Over the past two weeks, the United Kingdom has been mourning the death of Queen Elizabeth II – the 96-year-old monarch who was in the throne for nearly 70 years. Thousands of people in London joined long queues to take a look at her coffin and more around the world watched the funeral through television. Leaders of several countries, including India, travelled to the UK to pay tributes to the Queen.
While her death marked the end of an era, it also restarted conversations on the role of colonialism and monarchy in today’s society.
In a ceremonial coincidence, Prime Minister Narendra Modi on September 8 - the day of the Queen’s death - inaugurated the Kartavya Path, the stretch of road from Rashtrapati Bhavan to India Gate earlier known as Rajpath.
Rajpath, called Kingsway before Independence, was the central axis leading to the Raisina Hill Complex inaugurated by King George V and Queen Consort Mary in 1911 in the new capital Delhi, shifted from Calcutta.
Inaugurating the Kartavya Path, Modi said, “Rajpath was for the British for whom the people of India were slaves. It was a symbol of colonialism. Now, its architecture has changed, and its spirit has also changed.”
India, along with other colonies of the British, still carries traces of colonisation that shaped the country to what it is now - in both good and bad ways. In today’s #ClasseswithNews18, let’s take a look at the history of British colonisation of India.
Trading Company to Colonial Power
It all started with the arrival of the East India Company, a trade company, in the 17th century in Bengal. Slowly through the second half of the 1600s, the East India Company strengthened its business and power by acquiring trade concessions and land from the Mughal emperor Aurangazeb.
A turning point for the East India Company was the Battle of Plassey, in which the Company won against the Nawab of Bengal. By 1770s, the Company had developed hostilities with the Nawab and gathered enough power to interfere in internal affairs of Indian states. They tried to decide who was to be the successor to the throne, and who was to be appointed in administrative posts.
From this time on, the East India Company began collecting taxes in India, and then used a portion of those revenues to fund the purchase of Indian goods for British use. Therefore, the British had essentially “bought” from peasants and weavers using money collected from them. Around 1770 is also when the British Parliament began regulating the East India Company through successive India Acts, bringing Bengal under the indirect control of the British government.
Through the next eight decades, especially since the early 1800s, the Company pursued an aggressive policy of territorial expansion going beyond Bengal to Bombay and Madras. Under Lord Warren Hastings (Governor General from 1813 to 1823) a new policy of “paramountcy” was initiated. Now the Company claimed that its authority was paramount or supreme, hence its power was greater than that of Indian states.
By 1857, the Company came to exercise direct rule over about 63 per cent of the territory and 78 per cent of the population of the Indian subcontinent. This was when the East India Company’s own army, mainly comprising Indians, led an uprising against it — known as the Indian Mutiny or the First War of Indian independence. The uprising was unsuccessful following which the British Crown took over governing India from the East India Company until India’s independence.
A recent research by renowned economist Utsa Patnaik estimated that Britain drained a total of nearly $45 trillion from India during the period 1765 to 1938.
British Governance & Societal Impact
In 1858 the British government took over rule of India, with power in the hands of the British Parliament. From then on, till 1914, England firmly established its rule over the country.
A member of the British Cabinet was appointed Secretary of State for India and made responsible for all matters related to the governance of India. He was given a council to advise him, called the India Council. The governor-general or viceroy, headquartered in Calcutta, ran the administration in India, assisted by executive and legislative councils. The governors were appointed by the King of England and responsible to Parliament.
The British Raj also exerted a great influence around religion and strengthened the oppressive caste system, as noted by experts. The British government did not bother to intervene in what they considered to be an ancient social system of bias and injustice. Historians believe that the British, seeing Hindus and Muslims fight together in the 1857 Indian Mutiny, sought to bring about a divide and rule policy along religious lines.
The Arms Act was passed in 1878, disallowing Indians from possessing arms. In the same year the Vernacular Press Act was also enacted in an effort to silence those who were critical of the government.
Laws such as these stoked the dissatisfaction with British rule 1870s and 1880s, which was when there was an emergence of nationalism. In 1885, the Congress party was formed under the leadership of Dadabhai Naoroji, Pherozeshah Mehta, Badruddin Tyabji, W.C. Bonnerji, Surendranath Banerji, Romesh Chandra Dutt, S. Subramania Iyer, among others.
The British wanted to “civilize” the nation through formal education. From the early 19th century, many from different parts of India urged the British to open more schools and colleges.
According to Kanika Bansal, a historian, the foundations were laid by the East India Company and the Christian Missionaries to employ Indians for administrative tasks as well as to serve their political, economical and colonial interests.
Access to education was limited to the royal families and later, Brahmins. Congress leader and author Shashi Tharoor noted that the British taught English to only a narrow stratum of Indian society which they could use to enhance their control of India.
Gradually, education spread from elementary to higher levels. Universities were established in Madras and Calcutta. In 1870, the opening of Mahindra College was the first degree college in a city. This was the same year when the Education Act was passed, necessitating government to open schools.
However, it is important to note that education continued to be a barrier for women and lower caste children. Indian leaders such as Rammohan Roy, Jyotirao & Savitribai Phule, and E V Ramaswamy initiated anti-caste movements and sought to educate underprivileged.
All aspects of India’s politics and freedom struggle gained massive momentum since 1915, when Mahatma Gandhi emerged as a leader. The prestigious and bloody independence struggle is beyond the scope of this article.
British Raj’s Plunder
Economist Patnaik’s research says that during the entire 200-year history of British rule in India, there was almost no increase in per capita income. Moreover, in the first half of the 19th century (1800-1850) income in India collapsed by half.
From 1870 to 1920, the average life expectancy of Indians dropped by a fifth. British Raj’s policies induced horrific famines in which tens of millions of people died. Not to forget the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in Amritsar, described as one the greatest atrocities of the British, when Acting Brigadier-General Reginald on April 13, 1919 ordered firing into a crowd of unarmed civilians, killing at least 400.
If a weighing scale was used to assess the British’s benevolence to India in strengthening education, infrastructure, legal system as against the losses to India, it is safe to say that the scale will tilt on the side of plunder and damages.
To learn about other topics taught in school, explained by News18, here is a list of other Classes With News18: Queries Related to Chapters on Elections | Sex Versus Gender | Cryptocurrencies | Economy & Banks | How to Become President of India | Post Independence Struggle | How India Adopted Its Flag | Formation of States & United India | Tipu Sultan | Indian Teachers Day Different from Rest of the World | Journey of Kohinoor |