British India



The East India Trading Company

For about 250 years, the British East India Company evolved from a company chartered by the British Crown to trade with the East Indies into de facto British administrator of India, which set off the era of British colonization of the Indian Subcontinent.

Learning Objectives

Describe the East India Trading Company

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • After 1588, London merchants presented a petition to Queen Elizabeth I for permission to sail to the Indian Ocean. Permission was granted to several ships, but in 1600 a group of merchants known as the Adventurers succeeded at gaining a Royal Charter under the name Governor and Company of Merchants of London trading with the East Indies. For 15 years, the charter awarded the newly formed company a monopoly on trade with all countries east of the Cape of Good Hope and west of the Straits of Magellan.
  • English traders frequently engaged in hostilities with their Dutch and Portuguese counterparts in the Indian Ocean. The Company decided to gain a territorial foothold in mainland India with official sanction from both Britain and the Mughal Empire. The requested diplomatic mission launched by James I in 1612 arranged for a commercial treaty that would give the Company exclusive rights to reside and establish factories in Surat and other areas. While Portuguese and Spanish influences in the region were soon eliminated, competition against the Dutch resulted in the Anglo-Dutch Wars of the 17th and 18th centuries.
  • In an act aimed at strengthening the power of the EIC, King Charles II granted the EIC (in a series of five acts around 1670) the rights to autonomously acquire territory, mint money, command fortresses and troops and form alliances, make war and peace, and exercise both civil and criminal jurisdiction over the acquired areas. These decisions would eventually turn the EIC from a trading company into de facto an administrative agent with wide powers granted by the British government.
  • In 1698, a new “parallel” EIC was established. The two companies wrestled with each other for some time but it quickly became evident that in practice, the original company faced scarcely any measurable competition. The companies merged in 1708 by a tripartite indenture involving both companies and the state. With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, the EIC became the single largest player on the British global market. With the backing of its own private army, it was able to assert its interests in new regions in India without further obstacles from other colonial powers.
  • In the hundred years from the Battle of Plassey in 1757 to the Indian Rebellion of 1857, the EIC began to function more as an administrator and less as a trading concern. The proliferation of the Company’s power chiefly took two forms: the outright annexation of Indian states and subsequent direct governance of the underlying regions, or asserting powe  through treaties in which Indian rulers acknowledged the Company’s hegemony in return for limited internal autonomy.
  • In the aftermath of the Indian Rebellion of 1857, under the provisions of the Government of India Act 1858, the British government nationalized the EIC. The Crown took over its Indian possessions, its administrative powers and machinery, and its armed forces. The EIC was officially dissolved in 1858 and the rebellion also led the British to reorganize the army, the financial system, and the administration in India. The country was thereafter directly governed by the Crown as the new British Raj.

Key Terms

  • Government of India Act 1858: An Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom (21 & 22 Vict. c. 106) passed on August 2, 1858. Its provisions called for the liquidation of the British East India Company, which had been ruling British India under the auspices of Parliament, and the transference of its functions to the British Crown.
  • East India Company: An English and later British joint-stock company formed to pursue trade with the East Indies but actually trading mainly with the Indian subcontinent and Qing China. The company rose to account for half of the world’s trade, particularly in basic commodities including cotton, silk, indigo dye, salt, saltpetre, tea, and opium. It also ruled the beginnings of the British Empire in India.
  • Indian Rebellion of 1857: A rebellion in India against the rule of the British East India Company from May 1857 to July 1859. It began as a mutiny of sepoys of the East India Company’s army in the cantonment of the town of Meerut and soon escalated into other mutinies and civilian rebellions.
    It led to the dissolution of the East India Company in 1858. India was thereafter directly governed by the Crown as the new British Raj.
  • Battle of Plassey: A decisive victory of the British East India Company over the Nawab of Bengal and his French allies on June 23, 1757. The battle consolidated the Company’s presence in Bengal, which later expanded to cover much of India over the next hundred years.
  • British Raj: The rule of the British Crown in the Indian subcontinent between 1858 and 1947.

Founding of East India Company

Soon after the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, London merchants presented a petition to Queen Elizabeth I for permission to sail to the Indian Ocean. Permission was granted and in 1591, three ships sailed from Torbay around the Cape of Good Hope to the Arabian Sea on one of the earliest English overseas Indian expeditions. In 1596, three more ships sailed east but were all lost at sea. In 1599, another group of merchants that eventually became known as the Adventurers stated their intention to sail to the East Indies and applied to the Queen for support of the project. Although their first attempt had not been completely successful, they nonetheless sought the Queen’s unofficial approval to continue, bought ships for their venture, and increased their capital.

The Adventurers convened again a year later. This time they succeeded and on December 31, 1600, the Queen granted a Royal Charter to “George, Earl of Cumberland, and 215 Knights, Aldermen, and Burgesses” under the name Governor and Company of Merchants of London trading with the East Indies. For 15 years the charter awarded the newly formed company a monopoly on trade with all countries east of the Cape of Good Hope and west of the Straits of Magellan. Anybody who traded in breach of the charter without a license from the Company was liable to forfeiture of their ships and cargo (half of which went to the Crown and the other half to the Company), as well as imprisonment at the “royal pleasure.”

Early Operation

Between 1601 and 1608, four voyages left Britain to establish trade with East Indies. Initially, the company struggled in the spice trade because of the competition from the already well-established Dutch East India Company. The East India Company (EIC or the Company) opened a factory in Bantam on the first voyage and imports of pepper from Java were an important part of the Company’s trade for 20 years. In the next two years, it established its first factory in south India in the town of Machilipatnam in Bengal. The high profits reported by the Company after landing in India initially prompted King James I to grant subsidiary licences to other trading companies in England. But in 1609, he renewed the charter given to the EIC for an indefinite period, including a clause that specified that the charter would cease if the trade turned unprofitable for three consecutive years.

English traders frequently engaged in hostilities with their Dutch and Portuguese counterparts in the Indian Ocean. The Company decided to explore the feasibility of gaining a territorial foothold in mainland India with official sanction from both Britain and the Mughal Empire, and requested that the Crown launch a diplomatic mission. In 1612, James I instructed Sir Thomas Roe to visit the Mughal Emperor Nuruddin Salim Jahangir to arrange for a commercial treaty that would give the Company exclusive rights to reside and establish factories in Surat and other areas. In return, the Company offered to provide the Emperor with goods and rarities from the European market. This mission was highly successful.

Expansion

The Company, which benefited from the imperial patronage, soon expanded its commercial trading operations, eclipsing the Portuguese Estado da Índia, which had established bases in Goa, Chittagong, and Bombay. Portugal later ceded this land to England as part of the dowry of Catherine de Braganza, kind Charles II’s wife. The EIC also launched a joint attack with the Dutch United East India Company on Portuguese and Spanish ships off the coast of China, which helped secure their ports in China. By 1647, the company had 23 factories and 90 employees in India. The major factories became the walled forts of Fort William in Bengal, Fort St George in Madras, and Bombay Castle. With reduced Portuguese and Spanish influence in the region, the EIC and Dutch East India Company entered a period of intense competition, resulting in the Anglo-Dutch Wars of the 17th and 18th centuries.

In an act aimed at strengthening the power of the EIC, King Charles II granted the EIC (in a series of five acts around 1670) the rights to autonomously acquire territory, mint money, command fortresses and troops and form alliances, make war and peace, and exercise both civil and criminal jurisdiction over the acquired areas. These decisions would eventually turn the EIC from a trading company into a de facto administrative agent with wide powers granted by the British government.

Monopoly

The prosperity that the officers of the Company enjoyed allowed them to return to Britain and establish sprawling estates and businesses and obtain political power. The Company developed a lobby in the English parliament. Under pressure from ambitious tradesmen and former associates of the Company, who wanted to establish private trading firms in India, a deregulating act was passed in 1694. This allowed any English firm to trade with India unless specifically prohibited by act of parliament, thereby annulling the charter that had been in force for almost 100 years.

By an act passed in 1698, a new “parallel” East India Company (officially titled the English Company Trading to the East Indies) was floated under a state-backed indemnity of £2 million. The two companies wrestled with each other for some time, both in England and in India, for a dominant share of the trade. It quickly became evident that in practice, the original company faced scarcely any measurable competition. The companies merged in 1708 by a tripartite indenture involving both companies and the state. Under this arrangement, the merged company lent to the Treasury a sum of £3,200,000 in return for exclusive privileges for the next three years, after which the situation was to be reviewed. The amalgamated company became the United Company of Merchants of England Trading to the East Indies.

With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, Britain surged ahead of its European rivals. Britain’s growing prosperity, demand, and production had a profound influence on overseas trade. The EIC became the single largest player on the British global market. Following the Seven Years’ War (1756–63) and the defeat of France, French ambitions on Indian territories were effectively laid to rest, thus eliminating a major source of economic competition for the EIC. The Company, with the backing of its own private well-disciplined and experienced army, was able to assert its interests in new regions in India without facing obstacles from other colonial powers, although it continued to experience resistance from local rulers.

