The Law of Libel

(notes by Philip Holberton, drawing on the researches of Andrew Rutherford and Thomas Pinney)


This poem was published in the Pioneer on 22 December 1888, with the heading:

‘Perhaps the belief was true, but not the rumour. Possibly belief and rumour were unfounded. But is it so great a sin in a public journal to lend voice to the people, etc? Where the absolute verity is nearly impossible of attainment by the instituted tribunals, how much more so by the poor journalist! He can only go upon the rumour and the proof of rumour ought to absolve him in court’. Comment of a Native paper on a recent libel-suit.

Reprinted in the Pioneer Mail, 26 December. The poem was unsigned but included in Kipling’s Scrapbook 4 of his own press cuttings in the Kipling Papers at the University of Sussex Special Collections.

Verse 1 was used with some variations as the chapter-heading to Chapter vi of The Naulahka (1892). The poem
was not otherwise collected by Kipling, but included in Rutherford (p. 438) and Pinney (p. 1927).


As Rutherford notes, Kipling’s contempt for the way the Native Press abused its freedom under British rule was reinforced by what he had seen in Rajasthan earlier in the year. He wrote in Letters of Marque no. xix, published in the Pioneer on February 28th 1888:

Note this fact: with the exception of such journals as, occupying a central position in British territory, levy blackmail from the neighbouring States, there are no independent papers in Rajputana. A king may start a weekly, to encourage a taste for Sanskrit and high Hindi, or a Prince may create a Court Chronicle, but that is all. A “free press” is not allowed, and this the native journalist knows.

With good management he can, keeping under the shadow of our flag, raise two hundred rupees from a big man here, and five hundred from a rich man there, but he does not establish himself across the Border. To one who has a reason to hold a stubborn disbelief in even the elementary morality of the natives press, this bashfulness and lack of enterprise is amusing … A year spent among native States ought to send a man back to the Decencies and the Law Courts and the Rights of the Subject with a supreme contempt for those who rave about the oppressions of our brutal bureaucracy.
[Collected in From Sea to Sea vol. 1 pp. 195-6]


The poem

The poem tells the story of a man who set up a newspaper in a Native State and what happened to him when he printed a rumour defaming the Rajah.

Notes on the Text

[Verse 1]

Kot-Kumharsen There is a district called Kumharsain in the Simla district, but this seems to be a made-up name for a demanding district in Rajasthan or on the North-West frontier. ‘Kot-Kumharsen’ also figures in “A Death in the Camp” and “The Head of the District”, both published in 1890.

Agent The responsible British official in a Native State, representing the Government.

Bahadur A title of respect.

tonga a two-wheeled vehicle.

machan A platform for shoooting game.

Harrilds and Hoes printing presses.

Bewaquf Tufan literally “Ignorant Storm”.

[Verse 2]

Thakur A Rajput noble.

pukka genuine

pica a size of printer’s type.

mullah A Muslim religious teacher, a popular target for a Hindu newspaper.

The Agent’s grosser sins the paper does not get into trouble for libelling the British authority.

[Verse 3]

Diwan chief minister of Native State.

nuzzer ceremonial gifts.

[Verse 4]

Dewali, Durga Pujah major Hindu festivals.

Kali Yuga In the Sanskrit scriptures an era of darkness and degeneration.

nukshan offence, injury.

[Verse 5]

porker The pig is an unclean animal to Muslims, so polluting a holy building.

Taj the Taj Mahal in Agra.

Jumma Masjid the great mosque in Delhi.

[Verse 6]

empressement eagerness, urgency (French).

Pharphar (sic) nor Abana i.e. his own territories. cf. 2 Kings 5.12, in the Old Testament where Naaman, a Syrian leper, is told to wash in the Jordan to be cured, and says:

“Are not Abana and Pharpar, rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel?”

Zenana women’s quarters.

[Verse 7]

cess taxation.

Mar beat or kill, destroy it.

[Verse 8]

Birchee give him the spear.

[Verse 9]


handa pench literally ‘cool twist’. A form of torture, probably involving a tourniquet tightened round the head. cf. “At Howli Thana”:

‘I saw the mark of a string on the temples on Imam Baksh. Does the Presence know the torture of the Cold Draw?’
[Soldiers Three p. 263].

kench pull.

[Verse 10]

charpoy bedstead, evidently used in another torture.

Curse not the King cf. The Old Testament, Ecclesiastes 10.20: ‘Curse not the king in thy bedchamber: for a bird of the air shall carry the voice.’.

Kobiraj physician; medical treatment after the torture.

[Verse 11]

David Carson a music-hall entertainer, specialising in Indian impersonations.

litho produced by the process of lithography, using a flat stone or metal plate..