Background Essay

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Colonialism and Nationalism

Background Essay

From Colonial Empire to Independent Nation: 1760 1947

Ainslie T. Embree

A Nation in the Making

    This essay deals with two closely related subjects: colonialism and modern-day nationalism in India. Since the most dramatic events of the period relate to its conquest by Great Britain, it is easy to emphasize the impact, for good or ill, of the West on India, but India was neither a passive victim nor a passive beneficiary of the West. Creativity and vitality within Indian society made it possible for her to resist, accept, and adapt to the outside world, so that Indian civilization was not overwhelmed by the West, as were the fragile cultures of the indigenous people of North America. India had highly articulated social, religious, and political structures that could adjust to new pressures and take what it wanted from the West and use it for its own purposes, including making a modern nation.

British East India Company Founds a New Indian Empire

When Babur, the first of the Mughal emperors, invaded North India in 1526, he was coming into a region that had been under the political control of Muslim Turkish rulers for 300 years. By the beginning of the eighteenth century, the dynasty he founded had created an empire that covered most of the present-day countries of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan. Its wealth and splendor attracted traders from Europe and Asia in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and the political and cultural destiny of modern India was, to a very considerable extent, shaped by the impact of this remarkable period in its history. In the first half of the eighteenth century, however, Mughal power declined, leaving India without a strong central authority, but with a number of smaller kingdoms throughout the region. It was into this India that the West, in the form of the British East India Company, inserted itself.

Although the East India Company had received a charter in 1600 from Queen Elizabeth for exclusive trade between India and England, it remained an unimportant factor in Indian politics until after 1760. The Mughals had given the Company the right to establish trading posts at Calcutta, Madras, and various other places. The British had a post at Bombay, which they had obtained from the Portuguese, and they established themselves as a territorial political power in Bengal, one of the richest Mughal provinces.

The Company’s employees in India began to see the possibility of gaining control of what had always been the basis of its rulers’ wealth, namely, the taxes paid by the people. They did this through force and fraud, and also took advantage of the weakness and corruption of the governor of Bengal. Their breakthrough came in 1760 with the two victories of the East India Company’s army, at Plassey in 1757

and later at Buxor, 1760. As a result the company gained the right of Diwani, to collect taxes in Bengal.

The pattern of British conquest was one directed from within India, mainly from the Company’s headquarters in Bengal, but also to a lesser extent from Madras and Bombay. Sometimes territory was added through concessions forced from a ruler, but the usual pattern was through military conquests, paid for by Indian taxation. The British conquest was neither quick nor easy, and it was bitterly opposed by many groups within India, including the Marathas from western India and the Sikhs in Punjab. Many of the soldiers who did the fighting for the British were Indians. In the 1850s, the British army in India numbered about 300,000 men, of whom only about 50,000 were British, although all the officers were British.

The final great military challenge took place in 1857–58. Uprisings began near Delhi with what the British had always feared, mutinies among their Indian soldiers, but soon spread to other areas in the Gangetic plain and central India. After fierce fighting the British were able to crush the uprisings, partly because of the lack of coordination on the Indian side, and, perhaps most importantly, because Indians in the older British possessions in Bengal, Bombay, and Madras, and the Sikhs in the Punjab, gave no support to the insurgency.

The insurgency had a number of important consequences for the making of modern India. One was that the power of the East India Company was formally transferred to the British Crown, so that India came directly under the rule of British Parliament. Another was that Indians became convinced that the overwhelming power of Great Britain could not be challenged by military means. The defeat was also understood by a later generation of Indians as proof of the need for Indian unity.