Changing Political Role

In the hundred years from the Battle of Plassey in 1757, in which the EIC defeated the ruler of Bengal Nawab and his French allies and consolidated the Company’s presence in Bengal, to the Indian Rebellion of 1857, the EIC began to function more as an administrator and less as a trading concern.
The proliferation of the Company’s power chiefly took two forms. The first was the outright annexation of Indian states and subsequent direct governance of the underlying regions, which collectively comprised British India. The second form of asserting power involved treaties in which Indian rulers acknowledged the Company’s hegemony in return for limited internal autonomy. In the early 19th century, the territories of these princes accounted for two-thirds of India. When an Indian ruler who was able to secure his territory wanted to enter such an alliance, the Company welcomed it as an economical method of indirect rule that did not involve the economic costs of direct administration or the political costs of gaining the support of alien subjects. In return, the company pledged to defend its allies.

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This Company painting probably depicts William Fullerton of Rosemount, who joined the East India Company’s service in 1744, by Dip Chand, c. 1760-64.: Company style or Company painting is a term for a hybrid Indo-European style of paintings made in India by Indian artists, many of whom worked for European patrons in the British East India Company or other foreign Companies in the 18th and 19th centuries. The style blended traditional elements from Rajput and Mughal painting with a more Western treatment of perspective, volume, and recession.

In the early 19th century, the Indian question of geopolitical dominance and empire holding remained with the East India Company. The Company’s independent armies, with some locally raised irregular forces, expanded to a total of 280,000 men by 1857. First recruited from mercenaries and low-caste volunteers, the Bengal Army eventually became composed largely of high-caste Hindus and landowning Muslims. Within the army, British officers always outranked Indians, no matter how long their service. Indian officers received no training in administration or leadership so they would remain dependent on the British officers. During the wars against the French and their allies in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the EIC’s armies were used to seize the colonial possessions of other European nations, including the islands of Réunion and Mauritius.

Indian Rebellion of 1857

The Indian Rebellion of 1857, which eventually led to the dissolution of the EIC,  had diverse political, economic, military, religious and social causes. A direct trigger wad the grievances of the sepoys, a generic term used for native Indian soldiers of the Bengal Army, against the EIC administration, caused mainly by the ethnic gulf between the European officers and their Indian troops. The spark that led directly to a mutiny in several sepoy companies was the issue of new gunpowder cartridges for the Enfield rifle. In 1857, British officers insisted that the new cartridges be used by both Muslim and Hindu soldiers, but the cartridges were made from cow and pig fat. Loading the Enfield required tearing open the greased cartridge with one’s teeth. This insulted both Hindu and Muslim religious practices. Underlying grievances over British taxation and recent land annexations by the EIC were ignited by the sepoy mutineers and within weeks, dozens of units of the Indian army joined peasant armies in widespread rebellion. The old Muslim and Hindu aristocracies, who were seeing their power steadily eroded by the EIC, also rebelled against the British rule.

In the aftermath of the Rebellion, under the provisions of the Government of India Act 1858, the British government nationalized the EIC. The Crown took over its Indian possessions, its administrative powers and machinery, and its armed forces. The EIC was officially dissolved in 1858 and the rebellion led the British to reorganize the army, the financial system, and the administration in India. The country was thereafter directly governed by the Crown as the new British Raj.

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Capture of the last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar and his sons by William Hodson in 1857, by Robert Montgomery Martin, c. 1860.: The East India Company had a long lasting impact on the Indian Subcontinent. Although dissolved following the Rebellion of 1857, it stimulated the growth of the British Empire. Its armies were to become the armies of British India after 1857, and it played a key role in introducing English as an official language in India.

The British Raj

In the aftermath of the Indian Rebellion of 1857, the British government dissolved the East India Company and established the formal colonial rule in India that would become known as the British Raj.

Learning Objectives

Explain why the British Raj was established in India

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The control of rich Bengal gained in the aftermath of the Battle of Plassey brought India into the public spotlight in Britain, and Parliament established regulations to manage the affairs of the East India Company. Although some wanted the Company’s territories to be taken over by the British state, the eventual compromise asserted that the Company could act as a sovereign power on behalf of the Crown while subject to oversight and regulation by the British government and parliament.
  • Under the terms of The Charter Act of 1833, the British Parliament revoked the Company’s trade license, which made the Company a part of British governance, but administration of British India remained the responsibility Company officers. The Act also charged the Governor-General-in-Council (to whose title was now added “of India”) with the supervision of civil and military administration of India as well as the exclusive power of legislation.
  • After the Indian Rebellion of 1857, the British government took control of the Company. All power was transferred from the EIC to the British Crown, which began to administer most of India as a number of provinces. The Crown controlled the Company’s lands directly and had considerable indirect influence over the rest of India. What followed became known as the British Raj: the rule of the British Crown in the Indian subcontinent between 1858 and 1947.
  • The Government of India Act 1858 made changes in the governance of India at three levels: in the imperial government in London, in the central government in Calcutta, and in the provincial governments in the presidencies (and later in the provinces). In London, it provided for a cabinet-level Secretary of State for India and a fifteen-member Council of India. In Calcutta, the Governor-General remained head of the Government of India, commonly called the Viceroy.
  • If the Government of India needed to enact new laws, it followed the decisions of a Legislative Council, half of which consisted of British officials with voting power and half comprised Indians and domiciled Britons in India who served only in an advisory capacity. All laws enacted by Legislative Councils in India required the final assent of the Secretary of State in London. This prompted Sir Charles Wood, the second Secretary of State, to describe the Government of India as “a despotism controlled from home.”
  • A princely state was a semi-sovereign principality during the British Raj that was not directly governed by the British, but rather by a local ruler. The princely states varied greatly in status, size, and wealth. Their courts existed under the authority of the respective rulers. The British controlled the external affairs of the princely states absolutely. As the states were not British possessions, however, they retained control over their own internal affairs, subject to a degree of British influence which in many states was substantial.

Key Terms

  • Government of India Act 1858: An Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom (21 & 22 Vict. c. 106) passed on August 2, 1858. Its provisions called for the liquidation of the British East India Company, which had been ruling British India under the auspices of Parliament) and the transference of its functions to the British Crown.
  • Indian Rebellion of 1857: A rebellion in India against the rule of the British East India Company from May 1857 to July 1859. It began as a mutiny of sepoys of the East India Company’s army in the cantonment of the town of Meerut and soon escalated into other mutinies and civilian rebellions. It led to the dissolution of the East India Company in 1858. India was thereafter directly governed by the Crown as the new British Raj.
  • East India Company: An English and later British joint-stock company formed to pursue trade with the East Indies. It ended up trading mainly with the Indian subcontinent and Qing China. The company rose to account for half of the world’s trade, particularly in basic commodities including cotton, silk, indigo dye, salt, saltpetre, tea, and opium. It also ruled the beginnings of the British Empire in India.
  • Charter Act of 1833: An 1833 act that intended to provide for an extension of the royal charter granted to the East India Company. It extended the charter by 20 years, redesignated the Governor-General of Bengal as the Governor-General of India, and deprived the Governors of Bombay and Madras of their legislative powers. The Governor-General and his executive council were given exclusive legislative powers for the whole of British India. The act ended the activities of the British East India Company as a commercial body and it became a purely administrative body.
  • princely state: A semi-sovereign principality on the Indian subcontinent during the British Raj that was not directly governed by the British, but rather by a local ruler, subject to a form of indirect rule on some matters.
  • British Raj: The rule of the British Crown in the Indian subcontinent between 1858 and 1947.

East India Company vs. British Government

Until the 1757 Battle of Plassey, the East India Company (EIC or the Company) territories in India, which consisted largely of the presidency towns of Calcutta, Madras, and Bombay, were governed by the mostly autonomous—and sporadically unmanageable—town councils, all composed of merchants. The councils barely had enough powers for the effective management of their local affairs and the ensuing lack of oversight of the overall Company operations in India led to some grave abuses by Company officers and their allies. The control of rich Bengal gained in the aftermath of the Battle of Plassey brought India into the public spotlight in Britain and the Company’s money management practices were questioned.

By 1772, the Company needed British government loans to stay afloat and there was fear in London that the Company’s corrupt practices could soon seep into British business and public life. Consequently, the Parliament established regulations at aimed to manage the affairs of the EIC. Although some wanted the Company’s territories to be taken over by the British state, the eventual compromise asserted that the Company could act as a sovereign power on behalf of the Crown and while subject to oversight and regulation by the British government and parliament. From 1784, the British government had the final word on all major appointments in India.

With increased British power in India, supervision of Indian affairs by the British Crown and Parliament increased as well. By the 1820s, British nationals could transact business or engage in missionary work under the protection of the Crown in the three presidencies. Finally, under the terms of The Charter Act of 1833, the British Parliament revoked the Company’s trade license altogether. This made the Company a part of British governance, but administration of British India remained the responsibility of Company officers. The Charter Act of 1833 also charged the Governor-General-in-Council (to whose title was now added “of India”) with the supervision of civil and military administration of the totality of India and the exclusive power of legislation.

The proliferation of the Company’s power chiefly took two forms. The first was the outright annexation of Indian states and subsequent direct governance of the underlying regions that came to comprise British India. The second involved treaties in which Indian rulers acknowledged the Company’s hegemony in return for limited internal autonomy. In the early 19th century, the territories of these princes accounted for two-thirds of India. When an Indian ruler who was able to secure his territory wanted to enter such an alliance, the Company welcomed it as an economical method of indirect rule that did not involve the economic costs of direct administration or the political costs of gaining the support of alien subjects. In return, the company pledged to defend its allies.

