India, Imperial

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India, Imperial

British influence in India came to a head with the transfer of power from the English East India Company (EIC) into the hands of the British government in 1773 as the British Government extended political, social, and economic influence in the region. Thus began the period referred to as the "British Raj" when the government created a British state on the Indian subcontinent by subjugating the princes of smaller states around the region.

India was known as "the jewel in the crown" of the British Empire because of its rich natural resources and long-established trading posts. Although Queen Victoria (1819–1901) promised equality to India according to British law, the circumstances leading up to the Indian Revolt of 1857 (the Sepoy Rebellion) brought to the foreground a distrust of the British in the Indian consciousness.

Prior to the end of EIC rule, Indian industrialists were required to pay extremely high taxes and to sell their goods only to the EIC at low fixed prices. British manufacturers, beneficiaries of the Industrial Revolution, began to produce and export textiles for the vast Indian market. Indian manufacturers, excessively taxed and regulated, were unable to compete with the new industries in Manchester and Birmingham and were squeezed out of business. By 1867 India imported £21 million (British pounds) of goods from Britain (by comparison, Australia imported £8 million that same year). The collapse of the Indian middle class and the increasing unemployment of skilled artisans and textile workers spread discontent among more and more Indians. New British institutions for administration and planning were met with suspicion by many Indians as further means of controlling and subverting the native social order. The isolation of peasants in their already isolated rural communities, in addition to the British ignoring the concerns of Indian soldiers who served them, fostered an environment conducive to mass resistance.

The 1857 revolt of Indian soldiers known as sepoys is referred to as the First War of Indian Independence in South Asia because it marked the solidification of resentment against British socioeconomic policies. The rebellion was sparked when the Indian soldiers, who were vegetarians by religion, objected to the use of animal fat to grease the shells of gun cartridges. The issues surrounding the gun cartridges were one example of how sepoys felt the British were ignoring Muslim or Hindu custom. This, in addition to poor pay and the rise of British presence against local princes, increased the tension between the two groups. Through a series of political maneuverings in which the British obtained the territories of princes who did not have male heirs, the British Crown solidified its power and presence in the subcontinent. The harsh policies of Governor-General James Ramsay Dalhousie (1812–1860) would prove symptomatic of many of the viceroys and British authorities intervening in India. Their heavy-handed tactics resulted in violence, which would spark a nationalist consciousness among Indians and lead to the promotion of self-governance.

Native states and territories were quickly overcome by the British strategies to divide and rule. In the case of the Mughal Empire, the British strategically pitted local interests against one another, and ensured that princes were focused on their particular provinces rather than larger regional influences. In the state of Mysore, for example, the British capitalized on internal civil strife to gain complete control. The reduction of provinces into British territories rankled Indian nationalists, who felt that many European practices, including Christianity, were eroding traditional Indian culture. The British wrote laws to counter cultural practices that were seen as Westernizing movements against Indian culture. Child marriage, sati, and female infanticide were all practices with which the British became intrusive social reformers, which in turn increased the resentment against imperial presence and fears of cultural erosion.

The introduction of the Indian Civil Service (1886) was a strategy by the British to ensure domination through control of those serving in political and professional positions in India. The ICS was also a means of managing the vast empire. The government in Calcutta housed the viceroy and governor-generals, who supervised local officials. The most coveted positions, salaries, and opportunities were reserved for British-born officials, causing many to view India as a place to establish and further their careers. Ironically, it was a former member of the Indian civil service, the Scotsman Allan Octavian Hume (1829–1912), who in 1885 established the Indian National Congress, a political party that led the movement for independence.

By 1861, small measures ensured that Indians gained a presence in the electoral process, as well as access to the viceroy. These changes would prove significant when the question of independence was addressed directly. However, in 1877 Queen Victoria was named empress of India, underscoring British reluctance to entirely relinquish control of India. The Morley-Minto Reforms, also known as the Government of India Act of 1909, granted Indians the right to fill elected positions in government. Although few Indians were elected, the opportunity to be voted into office and the ability to influence the legislative process helped the Indian population establish a level of comfort with parliamentary action.

