British Impact

views updated


BRITISH IMPACT The British impact on Indian civilization began when Great Britain became an intrusive colonial force in India in the middle of the eighteenth century. To arrive at some reasonable indication of the British influence, it must be recognized that this was not a one-way process, but rather a complex interaction of adaptation and appropriation by both civilizations that can never be completely unpacked. There were many areas in which British political power and culture intersected with Indian society in formative ways that became part of the legacy of modern India. These included: the demarcation of the territorial borders of British India; the impact on the economy; the use of English as the medium of instruction in higher education; new urbanization; religious movements; the position of women in civil society; and constitutionalism.

Defining Borders: Territorial Sovereignty

One of the most decisive changes that Great Britain introduced into the Indian subcontinent was its insistence that the British Raj's bureaucracy must exercise its sovereignty up to a clearly defined linear boundary. The external frontiers of India's pre-British Mughal empire were areas of shifting control, buffer zones rather than borders, without the precise definition or demarcation that became the mark of national sovereignty in the nineteenth century. The British always spoke of their "unification" of India from an aggregation of states into a single political unit as their greatest achievement, but this was only made possible by the boundaries that they created for their centralized Raj. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, disputes between India and her neighbors over the boundaries that were created as a result of British rule remain one of the most difficult legacies of British imperialism.

The Economic Impact of Foreign Rule and Free Trade

Although there is no scholarly consensus on the nature of the impact of British rule on India's economy, there is general agreement that the economy, and the population upon which it depended, had been stable for some centuries before the period of British rule, "fluctuating within narrow limits in response to non-economic factors like the level of peace and security and adjusting with ease to limited expansion in demand" (Kumar, p. 35). Few modern historians would dispute that, especially in its early years, British control worked to India's economic disadvantage, as the industrial revolution was transforming England itself from an agricultural economy to the world's leading industrial and military power. With an enormous demand for raw materials and its ability to supply manufactured goods more cheaply and in greater quantity than any other country, Great Britain adopted free trade, without import or export tariffs, and without subsidies, in nineteenth-century India as well as in Great Britain. India's existing industries thus had no protection from British competition, and new ones did not receive the kind of tariff protection that was given new industries elsewhere in the world throughout the nineteenth century. India's already large population, which doubled in the nineteenth century, provided cheap labor for an essentially subsistence economy that gave no encouragement to industrial development, since everything could be imported so cheaply from England without duty. For the advocates of the new British theory of "comparative advantage"—that is, that a country should produce what it can more cheaply than another—this combination of the Indian and English economies seemed a vindication of their ideas. For Indian nationalists, however, it only proved that India was being exploited by the combined political and economic power of British imperialism. In a famous judgment on the British economic impact on India, Karl Marx argued in 1853 that the traditional forms of economic life in India were being destroyed, not by the soldier and the tax collector, but by the steam engine and free trade, thus producing "the only social revolution ever heard of in Asia." Although the British were motivated, he said, by "vile self-interest," they were "the unconscious tool of history in bringing about that revolution" (Marx, pp. 19–20).

English as the Medium of Instruction in Higher Education

One of the most distinctive features of modern India is that English is the language used by most leaders in every field—from journalism to medicine, in the legal system, in higher education, in the higher ranks of the immense bureaucracy, among officers in the armed services, business leaders beyond the local level, and politicians, at least those who aspire to national leadership. The vast majority of India's people, however, can neither read nor speak English. This dominance of English as a medium of communication had its origin in a number of conflicting pressures on the British East India Company's government in India. The precipitating pressure for the government's involvement came in a clause in the Parliamentary act of 1813, renewing the East India Company's charter, that £10,000 a year should be spent by the Company for "the encouragement of the learned natives of India" for "the improvement of literature" and for "the promotion of the knowledge of the sciences." The sum was piddling, but it became central to a great controversy that is still of vital concern in modern India, namely, what should be the primary language of higher education, English or Sanskrit? A number of the company's officials, known as "Orientalists," argued in favor of promoting the traditional cultures of Hinduism and Islam through their respective classical languages, Sanskrit and Arabic. In the other camp were the "Anglicists," who argued that what India needed most was the teaching of English and modern scientific subjects. They were a varied lot; they included some officials who viewed the Indians who had learned English as a cheap source of tax collectors and other minor bureaucrats needed to run the expanding government. The most potent argument for English came, however, from members of India's own upper classes, who saw the English language as the key that would put the learning of the West at their disposal. In 1835 the decision was made that all government expenditures on higher education would go to institutions that taught through the medium of English.