British Raj: “Despotism Controlled from Home”

The Indian Rebellion of 1857, a large-scale rebellion by soldiers employed by the EIC in northern and central India against the Company’s rule, was brutally suppressed. The British government took control of the Company and all power was transferred from the EIC to the British Crown, which began to administer most of India as a number of provinces. The Crown controlled the Company’s lands directly and had considerable indirect influence over the rest of India, which consisted of the princely states ruled by local royal families. What followed became known as the British Raj, the rule of the British Crown in the Indian subcontinent between 1858 and 1947.

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A 1909 map of the British Indian Empire, Edinburgh Geographical Institute, J. G. Bartholomew and Sons, Oxford University Press, 1909.

The British Raj extended over almost all present-day India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, except for small holdings by other European nations such as Goa and Pondicherry. This area is very diverse, containing the Himalayan mountains, fertile floodplains, the Indo-Gangetic Plain, a long coastline, tropical dry forests, arid uplands, and the Thar desert.

The Government of India Act 1858 made changes in the governance of India at three levels: in the imperial government in London, in the central government in Calcutta, and in the provincial governments in the presidencies (and later in the provinces). In London, it provided for a cabinet-level Secretary of State for India and a 15-member Council of India, whose members were required, to have spent at least ten years in India no more than 10 years ago. The Act envisaged a system of “double government,” in which the Council ideally served both as a check on excesses in imperial policy making and as a body of up-to-date expertise on India. However, the Secretary of State also had special emergency powers that allowed him to make unilateral decisions and, in reality, the Council’s expertise was sometimes outdated.

In Calcutta, the Governor-General remained head of the Government of India and now was more commonly called the Viceroy on account of his secondary role as the Crown’s representative to the nominally sovereign princely states. He was, however, now responsible to the Secretary of State in London and through him to Parliament. The Governor-General in the capital, Calcutta, and the Governor in a subordinate presidency (Madras or Bombay) was each required to consult his advisory council. However, in the years of the post-rebellion reconstruction, Viceroy Lord Canning found the collective decision making of the Council to be too time-consuming for the pressing tasks ahead, so he requested the “portfolio system” of an Executive Council, in which the business of each government department (the portfolio) was assigned to and became the responsibility of a single council member. Routine departmental decisions were made exclusively by the member, but important decisions required the consent of the Governor-General and in the absence of such consent, required discussion by the entire Executive Council. This innovation in Indian governance was promulgated in the Indian Councils Act 1861.

If the Government of India needed to enact new laws, the Councils Act allowed for a Legislative Council—an expansion of the Executive Council by up to twelve additional members, each appointed to a two-year term—with half the members consisting of British officials of the government (termed official) and allowed to vote and the other half comprising Indians and domiciled Britons in India (termed non-official) and serving only in an advisory capacity. All laws enacted by Legislative Councils in India required the final assent of the Secretary of State in London. This prompted Sir Charles Wood, the second Secretary of State, to describe the Government of India as “a despotism controlled from home.” Moreover, although the appointment of Indians to the Legislative Council was a response to calls for more consultation with Indians, those appointed were from the landed aristocracy, often chosen for their British loyalty.

Princely States

A princely state, also called native state, refers to a semi-sovereign principality during the British Raj that was not directly governed by the British, but rather by a local ruler, subject to a form of indirect rule on some matters. The princely states varied greatly in status, size, and wealth.
The British Crown’s suzerainty over 175 princely states, generally the largest and most important, was exercised in the name of the British Crown by the central government of British India under the Viceroy. The remaining approximately 500 states were influenced by agents answerable to the provincial governments of British India under a Governor, Lieutenant-Governor, or Chief Commissioner. A clear distinction between “dominion” and “suzerainty” was supplied by the jurisdiction of the courts of law: the law of British India rested upon the legislation enacted by the British Parliament and the legislative powers those laws vested in the various governments of British India, both central and local. In contrast, the courts of the princely states existed under the authority of the respective rulers of those states. By treaty, the British controlled the external affairs of the princely states absolutely. As the states were not British possessions, however, they retained control over their own internal affairs, subject to a degree of British influence which in many states was substantial.

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Viceroy Lord Canning meets Maharaja Ranbir Singh of Jammu & Kashmir, March 9, 1860 by William Simpson, 1867.

Suzerainty over 175 princely states, some of the largest and most important, was exercised (in the name of the British Crown) by the central government of British India under the Viceroy. The remaining approximately 500 states were dependents of the provincial governments of British India under a Governor, Lieutenant-Governor, or Chief Commissioner (as the case might have been).

By the beginning of the 20th century, relations between the British and the four largest states – Hyderabad, Mysore, Jammu and Kashmir, and Baroda – were directly under the control of the Governor-General of India in the person of a British Resident. Two agencies, for Rajputana and Central India, oversaw 20 and 148 princely states respectively. The remaining princely states had their own British political officers, or agents, who answered to the administrators of India’s provinces.

The “Civilising Mission”

The British used the rationale of “civilising mission” to justify their imperial control of India and to introduce limited reforms to produce a qualified white-collar labor force that loyally supported colonial rule.

Learning Objectives

Define the “civilising mission”

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The mission civilisatrice, a French term that translates literally into English as civilising mission, is a rationale for intervention or colonization, purporting to contribute to the spread of civilization and used mostly in relation to the colonization and Westernization of indigenous peoples in the 19th and 20th centuries. Its advocates postulated a duty of Europeans to help “backwards” peoples “civilize.”
  • In India, the British ” civilising mission ” focused largely on educational reforms designed to speed up modernization and reduce administrative charges. Colonial authorities fervently debated the question of the best policy. The orientalists believed that education should happen in Indian languages while the utilitarians (also called anglicists) strongly believed that traditional India had nothing to teach regarding modern skills and the best education would happen in English.
  • One of the most influential reformers was Thomas Babington Macaulay, who in 1835 authored “Minute on Indian Education.” In it, he urged the Governor-General to reform secondary education on utilitarian lines to deliver “useful learning,” which to Macaulay was synonymous with Western culture. He argued that Sanskrit and Persian were no more accessible than English to the speakers of the Indian vernacular languages and existing Sanskrit and Persian texts were of little use for “useful learning.”
  • Macaulay’s text largely coincided with Governor-General William Bentinck’s views and Bentinck’s English Education Act 1835 closely matched Macaulay’s recommendations. Under Macaulay, thousands of elementary and secondary schools were opened, typically with all-male student bodies. However, Macaulay’s views enjoyed little support in London and subsequent Governors-General took a more conciliatory approach to existing Indian education.
  • Missionaries opened their own schools that taught Christianity and the 3-Rs (reading, writing, and arithmetic). Universities in Calcutta, Bombay, and Madras were established in 1857. The government opened 186 universities and colleges of higher education by 1911. All these benefits, however, went to the Indian elites and middle classes, who were expected to serve as loyal supporters of the British rule in India.
  • The “civilising mission” rhetoric continued, but soon became an alibi for British misrule and racism without the pretense that Indian progress was ever a goal. Those who advocated actual reforms became less influential. The British assumed Indians had to be ruled by heavy hand, with democratic opportunities postponed indefinitely.

Key Terms

  • Whig history: An approach to historiography that presents the past as an inevitable progression towards ever greater liberty and enlightenment, culminating in modern forms of liberal democracy and constitutional monarchy. In general, historians representing this approach emphasize the rise of constitutional government, personal freedoms, and scientific progress. The term is often applied generally (and pejoratively) to histories that present the past as the inexorable march of progress towards enlightenment.
  • civilising mission: A rationale for intervention or colonization purporting to contribute to the spread of civilization, used mostly in relation to the colonization and Westernization of indigenous peoples in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Intellectual Origins of “Civilising Mission”

The mission civilisatrice, a French term which translates literally into English as civilising mission, is a rationale for intervention or colonization, purporting to contribute to the spread of civilization and used mostly in relation to the colonization and Westernization of indigenous peoples in the 19th and 20th centuries. It was influential in the French colonies of Algeria, French West Africa, and Indochina and in the Portuguese colonies of Angola, Guinea, Mozambique, and Timor. The rationale was also used by the British in their Asian and African colonies. The European colonial powers argued it was their duty to bring Western civilization to what they perceived as backward people. In addition to governing colonies, the Europeans also attempted to Westernize them in accordance with a colonial ideology known as “assimilation.” They aimed to influence indigenous elites who would loyally support imperial rule.

The intellectual origins of the mission civilisatrice trace back to the European thinkers, who discussed the idea of social change by using a development metaphor. In the 18th century, many saw history as a linear unending inevitable process of social evolutionism with the European nations running ahead. Racism underlined the arguments of two dominant lines of thought that emerged from this assumption. Some Europeans saw the “backward” nations as intrinsically incapable of reaching what Europeans saw as a more advanced level of social development. Others did not deny non-European societies these capabilities but postulated a duty to help those peoples “civilize.”

