Bill controversy the nationalist movement of India also began to take shape.
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