For the British themselves, the insurgency led to a growing distrust of Indians and the fear of another uprising. It also probably led to the widening of the social gap between the rulers and the ruled. Racism in India was a complex issue, fed by prejudices and taboos on the part of both the British and the Indians. This situation should not be confused with the racism of other Western societies, especially that of the United States, which was rooted in a slave economy. In India, close social relations were precluded from the Indian side, especially among Hindus, by religious prohibitions on eating and intermarriage with Non-Hindus, as well as the tendency for upper-caste women, whether Hindu or Muslim, not to participate in mixed social gatherings. On their part, the British were conscious of being the rulers, members of a tiny minority in a thoroughly alien culture that many of them disliked. Keeping separate from Indians—and, to some extent, from the Indian environment—was a form of protecting their identities, as rulers whose right to rule was based not so much on race as on the claim that the superiority of their civilization was validated by successful rule.

How the British Ruled India: The Mechanisms of Control

From the beginning of the nineteenth century, the British Indian empire

consisted of two quite distinct kinds of territory. About three-fifths of the subcontinent was ruled directly by the British. The rest was princely India, made up of about 530 small states, varying greatly in size, ruled by semi-independent chiefs, or rajas, who had considerable autonomy within their states but were tied closely to the British government by treaties.

The head of the colonial government was the Governor-General, or viceroy, appointed by the British government. Under him was the army, the fundamental mechanism for control. That the government was, however, controlled by civilians, never by the military, was of great importance in the development of modern India as a nation. Administration was in the hands of 4,000 civil servants, who until late in the nineteenth century were wholly British, chosen in Great Britain through an examination system. These members of the Indian Civil Service held all the executive posts throughout the country, with many Indians holding the lesser posts in the bureaucracy. In addition to the ICS, there were a number of other services, such as Police, Medical, and Education, again with all the top posts filled by the British. The British ruled with an authoritarian system, but it was a despotism controlled by laws promulgated by the provincial or central governments and with a legal system to execute them. This legal system, modeled on its British counterpart, was remarkably independent of the government, as the legal system of India still is.

In addition to these formally organized mechanisms of control, British rule was made possible by fortuitous developments in transportation and communication, including the railway, the steamship, the telegraph, and the modern postal system. These inventions, combined with the other mechanisms of bureaucratic control, made it possible to exercise immediate authority throughout the country. All of these inventions were introduced into India almost as soon as they were known in the rest of the world, giving India a jump-start on modernity. Just as fortuitous for India was that in the early nineteenth century the English-speaking world was alive with new ideas that were passed on without the intention of the British rulers, such as representative government, constitutionalism, freedom of speech, and the right of self-determination. The British were, in the phrase of a historian of the period, “cultural germ carriers.”i

One of the nine manifestations of God Vishnu, “the preserver”; the hero-king of the epic Ramayana

Another manifestation of God Vishnu; worshipped in his common forms as a child and the revealer of the Bhagavad-Gita

Refers to the mystical movements in Islam or someone who is involved in these movements.

Political, Economic, and Cultural Interaction

An important explanation for India’s acceptance of British rule is that the British, conscious of how shallow their roots in India were, made very little attempt to change Indian society. This was especially so after the great uprising in 1857–58. When social change came after this period it came from Indian initiatives, not from the government. The demand for self-determination by the people of India is best understood by examining the three main areas—political, economic, and cultural—where changes contributed to the making of modern India.

Nearly the whole of the Indian subcontinent, comprising today the three countries of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, was brought under the central authority of the British government in Calcutta. One of the enduring themes of Indian history has been the attempt by rulers to bring the entire subcontinent

under their control, beginning with Ashoka (c. 237–273 b.c.e.) This emphasis on the essential unity of India and the greatness of its past is extremely important in the story of Indian nationalism, for history has been used to inculcate patriotism and provide a sense of national identity.

The economic impact of British rule on India is the most contentious of all issues in modern Indian history. From ancient times India was fabled as a land of great wealth, and seventeenth-century European visitors continued to make such reports. Some of these accounts were mostly imaginative dreams; others were attempts to get merchants to invest in trade with India; while others very often were based on travelers’ tales of the splendor and luxury of the palaces of the Mughal emperors and their governors. Some European travelers, however, looked below the glamour of the courts and saw the poverty of a peasantry crushed by taxes, wars, corrupt officials, and natural disasters.