The Role of Education

In India, the British “civilising mission” focused largely on educational reforms. Education in English became a high priority with the goal to speed up modernization and reduce administrative charges. Colonial authorities fervently debated the question of the best policy, falling roughly in one of the two main camps. The orientalists believed that education should happen in Indian languages and favored classical or court languages like Sanskrit or Persian. Conversely, the utilitarians (also called anglicists) strongly believed that traditional India had nothing to teach regarding modern skills and the best education would happen in English.

One of the most influential reformers, Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800–1859), belonged to the latter group. Macaulay was a historian and politician who represented the tradition of Whig history, according to which the past is an inevitable progression towards ever greater liberty and enlightenment, culminating in modern forms of liberal democracy and constitutional monarchy. In general, Whig historians emphasize the rise of constitutional government, personal freedoms, and scientific progress.

Macauley went to India in 1834 and served on the Supreme Council of India until 1838. At the time, he authored his famous “Minute on Indian Education” (1835), in which he urged the Governor-General to reform secondary education on utilitarian lines to deliver “useful learning,” which to Macaulay was synonymous with Western culture. Macaulay argued that Sanskrit and Persian were no more accessible than English to the speakers of the Indian vernacular languages and existing Sanskrit and Persian texts were of little use for “useful learning.” Although he did not know Sanskrit or Arabic, he claimed that all Western experts could not “deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia.” Hence, he advocated that from the sixth year of schooling, students should be taught a European curriculum in English. This aimed to create a class of anglicized Indians to serve as cultural intermediaries between the British and the Indians. Macualay assumed that the creation of such a class was necessary before any reform of vernacular education.

Macaulay’s text largely coincided with Governor-General William Bentinck’s views and Bentinck’s English Education Act 1835 closely matched Macaulay’s recommendations. Under Macaulay, thousands of elementary and secondary schools opened, typically with all-male student bodies. However, Macaulay’s views enjoyed little support in London and subsequent Governors-General took a more conciliatory approach to existing Indian education.

Missionaries opened their own schools that taught Christianity and the 3-Rs (reading, writing, and arithmetic). Universities in Calcutta, Bombay, and Madras were established in 1857, just before the Rebellion. By 1890, some 60,000 Indians had matriculated, chiefly in the liberal arts or law. About a third entered public administration and another third became lawyers. The result was a very well-educated professional state bureaucracy. By 1887, of 21,000 mid-level civil service appointments, 45% were held by Hindus, 7% by Muslims, 19% by Eurasians (European father and Indian mother), and 29% by Europeans. Of the 1,000 top-level positions, almost all were held by Britons, typically with Oxbridge degrees. The government, often working with local philanthropists, opened 186 universities and colleges of higher education by 1911 and enrolled 36,000 students (over 90% men). By 1939, the number of institutions had doubled and enrollment reached 145,000. The curriculum followed classical British standards et by Oxford and Cambridge and stressed English literature and European history. All these benefits of education, however, went to the Indian elites and middle classes, who were expected to serve as loyal supporters of the British rule in India. Historians of Indian education have generally linked the idea of educational reform under the British rule to colonial dominance and control.

The “civilising mission” rhetoric continued, but soon became an alibi for British misrule and racism, this time without even pretending that Indian progress was ever a goal. Those who advocated actual reforms became less influential. Instead, the British assumed Indians had to be ruled by heavy hand with democratic opportunities postponed indefinitely, although some English historians argued that the so-called liberal imperialists truly believed that the British rule would bring the benefits of “ordered liberty” and Britain could fulfill its moral duty. Much of the debate on the role of Britain in India took place in Britain, where the imperialists worked hard to convince the general population that the “civilising mission” was well under-way. This campaign served to strengthen imperial support at home and thus bolster the moral authority of the elites who ran the Empire.

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University of Bombay: A photo of University of Mumbai’s Fort Campus taken in the 1870s. Rajabai Clock Tower, seen here shrouded in scaffolding, was completed in 1878.

The Great Uprising of 1857

The Indian Rebellion of 1857, triggered by numerous grievances of both Indian soldiers (sepoys) and civilians against the East India Company, ended the Company’s rule in India and established the formal imperial rule of the British Crown across the region.

Learning Objectives

Analyze the reasons for the Great Uprising of 1857

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Indian Rebellion of 1857 resulted from an accumulation of factors over time rather than any single event. In the military, sepoys had a number of grievances, including losing their perquisites as landed gentry and the anticipation of increased land-revenue payments that the 1856 annexation of Oudh might bring about; being convinced that the Company was masterminding mass conversions of Hindus and Muslims to Christianity; changes in the terms of professional service; and the issue of promotions based on seniority.
  • The final spark was provided by the ammunition for the new Enfield P-53 rifle. To load the rifle, sepoys had to bite the cartridge open to release the powder, but the grease used on these cartridges was rumored to include tallow derived from beef, offensive to Hindus, and pork, offensive to Muslims. While the Company was quick to reverse the effects of the policy to quell the unrest, this convinced many sepoys that the rumors were true and their fears were justified.
  • Civilians developed their own grievances against the Company. The nobility felt it interfered with a traditional system of inheritance through the Doctrine of Lapse. Rural landlords lost half their landed estates to peasant farmers as a result of the land reforms in the wake of annexation of Oudh. Some historians have suggested that heavy land-revenue assessment in some areas resulted in many landowning families losing their land or going into great debt.
  • The rebellion began as a mutiny of sepoys on May 10, 1857, in the cantonment of the town of Meerut, and soon escalated into other mutinies and civilian rebellions, largely in the upper Gangetic plain and central India, with the major hostilities confined to present-day Uttar Pradesh, western Bihar, northern Madhya Pradesh, and the Delhi region. In general, the rebels were disorganized, had differing goals, were poorly equipped, led, and trained, and had no outside support or funding.
  • The rebellion and its aftermath resulted in the deaths of more than 100,000 Indians. The alleged killings of women and children by the rebels left many British soldiers seeking revenge. Most of the British press and British public, outraged by the stories of alleged rape and the killings of civilians and wounded British soldiers, did not advocate clemency of any kind.
  • The rebellion saw the end of the East India Company ‘s rule in India. By the Government of India Act 1858, the company was formally dissolved and its ruling powers over India were transferred to the British Crown. The rebellion also transformed both the native and European armies of British India.

Key Terms

  • Indian Rebellion of 1857: A rebellion in India against the rule of the British East India Company from May 1857 to July 1859. It began as a mutiny of sepoys of the East India Company’s army in the cantonment of the town of Meerut and soon escalated into other mutinies and civilian rebellions. It led to the dissolution of the East India Company in 1858. India was thereafter directly governed by the Crown as the new British Raj.
  • sepoy: A term used in the forces of the British East India Company that initially referred to Hindu or Muslim soldiers without regular uniform or discipline. It later referred to all native soldiers in the service of the European powers in India.
  • East India Company: An English and later British joint-stock company formed to pursue trade with the East Indies but trading mainly with the Indian subcontinent and Qing China. The
    company rose to account for half of the world’s trade, particularly in basic commodities including cotton, silk, indigo dye, salt, saltpeter, tea, and opium. It also ruled the beginnings of the British Empire in India.
  • Government of India Act 1858: An Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom (21 & 22 Vict. c. 106) passed on August 2, 1858. Its provisions called for the liquidation of the British East India Company, which had been ruling British India under the auspices of Parliament and the transference of its functions to the British Crown.

Causes of 1857 Rebellion

The Indian Rebellion of 1857 (known also as the Great Uprising of 1857) resulted from an accumulation of factors over time rather than from any single event.

In 1772, Warren Hastings was appointed India’s first Governor-General, and one of his first undertakings was the rapid expansion of the East India Company’s army. New sepoys (local soldiers, usually of Hindu or Muslim background) were recruited and to forestall any social friction, the Company took action to adapt its military practices to the requirements of their religious rituals. Over time, however, sepoys developed a number of grievances. After the annexation of Oudh (Awadh) by the EIC in 1856, many sepoys were disquieted both from losing their perquisites as landed gentry and from the anticipation of any increased land-revenue payments that the annexation might bring about. Furthermore, by 1857, some Indian soldiers, interpreting the presence of missionaries as a sign of official intent, were convinced that the Company was masterminding mass conversions of Hindus and Muslims to Christianity. Finally, changes in the terms of professional service also created resentment. As the extent of the EIC’s jurisdiction expanded with victories in wars or annexation, the soldiers were now expected not only to serve in less familiar regions but also without the “foreign service” remuneration that had previously been their due. Moreover, the new recruits of the Bengal Army, who until 1856 had been exempted from overseas service in observance of certain caste rituals, were now required a commitment for general service. There were also grievances over the issue of promotions based on seniority. This as well as the increasing number of European officers in the battalions made promotion slow, and many Indian officers did not reach commissioned rank until they were too old to be effective.

The final spark was provided by the ammunition for the new Enfield P-53 rifle. These used paper cartridges that came pre-greased. To load the rifle, sepoys had to bite the cartridges open to release the powder. The grease used was rumored to include tallow derived from beef, offensive to Hindus, and pork, offensive to Muslims. There were rumors that the British sought to destroy the religions of the Indian people and forcing the native soldiers to break their sacred code certainly increased this concern. The Company was quick to reverse the effects of the policy in hopes that the unrest would be quelled. Colonel Richard Birch, the Military Secretary, ordered that all cartridges issued from depots were to be free from grease and that sepoys could grease them themselves using whatever mixture “they may prefer.” A modification was also made to the drill for loading so that the cartridge was torn with the hands and not bitten. This, however, convinced many sepoys that the rumors were true and that their fears were justified.

