British Imperialism in India

Written by: Kate1872

"All the leadership had spent their early years in England. They were influenced by British thought, British ideas, that is why our leaders were always telling the British "How can you do these things? They’re against your own basic values.". We had no hatred, in fact it was the other way round - it was their values that made us revolt." -Aruna Asaf Ali, a leader of the Indian National Congress. (Masani, quoted in Wood, 32, 1989)

There is no doubt that British imperialism had a large impact on India. India, having previously been an group of independent and semi-independent princedoms and territories, underwent great change under British administration. Originally intended to consolidate their hold on India by establishing a population that spoke the same language as their rulers, the British decision in the 1830s to educate Indians in a Western fashion, with English as the language of instruction, was the beginning of a chain of events, including a rise in Indian nationalism, that led to Indian resentment of British imperialism and ultimately to the loss of British control over India.

One of the most important factors in the British loss of control over India was the establishment of English as a unifying language. Prior to British colonisation, India was fragmented and multi-lingual, with 15 major languages and around 720 dialects. English served as a common ground for Indians, and allowed separate cultural and ethnic groups to identify with each other, something which had rarely if ever occurred before on a grand scale. Although it was mainly educated Indians of a privileged caste who spoke English, these were the most influential people in terms of acting as facilitators for nationalist ideas to be communicated throughout the populace. The publication of magazines and journals in English was also a great influence on the rise of Indian nationalism. Although most Indians received nationalist ideas orally, these journals allowed Indians who were literate in English to come into contact with the ideas of social and political reformers.

Political and social reform in India was achieved as a result of the European political principles brought to India by the British. Indians were Anglicised, and the British ideal for an Indian was to be "Indians in blood and colour, but English in tastes, opinions and intellect", as put by one British legislator (Rich, 214, 1979). This Western education inevitably led to well-read Indians encountering European principles such as human rights, freedoms of speech, travel and association, and liberalism. This was in direct contrast to the imperialism practised by the British in India and to the Indian experience - one third of the subcontinent was ruled by Indian princes under British supervision, and the rest was directly controlled by the Viceroy and administered by about one thousand members of the civil service, all of them English (Rich, 215, 1979). This knowledge of principles such as autonomy and freedom naturally led to many Indians desiring this for their own nation, understandable since it appeared that the world’s greatest and most powerful nations were self-governing democracies, and this system was obviously successful.

Part of the newfound desire for freedom experienced by many Indians was the desire for native religion and customs to be respected. It is widely accepted that the Indian mutiny of 1857 was at least partly generated by Indian resentment of British interference in Hindu customs. Indian soldiers in the army were required to bite the ends off gun cartridges that contained pig fat and cow fat, which offended both Muslims and Hindus. When troops refused to use the cartridges, "eighty sepoys were thrown into gaol for disobedience, an act which finally triggered the uprising." (Richards, 301, 1994). This showed a great lack of cultural and religious sensitivity on the part of British officers. Although the mutiny was put down quickly, it shook British confidence in their power, and resulted in tighter control of their hold on India. This in turn led to further resentment of British imperialism, and claims that military regulations were an attempt by the British to destroy the traditional caste system. (Richards, 301, 1994). In believing so vehemently that the British system was superior to the far inferior Hindu traditions, the British officers were essentially contravening the ideals of freedom that were an important element of the Western European political principles that they so wanted to instill in the Indian peoples.

Following the Mutiny of 1857, Indian nationalism gained much more momentum than had previously existed in the first part of the century. This movement consisted mostly of British-educated intellectuals, and ironically was made possible by the British encouragement of higher education, originally intended to create a middle management that could carry out simple administration jobs. Most of the Indian nationalists - most notably Ghandi - were educated in Western Europe and were well-read in Western notions of freedoms, civil liberties and autonomy. The Indian National Congress was the largest and most obvious nationalist group, formed so that "educated Indians…could express dissatisfaction with the British colonial administration and suggest reforms." (Cowie, 36, 1994) This Congress, however, had no power in terms of action and it can be seen as an attempt by the British to appease Indian nationalists who wanted progress. The seeming uselessness of the Indian National Congress in terms of enforcing changes and reforms can be seen as a great cause of Indian resentment of British nationalism. Even so, a nationalist organisation such as this would not have been possible had it not been for the fact that the British acquainted a group of Indians with European political principles (Cowie 27, 1994).

As well as the moderate nationalism that grew within the Indian National Congress, extreme nationalism was also becoming prevalent. Aside from more violent protesters such as Tilak, nonviolent opposition to British imperialism emerged in protesters such as Ghandi. In response to the Rowlatt Acts, which enabled a protester or suspected terrorist to be imprisoned without trial, and the Amritsar massacre, in which 379 unarmed anti-British demonstrators were killed, Ghandi advocated a return to traditional Indian simplicity as opposed to Western materialism (Cowie 41, 1994). This dislike of materialism was owed in part to his experiences in England studying law, where "he discovered his Indian heritage through the work of 19th century British scholars who had re-created ancient Indian history and revived interest in ancient Indian literature and language" (Cowie 164, 1982). Ghandi also gained insight into his culture through "discussion with English friends on religion, both Christianity and Hinduism, which he now began to discover on a philosophical level" (Masselos, 121, 1972).

Ghandi’s Western education allowed him to develop his radical technique of ‘satyagraha’ or ‘truth force’, whereby laws were opposed with the force of truth and moral consciousness instead of violence. This approach, though mostly a Hindu philosophy, in part derived its inspiration from Christianity, and the idea of turning the other cheek (Masselos, 122, 1972), and "drew upon humanist and radical strands in Western thought" (Masselos, 122, 1972). Studying Western history and ideas would have made Ghandi see that many Western approaches and ideas were extremely effective - and British forces may have reacted more positively to a method of protest that came partly from their own culture. Exposure to Western culture also aided Ghandi in seeing that satyagraha would be a powerful means of protest in an economic context - Ghandi claimed that the application of satyagraha against the British administration "could so paralyse the economy that the country would become ungovernable" (Cowie, 43, 1994). Ghandi used an approach that he had developed partly from his exposure to Western education to cause trouble in a facet of society that he knew was essential to the British consolidation of power in India.

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