The impact of English as the medium of instruction has been enormous. It undoubtedly delayed the development of Indian languages, but those Indians who mastered English were in a position to claim the leadership of India. Eventually, those fluent and educated in English could gain positions of influence throughout the English-speaking world and, more widely, in a world in which English was rapidly becoming the language of diplomacy, business, and science.

New Urbanization

India was a land of cities and towns long before the advent of British rule, with great religious centers, like Madurai, and administrative and military capitals, like Vijayanagara in the south, Delhi and Agra in the north, and great trading ports like Surat in western India. For a variety of reasons, however, the urban centers had almost all entered a period of stagnation or decline when the British arrived in India as sea-borne traders, establishing their mercantile toeholds on the fringes of the Mughal empire. In the eighteenth century, three great port-cities—Calcutta in Bengal, Madras on the southeast coast, and Bombay on west coast—became dominant in their regions, first as centers of trade, then as the seats of British political power. Their populations were over-whelmingly Indian, who, while taking goods from the West, maintained their own cultural traditions. The new presidency capitals became the centers of India's cultural life, with flourishing colleges, universities, newspapers, and Indian-owned businesses, and inevitably emerged as the heartlands of the new politics of nationalism.

Religion and the State in British India

One of the most important aspects of British rule was its relationship to the institutionalized religions of India, which first emerged as a public problem in 1793, when the East India Company's charter was up for renewal by Parliament. Evangelical Christian spokesmen among the company's directors and members of Parliament demanded that the company drop its long-standing prohibition against Christian missionaries working in its territories in India, arguing that the only justification for British rule in India was the improvement of the lives of its "heathen" people. This could be done only if the company was required to send teachers and missionaries to India to teach the people and advance their religious and moral improvement through the spread of the Gospel. This move was defeated, but the pressure continued in two other ways. One was an attack on the company's support of Hindu institutions of any kind, and the other was a demand for the company to forbid certain Hindu practices—such as sati, the immolation of widows on their husbands' funeral pyres—which many British Christians condemned as immoral.

The demand for Christian religious activity in India was based on a reading of Indian religion and society that began late in the eighteenth century, which has colored the perception of India in the Western world almost to the present time. An extreme, but unfortunately not uncommon, belief in England was that Indian society was degraded and degenerate, and that Hindu caste restrictions prevented social mobility and progress. This dark condition of society was due, it was argued, to Hinduism, the religious beliefs that the Brahmans, the priestly caste, through "fraud and imposture," had imposed upon society. The mark of Hinduism was the worship of idols, fiercely condemned in the Hebrew Bible, so central to the faith of Christians in nineteenth-century Great Britain and America. British missionaries therefore sought to replace "blasphemous" Hinduism with the "pure truth" of Christianity, creating a torrent of criticism of Indian religion and society in Great Britain and North America that affected not only the way Westerners thought about India, but also the way Indians thought about their own society.

The most telling argument against government interference was the fear, expressed by many British officials, that any attack on Hindu customs would lead to such resistance from Indians that British rule would be threatened. The company's government therefore tried to exclude itself from any appearance of official support for Christianity or hostility to Indian religions by initially adopting a policy of neutrality, the "colonial compromise." Soon after 1818, however, when the British achieved paramount power over India, they became bolder, and were more openly committed to reforms like the abolition of sati (1829); the Caste Disabilities Act (1850), allowing Hindu converts to Christianity to inherit property; and the Hindu Widow Remarriage Act (1852). Sepoys of the company's Bengal army believed that it was the British intention to convert them to Christianity that inspired the order to bite the new Enfield rifle cartridges, greased with "cow" or "pig" fat, issued to them by the British in 1857. That issue triggered the "Mutiny War," after which Queen Victoria, in her proclamation in 1858, declared that the British Crown Raj would replace the old company, and that while she relied on the truth of Christianity, she would now forbid any interference with the religious beliefs or worship of any of her Indian subjects. It was this compromise that held, more or less, until the end of British rule.

