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India’s gain from British India

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    India’s History & Culture: Creating a nation
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    27th Nov, 2021
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India’s gains from British Rule

The debate about British rule in India

  • The rule of the British in India is possibly the most controversial and the most hotly debated aspect of the history of the British empire.
  • Admirers of British rule point to the economic developments, the legal and administrative system, and the fact that India became the center of world politics.
  • Critics of British rule generally point out that all of these benefits went to a tiny British ruling class and the majority of Indians gained little.
  • Recent research by economic historians suggests that the British Raj was not an unmitigated disaster for India, as it was thought to be by earlier historians and economists.
  • While colonial rule in India had harmful aspects, such as the low provision of public goods, it also helped galvanize Indian industry, making the country a vital part of global supply chains.
  • In this article we shall focus more and identify the gains from British raj in India.

Gains from British rule in India:

  • The biggest gain from British rule was the economic, political and social integration of India and the rise of Nationalism in the country.
  • British rule also highlighted the deep rooted social evils in the Indian subcontinent.
  • The gains from British rule can be divided into Social and Cultural gains, Economic Gains, Legal and Administrative gains and lastly gains in Modern Infrastructure.

Social and Cultural gains

  • Till early 19th century, the British followed a policy of non-interference in the social and cultural life of the Indians.
  • But the influence of British rule in economy and polity did have an impact on the social fabric of India in fields like - Education, Status of Women, and various social practices.
  • Education:
    • Initially, the East India Company did not think that it was its duty to impart education to Indians..
    • Around the beginning of the 19th century, the Company became aware of the need for introducing Western education in India.
    • The Charter Act of 1813 directed the Company to spend one lakh rupees on the education of Indians.
    • Gradually, western education in the English medium was introduced and propagated throughout the country.
    • Though access to Education was very limited, British education policy did create a cadre of well educated youth.
    • These educated personalities later became the flag bearers of India’s independence movement and nation building after independence
  • Social reforms:
    • The demand for social and religious reform that manifested itself in the early decades of the 19th century partly arose as a response to Western education and culture.
    • India’s contact with the West made educated Indians realise that socio-religious reform was a prerequisite for the all-round development of the country.
    • Educated Indians like Raja Rammohan Roy worked systematically to eradicate social evils.
    • In 1829, Sati or the practice of burning a widow with her dead husband was made illegal or punishable by law. Earlier, female infanticide was banned.
    • With Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar’s assistance, the Widow Remarriage Act was passed by Lord Dalhousie in 1856.
  • Rediscovery of India’s past by the British:
    • In order to rule India effectively, an understanding of her past traditions and culture was required.
    • Many European scholars and government employees became increasingly interested in Indian languages.
    • William Jones founded the Asiatic Society in Bengal. Jones himself was a great scholar of Sanskrit.
    • The Archaeological Survey of India was set up due to the efforts of Alexander Cunningham and John Marshall.
    • James Princep deciphered the Ashokan inscriptions which were written in Brahmi.
    • India’s rich and glorious history, as revealed by Western scholars, helped Indians to regain their lost pride and confidence and contributed to the development of nationalism.

Economic gains

  • Commercialization of agriculture
    • Till the end of the first half of the 19th century, the Indian village was essentially self-sufficient.
    • It had hardly any contact with the world outside except for the occasional visits of the grain or cloth merchant who carried the surplus of one village to make good the deficiency of another.
    • Commercialization of agriculture in India became prominent around 1860 A.D. The first wave of commercial agriculture was driven largely by Indigo and Opium.
    • However, after 1860, their importance fell and the next, major wave of commercialization came from cotton, wheat, sugarcane, tobacco, and oilseeds.
    • Cash transactions became the basis of exchange and largely replaced the barter system, thereby disturbing the traditional self-sufficient village economy of India.
    • Development of Irrigation: From the late nineteenth century, major new constructions were undertaken by the British, which consisted of canals taken out of perennial rivers (in Punjab, Sind, and United Provinces), and weirs constructed on major rivers in South India.
    • While commercialization of agriculture had positive impact on agricultural productivity in India, it also had great negative effects - like increased frequency of famines, worsening condition of peasants and agriculture labourers etc.
  • Development of Modern Industry
    • India had never been an industrial country in the modern sense of the term.
    • A history of modern Indian large scale private industry between 1850 and 1914 is associated with the developments in mainly plantations like jute, cotton, and steel. There was also a limited development of mining, especially coal.
    • The foundations of the cotton textile industry were laid also during the early 1850s. Though the jute industry was dominated by the foreigners, the cotton industry was shaped and cared for by the natives, mainly the Parsee entrepreneurs.
    • Some abortive attempts were made by the East India Company in the 19th century to develop the iron and steel industry.
    • Between 1880 and 1914 large scale industrial output grew at the rate of 4%-5%. Per annum. — a rate of growth that is comparable to other contemporary countries of the world.
    • In spite of inadequacy of domestic demand and high production costs, industries like woollen mills, breweries, and paper making industries made significant progress during this time.
    • Although India had begun to modernise her industries, it can hardly be said that she was as yet being industrialised.
  • Development of new cities
    • British planning for Indian cities laboured under serious internal contradictions.
    • As a colonial power, Britain ruled India primarily for its own benefit; at the same time, it had to address all the usual issues of urban governance, such as control of space, provision of water, sewerage, roads, street lighting and police.
    • British planning bequeathed to India enduring legacies in urban architecture, physical planning, and the administrative mechanisms of governance.
    • Cities of Bombay, Calcutta, and Madras are an enduring evidence of the gains.