Under British rule, India became part of the Western world’s trade system, just as the industrial revolution was transforming the economic and political structures of Great Britain itself. India came under Britain’s system of free trade, so its industries throughout the nineteenth century had none of the protective duties that sheltered industry in Europe and the United States. In this crucial period India’s rulers were foreigners committed to capitalism and a free market economy that benefited Great Britain, not India. India’s first economic historian, R. C. Dutt, said that while British rule had unified India politically, it permitted a relatively free press, introduced modern means of communication, and started a new system of education, the chief characteristic of Indian life was the poverty of the masses, which was due, he argued, to India being a subject nation.ii

The most common generalization about Indian cultural conditions at the beginning of the modern period was that its poverty, backwardness, and failure to progress were due to its religious systems, particularly Hinduism. The second generalization was that the political system created by the Muslim rulers was arbitrary and oppressive, especially to the Hindus. The third, building upon the first two, was that by the end of the eighteenth century, Indian culture had ceased to be creative and had become stagnant, with art and literature simply repeating worn-out forms, and religion having become corrupt and degraded.

In fact, India in the eighteenth century showed great vitality in the arts and literature, particularly in painting in Rajastan and the Punjab hills and in poetry in most of the regional languages. The traditional religions flourished, especially the Hindu devotional (bhakti) cults associated with Rama and Krishna and the Sufi movements of Islam. Most parts of India experienced a lively creativity, for after the breakdown of the Mughal Empire, centers of culture grew up around the new political powers that were asserting themselves. It was this creativity that made possible, to a very considerable extent, the changes that marked the nineteenth century in India.

The impact of the new ideas of Western culture did not come, then, into a decaying and stagnant society, but into one where the old civilizations of India were able to appropriate what they needed from the West and adapt it for their

own purposes within the context of British political control. This process of change can be illustrated by briefly examining four of the many aspects of creative interaction in the nineteenth century that are now deeply embedded in Indian life.

English Education

By an act of parliament in 1813, the East India Company was ordered to provide, as previous rulers had, money to educational institutions. The decision—a fateful one for India—was finally made in 1835 that any government money to be spent on higher education would be for colleges that used English in instruction. Such primary education as existed continued to use the regional languages. One of the major results of the new education in English, a language known even today by no more than 10 percent of the Indian people, was to widen the gap between the upper classes and those on the bottom, intensifying age-old caste divisions.

The students who took advantage of the new system of English education were overwhelmingly drawn from the old Hindu literate classes, the Brahmins and other high castes, who learned English in order to participate in the social and political world. Muslims made up about one-fifth of the population but did not participate in the new education in proportion to their numbers. One obvious reason was that not only was the Muslim elite much smaller than the Hindu one, it had not traditionally been involved to the same extent as the Hindu elite in trade, banking, and government administration.

The New Professions

Knowledge of English was the key to the new professions: law, medicine, journalism, college teaching, western-style businesses, and posts in the new government. With the establishment of the new court systems, law became an attractive and lucrative profession. Modern journalism grew rapidly, and given the fact that India was under foreign domination, the press was remarkably free. Journalists and lawyers were vital elements in the nationalist movement. As early as 1875 there were 478 newspapers, many of them openly critical of the British government.

