British India

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For a little less than two centuries, the British ruled in India. This was the first, and final, occasion that the entire Subcontinent was ruled under a single banner, and it was the banner of a country less than a tenth of the size of India. Unlike in the Americas, the British did not enjoy the advantage of diseases wiping out 90% of the native population, and unlike in Africa, the British did not possess the full force of late 19th Century technology to aid their initial advance. Instead, the story of British India is the tale of how a few hundred administrators were able to rule over hundreds of millions of Indians for decades, only for the mirage of their power to suddenly evaporate. When this happened, the entire house of cards came crashing down, leading to the end of imperial rule and the dramatic events of 1947.

Four thousand years ago, the first civilisations emerged on the banks of the Indus River. Gradually these evolved into kingdoms, which developed their own unique cultures, languages and governments. India is a region larger than Western European, but was home to a far greater number of distinct states, all of which constantly battled with one another for supremacy. None, however, were ever able to truly unify the Subcontinent. In the 16th Century, Central Asian nomads stormed into India, subdued the northern regions and established the Mughal Empire. Local rulers were pacified and co-opted into this new centralised regime, and India flourished. By 1600, India was the second largest economy in the world, produced a quarter of global GDP and possessed a textile industry that was the envy of the world. Within a century, however, the situation had reversed; the Mughal Empire was experiencing a sharp decline. Persian armies had marched east and laid waste to Indian lands, sapping the Mughal’s strength, but whenever the Emperors exhibited signs of weakness, regional warlords and commercial elites began defying their authority, only further undermining the state. 

Throughout this period, the only British agents in India were the operatives of the East India Company. In 1600, the EIC had been granted a Royal Charter and a monopoly in trading with the East Indies. Twelve years later, they had signed a treaty with the Mughal Emperor, allowing them to administer certain regions in exchange for providing European goods. Thanks to its financial acumen, its ability to butter up local rulers and no shortage of ruthlessness (the EIC was known to destroy the crop farms of its competitors), the Company gradually increased both the scale of its operations and its profit margin off the back of the textile trade. By the 1750s, the British East India Company facilitated half of all world trade.

With its new fortune, the EIC bought itself an army. With this private military and the brilliance of Robert Clive, the Company waged war on both its French counterpart and quarrelsome Indian princes during the Seven Years War. At Plassey in 1757, Clive crushed his opponents and established EIC hegemony in Bengal. He then proceeded to mercilessly loot (a corruption of the Indian word for thief that entered the English vernacular at this time) the cities of the Subcontinent, built a castle in Britain and bought a seat in Parliament.

Clive was not the only Company agent to gorge himself so – a generation of men went to India poor and returned as exceedingly wealthy ‘nabobs’. After all, the opportunities for plunder were virtually limitless. The Company isolated its enemies one by one, finally forcing the Mughal Emperor himself to submit in 1763 after the Battle of Buxar. The EIC did not demand territory, merely the right to tax the wealthiest province of India, Bengal. In return, the Mughal was permitted to continue to govern India, gained Company protection and received a pension. Drunk on its successes, the Company’s agents proceeded to tax and exploit the population so heavily that they triggered a famine in Bengal. Between 1770-1773, around ten million Indians died. 

The century following the Battle of Plassey was the era of Company rule. At first, the EIC was largely content to simply buy the loyalty of the myriad Indian Princes and rule through their puppets. But as the nineteenth century progressed, the Company developed a taste for interfering in Indian affairs. Practices the British found horrifying – such as Sati, the ritual burning of widows – were declared illegal. Slavery was banned in 1846. Lord Dalhousie passed the Widow Remarriage Act in 1856, granting women greater rights. Indian kingdoms and principalities were directly annexed by the Company, who exploited loopholes in inheritance laws. Many Indians resented this meddling, and feared the Company would soon start evangelising the Subcontinent.

Similarly, India was rife with fears of enforced westernisation. Company rule introduced steamships to the rivers of the subcontinent, improved roads and constructed canals. Most importantly, the British built vast railroad networks – by 1870, these would total some 4,000 miles. Merchants and soldiers, the pillars of EIC rule, could now navigate the Subcontinent or be manoeuvred to elsewhere in the world (such as China) at speed, but many Indians were unenthusiastic about this brave new world. Faster travel and the navigation of the seas were a direct threat to the caste system – the social hierarchy that had dominated India for millennia. Tensions in Indian were high.