The impact of British rule in religious matters nonetheless proved powerful, not in official policy but in the building and growth of Christian churches and other institutions, funded by congregations from the United States and Britain, which in a variety of ways served mainly a Hindu and, to a lesser extent, a Muslim constituency. These included schools of all kinds, hospitals, orphanages, and above all, the Christian colleges that still occupy a preeminent place in Indian education. They produced very few Christians, but their influence was reflected not just in their own activities but in the establishment of similar institutions by Indian religious organizations. Powerful religious movements were also begun within both Hindu and Muslim communities to counteract what their leaders saw as the threat to their own faiths from the onslaught of Christian propaganda.

The Arts and Literature

The impact of British rule, so great on many aspects of Indian life, was surprisingly small in the arts. Western classical music was not introduced to any significant extent, and its popular modern varieties, especially American forms, attracted a following only in post-independence India. The explanation for this probably lies in the very rich tradition of Indian music, both classical and folk. The fact that music did not play a large part in British life may also have been a factor, along with the fact that the number of British residents in India was always small. Influence on painting was more direct, since the government did encourage the establishment of art schools in Calcutta, Bombay, and Madras, which inspired painting that showed influence of Western styles and techniques. Western influence was also revealed in the growth of cheap lithographed illustrations of religious myths, following the success of painter Ravi Verma (1848–1906). One of the most intriguing British impacts on Indian art and culture came, however, late in the nineteenth century in the form of interest and encouragement given to the traditional arts of India, especially folk art. This interest was revealed in the extraordinary exhibition of Indian art of all kinds in Delhi in 1903, in which no work with any European influence was allowed to be shown (Watt, p. xv).

The Position of Women

The improvement of the condition of Indian women has been a favorite topic in discussions of the impact of British rule on India, contrasting it with the treatment of women without the ameliorating influence of British rule. It is impossible to render any kind of fair reckoning, on the one hand, of just how oppressed women were by Hindu and Muslim social customs, including child marriage, female infanticide, discrimination against widows, the difficulty of divorce for women, and polygamy, or, on the other hand, how their condition improved during the period of British rule. All that can be done is to note some of the many attempts made by interested groups and individuals, including missionaries and liberal British officials, to bring about change in civil society or, through pressure and publicity, to get the government to legislate social change that affected women. Such activities are among the clearest markers of modernity. A historian of modern women in India summarizes the numerous influences that were at work as Christian criticism of Indian religion, humanitarianism, utilitarianism, social Darwinism, and nationalism, with all basically insisting on the need for "a new gender ideology and modification of the actual treatment of women" (Forbes, p. 14).

The earliest and the most famous act of social legislation was the criminalizing of sati, the practice, fairly common among higher Hindu castes in Bengal, of widows immolating themselves on their husbands' funeral pyres. In the West, this had become symbolic of Indian treatment of women, leading to demands for its abolition by the government. The British government of India had hesitated to take such action, believing that the custom was prescribed by religion, and that forbidding it would lead to great resentment. In 1829, however, when it was declared illegal, there was no apparent popular outcry. Another symbolic piece of legislation came in 1856, under the leadership of the Hindu reformer Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar (1820–1891), with the passage of an act permitting Hindu widows to remarry. One of the most famous Indian reformers of the century, Ram Mohan Roy (1772–1833), had always argued that such customs were not integral to true Hinduism but were "corruptions" that had evolved through the centuries and that should be abolished. An issue that aroused far more support as well as opposition was child marriage, that is, the marriage of girls before puberty. In 1860 an act made ten years the age at which marriage could be consummated, but it was rarely enforced. In 1891 the age of consent was raised to twelve, but it was hardly enforced either. The landmark legislation did not come until 1929, when the Hindu Marriage Restraint Act raised the age of consent for girls to fourteen.