Civilians developed their own grievances against the Company. The nobility, many of whom lost titles and domains under the Doctrine of Lapse which refused to recognize the adopted children of princes as legal heirs, felt that the Company had interfered with a traditional system of inheritance. In the areas of central India where such loss of privilege had not occurred, the princes remained loyal to the Company, even in areas where the sepoys had rebelled. Rural landlords called taluqdars lost half their landed estates to peasant farmers as a result of the land reforms that came in the wake of annexation of Oudh. Some historians have also suggested that heavy land-revenue assessment in some areas resulted in many landowning families either losing their land or going into great debt (money lenders, in addition to the Company, were particular objects of the rebels’ animosity). Eventually, the civilian rebellion was highly uneven in its geographic distribution and historians still attempt to explain why some areas rebelled while others remained calm.

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“The Sepoy Revolt at Meerut,” Illustrated London News, 1857.

At Meerut, a large military cantonment, 2,357 Indian sepoys and 2,038 British soldiers were stationed along with 12 British-manned guns. The station held one of the largest concentrations of British troops in India and this was later cited as evidence that the original rising was a spontaneous outbreak rather than a pre-planned plot.

Rebellion of 1857

The rebellion began as a mutiny of sepoys on May 10, 1857, in the cantonment of the town of Meerut, and soon escalated into other mutinies and civilian rebellions, largely in the upper Gangetic plain and central India, with the major hostilities confined to present-day Uttar Pradesh, western Bihar, northern Madhya Pradesh, and the Delhi region. The rebellion posed a considerable threat to EIC’s power in that region. Other regions of Company-controlled India, the Bombay Presidency and the Madras Presidency, remained largely calm. The large princely states of Hyderabad, Mysore, Travancore, and Kashmir, as well as the smaller ones of Rajputana, did not join the rebellion. In some regions such as Oudh, the rebellion took on the attributes of a patriotic revolt against European presence. Some rebel leaders, such as Lakshmibai, the Rani of Jhansi, became folk heroes in the nationalist movement in India half a century later. In the Bengal Presidency, the revolt was entirely centered on Bihar, which experienced multiple disturbances in the Shahabad region where the revolt was led by Kunwar Singh. In Punjab, the Sikh princes backed the Company by providing soldiers and support. In general, the rebels were disorganized, had differing goals, were poorly equipped, led, and trained, and had no outside support or funding. The rebellion was contained only with the Indian defeat in Gwalior on June 18, 1858, during which Rani of Jhansi was killed. By 1859, rebel leaders Bakht Khan and Nana Sahib had either been slain or had fled.

Aftermath

The rebellion and its aftermath resulted in the deaths of more than 100,000 Indians. The alleged killings of women and children by the rebels as well as wounded British soldiers left many British soldiers seeking revenge. The mutineers were hung or blown from cannon,  an old Mughal punishment where sentenced rebels were tied over the mouths of cannons and blown to pieces when the cannons were fired. Most of the British press, outraged by the stories of alleged rape and the killings of civilians and wounded British soldiers, did not advocate clemency of any kind. When Governor-General Canning ordered moderation in dealing with native sensibilities, he earned the scornful sobriquet “Clemency Canning” from the press and later parts of the British public.

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Sepoy execution by blowing from a cannon

Incidents of rape allegedly committed by Indian rebels against European women and girls appalled the British public. These atrocities were often used to justify the British reaction to the rebellion. A series of exhaustive investigations were carried out by British police and intelligence officials into reports that British women prisoners had been “dishonored” at the Bibighar and elsewhere. The consensus was that there was no convincing evidence of such crimes having been committed, although numbers of European women and children had been killed outright.

The rebellion saw the end of the East India Company’s rule in India. In August, by the Government of India Act 1858, the company was formally dissolved and its ruling powers over India were transferred to the British Crown. A new British government department, the India Office, was created to handle the governance of India, and its head, the Secretary of State for India, was entrusted with formulating Indian policy. The Governor-General of India gained a new title, Viceroy of India, and implemented the policies devised by the India Office. On a political level, the British assumed that the previous lack of consultation between rulers and ruled was a significant factor in contributing to the uprising. In consequence, Indians were drawn into government at a local level, although on a limited scale. Nonetheless, a new white-collar Indian elite comprised of a professional middle class was starting to arise, in no way bound by the values of the past.

The Bengal army dominated the Indian army before 1857 and a direct result after the rebellion was the scaling back of the size of the Bengali contingent. The Brahmin presence in the Bengal Army was reduced because of their perceived primary role as mutineers. The rebellion transformed both the native and European armies of British India. The old Bengal Army almost completely vanished from the order of battle. These troops were replaced by new units recruited from castes hitherto underutilized by the British and from the minority so-called “martial races,” such as the Sikhs and the Gurkhas. There were also fewer European officers, but they associated themselves far more closely with their soldiers. More responsibility was given to the Indian officers.

The Economy in British India

The economy of British India was largely designed to protect and expand interests of the British economy, but the British collaborated closely with the Indian elites who, unlike the masses of ordinary Indians, benefited from the many economic changes.

Learning Objectives

Describe the economy of British India and how it fit into Britain’s mercantilism

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Both the direct administration of India by the British Crown and the technological change ushered in by the Industrial Revolution closely intertwined the economies of India and Great Britain. Railways, roads, canals, and bridges were rapidly built in India and telegraph links established so that raw materials, most notably cotton, from India’s hinterland could be transported more efficiently to ports for subsequent export to England. Finished goods from England were transported back just as efficiently for sale in the burgeoning Indian markets.
  • Despite Britain’s position as the global leader of industrial development, India’s industrialization was limited beyond textiles. Historians have pointed to two causes: relatively low labor costs that discouraged investment in new labor-saving technologies and British control of trade and exports of cheap Manchester cotton. Entrepreneur Jamsetji Tata became the symbol of local industrial success, establishing a company that remains an influential global brand today.
  • A plan for a rail system in India was first put forward in 1832. A few short lines were built in the 1830s, but they did not interconnect. In 1844, Governor-General Lord Hardinge allowed private entrepreneurs to set up a rail system in India. The colonial government encouraged new railway companies backed by private investors under a scheme that would provide land and guarantee an annual return of up to five percent during the initial years of operation. Encouraged by the government guarantees, investment flowed in and a series of new rail companies were established, leading to rapid expansion of the rail system in India.
  • The railways were privately owned and operated and run by British administrators, engineers, and skilled craftsmen. At first, only the unskilled workers were Indians. Like hiring practices, building and maintaining the railways were designed to benefit mostly British companies. India thus provides an example of the British Empire pouring its money and expertise into a well-built system designed for military purposes with the hope that it would stimulate industry.
  • The Indian economy grew about 1% per year from 1880 to 1920 and the population also grew at 1%. The result was, on average, no long-term change in income levels. Agriculture was still dominant, with most peasants at the subsistence level. Extensive irrigation systems were built, providing an impetus for growing cash crops for export and for raw materials for Indian industry, especially jute, cotton, sugarcane, coffee, and tea.
  • Historians continue to debate whether the long-term impact of British rule accelerated or hindered the economic development of India. Some argue that the new economy brought by the British in the 18th century was a form of “plunder.” Others note the British takeover did not make any sharp break with the past. Many scholars in India and the West agree today that the British power depended upon excellent cooperation with Indian elites and that the British rule did not change the highly divisive caste-based hierarchy of the Indian society.

Key Terms

  • East India Company: An English and later British joint-stock company formed to pursue trade with the East Indies but trading mainly with the Indian subcontinent and Qing China. The company rose to account for half of the world’s trade, particularly in basic commodities including cotton, silk, indigo dye, salt, saltpeter, tea, and opium. It also ruled the beginnings of the British Empire in India.
  • Indian Rebellion of 1857: A rebellion in India against the rule of the British East India Company from May 1857 to July 1859. It began as a mutiny of sepoys of the East India Company’s army in the cantonment of the town of Meerut and soon escalated into other mutinies and civilian rebellions. It led to the dissolution of the East India Company in 1858. India was thereafter directly governed by the Crown as the new British Raj.

Limited Industrialization

In the second half of the 19th century, both the direct administration of India by the British Crown and the technological change ushered in by the Industrial Revolution closely intertwined the economies of India and Great Britain. Many of the major changes in transport and communications typically associated with Crown Rule of India began before the Indian Rebellion of 1857. Railways, roads, canals, and bridges were rapidly built in India and telegraph links established so that raw materials, most notably cotton, from India’s hinterland could be transported more efficiently to ports for subsequent export to England. Finished goods from England were transported back just as efficiently for sale in the burgeoning Indian markets. Imports of British cotton covered 55% of the Indian market by 1875.

Despite Britain’s position as the global leader of industrial development, India’s industrialization was limited, prompting historians to examine why. In the 17th century, India was a relatively urbanized and commercialized country with a buoyant export trade, devoted largely to cotton textiles but also including silk, spices, and rice. India was the world’s main producer of cotton textiles and had a substantial export trade to Britain and many other European countries via the East India Company. Yet while the British cotton industry underwent technological revolution in the late 18th century, the Indian industry stagnated and industrialization in India was delayed until the 20th century.