Religious and Social Reform Movements Among Hindus and Muslims

There have been a number of great religious and social reform movements in modern India, and their successes have depended upon their claims to restoring a true version of Indian religion and society. The Brahmo Samaj religious movement, started by Ram Mohan Roy in 1828 and supported by the famous Tagore family, asserted the fundamental truth of all religions and insisted that caste, idol worship, and discrimination against women had no place in original Hinduism. The Arya Samaj movement, founded by Dayanand Saraswati (1824–1883), denounced idol worship and caste distinctions and claimed that all truth, including the sciences that Westerners claimed as theirs, could be found in the Vedas. Saraswati stressed education, particularly for women. A third reform group was the Ramakrishna movement associated with Swami Vivekananda (1863–1902), who made a considerable impression at the World Parliament of Religion held in 1893 in Chicago where he emphasized India’s spirituality. He urged Indians to claim “the soil of India is my highest heaven, the good of India is my good.” These religious reform movements became active components of nationalism.iii

The movements for social and religious reform among the Muslims also drew upon the past in attempting to meet the challenges posed by the loss of political power to British control and the involvement of so many Hindus in the new educational system and in the new professions. These movements aimed at restoring the self-confidence Muslims had lost through the British conquest. For example, one called for carrying on holy war, jihad, against the British. When this proved unsuccessful, its leaders championed creating institutions of learning free of British control, such as the one at Deoband that taught Islamic law and orthodox social practices and beliefs. Another group, led by Syed Ahmed Khan (1817–1898), believed the Muslim community should cooperate with the British and accept the new ideas and practices. He founded a college at Aligarh that trained many Muslim leaders of India and eventually Pakistan.

The Organization of Nationalism and the Challenge to British Rule

The Indian National Congress, founded in 1885, played the major role in Indian politics in the half century after 1900. It was not the first association of its kind, but the meeting of representatives from all over India in Bombay in 1885 was, as its presiding officer said, “the first national assembly ever yet convened in India.”iv

The delegates to the annual meetings of the Congress were almost all drawn from the new English-speaking professional classes, and in their speeches and resolutions they made clear that they were not hostile to British rule but wanted to share in the administration and direction of their country. They asked for a modest measure of representative government, entrance to the Indian Civil Service through examinations to be held in India as well as in England, and the right for Indians to be officers in the army. They also stressed that the poverty of the masses was due to the high land taxes and the free-trade policy that deprived Indian industries of protection from foreign competition.

While its leadership was moderate and conciliatory, opposition to the modest proposals of the Indian National Congress soon developed. The British officials at first saw the Congress as performing a useful service in giving them some sense of what Indians were thinking, but they quickly realized the direction in which talk of representative institutions was pointing. The British then argued—and many, like Winston Churchill, continued to do so right up to 1947—that democracy was an impossible dream for India because of the deeply rooted divisions of caste, language, and religion. Democratic institutions, they insisted, were indigenous to Western culture and could not be transferred to India, which had known only autocracy throughout its history.

    Voices within the Congress, especially that of Bal Gangadhar Tilak (1856–1920), began to protest the policy of moderation, denouncing it as humbly begging the British to give them what was rightly theirs. In a slogan that soon became famous, he declared, “Swaraj (freedom) is my birthright and I will have it.” More fateful, however, was his linking of nationalism with an appeal for a revival of the warlike glories of the Hindu people before the Muslims and the British conquered them. Charged with inciting hatred and violence, Tilak was sentenced to jail for 18 months. When he was released, he attempted to wrest control from the moderate leaders. He was unsuccessful, but the struggle weakened the Congress.

The All-India Muslim League

While the Indian National Congress always insisted that it stood for the rights of all Indians, irrespective of their religious identification, Muslim leaders feared its demand for representative government. Muslim leaders like Syed Ahmed Khan argued that if the Western model of one person, one vote were followed, Muslims would be permanently subjected to the Hindu majority. In 1906, this sense of unease led a group of prominent Muslims to form the Muslim League to protect their social and political interests. In truth, the League had little influence in the national movement before the 1930s because its leadership was too devoted to seeking the support of the British government. Its importance for a long time was in providing an alternative to the Congress for some Muslims.