Education also proved to be a key element in preparing a class of bureaucrats and officials to govern the country. Government-established colleges and universities allowed the upper-middle class access to European thought and culture. Through the education and promotion of a native class of bureaucrats, the impression that sovereignty would eventually be granted became commonplace among Indians, even though most British rejected this notion. Increasingly at the local level the number of Indians interested in politics exceeded that of the officially selected representatives, but without an eye for the interplay between the elite upper-class elected officials and the much larger number of constituents, the British Raj was not interested in representation in Indian politics. Decisions continued to be made in the London-based Parliament and through British-appointed viceroys in order to ensure the interests of the Crown over that of the population.

The partition of Bengal, which lasted from 1905 to 1911, established two important precedents that would become central in India's struggle for freedom. First, the establishment of East Bengal was opposed by much of the population and helped arouse a collective national consciousness. Second, the Muslim majority that was created in East Bengal would later mimic the division within the independence movement, eventually causing many to advocate the creation of a separate Muslim state.

Britain granted more concessions when India proved to be a valuable contributor to Britain's effort during World War I (1914–1918). As the war continued, nationalist sentiment within India grew. Indian soldiers, specifically Sikhs and Gurkhas, distinguished themselves in service during the war, and they expected the furtherance of their requests for autonomy after the war ended. Assurances were given with the Montagu Declaration (1917) and later in the Montagu-Chelmsford Report (1918) that Indian self-rule was a possibility.

With the Government of India Act of 1919, Indians were legally incorporated into every aspect of government at the provincial level. These partial concessions continued to encourage confidence among Indians in their ability to rule themselves. Yet their aspirations remained unfulfilled because the viceroy and other British officials were still beholden only to London, a situation that would continue to rankle until the fight for freedom began in earnest.

The passing of the Rowlett Act in 1919 ensured that the British could deal with freedom fighters as they saw fit, a development that proved pivotal in generating nationalist sentiment. In April 1919, 379 people were killed and 1,200 injured when police fired 1,650 rounds of ammunition into an unarmed crowd of approximately ten thousand people who had gathered in Amritsar, a park in Jalianwala Bagh, to peaceably protest the Rowlett Act. The event became a symbol for the nation of British willingness to abuse power and of the injustice of colonial rule.

The 1930s saw much debate in England in both the houses of Parliament over the status of India and its potential liberation; formal meetings were held from 1930 to 1932 to discuss the issue of Indian self-rule. These meetings comprised the three roundtables called by the British government to examine the formation of an Indian constitution. The first, which began in 1930, had 73 representatives from all states and parties but for the Indian National Congress party, which was in the midst of the civil disobedience movement. The second roundtable had Ghandi as the representative of the Congress party but no consensus was reached on any of the issues. The third roundtable in 1932 was the least successful and shortest; neither the British Labour party nor the Indian National Congress attended. The outcome of the three conferences, however, resulted in the Government of India Act of 1935. This act legalized creation of provincial governments where locals created policies. Additionally Indians were allowed to be elected to national legislative offices in Delhi. This was the last pre-independence act of the British government. With its passing India was being prepared for dominion rule, which was thought to satisfy Indians as well as the conservatives in Britain.

Jawaharlal Nehru (1889–1964) and Mohandas Gandhi (1869–1948) emerged as the first elected leaders in 1937. Muhammad Ali Jinnah (1876–1948), who would later provide leadership for the Muslim minority in the pursuit of a sovereign Muslim state, also emerged at this time. The rise of nationalism and the road to independence occurred as the British attempted to exert more power and influence over the subcontinent, while increasingly depending upon Indians for commerce, trade, and the army.

see also Indian Revolt of 1857; Sepoy.


Blyth, Robert J. The Empire of the Raj: India, Eastern Africa, and the Middle East, 1858–1947. Basingstoke, U.K., and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.

Buettner, Elizabeth. Empire Families: Britons and Late Imperial India. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Chandavarkar, Rajnarayan. Imperial Power and Popular Politics: Class Resistance and the State in India, c. 1850–1950. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.