Historians have suggested that occurred because India was still a largely agricultural nation with low wages. In Britain, wages were relatively high, so cotton producers had the incentive to invent and purchase expensive new labor-saving technologies. In India, by contrast, wages were low, so producers preferred to increase output by hiring more workers rather than investing in technology. British control of trade and exports of cheap Manchester cotton are cited as other significant factors.

Despite the unrivaled quality of Indian cotton, universally recognized as late as the end of the 18th century, Indian textile exports declined significantly over the 19th century. High tariffs against Indian textile workshops and British restrictions on Indian cotton imports quickly transformed India from the source of textiles to a source of raw cotton. Industrial production as it developed in European factories was unknown until the 1850s when the first cotton mills opened in Bombay, posing a challenge to the cottage-based home production system based on family labor.

The entrepreneur Jamsetji Tata (1839–1904) began his industrial career in 1877 with the Central India Spinning, Weaving, and Manufacturing Company in Bombay. While other Indian mills produced cheap coarse yarn (and later cloth) using local short-staple cotton and cheap machinery imported from Britain, Tata imported expensive longer-stapled cotton from Egypt and bought more complex ring-spindle machinery from the United States to spin finer yarn that could compete with imports from Britain. In the 1890s, Tata launched plans to expand into heavy industry using Indian funding. The Raj did not provide capital, but aware of Britain’s declining position against the U.S. and Germany in the steel industry, it wanted steel mills in India and promised to purchase any surplus steel Tata could not otherwise sell. The Tata Iron and Steel Company (TISCO), headed by his son Dorabji Tata (1859–1932), opened its plant in 1908. It became the leading iron and steel producer in India, with 120,000 employees in 1945. TISCO became India’s proud symbol of technical skill, managerial competence, entrepreneurial flair, and high pay for industrial workers.

Railway Industry

A plan for a rail system in India was first put forward in 1832. A few short lines were built in the 1830s, but they did not interconnect. In 1844, Governor-General Lord Hardinge allowed private entrepreneurs to set up a rail system in India. The colonial government encouraged new railway companies backed by private investors under a scheme that would provide land and guarantee an annual return of up to five percent during the initial years of operation. The companies were to build and operate the lines under a 99-year lease, with the government having the option to buy them earlier.

Encouraged by the government guarantees, investment flowed in and a series of new rail companies were established, leading to rapid expansion of the rail system in India. Soon several large princely states built their own rail systems and the network spread across regions.
British investors and engineers built a modern railway system by the late 19th century. It was the fourth largest in the world and was renowned for quality of construction and service. The government was supportive, realizing its value for military use in case of another rebellion as well as its value for economic growth. All the funding and management came from private British companies. The railways at first were privately owned and operated and run by British administrators, engineers, and skilled craftsmen.

At first, only the unskilled workers were Indians. Historians note that until the 1930s, both the Raj lines and the private companies hired only European supervisors, civil engineers, and even operating personnel such as locomotive engineers. Like hiring practices, building and maintaining the railways were designed to benefit mostly British companies. The government required that bids on railway contracts be made to the India Office in London, shutting out most Indian firms. The railway companies purchased most of their hardware and parts in Britain. There were railway maintenance workshops in India, but they were rarely allowed to manufacture or repair locomotives.

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“The most magnificent railway station in the world,” Victoria Terminus, Bombay, completed in 1888

By 1875, about £95 million (equal to £117 billion in 2012) was invested by British companies in Indian-guaranteed railways. It later transpired that there was heavy corruption in these investments, on the part of both members of the British Colonial Government in India and companies who supplied machinery and steel in Britain. This resulted in railway lines and equipment costing nearly double what they should have.

India provides an example of the British Empire pouring its money and expertise into a well-built system designed for military purposes after the Rebellion of 1857 with the hope that it would stimulate industry. The system was overbuilt and too expensive for the small amount of freight traffic it carried. However, it did capture the imagination of the Indians, who saw their railways as the symbol of an industrial modernity—but one that was not realized until after Independence.

Economic Impact

The Indian economy grew at about 1% per year from 1880 to 1920 and the population also grew at 1%. The result was, on average, no long-term change in income levels. Agriculture was still dominant, with most peasants at the subsistence level. Extensive irrigation systems were built, providing an impetus for growing cash crops for export and for raw materials for Indian industry, especially jute, cotton, sugarcane, coffee, and tea. Agricultural income imparted the strongest effect on GDP.

Historians continue to debate whether the long-term impact of British rule was to accelerate or hinder the economic development of India. In 1780, conservative British politician Edmund Burke raised the issue of India’s position. He vehemently attacked the EIC, claiming that Warren Hastings and other top officials had ruined the Indian economy and society. Indian historian Rajat Kanta Ray (1998) continues this line of attack, arguing that the new economy brought by the British in the 18th century was a form of plunder and a catastrophe for the traditional economy of the Mughal Empire. Ray accuses the British of depleting the food and money stocks and of imposing high taxes that helped cause the terrible Bengal famine of 1770, which killed a third of the city’s people.

P. J. Marshall shows that recent scholarship has reinterpreted the view that the prosperity of the formerly benign Mughal rule gave way to poverty and anarchy. He argues the British takeover did not make any sharp break with the past, which largely delegated control to regional Mughal rulers and sustained a generally prosperous economy for the rest of the 18th century. Marshall notes the British went into partnership with Indian bankers and raised revenue through local tax administrators, keeping  the old Mughal rates of taxation. Many historians agree that the EIC inherited an onerous taxation system that took one-third of the produce of Indian cultivators. Instead of the Indian nationalist account of the British as alien aggressors, seizing power by brute force and impoverishing all of India, Marshall presents the interpretation (supported by many scholars in India and the West) that the British were not in full control but instead were players in what was primarily an Indian play and in which their rise to power depended upon excellent cooperation with Indian elites. Marshall admits that much of his interpretation is still highly controversial among many historians. However, historians agree that the British rule did not change the divisive caste-based hierarchy of the Indian society and thus ordinary Indians remained excluded from the benefits of economic growth.

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The railway network in 1909, when it was the fourth largest railway network in the world

In 1907, almost all the rail companies were taken over by the government. The following year, the first electric locomotive made its appearance. With the arrival of World War I, the railways were used to meet the needs of the British outside India. With the end of the war, the railways were in a state of disrepair and collapse.

The Indian National Congress

The Indian National Congress has dominated Indian politics since leading the Indian independence movement. In the post-independence era, it has remained the most influential political party in India under the continuous leadership of the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty.

Learning Objectives

List the key goals of the Indian National Congress and the reasons for its formation

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Indian National Congress was founded in 1885 by Indian and British members of the Theosophical Society to obtain a greater share in government for educated Indians and create a platform for civic and political dialogue between educated Indians and the British Raj. Within the next few years, the organization decided to advocate in favor of the independence movement. After internal conflicts over how to win independence, the moderate faction advocating gradual reforms won leadership over the radical faction that called for an open rebellion.
  • Mahatma Gandhi returned from South Africa in 1915. With the help of the moderate group led by Ghokhale, Gandhi became president of the Congress and in the years following World War I, he remained its unofficial spiritual leader and icon. Gandhi’s ideas and strategies of non-violent civil disobedience initially appeared impractical to some Indians and congressmen. In the end, however, Gandhi’s vision brought millions of ordinary Indians into the movement, transforming it from an elitist struggle to a national one.
  • In 1929, under the presidency of Jawaharlal Nehru, the Congress declared complete independence as the party’s goal. In 1936-37, the British government allowed provincial elections in India. The Congress gained power in eight out of 11 provinces. However, in 1939, the Viceroy Linlithgow declared India’s entrance into World War II without consulting provincial governments. In protest, the Congress asked all its elected representatives to resign from the government. The Congress also supported the actions of the Azad Hind, an Indian provisional government established in Singapore during WWII.
  • After Indian independence in 1947, the Indian National Congress became the dominant political party in the country. In 1952, in the first general election held after independence, the party swept to power in the national parliament and most state legislatures. It held power nationally until 1977, returned to power in 1980, and ruled until 1989, when it was once again defeated. It formed the government in 1991 at the head of a coalition as well as in 2004 and 2009. During this period, the Congress remained center-left in its social policies while steadily shifting from a socialist to a neoliberal economic outlook.
  • Throughout the post-independence period, Congress leadership was dominated by the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty. From 1951 until his death in 1964, Jawaharlal Nehru was the Congress’ paramount leader under the tutelage of Mahatma Gandhi. After Nehru’s death, Lal Bahadur Shastri took over but his death in 1966 elevated to power Indira Gandhi, Nehru’s daughter. Over time, Gandhi’s government grew increasingly more authoritarian and unrest among the opposition grew.
  • In 1984, Indira Gandhi’s son Rajiv Gandhi became nominal head of the Congress and prime minister upon her assassination. His government was accused of corruption and in 1991, Gandhi was killed by a bomb. He was succeeded as party leader by P. V. Narasimha Rao, who is often referred to as the “father of Indian economic reforms.” Rao was succeeded as president by Sitaram Kesri, the party’s first non-Brahmin leader, but in order to boost the party’s popularity, Congress leaders urged Sonia Gandhi – widow of Rajiv Gandhi – to assume the leadership of the party, which she holds until today.

