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The British Raj and the Road to Independence

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Categories: India’s History & Culture: Creating a nation, Published: 30th Sep, 2021


India, often known as "THE GOLDEN BIRD" or "QUEEN’S NECKLACE," was one of the most important colonies of British Empire. As India was politically, socially, and economically distinct from the rest of the British empire's colonies, British policies in India differed from those in other colonies. When British settlers arrived in India in the early 17th century, they surprisingly discovered that India was economically prosperous and self-sufficient, unlike the British colonies of Australia and Canada.

Although the British came to India arguably as traders, the disintegration of the Mughal Empire and the fragmentation of politics changed the very nature of the British presence in India. The British Conquest and Treaty of Subsidiary Alliance helped the British to consolidate their authority, and by the second decade of the 19th century, British power in India was well established. 

Indians, on the other hand, were dissatisfied with the British's exploitative policies. Initially, they protested against British policies in a disorganized manner through the Peasant, Tribal, and Civilian Movement. However, the failure of the unorganized method persuaded Indians of the effectiveness of Organized Resistance. As a result, in the first half of the 20th century, India witnessed a number of organized violent as well as non-violent movements for liberating the mother India from the clutches of colonialism. In 1947 the British withdrew from the India and British India was partitioned into two independent countries –

  • India
  • Pakistan

Partition, colonial hand that wrought Partition, left an indelible mark in hearts and memories across the subcontinent. Around 2 million people left their ancestral home and fled to areas of Pakistan or India. It resulted in emotional outburst with about two million killed in the most brutal ways, an estimated 1,00,000 women kidnapped and raped, and more than 15 million men, women and children displaced.

“THE ROAD THROUGH HISTORY is the theme of the document. It aims to concentrate on historical events ranging from the British conquest of India to Indian resistance and final independence from the British Empire.”

Political Structure Prior To Mid-18th Century

The mid-18th century India witnessed transformation from Centralized to Fragmented political structure. After Aurangzeb’s death in 1707 AD and that of his weak successor, Bahadur Shah, five years later, the empire of the Great Mughals began to crumble. The devastating raid by Nadir Shah in 1739 prove to be last nail in coffins of Imperial Mughals.

In the 1740s the ambitious Subadars of Bengal, Awadh, Hyderabad and Carnatic had become to all intents and purposes, independent rulers." Besides, the Maratha, Jats and Sikhs had also set up their own states as challenger to weakened Mughal Empire.

The most important power to rise on the debris of the Mughal empire was that of the Marathas who occupied huge tracts of Mughal territory by 1730, besides holding large areas in central India and the Deccan and forcibly collecting taxes from as far as Orissa.

When Ahmad Shah Abdali invaded India, it was the Marathas and not the forces of the Mughal emperor who opposed him in the third battle of Panipat in 1761. Nevertheless,their defeat dealt a severe blow to their power around the time when victory over Nawab Siraj-ud-daulla of Bengal in the Battle of Plassey in 1757, had given the British their first foothold on power in India.

  • Mahadaji Scindia, an outstanding ruler, briefly revived Maratha power in the 1770s and 1780s and was even acknowledged as the protector of the Mughal emperor.
  • The British had to defeat, in a series of difficult campaigns during which they also suffered serious reverses, not only the Marathas but also the rulers of Carnatic, Haidar Ali and his son Tipu Sultan, before they could establish their power on a secure basis.
  • The process of expansion, however, continued till the 1850s when, among other kingdoms, Awadh was annexed by Lord Dalhousie.

Administrative Unity under British

Indiahad been united under the Mauryas and the Great Mughals. However, the unity established by the British was, however, qualitatively different. This was due not only to their extremely efficient and centralized administration, but also to the development of modern infrastructure, which became the foundation of a modern state. Though modern infrastructure was built to meet colonial needs, it also contributed to Indian unity and the emergence of nationalism.

The magnitude of the differences can be easily perceived.

  • Maurya and Mughal: Different parts of the Maurya and Mughal empires were connected by waterways and highways.
  • British: The British established a countrywide network of railways which provided for unprecedentedly rapid communication, and the telegraph, enabling almost instantaneous transmission of messages.
    • Meant to facilitate the movement of troops and commerce, both also helped education and ideas to travel to the intellectually stagnant hinterland areas.