The activism of Indian women behind such social legislation was as important as the acts themselves. Numerous local groups of women organized throughout the country by the beginning of the twentieth century, and after World War I, three major organizations were formed: the Women's Indian Association, the National Council of Women in India, and the All-India Women's Conference. This last of these had the widest influence, probably because of the high social status of its leaders as well as their willingness to engage in serious political work and to organize lower-class women. It was especially influential in organizing support for the Hindu Marriage Act and for the education of girls.

The emergence of women as an important force in the nationalist movement came with the ascendancy of Mahatma Gandhi as the leader of the Indian National Congress in 1920. He insisted on the equality of men and women, and urged women to join in the difficult and dangerous work of opposition to British rule. Women could play a special part, he argued, in the fight for freedom because by nature they were accustomed to self-sacrifice. Women have had an extraordinary place in modern India, matched by no other country in the world, serving as prime minister of the country, leaders of the opposition, chief ministers of the states, ambassadors, and doctors and lawyers in very large numbers, as well as in the traditional role of teachers.


In terms of the interaction of the indigenous traditions of India with the political, economic, and cultural power of Great Britain, perhaps the most conspicuous and enduring was the development of the constitutional framework of modern India and the emergence of various forms of nationalism in competing political parties. In the 1890s, at the high noon of British imperial power in the subcontinent, most knowledgeable British officials, if they had been asked to speculate on the major impact of Great Britain on India, would almost certainly have answered, "law and order." Although electoral politics had barely begun, most of the leaders of the Indian National Congress, founded in 1885, would, curiously enough, have given somewhat the same answer. So would many prominent Indians who were not identified with the Congress. In the next thirty years, Indian nationalists and historians would argue that ancient India had not only possessed republican forms of constitutional government, it had also had the military power to protect itself. Indians were thus able to accept the constitutional and legal framework that had been created by British rule in India as consonant with their own history. Armed revolution was not necessary in order to drive out the British, but rather a melding of the formal structures of British power with the force of India's own traditions. In 1922, when Mahatma Gandhi was sentenced for sedition against the British government, he told the judge, "I believe that I have rendered a service to India and England by showing in non-cooperation a way out of the unnatural state in which we are now living" (Brown, p. 118). In 1947, as he moved the bill in the House of Commons that would end British rule in India, Prime Minister Clement Attlee in effect assented to this, from the British perspective, when he claimed that while there had been mistakes and failures, British rule in India could "stand comparison with that of any other nation which has been charged with the ruling of a nation so different from themselves" (Parliamentary Debates).

Ainslie T. Embree

See alsoBritish Crown Raj ; Christian Impact on India, History of ; Women and Political Power ; Women's Education


Brown, Judith M. Gandhi: Prisoner of Hope. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1989.

Embree, Ainslie T. Charles Grant and British Rule in India. New York: Columbia University Press, 1962.

Forbes, Geraldine. Women in Modern India. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Griffiths, Percival. The British Impact on India. London: Cass, 1962.

Jones, Kenneth W. Socio-Religious Reform Movements in British India. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Kumar, Dharma, ed. The Cambridge Economic History of India, vol. 2. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

Majumdar, R. C. "Nationalist Historians." In Historians of India, Pakistan, and Ceylon, edited by C. H. Philips. London: Oxford University Press, 1961.

Marx, Karl, and F. Engels. The First Indian War of Independence, 1857–1859. Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1959.

Mitter, Partha. Art and Nationalism in Colonial India: Occidental Orientations. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Parliamentary Debates, House of Commons, series 5, vol. 439 (1947), col. 2441.

Watt, George. Indian Art at Delhi. 1903. Reprint, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1987.

About this article

British Impact

Updated About content Print Article