History Perspective

UnBritish Rule in British India

A look into the argument of whether British rule was beneficial for the modern state of India. Has India benefitted from 200 years of colonial rule under the British Empire?

An age-old argument has long been discussed amongst the Indian people. “Whether British rule was beneficial to the modern state of India?” On one end of the spectrum, you have those who believe that it did more harm than good, whereas the other side believes that without British rule we would be in an egregious situation. Just like all arguments revolving around history this coin also has two sides to it.

Since the 15th century BCE, India has been subjected to multiple accounts of invasions. First came the Aryans in the 1500s, The Greeks led by Alexander the Great in 326 BCE, Ghaznavid raids under Mahmud of Ghazni circa 1000 CE, the Ghurid invasion and the establishment of the Delhi Sultanate in 1194 CE, Mughals under Babur in 1526 CE which established the Mughal dynasty in India. Finally, the Europeans in the 16th century starting with the Portuguese, British, Dutch, the Danes and the French. (There are many more instances, I have just highlighted a select few).

The extent of British Rule in India in 1914
Source: New Zealand History

The European powers (especially the British) had a fundamental difference from the previous invaders. While the latter were looking to establish themselves in India (apart from raiders like Ghazni), the former were only interested in exploiting the resources of India by making it their colony. Taking away their profits back to their homeland. They did not have any interest in assimilating themselves into the heterogenous society of India.

Dynasties like the Delhi Sultanate, the Mughals etc. definitely did invade India for her famed riches. But they stayed back. A secondary discussion that also erupts is whether Mughals should be considered as outsiders or not also becomes prevalent. To which I firmly believe the answer is a mix of both. Yes, they were outsiders, but they also stayed here for 330 years. Babur and Humayun are the only Mughal rulers who were not born in India. Whereas Akbar and his successors were born in India (i.e. Indian sub-continent). They had completely assimilated themselves into what was then called, ‘India.’ It is imperative to keep this in mind while discussing the nature of British rule in contrast with the Mughal rulers in India.

Prior to the Europeans, the common person did not care about who was ruling at the top if they were taken care of. The British on the contrary made radical changes to the economic, political, cultural and even the social spheres of India. So much so that the people ‘felt’ the presence of the British. We will be discussing along these broad domains as to how ‘UnBritish rule in British India’ was.

The British created economic policies that were biased towards their industries back at home. These policies consisted of heavy taxation on the production of goods in India’s domestic industries and controlling the supply of raw materials to these industries. An example of such a policy is the Indian Forest Act (1865) which empowered the British government to declare any land covered with trees as government forest and prevent anyone else from using the natural products of the forest. In later years, there were amendments which gave limited rights to locals, but those too could be taken away by the government at any time.

A painting of Industrialized Britain
Source: British Online Archives

Indian products were in heavy demand in the European markets. So much so that the products manufactured by industries in the United Kingdom could not compete with Indian made products for an exceedingly long time. When the British gained political (and economic) control over India they imposed heavy restrictions on finished goods manufactured by Indian industries. Slowly, these domestic industries started dying out. This had two effects.

From an economic perspective, people started to lose their livelihoods. But it had even graver impacts culturally. The unique handicrafts that had developed over hundreds of years were a victim of the deindustrialization that India underwent during British rule. We lost these handicrafts as people did not find it a profitable venture to continue practicing them and shifted to other forms of livelihood. They could not compete with the cheaper machine-made goods from industrialized Britain. This was, and still is, a painful loss to India’s rich and varied culture.

Moreover, the Industrial Revolution (1760) resulted in a surge in the demand of raw materials like cotton, wood, coal etc. to cope up with the production. India shifted from a finished-good exporter to a mere raw material supplier. Furthermore, the goods manufactured using these raw materials needed a market to be sold in. India and many of the other colonies acted as markets for these finished goods. They would be sold at high margins and the revenue generated from this was carted off to Britain. Even now, India’s exports tend to be ‘raw material oriented’ rather than finished goods.

The catalyst to the ruination of India’s agriculture sector were yet again the exploitative nature of the British revenue system.

Unlike previous rulers, the British were not interested in improving the agricultural systems of India. Their primary aim was to generate maximum revenue from the peasants. Systems like the ‘Permanent Settlement System‘ or the ‘Ryotwari System‘ (about which I may go into detail in a separate article) robbed the peasant of his earning and they could barely have anything left for basic sustenance let alone sell their produce in the markets.

Though India’s GDP during this period grew, its contribution in the world’s GDP constantly declined to a point where it was a mere 3%(2.7 lakh crore) at India’s independence year, 1947.

No wonder the sun never sets on the British Empire, because even god could not trust the English in the dark.