The British Bequest

What led to Revolt of 1857?

  • As British power transformed to political power, its exploitative economic policies, expansionary political policy, administrative discriminatory and racist policies, social reformative policies and Military policies increasingly led to discontentment, resistance and Revolt by Indians.
  • Discontent was also growing among the Indian Sepoys of the British Army over overseas service, pay and other issues.
  • What proved to be the last straw was the introduction of new Enfield rifles and its greased cartridges of which had to be bitten off before loading.
  • The word spread that its grease was made of the fat of cows and pigs the consumption of which were forbidden to Hindus and Muslims respectively by their religions.
  • The result was the great uprising of the Sepoys in 1857, which also had considerable popular support, and which has been described as 'the most dramatic instance of traditional India's struggle against foreign rule'.
  • It was the powerful jolt, which shook British power to its foundations and somehow, they saved their British Empire in India

Establishment of the sovereign nation of India (a timeline of events)

  • 1857 – India’s First War of Independence, termed Sepoy Riots by the British was an attempt to unite India against the invading British.
  • 1885 – The Indian National Congress (also known as the Congress Party/INC) was created and became India’s major political party.The party became the Nation’s leader in the Independence Movement in its struggle against the British Empire. On January 26, 1930, the INC declared the independence of India which the British did not recognize.
  • 1915 – Gandhi Ji returned to India and joined the Indian National Congress.
  • 1916 – Lucknow Pact was an agreement reached between the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League.
  • 1919 – The tragic Jallianwala Bagh massacre took place on April 13.
  • 1920 – The Non-Cooperation Movement was a significant phase of the Indian struggle for freedom.
  • Protestors would refuse to buy British goods, adopt the use of local handicrafts, picket liquor shops, and try to uphold the Indian values of honor and integrity.
  • 1935 – The Government of India Act and the creation of a new constitution laid the foundations for the events that would follow in the next decade and thereafter.
  • 1940 – England’s involvement in the Second World War weakened the British Empire.
  • After shaking off the effects of the First World War this war caused the thinning of the British resources and would be significant in deciding India’s future.
  • 1942 – The Quit India movement called for the immediate withdrawal of the British from India and the British responded by putting most of the INC leadership in jail.
  • 1947 – End of British rule and partition of sub-continent into mainly Hindu India and Muslim-majority state of Pakistan.

British System of Education

The system of education the British established during the governor-generalship of Lord William Bentinck (1828-35) and the far-reaching consequences on Indian society, political structure, economy and Nationalism.

The purpose of the system in the words of Thomas Babington Macaulay, Law member in Bentinck's Council, was 'to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions we govern; a class of persons Indian in blood and colour but English in taste, in opinions, in morals and in intelligence.

However, some unintended results followed.

Exposure to the critical methods, rationalism and liberal ideas of the West triggered an intellectual turmoil in the minds of the young, educated class of Indians particularly Bengalis. Simultaneously, the rediscovery of India's glorious ancient history and rich civilization legacy by European orientalists like James Princep, William Jones, Monnier Williams, Max Muller and others, greatly boosted their self-esteem and confidence in their ability.

Two important results followed from this.

Newspapers that created impact on Indian mind

The Indian Mirror, Bengalee, The Hindu, The Tribune, Amrita Bazar Patrika, Bande Mataram and The Mahratta, Kesari, Swadesamitran, Jugantar, Akhbar-i-am,  Sandhya, Swaraj, and Ananda Bazar Patrika, Bangadarshan

1.     Nationalist sentiments:

The first was the emergence of one of the main prerequisites of nationalist sentiments.

Ernest Renan identified it when he said, 'A nation is a soul, a spiritual principle. Only two things, actually, constitute this soul, this spiritual principle.’

  • One is in the past, the other is in the present.
  • One is the possession in common of a rich legacy of remembrances, the other is the actual consent, the drive to live together, the will to continue to value the heritage which all hold in common.