Gandhi, Nehru, and Jinnah: Revising the Nationalist Agenda

When Mohandas Gandhi (1869–1948) entered Indian political life at the end of the World I, he was already famous. After qualifying as a lawyer in England, he had tried without success to establish himself professionally in Bombay and had gone in 1893 to South Africa, where many Indians had migrated as traders or as indentured laborers. There he quickly became involved in defending Indians against the legal and social disadvantages they suffered under South Africans of European descent. It was in this struggle that he devised the nonviolent method of opposition to injustice known as satyagraha, or “truth force,” that he was to use with such great effect later in India. The term he used for nonviolence, ahimsa, was drawn from the Indian religious tradition. There it often meant not taking life or refraining from violence, but Gandhi transformed it to mean “love and truth.” Gandhi also found support for his ideas in the writings of Tolstoy, Thoreau, Ruskin, and the New Testament. Love and truth were active forces, driving one to a life of action and a concern for others. “Those who say that religion has nothing to do with politics,” he insisted, “do not know what religion means.”v

In 1920, against the opposition of some of the old, moderate leaders, as well as the extremists, Gandhi persuaded the Indian National Congress to adopt his method of nonviolent noncooperation to win freedom from British rule. This was at once a rejection of the constitutional gradualism of the moderates and the violent militancy being increasingly advocated by groups demanding the end of British rule. Gandhi’s plea was that his radical departure to confrontational politics based on nonviolence could win two kinds of freedom for Indians. One, on which he placed great emphasis, was internal, personal self-control, leading to the purity of life that made nonviolent resistance possible. This would be followed by political self-government. “I have striven,” he once said, “to place this ideal before the people, in season and out of season, very often much to the disgust of those who are merely politically minded.”vi

Gandhi was an idealist and visionary, but he was also a superb political organizer. Under his leadership the Indian National Congress became a carefully articulated body, with grassroots committees leading upward through districts and the provinces to the committee at the top that controlled the organization. Gandhi was never the president of the Congress, but exercised influence through its members who recognized the extraordinary authority of his personality. He carried out his nonviolent confrontation with the British through a variety of methods, including urging people to refuse to obey unjust laws but to be willing to go to jail for having done so, organizing boycotts of British goods, telling people not to pay taxes, and asking students not to attend government schools and Congress members not to participate in elections.

The movement from 1920 to independence in 1947 was by no means a straight line of triumphal progress to freedom. Gandhi often changed his mind when he felt he had made wrong decisions that had led to violence. He sometimes pursued policies, such as his wholehearted attention to uplifting the untouchables, that to many seemed diversions from the quest for political freedom. Nor were his economic beliefs, which entailed the rejection of industrialization and modernization, ever really accepted by the Congress leadership.

Gandhi’s success in revising the agenda of the India National Congress depended upon many factors, including his unique personality, his profound spirituality, the origin of his teachings in traditional Hindu beliefs, and his organizational abilities. These qualities evoked loyalty and devotion in numerous very able men and women, both Indians and foreigners, who made his work possible. There were hundreds of such people, but undoubtedly the most famous and effective was Jawaharlal Nehru (1889–1964). Son of a wealthy family, almost wholly educated in England, and strongly influenced by Marxist thought, Nehru shared little of Gandhi’s intense religiosity. Frequently elected president of the Congress, he remained, however, Gandhi’s chief supporter through the long and tortuous developments of the 1930s up to 1942 when, along with all the Congress leadership, he was imprisoned during Gandhi’s last great campaign against the British, the ‘Quit India’ movement. At the end of the World War II, when they were released, it was Nehru, not Gandhi, who was at the center of the complex political negotiations regarding the future of India.

In these negotiations, Nehru’s great antagonist was Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who transformed the Muslim League into a powerful political force. While Britain had been on the winning side in World War II, it had neither the resources nor the will to attempt to hold on to India, and by 1946 the issue was no longer would Britain give India its freedom, but when Britain would leave and to what kind of an independent India would British power devolve. Nehru and Jinnah had very different visions of what should happen, either of which would have been acceptable to the British, but not to each other. Britain was no longer effectively in charge; the Indians were, but it was hard for both the British and the Indians to realize this.

