Politics of South Asia. India and British Rule


The British colonial Empire was the largest in the world and involved one forth of the global population. The aim of the British colonization was to explore new lands and use natural resources of low developed countries. The British East India Company was chartered in 1600 as nothing more than a trading company (Baumgart 43). This company, conquered and organized a state on the subcontinent which became the “handsomest jewel in the British crown” and the keystone of the empire. With the settlement colonies of Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, it symbolized Great Britain’s status as a world power. In a century, British East India Company obtained s strong powerful position in India controlling political, social and economic spheres.


British colonial rules had a negative impact on Indian population and the state system controlling and exploiting its natural and labor resources, controlling its economy and maintain British political system, changing social structure of society and its cultural values.


Colonization of India began in 1510 when Portuguese established trading relations with India. The process of colonization took place since 16th century, and by 19th century India was directly and indirectly colonized by the Britain (Baumgart 48). For the first century and a half of its existence, the British East India Company merely engaged in trade from its coastal factories. It did not aspire to territorial rule and, accepting the sovereignty of the Mughal emperor in Delhi, traded under the sanction of treaties with the Indian princes (Beloff 32). The company was initially merely one of a number of European companies which penetrated India’s internal trade from their stations on the coast or, acting on their own or as middlemen, opened up trade with China and the Malay Archipelago. In the mid-eighteenth century, the companies shifted, rather unwillingly, indeed, and without deliberate forethought, to a policy of military engagement and the gradual development of the administrative apparatus within and beyond their factories.

In historical retrospect, this all appears inevitable (Ingram 52). After the death of Emperor Aurangzeb in 1707 the individual provinces of the empire had made themselves virtually independent. For their part, the British defeated the nawab (governor) of Bengal at Plassey in 1757 and again at Baksar in 1764. Consolidating Britain’s position in the north, these victories were made possible in no small measure by the Afghans, who had pushed into the Punjab in 1738, plundered Delhi, and in 1761 inflicted a severe defeat on the Marathas (Ingram 38). The latter had built up an extensive territory in the western Deccan and the Bombay hinterland. In 1765 Robert Clive accepted the diwani for Bengal from the Mughal emperor. The diwani was the right to collect taxes in the stead of the nawab and in the emperor’s name. The plunder of Bengal began. It took the form of forced levies, corruption of company officials, and forcibly depressed prices for cotton and silk destined for export. No takeover of the administration was initially contemplated, but in time it proved unavoidable if the chaos was to be mastered (Ingram 43). As early as 1772, Warren Hastings, who “steadily built up an administration in Bengal which in a few years’ time was to convert the robber State of Clive into a powerful and organized government,” took in hand the tax administration in Bengal and Bihar (Baumgart 66).

Thus did England, in the guise of the company, become a colonial power in India. No further territorial expansion was contemplated, either by the company or the British government. Wars cost money, and the company stood on the verge of bankruptcy. British territory gradually expanded, all the same. The “local factor” played in India, as elsewhere, a decisive role. Reports took months to travel to London and back (Hobsbawm 43). London could warn, raise objections, condemn actions, but in the end had to accept most faits accomplis. The hegemony of the company still seemed in no way assured. A coalition between Maratha and Mysore had to be blocked. One had to negotiate, make treaties. Some governors were advocates of a “forward policy,” others held back, but expansion continued willy-nilly. External dangers (or those imagined) also contributed. At first it was Napoleonic France, then Russia, with its gradual push southward, which came to seem a threat to the British position in India because of Russia’s influence in Persia and Afghanistan.

The company’s directors might show no interest in expansion, but the Industrial Revolution and the consequent rapid increase in British trade nonetheless all but forced it (Hobsbawm 88). War against a strong Mysore between 1790 and 1799 brought the south coast under direct British rule and created the basis for the Madras presidency. What was left remained a princely state under a Hindu dynasty. The nizam of Hyderabad had to accept a so-called subsidiary alliance, in which England guaranteed the independence and protection of the princely territory and stationed troops there under British command. Though paid by the prince, they could be employed both to hinder rebellion and to squeeze their paymaster.

Other subsidiary alliances followed, among them one with the nawab of Oudh in 1799. Further wars with Maratha between 1800 and 1803 and in 1818 led to the annexation of Delhi and the upper Ganges valley, Orissa in the east, and the Bombay hinterland. An aggressive thrust toward Kabul ended, indeed, in a spectacular defeat in 1841. The English nonetheless occupied and annexed Sind, until then Afghan territory. Two wars were waged between 1845 and 1849 against the Sikhs, originally a Hindu sect, who had established a kingdom in the Punjab earlier in the century (Baumgart 98). As a result, Kashmir was carved off and given a Hindu ruler and the Punjab annexed. These territorial divisions and political battles changed Indian civilization and separated it forever (Hobsbawm 41).