Shashi Tharoor, Member of Parliament – Lok Sabha

Indian society has always been diverse, even before the Europeans came. Various religions like Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, Jainism co-existed in peace and harmony for hundreds of years. It is often said that the seed of communalism was first sown when Islamic powers like the Turkish and Mughals established themselves in India. But using religion as a political device to exact control over the population was unheard of during their regimes. The British on the other hand used communalism as a means for keeping the population pitted against each other to maintain their dominance over it. ‘Divide & Rule‘ is a phrase often used to describe the nature of British rule in India.

Indian Council Act (1909) introduced communal electorates. A voter was defined as ‘Hindu’ or ‘Muslim’ as was the representative and candidate. This communal division is only one aspect of how the British policies adversely affected Indian society. However, it continues to plague India several decades after independence, leaving a wound that will take many more decades to heal.

It is however an undeniable fact that the British did resolve some of our social evils. System of Sati was abolished by the British in 1829. A controversial social practice where a widow was made to self-immolate on the death of her husband. They also tried to raise the minimum age of marriage to combat child marriage. The terrible practice of female infanticide was outlawed through various legislations, through education the practice was curbed but not completely eradicated. But this was majorly through the efforts of Indian social reformers first and a handful of British administrators later.

Politically Indians were excluded from administrations until the very later stages of the colonial era. Even then, they were only granted representative rights and not executive powers. Many of the decisions were taken by the British Parliament in the U.K. without any form of deliberation with Indian representatives in India. How can people, who have never set foot on Indian soil be eligible to formulate laws for Indians? Even when the British crown took direct control of India and regarded Indians as subjects of the British crown, they (Indians) never enjoyed the same privileges as those of other British subjects.

The Indian Civil Service which was the higher civil services of the British Empire conducted recruitment examinations, but it took place in London; Indians were not allowed to take part in it. Moreover, it was not economically feasible for Indians to travel and stay in London or have the proper means to prepare for and write the examination. It was only much later in 1922 that the examination was also conducted in India for Indians. British Officers treated their Indian counterparts (and the Indian populace) with contempt. This is but an example of the political effect of British colonialism in India.

Commemoration of the Indian Civil Services at Westminster Abbey, London

Partition of India and Pakistan is the biggest black dot in British Colonial history. It was again, on communal grounds and resulted in the displacement of 20 million people. It is estimated that 2 million people died in this largest human ‘migration’ in the history of humanity. Moreover, it created a permanent problem as India and Pakistan continue to have tenuous relations. Both countries having experienced 4 wars and multiple military stand offs and a never-ending insurgency problem in the conflicted state of Jammu & Kashmir.

There are positives to British rule in India. Politically, we received a set system of administration and governance from them. We inherited a democratic system that was already tried and tested in the U.K. which we adopted in India i.e. the Parliamentary form of democracy amended according to our needs. Our constitution takes a lot of inspiration from the Government of India act (1919 & 1935). British rule introduced values such as liberty, equality, justice and fraternity. Exposure to western education was fundamental to learning about these values and realizing the need for better treatment and self-determination, which played a crucial role in the Indian Independence Movement.

Also read: Liberty for the individual by Priyamvad Rai only on TheMusing.in

They also introduced modern technologies like the railways, one of the best positive aspects of British rule in India. Post and telegraph highly improved means of communication between different parts of the country. Yes, the ulterior motive was to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of British administration in India, but it also allowed the people of India to come closer to each other as communication became easier. It allowed for exchange of ideas and brought us together as a nation.

But the negatives far outweigh the positives. These formed only a miniscule part of British colonialism in India. The British Raj was oppressive and exploitative. It caused immeasurable damage to India’s social, cultural, economic and political systems. At the time of independence, India had a literacy rate of 12%, life expectancy rate of just 32 years in 1945 (Compared to U.K’s 64 years). Millions of people died in various plagues and famines due to the result of incoherent British policies of handling these catastrophes (1.5 million people died in the Bengal Famine of 1943). Poverty in India was at a staggering 80%! These statistics alone should prove the horrific nature of British Colonialism in India.

The Indian National Flag was designed by Pingali Venkayya

74 years after independence India has tried make its way forward. Along the way it faced many challenges which take root in its colonial past. Even then, it has come out as a major economic and political power in the world. It has made great strides in the fields of science and space exploration. As a military it has the second largest military in the world, and being the largest voluntary force as well. It has improved itself on various socio-economic factors such as gender disparity, inequality, per-capita income, poverty etc. We have come a long way, but we have an even longer journey to unfold 200 years of colonialism and reach to the stars and beyond.

Priyamvad Rai

The title is inspired from Dadabhai Naoroji's book titled "Poverty and un-British rule in India." 
This article is also based on a UPSC Civil Services Essay Question called "Discuss the nature of British rule in India."

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1 comment

  1. Quite impressive ..
    Very organised article detailing the title with facts.
    Undoubtedly India’s history is interesting and what startles us that India as a country has survived, its culture and ethos have survived and it is today the largest democracy in the world despite being ruled by people who had different background,culture and governance system
    Really no other country on earth can match India..

    Liked by 2 people

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