 Excerpt from Dadabhai Naoroji’s The Benefits of British Rule, 1871

In the Cause of Humanity: Abolition of suttee and infanticide. Destruction of Dacoits, Thugs, Pindarees, and other such pests of Indian society. Allowing remarriage of Hindu widows, and charitable aid in times of famine. Glorious work all this, of which any nation may well be proud, and such as has not fallen to a lot of any people in the history of mankind.

In the Cause of Civilization: Education, both male and female. Though yet only partial, an inestimable blessing as far as it has gone, and leading gradually to the destruction of superstition, and many moral and social evils. Resuscitation of India's own noble literature, modified and refined by the enlightenment of the West.

Politically: Peace and order. Freedom of speech and liberty of the press. Higher political knowledge and aspirations. Improvement of government in the native states. Security of life and property. Freedom from oppression caused by the caprice or greed of despotic rulers, and from devastation by war. Equal justice between man and man (sometimes vitiated by partiality to Europeans). Services of highly educated administrators, who have achieved the above-mentioned results.

Materially: Loans for railways and irrigation. Development of a few valuable products, such as indigo, tea, coffee, silk, etc. Increase in exports. Telegraphs.

Generally: A slowly growing desire of late to treat India equitably, and as a country held in trust. Good intentions. No nation on the face of the earth has ever had the opportunity of achieving such a glorious work as this. I hope in the credit side of the account I have done no injustice, and if I have omitted any item which anyone may think of importance, I shall have the greatest pleasure in inserting it. I appreciate, and so do my countrymen, what England has done for India, and I know that it is only in British hands that her regeneration can be accomplished. Now for the debit side.

Rise of Middle Class and free Press:

  • The Western Education introduced by Britishers led to the formation of a new, learned middle class in India.
  • The Middle class gave India its greatest leaders like Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Dadabhai Naroji, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Subhash Chandra Bose and Jawahar Lal Nehru.
  • They worked to eliminate social evils in the country, establishing better economic and political systems and providing citizens of India the rights that they deserved.
  • The rise of the press in India also came from this Middle class.
  • Despite various restrictions by colonial rulers like the Vernacular press Act, 1878, India Press act 1910, the native press grew and played a crucial role in generating awareness among the masses about British policies and their impact.
  • The first newspaper in India was started by James Augustus Hickey in 1780, named ‘The Bengal Gazette’ or Calcutta General Adviser.

Legal and Administrative machinery

  • Britishers introduced the system of judiciary, supreme court and Criminal Procedure Code and Indian Penal code. Our modern judiciary is dependent on these statutes and the framework. In fact many nationalists of the independence era used to be lawyers.
  • Introduced bureaucracy and competitive exams for entrance with age limits. By 1947, many Indians had entered the covenanted Indian Civil Services and the structure was retained. Even today it is the steel frame of administration.
  • The system of file, noting, drafting and the Official Secrets Act exist today. They however focused on revenue collection and maintenance of law and order but not welfare.
  • We borrowed the idea of parliamentary democracy, legislative sovereignty and other features from their Westminster model. But during the British period, Indian participation was limited in legislatures due to limited franchise.
  • Introduction of modern financial institutions of banking and life insurance were largely based on foreign capital, though gradually Indian capital also made its way.
  • Census, training and maintenance of a well-disciplined army, income tax, are some other contributions.