Nehru’s vision, shared by Gandhi and all-important Congress leaders, was of an India identical in territory to the British Indian Empire, with a strong central government and relatively weak provincial governments, and with decisions made by a democratically elected government expressing the will of the majority. Jinnah’s vision was less clear-cut, but it appears that he might have accepted an undivided India with a weak central government and strong state governments, a number of which, including the key states of Punjab, Bengal, Northwest Frontier Province, and Sind, would have Muslim majorities. This solution, however, was completely unacceptable to Nehru, with his vision of a united, progressive, and democratic India.

In the end, partition along religious lines seemed the only answer, repugnant though it was to Nehru, who had always argued that religion could not be a determining factor in defining nationalism. As for Jinnah, he got what he described as a moth-eaten Pakistan, with the two great provinces, Bengal and Punjab, partitioned along religious lines. Lord Mountbatten, the British Governor-general, made the decision that the partition should take place on August 15, 1947, and he directed his staff as they made the final plans to “place the responsibility of dividing India conspicuously on the Indians themselves.”vii

As news spread of the partition, violence on an unprecedented scale broke out. Muslims were murdered as they fled from India, and Hindus and Sikhs as they fled from Pakistan. No one is sure of the numbers, but it is estimated that half a million people died and 13 million became refugees. India’s struggle for freedom is often represented, because of Gandhi, as a nonviolent struggle, but in truth few modern nations have been born with a greater loss of human life. The horror reached a dramatic climax when Gandhi was assassinated in Delhi on January 30, 1948, as he led a prayer meeting for the end of the violence. The assassin was a militant Hindu who blamed Gandhi for favoring Muslims.

Could the story of colonization and nationalism have ended differently, with an undivided India, instead of with bloodshed and violence and a legacy of hostility between India and Pakistan that at the beginning of the twenty-first century finds them confronting each other with nuclear weapons and great armed forces? As with all the “ifs” of history, there is no certain answer, but it is probably true that the solution that was reached, despite the violence that it caused, made possible, as other solutions might not have, the stable, democratic India that now exists. This was something of what Nehru had in mind on August 15, 1947, as India became independent, when he reminded his people that, “at the dawn of history, India started on her unending quest, and trackless centuries are filled with her striving and the grandeur of her success and her failures. We end today a period of ill fortune and India discovers herself again.”viii

Ainslie T. Embree is Professor Emeritus of History at Columbia University, where he was chairman of the History Department and associate dean of the School of International and Public Affairs. He taught South Asian history as well as in the core curriculum in Western civilization. He taught in India and served in the American Embassy as Cultural Attaché. He was President of the Association of Asian Studies and of the American Institute of Indian Studies. He is the author of several books and numerous articles on South Asia, including Imagining India: Essays on Indian History, and editor of the highly acclaimed Sources of Indian Tradition and Asia in Western and World History.

i Vincent A. Smith. The Oxford History of India. Ed. Percival Spear. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1958. 451.

ii R. C. Dutt. The Economic History of India. Delhi: Government of India, 1963. 1:xxxi.

iii Stephen Hay. Sources of Indian Tradition. New York: Columbia University Press, 1958. 82.

iv Ainslie T. Embree. India's Search for National Identity. New York: Knopf, 1972. 32-33.

v Denis Dalton. Mahatma Gandhi: Nonviolent Power in Action. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993. 54.

vi Sources of Indian Tradition, Vol. 2. Ed. Stephen Hay. New York: Columbia University Press 1988. 257.

vii Hugh Tinker. “Partition of India.” The Encyclopedia of Asian History. Ed. Ainslie T. Embree.
New York: Charles Scribner, 1988.

viii Jawaharal Nehru. Independence and After. Delhi: Government of India, 1949. 3-4.

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