In 1857, these tensions erupted. The Sepoys (Indian Hindus serving as soldiers under British officers) had long been a vital component in the EIC’s occupation. The British, however, began taking the Sepoys for granted; the introduction of new Enfield rifles, which required a user to bite off the ends of lubricated cartridges (that many believed contained pig’s and cow’s lard, substances faithful Hindus and Muslims had to avoid) was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Rumours abounded of the British attempting to trick the Indians into forced conversions, and dissatisfaction reached a breaking point. Some Sepoys refused to use the rifle, and were promptly imprisoned. When some Sepoys attacked a British officer, their brethren across the subcontinent took up arms in a mass mutiny.

On 10 May, they stormed into Delhi unopposed, and the opium-addled Bahadur Shah was crowned Mughal Emperor. It seemed for a while that the hopelessly outnumbered British might be driven from India. Yet the British still commanded the loyalty of Sikh Gurkha soldiers and the many princes they had bought off, still had superior artillery and could still resort to extreme violence. In contrast, the Sepoys were poorly coordinated and struggled to storm British strongholds. Once the rebellion was suppressed, the Company elected to teach the Subcontinent a lesson it would not forget. Hundreds of Sepoys were bayoneted, hundreds of others were fired from a cannon and blown to pieces. 

But the British government had learned from the Sepoy Mutiny. Fearing a repeat, it decided to dispose of the EIC and the remnant Mughal Empire, and sent the last Emperor to Burma. Westminster then resolved to control the Subcontinent directly, instead of relying on independent bodies such as the East India Company. India would become the linchpin on which the entire empire hinged. Increasing speed of communication – telegrams made it possible for messages from London to reach the Subcontinent in hours – meant it was possible to integrate the empire in a way that was impossible in the days of Clive. The vast population of India provided Britain the manpower it needed to maintain its empire; one politician called the Subcontinent a “vast Oriental barracks”. The Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon, assessed that Britain would always be a great power providing she still possessed India, but that without the Subcontinent, Britain would fall to the status of a third-rate power. 

To govern the “jewel in the crown”, Britain introduced a new regime, known as the Raj, and appointed a Governor-General to administer India on the ground. He was to be assisted by the Indian Civil Service, an elite bureaucracy supposedly made up of the best minds in Britain. In theory, anyone could apply to be a member of the ICS. For most of the period after 1857, however, candidates had to travel to London to sit the entrance examination – a task somewhat easier for Englishmen than Indians. The entrance test itself was extremely rigorous, though it examined academic ability rather than administrative capabilities. If a candidate passed, he spent two years studying Indian languages, history and institutions, and was then sent to the Subcontinent to administer a region. There were never more than around a thousand ICS officials ruling over a country more than three hundred million; most civil servants wrote of the acute strangeness they felt being the only white man in hundreds of miles and not speaking English for months at a time. Most were also completely overwhelmed by their workload, but the British administrators were assisted in their efforts by a class of Indian bureaucrats and lawyers.

These were the products of the British Indian education system. Following the Sepoy Mutiny, there was a general desire to create a new class of Indians. These men were intended to be “Indian in blood and colour” but “English in tastes, in opinions, in morals, in intellect”. Young Indians studied in institutions modelled on British boarding schools, where philosophical theories and western ideals were drilled into them. It became increasingly possible for Indians to communicate through a common medium – English, which emerged as the Subcontinent’s lingua Franca. Before the Mutiny, the Company had relied on the local princes, the maharajas, to facilitate its rule. From now on, however, the bedrock of British rule would be these anglicised Indians.

There were many in London who wished for the Empire to pin its hope on this new class; they realised that perpetual white domination over such a populous country was fundamentally unsustainable. These ‘liberal imperialists’ believed that the aim of British colonial rule should be to modernise the state while slowly returning greater autonomy to the local population. In 1883, one such liberal imperialist in India, Courtenay Ilbert, attempted to introduce a law permitting Indian magistrates to try white expatriates in the Subcontinent. The backlash among the tea plantation owners was immense, and, that summer, agitators conjured up spectres of Indian judges using their power to sexually humiliate white women. Amidst this backlash, the law was watered down and quietly forgotten about.

At least, it was forgotten about by the British. The Indian bureaucratic class had been anticipating greater responsibilities, but now many realised that British rule necessarily came with a glass ceiling. In 1885, the Indian National Congress was established to agitate for a greater Indian presence in the management of the Subcontinent, though it met with relatively little success in its first years. 

At the same time, British rule also brought unprecedented profiteering. Taxes were so high on goods coming from India to Britain that the Subcontinent’s economy collapsed. At the same time, British goods entered the Subcontinent tax-free. The British deliberately flooded the markets with their own cloth, while making it virtually impossible for Indian weavers to export their goods. Unable to compete, the Subcontinent’s (once envied) textile industry was crippled, and weaving cities like Dhaka were depopulated. During the Mughal Era, India had possessed 27% of global GDP, but, by the end of British rule, 90% of the population was in poverty.