Modern infrastructure

  • At independence in 1947, the most tangible legacy of British rule in India was the modern infrastructure that the regime had left behind, built to a large extent with British expertise.
  • Up to the middle of the 19th century, the means of transport in India were backward. They were confined to bullock-cart, camel, and packhorse.
  • The British rulers soon realized that a cheap and easy system of transport was a necessity if British manufactures were to flow into India on a large scale and her raw materials secured for British industries.
  • The British rulers introduced steamships on the rivers and set about improving the roads.
  • Development of Railways:
    • The first railway line running from Bombay to Thane was opened to traffic in 1853. By the end of 1869, more than 4,000 miles of railways had been built.
    • The economic effects of the railways can be classified into two types.
      • First, the railways had significant forward and backward linkages with other sectors of the economy.
      • Second, there was a great reduction in average transportation costs measured in money and time.
    • Reduced food price fluctuation: Railways also facilitated the integration of markets. This is evident from declining regional variability in prices of food grains.
      • Recent research, on the other hand, has attributed the remarkable reduction in the incidence of famine after 1900 to easier interregional crop movements that the railways had made possible.
    • In 1947, the Indian railways were the single largest employer in the organized sector, a distinction maintained today.
  • Roads and Inland Waterways
    • Good and safe roads were scarce in pre-colonial and early colonial India mainly due to limited engineering capability in bridging the numerous rivers.
    • The East India Company restored and constructed some major roads for military purposes
    • Work on the Grand Trunk Road from Calcutta to Delhi began in 1839 and completed in the 1850's. Efforts were also made to link by road the major cities, ports, and markets of the country
    • Even thereafter, roads were a low priority area of government investment. Road length grew at a much slower pace than the railways.
  • Ports
    • India had a long and rich tradition in mercantile marine and shipbuilding.
    • The advent of the Europeans in the Indian Ocean created competition for the Indians in coastal shipping.
    • However, it also stimulated the business of some of the ancient ports like Masulipatnam or Cambay.
    • The final blow to Indian traditional enterprise in ocean shipping came with the displacement of sailing vessels by steamships in the early to mid-nineteenth century.
    • The major ports that carried the bulk of foreign trade in the colonial period were new sites where railways and modern harbors converged, for example, Bombay, Madras, Calcutta, Karachi, and Rangoon.
  • Posts and Telegraph:
    • The British also introduced telegraph and improved postal service.
    • The foundations for a government postal system were in place before 1858, but it became a widely used utility only in the late nineteenth century.
    • This expansion was largely driven by the demand for the services of the post office.
    • Money orders: Migration and money orders had become synonymous. In safety, cost, and wide reach, the postal money order was unprecedented in the history of internal remittance in India.
    • In 1849 the East India Company had decided to construct a telegraph system along the railway lines.
    • From then onward, the commercial uses of the telegraphs began to overwhelm strategic needs, leading to extremely rapid growth in the use of the system.
  • Power
    • Electricity generation in colonial India saw significant private-public coexistence and cooperation.
    • Electricity was first introduced in 1897 by a small firm in the Darjeeling Municipality utilizing a mountain stream.
    • Two other large hydroelectric projects came up before World War I: the Sivasamudram on the Cauvery, erected by the Mysore government, and the Khopoli plant of Tata Electric Power.
    • In the interwar period a large number of hydroelectric and thermal power units were started, many of these in the territories of the princely states.
    • In 1947 the installed capacity stood at 7 million kilowatts.


The impact of British rule was not uniform, and it depended greatly on the nature of institutional arrangements that the British fostered in different areas. Though British rule established various institutions and developed infrastructure, it was mainly for their economic advantage. And with the rise in Indian Nationalism, this faultline in British rule was recognised and protests against the rule began.

While the British took a lot from India materially, it left India with a functioning democracy and great leaders who could guide India to a new future.

Dadabhai Naroji, in his book The Benefits of British Rule, 1871 wrote:

To sum up the whole, the British rule has been: morally, a great blessing; politically, peace and order on one hand, blunders on the other; materially, impoverishment, relieved as far as the railway and other loans go. The natives call the British system "Sakar ki Churi," the knife of sugar. That is to say, there is no oppression, it is all smooth and sweet, but it is the knife, notwithstanding. I mention this that you should know these feelings. Our great misfortune is that you do not know our wants. When you will know our real wishes, I have not the least doubt that you would do justice. The genius and spirit of the British people is fair play and justice.

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