Key Terms

  • Indian National Army trials: The British Indian trial by courts-martial of a number of officers of the Indian National Army (INA) between November 1945 and May 1946. INA was an armed force formed by Indian nationalists in 1942 in Southeast Asia that fought against the British. Charges included treason, torture, murder, and abetment.
  • Indian National Congress: One of two major political parties in India, founded in 1885 during the British Raj. In the late 19th and early to mid-20th centuries, it became a pivotal participant in the Indian independence movement, with over 15 million members and over 70 million participants in its opposition to British colonial rule in India.
  • Azad Hind: An Indian provisional government established in occupied Singapore in 1943 and supported by Japan and Nazi Germany.
  • British Raj: The rule of the British Crown in the Indian subcontinent between 1858 and 1947.

Early Years

The Indian National Congress (INC or the Congress) was founded in 1885 by Indian and British members of the Theosophical Society. Its objective was to obtain a greater share in government for educated Indians and create a platform for civic and political dialogue between educated Indians and the British Raj. The first session was held in December 1885 and attended by 72 delegates. Representing each province of India, the Party’s delegates comprised 54 Hindus and two Muslims. The rest were of Parsi and Jain backgrounds.

Within the next few years, the demands of the Congress became more radical in the face of constant opposition from the British government. The organization decided to advocate in favor of the independence movement because it would allow a new political system in which the Congress could be a major party. In 1907, the Congress was split into two factions. The radicals, led by Bal Gangadhar Tilak, advocated civil agitation and direct revolution to overthrow the British Empire and the abandonment of all things British. The moderates, led by leaders like Dadabhai Naoroji and Gopal Krishna Gokhale, wanted reform within the framework of British rule. Tilak was backed by rising public leaders like Bipin Chandra Pal and Lala Lajpat Rai, who held the same point of view. Under them, India’s three major states, Maharashtra, Bengal, and Punjab, shaped the demand of the people and India’s nationalism. Gokhale criticized Tilak for encouraging acts of violence and disorder. But the Congress of 1906 did not have public membership and thus Tilak and his supporters were forced to leave the party.

Mass Movement

Mahatma Gandhi returned from South Africa in 1915. With the help of the moderate group led by Ghokhale, Gandhi became president of the Congress and formed an alliance with the Khilafat Movement,  a pan-Islamic, political protest campaign launched by Muslims to influence the British government and increase Hindu Muslim unity.  In protest, a number of leaders resigned to set up the Swaraj Party. The Khilafat movement soon collapsed and in the years following World War I, the party became associated with Mahatma Gandhi, who remained its unofficial spiritual leader and icon.

Gandhi’s ideas and strategies of non-violent civil disobedience, which had to be carried out non-violently by withdrawing co-operation with the corrupt state, initially appeared impractical to some Indians and congressmen. In the end, however, Gandhi’s vision brought millions of ordinary Indians into the movement, transforming it from an elitist struggle to a national one. The nationalist cause was expanded to include the interests and industries that formed the economy of common Indians. For example, in Champaran, Bihar, Gandhi championed the plight of desperately poor sharecroppers and landless farmers who were forced to pay oppressive taxes and grow cash crops at the expense of the subsistence crops that formed their food supply. The profits from the crops they grew were insufficient to provide for their sustenance. Proposals aimed at eradicating caste differences, untouchability, poverty, and religious and ethnic divisions made the Congress a forceful group that dominated the Indian independence movement. Although its members were predominantly Hindu, it had members from other religions, economic classes, and ethnic and linguistic groups.

In 1929, under the presidency of Jawaharlal Nehru, the Congress declared complete independence as the party’s goal. In the winter of 1936-37, the British government allowed provincial elections in India that were held in eleven provinces. The Congress gained power in eight of the provinces. However, in 1939, the Viceroy Linlithgow declared India’s entrance into World War II without consulting provincial governments. In protest, the Congress asked all elected representatives to resign from the government. In 1943 Azad Hind, an Indian provisional government, was established in Singapore and supported by Japan. In 1946, Indian soldiers who had fought alongside the Japanese during World War II were tried by the British in the Indian National Army trials. In response, the Congress helped to form the INA Defense Committee, which assembled a legal team to defend the case of the soldiers of the Azad Hind government. The team included several famous lawyers, including Bhulabhai Desai, Asaf Ali, and Jawaharlal Nehru.

Photo of Gandhi and Nehru having a conversation

Gandhi and Nehru in 1942

Nehru emerged as the paramount leader of the Indian independence movement under the tutelage of Mahatma Gandhi and ruled India from its establishment as an independent nation in 1947 until his death in 1964. He is considered to be the architect of the modern Indian nation-state: a sovereign, socialist, secular, and democratic republic.

Post-Independence Congress

After Indian independence in 1947, the Indian National Congress became the dominant political party in the country. In 1952, in the first general election held after independence, the party swept to power in the national parliament and most state legislatures. It held power nationally until 1977. It returned to power in 1980 and ruled until 1989, when it was once again defeated. It formed the government in 1991 at the head of a coalition as well as in 2004 and 2009, when it led the United Progressive Alliance. During this period, the Congress remained center-left in its social policies while steadily shifting from a socialist to a neoliberal economic outlook. The Party’s rivals at state level have been national parties the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPM), and various regional parties.

From 1951 until his death in 1964, Jawaharlal Nehru was the Congress’s paramount leader under the tutelage of Mahatma Gandhi. During his tenure, Nehru implemented policies based on import substitution industrialization and advocated a mixed economy, where the government-controlled public sector co-existed with the private sector. He believed the establishment of basic and heavy industries was fundamental to the development and modernization of the Indian economy. The Nehru government directed investment primarily into key public sector industries – steel, iron, coal, and power – promoting their development with subsidies and protectionist policies. Nehru embraced secularism, socialistic economic practices based on state-driven industrialization, and a non-aligned and non-confrontational foreign policy that became typical of the modern Congress Party. The policy of non-alignment during the Cold War meant Nehru received financial and technical support from both the Eastern Bloc and the Western Bloc to build India’s industrial base.

After Nehru’s death, no leader except Lal Bahadur Shastri had his popular appeal. Shastri retained many members of Nehru’s Council of Ministers and appointed Indira Gandhi (no relation to Mahatma Gandhi), Jawaharlal Nehru’s daughter and former Congress President, Minister of Information and Broadcasting. Shastri died in 1966, reportedly of a heart attack but the circumstances of his death remain mysterious. After Shastri’s death, the Congress elected Indira Gandhi as leader.

In the parliamentary elections held in 1971, the Gandhi-led Congress won a landslide victory on a platform of progressive policies such as the elimination of poverty. However, from 1975, Gandhi’s government grew increasingly more authoritarian and unrest among the opposition grew. In 1975, the High Court of Allahabad declared Indira Gandhi’s election to the Lok Sabha, the lower house of India’s parliament, void on the grounds of electoral malpractice. Gandhi rejected calls to resign and announced plans to appeal to the Supreme Court. She moved to restore order by ordering the arrest of most of the opposition participating in the unrest. In response to increasing disorder, Gandhi’s cabinet and government recommended that President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed declare a state of emergency. During the 19-month emergency, widespread oppression and abuse of power by Gandhi’s unelected younger son and political heir Sanjay Gandhi and his close associates occurred. This period of political oppression ended in 1977, when Gandhi released all political prisoners and called fresh elections to the Lok Sabha. The opposition Janata Party won a landslide victory over the Congress.

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Indira Gandhi, second-longest-serving Prime Minister of India and the only woman to hold the office

Gandhi served as her father’s personal assistant and hostess during his tenure as prime minister between 1947 and 1964. She was elected Congress President in 1959. Upon her father’s death in 1964, Gandhi refused to enter the Congress party leadership contest and instead chose to become a cabinet minister in the government led by Lal Bahadur Shastri. In the Congress Party’s parliamentary leadership election held in early 1966, upon the death of Shastri, she succeeded Shastri as Prime Minister of India.

In 1978, Ghandi and her followers seceded and formed a new opposition party, popularly called Congress (I)—the I signifying Indira. During the next year, her new party attracted enough members of the legislature to become the official opposition. In the same year, Gandhi regained a parliamentary seat. In 1980, following a landslide victory for the Congress (I), she was again elected prime minister. The national election commission declared Congress (I) to be the real Indian National Congress for 1984 general election and the designation I was dropped. As prime minister, Gandhi became known for her political ruthlessness and unprecedented centralization of power. In 1984, two of Gandhi’s bodyguards, Satwant Singh and Beant Singh, shot her with their service weapons in the garden of the prime minister’s residence.

In 1984, Indira Gandhi’s son Rajiv Gandhi became nominal head of the Congress and became prime minister upon her assassination, leading the Congress to a landslide victory. His administration took measures to reform the government bureaucracy and liberalize the country’s economy. After his government became embroiled in several financial scandals, however, his leadership became increasingly ineffectual, although Gandhi was regarded as a non-abrasive person who consulted other party members and refrained from hasty decisions. In 1991, Gandhi was killed by a bomb concealed in a basket of flowers carried by a woman associated with the Tamil Tigers.