In 1906, the British found another way to anger the men the Raj relied on. The Viceroys had long found that administering Bengal – the largest, wealthiest and most populous region of India – was an enormously complex task. In an attempt to ease the burden of administration, Lord Curzon partitioned Bengal in 1906. However, most educated Indians were from Bengal, and were hardly enthusiastic at what they saw as a tactical move to limit their power. Congress became increasingly antagonistic towards the very notion British rule; at its 1907 gathering in Surat, the movement split between moderates and extremists. The partition was revoked in 1912, but the damage was done. Bengal became increasingly ungovernable, and in 1911 construction began of a new capital for British India away from Calcutta – New Delhi.

When the First World War erupted, however, India threw itself behind Britain. A young Mohandas Gandhi supported the Subcontinent rousing itself for the struggle, believing this was a way to earn British goodwill and greater self-government. 1.5 million Indian soldiers and workers were employed in the British Army, 60,000 of which were killed or went missing. Yet in return for this sacrifice, Britain offered India few reforms after Germany’s defeat. India had expected greater autonomy, but British refusal to grant concessions transformed a fledgling movement into a fully blown drive for independence. The Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms (designed to permit a degree of self-governance) were seen as too little being offered too late.

Mohandas Gandhi had joined the Indian National Congress in 1915, and soon after the party had rapidly increased its standing in India – largely by exploiting the speed of rail travel and the use of the English language. By the end of the First World War, it was the leading Indian political movement. From his new position, Gandhi began his campaign of satyagraha (passive resistance) and urged other Indians to do likewise. Various responses were attempted by the British (including political reform, mass arrests, jailing Gandhi and simply shooting protestors), but none had any real success. The Sepoy Mutiny, a physical rebellion, had been relatively simple to control, but it was nearly impossible to control a moral revolt.

Salt had long been a commodity heavily taxed by the British, but in 1930, Gandhi simply led his followers to the coast, took handfuls of the mud and boiled it to produce (illegal) salt. Gandhi followed up on this success with a campaign calling for Indian self-sufficiency, and a boycott of goods imported from Britain. English towns which had cropped up based on producing products to export to the Subcontinent were devastated. Suddenly, empire had ceased being a financial boon and had begun causing the mother country financial pain.

In an attempt to appease the nationalists, the British government proposed granting still greater autonomy in the 1935 Government of India Act. Despite a fierce campaign opposing the bill spearheaded by Winston Churchill, Parliament approved the legislation. Yet the Government of India Act only bolstered the hopes of independence; the creation of a federal government for the provinces and the princely states, coupled with some degree of suffrage, made Indians ever more impatient to achieve real independence.

In September 1939, Britain declared war on the Third Reich. Almost immediately, the Governor-General of the Raj announced that British India would be supporting the mother country, despite the fact he had not consulted Congress, or any other Indian group for that matter. 2.5 million Indians supported Britain in the war, while princely states provided massive financial aid to support Allied efforts. Yet there was considerable discontent. The Indian nationalist Subhas Bose openly supported the Axis powers, and in 1942, Gandhi staged his Quit India campaign. Gandhi was arrested, Indian soldiers fighting against the British were charged with treason and protests were suppressed. But it was becoming painfully clear to all in Britain that, no matter the outcome of the war, the Raj’s days were numbered.

Britain emerged from the Second World War victorious but exhausted; its economy was in tatters and the nation lacked the will for another bloody struggle. Its ally and patron, America, was a decidedly anti-imperial power and placed pressure on Britain to leave India. In 1946, Britain announced that it would depart the Subcontinent by June 1948. But during Gandhi’s imprisonment, a new political movement had arisen to challenge Congress’ monopoly. Jinnah’s Muslim league feared that if the Subcontinent was granted independence as a single nation, the Hindu majority would oppress the Muslim minority. The leaders of the Raj agreed to Jinnah’s requests, and partitioned British India. 

Unfortunately, the partition line was ill-conceived; refugees flooded in both directions, and two million people were killed in the ensuing violence that occurred in the last weeks of the Raj. Fearing their forces would be trapped in an increasingly chaotic Subcontinent, the British accelerated their departure. On 14 August 1947, Pakistan was granted independence. The next day, India also became an independent nation. That evening, an entranced nation listened to the words of Nehru, delivered in English, as he promised his audience that, the next day, “India will awake to life and freedom.”

Brendon, P., 2007. The Decline and Fall of the British Empire: 1781-1997. Random House

Dalrymple, W., 2019. The Anarchy. Bloomsbury 

Ferguson, N., 2004. Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World. Penguin

Tharoor, S., 2016. Inglorious Empire: What Britain Did to India. Penguin