Hoskins (1996) mentions some of the underlying causes for this relatively rapid and simple conquest of the Indian subcontinent, notwithstanding occasional English reverses: the chaos following the dissolution of the Mughal empire; the rivalries between Indian princes and the countless struggles over the succession in many territories; and the absence of an Indian “nation,” which could have stood united against its European conqueror. Even the Marathas had more of a sense of being Maratha than any sort of community feeling based on India as a whole. They had come as conquerors, and their defeat was greeted with relief far and wide in the land. The feudal lords of the Rajput preferred British to Maratha rule (Hoskins 147). While the Marathas, Rajputs, Sikhs, and Gurkhas of Nepal fought bravely enough, their armies were essentially medieval in character. In the end they were simply no match for a modern army like the English. The ranks of the latter were, indeed, manned largely by Indians, and the Sikhs never forgot that they had been defeated by Muslim troops from Oudh and the Punjab.

Rule was still incompletely consolidated, the language of administration remained Persian, and a communications system did not exist. Along with the regulation of taxes, securing law and order remained the principal problems. Rule was understood to mean reform, the fight against arbitrary conduct and corruption, and the improvement of the lot of the peasant masses. Anglicizing Indian law and institutions was seen as necessary, at least to a degree, as was leveling obstacles to English trade (Hoskins 154). These reforms were all to take place over a period of time, and preferably in a way that created an Indian elite ready to accept elements of (Beloff 29).

The mutiny of Indian troops in May 1857 (40,000 soldiers were from the newly annexed Oudh, and Rajputs and the Brahmin caste were heavily represented) thus rapidly widened into a rebellion that for a time seriously threatened English rule and was finally repressed only in 1858. Massacres of Europeans were followed by an extraordinarily bloody repression that cost the lives of thousands of Indians and was accompanied by an orgy of hatred on the part of the British. The revolt was not national. Both Bengal and the Madras presidency remained quiet, and even the Punjab (including the Sikhs, who had been defeated only shortly before) participated in the struggle against the rebels. Prominent representatives of the new educated class in Bengal also declared their loyalty. Neither Nehru nor present-day Indian historians accept nationalist interpretations of the rebellion (Baumgart 39).

The mutiny altered the British attitude toward India in no fundamental way. It nonetheless left a lasting mark on both the style and the ideology of British rule. The liberals had believed that the introduction of British law and education, Western technology, and the principles of liberal Western economic policy could “modernize” Indian society in a relatively short time (Hoskins 49). They also believed that the gratitude and appreciation of the ruled would create fertile ground for Anglo-Indian collaboration. Occidental and oriental civilization seemed separated by an abyss. It had proved risky to disturb a foreign world and threaten its fundament by well-meaning reforms (Beloff 51). Indian society had proved more foreign and more conservative than originally assumed or hoped. “Oriental stagnation” became a stereotype that symbolized fundamental differences–and also helped to legitimize one’s rule (Beloff 55). England was destined to rule India, found its mission there, and saw its own greatness therein confirmed.

This was henceforth the ideological basis of the British raj. Although the other things the English brought India–domestic peace, a unified legal system, and modern administration–were also considered to legitimize British rule, the implicit or stated conviction remained, that India now “belonged” to England and that Indians were incompetent to rule themselves or manage their own affairs; as indeed were all nonwhite races (Chamberlain 32). Rule with such an ideological basis was autocratic and could hardly be anything else, if it was not to call itself into question. Indian princely courts became less and less important as markets for luxury goods, whereas the new Bengal bourgeoisie came to prefer English to Indian cloth. The result was large scale destruction of Indian hand weaving. As the governor-general emphatically put it in his oft-cited report of 1834-1835: “The bones of the cotton-weavers are bleaching the plains of India” (Baumgart 56). Although this was at first only true of the coastal regions and Bengal, the construction of railways after 1850 opened the interior to British imports and caused the inland weavers grave difficulties.