2.     Intellectual ferment

The second outcome of the intellectual ferment created by the introduction of Western education was the Bengal Renaissance of the 19th century characterized by-

  • a brilliant burst of creativity in literature, historical studies, scientific investigations, social criticism and journalism
  • a quickening of intellectual life in some other parts of India

It enhanced the confidence of the Indians and encouraged them to examine the causes of the country's decline into colonial servitude as well as of the stagnation, degradation and intellectual barrenness of their ritual/superstition-plagued life.

It led to the birth of reformist movements like the Brahmo Samaj in Bengal and Arya Samaj in North India.

Brahmo Samaj

  • Established by Raja Rammohun Roy (the founder of modern India), the Brahmo Samaj, which based its creed on the universalist, monist, theist humanism of the Upanishads, was assimilative and inclusive. S
  • Most of the outstanding personalities of the nineteenth-century Bengal Renaissance, including Rabindranath Tagore, came from its fold.

Arya Samaj

  • Unlike the Brahmo Samaj, the Arya Samaj totally rejected the West.
  • Essentially a revivalist movement founded by Swami Dayananda, who was born as Mula Shankar, it believed in the infallibility of the Vedas and was bitterly critical of Islam.
  • It was, however, socially reformist like the Brahmo_ Samaj and opposed the caste system and stood for the emancipation of women.

Other reformist movements

  • There were a number of other reformist movements including the
    • the Prarthana Samaj (a kindred body to the Brahmo Samaj)
    • the Satya Sodhak Sanaaj, established by Jyotirao Phule in Maharashtra
    • the Singh Sabha among the Sikhs
    • the Aligarh movement among Muslims
    • the Rehnumai Mazdeyasan Sabha among the Parsis

Important organizations

The 1870s and 1880s were critical decades. The former saw the emergence of the following important organizations —

  • the Pune Sarvajanik Sabha (1870)
  • the Indian Association (1876) in Calcutta
  • the Madras Mahajan Sabha (1884)
  • the Bombay Presidency Association (1885)
  • Indian National Congress (1885)

Organized Resistance to British Rule

Formation of Political Association

The Revolt of 1857 led to beginning of nationalism in modern sense. It manifested itself in the shape of political associations, culminating in the establishment of India's first all-India political organization, the Indian National Congress, in 1885.

British Rule was contested in the moderate phase (1885-1905) by the ideology of 3P (Prayer, Petition, and Protest), which was further advanced by extremists through the concept of passive resistance and boycott of British goods.

During Gandhian Phase, Mahatma Gandhi challenged the might of British Government through the Ideology of Satyagraha and in the form of Non-Cooperation Movement, Civil Disobedient Movement and Quit India Movement.

Contribution of British Rule

  • British rule contributed to the modernization of India far more fundamentally than the French Revolution and Napoleon did to that of Europe.
  • It also unified the country on a more durable basis than ever before.
  • And it did all this in the 190 years between the Battle of Plassey in 1757, which gave British power its first foothold in India, and Indian Independence in 1947.

Transfer of Power

British began the transfer of power in 1940 via august offer which was further carried forward Crips Mission, Shimla Conference and Cabinet Mission.

On August 15, 1947, the Indian Independence Bill took effect as per the recommendation of Mountbatten plan. It provided for the end of the British rule in India, on August 15, 1947, and India became a free nation with the bifurcation of India and Pakistan.

Partition Horrors

The decision of partition was a painful as India lost its territory and its people to the west and the east and spoiled much of the euphoria of independence. The violence that was released by the decision put Indians against Indians, Hindus and Sikhs against Muslims, with the worst of the horrors seen in Punjab and Bengal — States that were partitioned in the most mindless display of colonial insensitivity.

The scar of partition was not forgotten, but borne with fortitude and a desire to move on from them. Along the way, the two-nation theory based on religion alone that Pakistan’s founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah fought for so bitterly, disintegrated with the creation of Bangladesh in 1971. Other developments have also helped heal the wounds of Partition, not the least, India’s successes over the past three-quarters of a century, including a growing economy, its technological prowess, and as a respected voice on the global stage.

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