Taking an objective view of the Raj

Uday Balakrishnan | Updated on January 12, 2018 Published on June 27, 2017

Just a few conquerors? We must look at history without bias

Let’s admit this: the British propelled an India steeped in medievalism into the modern age

June is a month of anniversaries. Indira Gandhi’s infamous Emergency was declared 42 years ago, on a June 25. Long before that, on June 23, 1757, Robert Clive famously defeated the forces of Siraj ud-Daulah, the last Nawab of Bengal, on a slushy battlefield at Plassey, about 150 kilometres north of present-day Kolkata.

Of the two events, the British victory at Plassey is historically the more important as it marked the big push to gain control of all of India, directly leading to the creation of the independent Indian state.

No conquest of our country was more systematic, or more comprehensive. The British eliminated the French as a force in India by 1763. The four wars against Hyder Ali and his son Tippu Sultan — the last ended in the defeat and death of Tippu at Srirangapatnam in 1799 — secured South India for them. The three Anglo Maratha wars, fought between 1775 and 1849, ended the most powerful challenge to British expansion and control of India, while their victories in the two Anglo Sikh wars wrapped up their conquest of the country by 1849.

Era of darkness

The great Indian revolt of 1857 — not quite the first war of independence we make it out to be — which spread across much of North India, was crushed by the British in about a year and a half. In the almost 90 years after that, the British aggregated an India which Gandhi and Nehru could later fight to liberate. We also need to give credit to the British for the audacious manner in which they accurately mapped India, penetrated and harried secretive Tibet and advantageously fixed our northern borders, which we so vigorously defend against China today.

Nevertheless, most Indians view British rule of India as an unmitigated disaster. Gandhi was one of its severest critics while more contemporary writers such as Shashi Tharoor see the period as an era of darkness, rotten and unremittingly exploitative to the last. So, was it as bad as it has been made out to be?

In the brutal aftermath of the 1857 rebellion, the British conducted grisly mass public executions of those who went against them. Famines in British India killed an estimated 50 million people. In the last of these in 1943 more than three million starved to death in Bengal — Madhushree Mukherjee attributes this to British callousness in her well-researched book, Churchill’s Secret War. Certainly, British rule was terrible in parts but it had its brilliant side too.

Closing in on 70 years of our independence we surely can now acknowledge what we always accepted in private, that but for British rule, the free India we are citizens of today, might never have been. Our former Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh sensibly broke rank to openly accept that the British contributed to “the idea of India as an inclusive and plural society and the experiment of building a democracy within the framework of a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi lingual and multi religious society.” It is not an accident that our Constitution is an intelligently tweaked version of the Government of India Act of 1935 passed by the British Parliament.

Connecting India

The British created inexpensive and reliable communication systems such as the posts and telegraphs, which connected all of India while also linking Indians to the rest of the world. By the early 1900s, India also had one of the most extensive railway networks in the world, thanks to a perspective plan drawn in the mid-1800s that was actually implemented. A recent award-winning study by Dave Donaldson, formerly of LSE, established how the railways in India contributed significantly to boosting the Indian economy by penetrating ‘inland districts bringing them out of near-autarky and connecting them to with the rest of India and the world.’

Were these infrastructure projects way too expensive? One should think not, considering how much similar projects have cost since independence. The cost of the Udhampur Srinagar, Baramulla line for instance has escalated from an estimated ₹111 crore to over ₹2,371 crore by 2015 while the Jirbam-Imphal line has shot up from ₹727 crore to more than ₹6,500 crore. The recently completed Bangalore metro ended up costing more than twice what was estimated and went way beyond predetermined time frames to complete.

Angus Maddison is India’s favourite economic historian, not the least because he established that the Indian economy went from being one of the top performers in the world to becoming one of the worst under British rule. But he also highlighted the positive contributions of British rule in India.

As he put it, ‘They replaced the wasteful warlord aristocracy by a bureaucratic-military establishment, carefully designed by utilitarian technocrats, which was very efficient in maintaining law and order,’ adding that the ‘greater efficiency of government permitted a substantial reduction in the fiscal burden.’

The much-maligned administrative, police and intelligence systems as well as the modern Indian armed forces developed by the British created a secure environment, which made day-to-day life for the common man, much less uncertain than ever before in our history.

Take an objective look

Eventually, these systems of control, in place to this day, provided the secure environment that enabled institutions such as the iconic Thomson College of Civil Engineering (thoughtlessly renamed, IIT Roorkee) and the Indian Institute of Science, to name a few, to come up, and for a Rabindranath Tagore or CV Raman to make his mark on a global stage.

It will come as a surprise to us that the same Angus Maddison we love also established that land tax in India, contrary to what was generally accepted, had actually come down under the British who, as he states, ‘had inherited the Moghul tax system, which provided land revenue equal to 15 per cent of national income, but by the end of the colonial period land tax was only 1 per cent of national income and the total tax burden was only 6 per cent. “It is curious,” he adds, ‘that this large reduction in the fiscal burden has passed almost without comment in the literature on Indian economic history.’

Two hundred years after Plassey, it is time that we took a colder and more objective look of our time as a colony under the British. While they fully deserve to be condemned for the gross human right violations they perpetrated through their rule, we also must accept that the British frogmarched an India steeped in medievalism, into the modern age, wonderfully well.

The writer is a visiting faculty at the Centre for Contemporary Studies, IISc Bangalore

Published on June 27, 2017
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