“Distance” had to be maintained between ruler and ruled, and distance became one of the earmarks of British ruling style. Speaking polemically but with inherent justice, Nehru compared this attitude with that of an English landed aristocrat managing his estate, exhibiting benevolence toward his tenants and workers and concerned for their material welfare, but taking his superiority and right to do as he pleases as a matter of course (Chamberlain 43). Personal contact remained at a minimum. Recruiting policy also reflected the new need for security. Instead of drawing from Rajputs and Brahmans from Oudh, the other provinces in the northwest, and the Deccan, recruiting shifted to the Punjab, bringing in particularly Sikhs and also Pathans and Gurkhas from independent Nepal. In 1930 62 percent of the army was still from the Punjab (Baumgart 61).

The important Brahman caste was effectively neutralized as a possible source of religious-political opposition, and the peasant masses were never offered any provocation which might have simplified nationalist agitation in the countryside. The new educated class faced a dilemma (Chandra 39). They could indeed accept the critical British appraisals of obsolete Hindu institutions and tabus; and some native reformers did in fact demand or at least accept reform legislation. On the other hand, they thought it incumbent upon themselves to defend the civilization bequeathed them against inroads by the colonial power (Gillard 72). A good part of the new leading class anyway was from the ruling castes and was hardly enough of one mind to band together in support of reform laws, to say nothing of acting against the dictates of their castes (Darby 99).

Forced Westernization through technology, schools, and English law, in combination with measures against the native ruling class, had not anchored British rule and brought the colonial power the support of the masses. The change of course after 1857 thus implied future reliance on “natural leaders,” meaning the traditional ruling class, either by conceding their existing positions of power or by granting new privileges (Darby 44). By demonstrating a painstaking regard for their interests, the colonial power hoped. For the moment, only the princely states will be considered in this regard. Dalhousie’s policy of annexation had driven them into revolt, and some of the princes, having played leading roles, had to be defeated in the field. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, the English forswore further annexations. In the Royal Message of 1858, it was stated that the British “desire no extension of [our] present territorial possession and would respect the rights, dignity and honour of the native princes as our own” (Darby 87).

Only World War I changed the situation. Hundreds of thousands of Indians were recruited and sent to the war zones of Europe and the Near East, and Indians received commissions in the army and air force (Chamberlain 33). During the interwar period, Sandhurst was opened to Indian officer candidates. The schemes have got to be carried out in their entirety, with the view to eventual self-government, or else we must return to the old method of ruling India with the sword. In practice the opposition of the British officer corps, supported by retired officers in England, was difficult to overcome (Chamberlain 34). The prospect of having to obey Indian superiors was simply intolerable; by extension, it was also argued that the “martial races” like the Sikhs would regard Indian officers from Bengal as a bit much. Accordingly, from 1923 on, completely Indian units were formed. This opened England to the nationalist reproach of inaugurating a policy of segregation. Slow Indianization, expensive British officers, and other defense costs in the Indian budget were, in any case, already irritants. World War II pushed Indianization forward rapidly, so that by 1947 a qualified officer corps was available to both India and Pakistan. During the bloody weeks of the partition the Indian officer corps kept its head well enough, a success some booked to Sandhurst. The independence movement in 1947 brought independence to India and marked a new stage in its historical development.


In sum, British rule changed political and social system of India and divided the country. States and territories, large and small, that had come under British rule during the expansionist phase as a result of protectorate and subsidiary treaties, retained the same status. British rule brought sufferings and racial envy to India, ruined its natural beauty and cultural identity, national traditions and unity. Western civilization forced Indians to break with its own culture and society. The Liberal reform and annexation policy did more than estrange the ruling classes and orthodox Brahmin circles. It also allowed the impression to arise that England had declared all-out war on the Hindu religious and social order and intended to uproot any developing Indian local or national feeling

Works Cited

Baumgart, W. Imperialism: The Idea and Reality of British and French Colonial Expansion 1880-1914, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Beloff, Max Imperial Sunset, vol. 1, Britain’s Liberal Empire 1897-1921, London: Methuen, 1969.

Chamberlain, M.E. Britain and India: An Interaction of Two Peoples, Newton Abbot: David & Charles, 1974.

Chandra, Bipan The Rise and Growth of Economic Nationalism in India, New Delhi: People’s Publishing House, 1966.

Darby, Philip Three Faces of Imperialism: British and American Approaches to Asia and Africa 1871-1970, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987.

Gillard, D.R. The Struggle for Asia: A Study in British and Russian Imperialism, London: Methuen, 1977.

Ingram, Edward. The Beginning of the Great Game in Asia 1828-1834, Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Hobsbawm, E. Industry and Empire, London: Penguin, 1981.

Hoskins, H.L. British Routes to India, London: Frank Cass, 1966.

Percival Spear, India: A Modern History. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1972.