Rajiv Gandhi was succeeded as party leader by P. V. Narasimha Rao, who was elected prime minister in 1991. His administration oversaw a major economic change and several home incidents that affected India’s national security. Rao, who held the Industries portfolio, is often referred to as the “father of Indian economic reforms.” By 1996, the party’s image was suffering from allegations of corruption and in elections that year the Congress was reduced to 140 seats, its lowest number in the Lok Sabha to that point, becoming parliament’s second largest party. Rao later resigned as prime minister and as party president. He was succeeded as president by Sitaram Kesri, the party’s first non-Brahmin leader.

Congress Today

In the 1998 general election, the Congress did not regain its leading position. To boost its popularity and improve its performance in the forthcoming election, Congress leaders urged Sonia Gandhi – widow of Rajiv Gandhi – to assume the leadership of the party. She had previously declined offers to become actively involved in party affairs and stayed away from politics. After her election as party leader, a section of the party that objected to the choice because of her Italian origins broke away and formed the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), led by Sharad Pawar. Sonia Gandhi remains the leader of the Congress, highlighting the long Indian tradition of politics as a dynastic affair.

Calls for Independence

The Indian independence movement, which achieved its goal in 1947, was one of many independence struggles that intensified after World War II across Asia and Africa.

Learning Objectives

Connect calls for independence in India to worldwide movements for independence

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The decades following the Indian Rebellion of 1857 were a period of growing political awareness, manifestation of Indian public opinion, and emergence of Indian leadership at both national and provincial levels. Members of the upwardly mobile and successful western-educated elites established organizations that aimed to ensure that they would gain influence in Indian politics but were not focused on the question of Indian independence.
  • By 1900, although the Indian National Congress, the leading independence movement organization, emerged as an all-India political organization, its achievement was undermined by its failure to attract Muslims. In response, the All India Muslim League was founded to secure the interests of the Muslim diaspora in British India. In the 1940s, the League played a decisive role during the 1940s in the Indian self-rule movement and developed into the driving nationalist force that led to the creation of Pakistan in the Indian subcontinent.
  • The early part of the 20th century saw a more radical approach towards political self-rule ( swaraj ) propagated by increasingly influential Mahatma Gandhi. From the 1920s, the Congress adopted Gandhi’s policy of nonviolence and civil resistance and Muhammad Ali Jinnah focused on constitutional struggle for the rights of minorities in India. Some activists preached armed revolution, literary professionals used texts as a tool for political awareness, feminists promoted the emancipation of Indian women, and some groups championed the cause of the disadvantaged sections of Indian society. The work of these various movements led ultimately to the Indian Independence Act 1947, which ended the suzerainty in India and the creation of Pakistan.
  • In the aftermath of World War II, European colonies, controlling more than one billion people throughout the world, still ruled most of the Middle East, southeast Asia, Africa, and  until 1947 the Indian subcontinent. Independence movements emerged across Africa and in regions of Asia that remained under the European control. They often referred to the 1941 Atlantic Charter and applied a number of strategies, both militant and based on the civil disobedience model.
  • New modernizing forms of African nationalism gained strength in the early 20th-century with the emergence of Pan-Africanism. By the 1930s, the colonial powers in Africa had cultivated, sometimes inadvertently, a small elite group of leaders who advocated the idea of self-determination. The struggle culminated in 1960, known today as the Year of Africa, when the number of independent countries rose from nine to 26 and African nations were recognized as a force to be reckoned with on the international arena. Many colonies continued to fight for their independence throughout the 1960s and 1970s.
  • In Asia, the image of European pre-eminence was shattered by the wartime Japanese occupations of large portions of British, French, and Dutch territories in the Pacific. The destabilization of European rule led to the rapid growth of nationalist movements, and nearly all Asian colonies gained independence in the aftermath of World War II, sometimes as a result of violent conflicts.

Key Terms

  • Indian Civil Service: The elite higher civil service of the British Empire in British India during British rule in the period between 1858 and 1947.
  • All India Muslim League: A political party established during the early years of the 20th century in the British Indian Empire. Its strong advocacy for the establishment of a separate Muslim-majority nation-state, Pakistan, successfully led to the partition of British India in 1947 by the British Empire.
  • Year of Africa: A term used to refer to 1960 because of the independence of 17 African nations that took place that year, highlighting the growing Pan-African sentiments in the continent. The year brought about the culmination of African independence movements and the subsequent emergence of Africa as a major force in the United Nations.
  • Atlantic Charter: A pivotal policy statement issued in 1941 that defined the Allied goals for the post-war world. The leaders of the United Kingdom and the United States drafted the work and the Allies of World War II later confirmed it. The document stated the ideal goals of the war: no territorial aggrandizement; no territorial changes against the wishes of the people; right to self-determination; restoration of self-government to those deprived of it; reduction of trade restrictions; global cooperation to secure better economic and social conditions for all; freedom from fear and want; freedom of the seas; and abandonment of the use of force, as well as disarmament of aggressor nations.
  • Pan-Africanism: A worldwide intellectual movement to encourage and strengthen bonds of solidarity between all people of African descent. Based upon a common fate going back to the Atlantic slave trade, the movement extends beyond continental Africans, with a substantial support base among the African diaspora in the Caribbean and the United States. It is based on the belief that unity is vital to economic, social, and political progress and aims to “unify and uplift” people of African descent.
  • Quit India Movement: A civil disobedience movement launched in Bombay by Mahatma Gandhi on August 8, 1942, during World War II, demanding an end to British Rule of India. Gandhi made a call to do or die in a speech delivered in Bombay at the Gowalia Tank Maidan. The All-India Congress Committee launched a mass protest demanding what Gandhi called “An Orderly British Withdrawal” from India. Almost the entire leadership of the Indian National Congress was imprisoned without trial within hours of Gandhi’s speech.
  • swaraj: A Hindi term that means generally self-governance or self-rule and was used to refer to Gandhi’s concept for Indian independence from foreign domination. It put stress on governance not by a hierarchical government, but through individual self-governance and community building focused  on political decentralization.
  • Indian National Congress: One of two major political parties in India, founded in 1885 during the British Raj. In the late 19th and early to mid-20th centuries, it became a pivotal participant in the Indian independence movement, with over 15 million members and over 70 million participants in its opposition to British colonial rule in India.

Indian Independence Movement

The decades following the Indian Rebellion of 1857 were a period of growing political awareness, manifestation of Indian public opinion, and emergence of Indian leadership at both national and provincial levels. Members of the upwardly mobile and successful western-educated elites, engaged in professions such as law, teaching, and journalism, established organizations to ensure they would gain influence in Indian politics (e.g., East India Association in 1867, Indian National Association in 1876, the Indian National Congress in 1885). Despite their claims to represent all India, these organizations initially voiced the interests of urban elites, and the number of participants from other social and economic backgrounds remained negligible.

This new middle class of educated professionals, although spread thinly across the country, expressed the growing sense of solidarity, empowerment, and discontent with the British rule, fueled by success in education and accordant benefits, including employment in the Indian Civil Service. Many Indians were especially encouraged when Canada was granted dominion status in 1867 and established an autonomous democratic constitution. Furthermore, the work of contemporaneous scholars like Monier Monier-Williams and Max Müller, who presented ancient India as a great civilization, contributed to the growing feeling of national pride. Discontent, on the other hand, came not just from policies of racial discrimination at the hands of the British in India, but also from specific government actions like the use of Indian troops in imperial campaigns (e.g. in the Second Anglo-Afghan War) and the attempts to control the vernacular press.

Viceroy Lord Ripon’s partial reversal of the Ilbert Bill (1883), a legislative measure that proposed putting Indian judges in the Bengal Presidency on equal footing with British ones, that transformed the discontent into political action. The event contributed to the establishment of the Indian National Congress, the single most influential organization of the Indian independence movement. During its first twenty years, Congress primarily debated British policy toward India. However, its debates created a new outlook that held Great Britain responsible for draining India of its wealth. Britain did this, the nationalists claimed, by unfair trade, restraint on indigenous Indian industry, and using Indian taxes to pay the high salaries of the British civil servants in India.

By 1900, although the Congress had emerged as an all-India political organization, its achievement was undermined by its singular failure to attract Muslims, who felt that their representation in government service was inadequate. In response, the All India Muslim League was founded in 1906. In 1916, the League’s leader, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, joined the Indian National Congress. Like most of the Congress at the time, Jinnah did not favor outright self-rule, considering British influences on education, law, culture, and industry as beneficial to India. To secure the interests of the Muslim diaspora in British India, the League eventually played a decisive role during the 1940s in the Indian self-rule movement and developed into the driving nationalist force that led to the creation of Pakistan in the Indian subcontinent.

The nationalistic sentiments among Congress members led the movement to be represented in the bodies of government and the legislation and administration of India. Congressmen saw themselves as loyalists, but wanted an active role in governing their own country, albeit as part of the Empire. However, the early part of the 20th century saw a more radical approach towards political self-rule (swaraj) propagated by increasingly influential Mahatma Gandhi. Swaraj put stress on governance not by a hierarchical government, but by individuals and community building. The focus was on political decentralization. Since this was against the political and social systems followed by Britain, swaraj advocated India’s discarding British political, economic, bureaucratic, legal, military, and educational institutions.

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Demonstration against the British rule in India, c. 1930s: By 1929, in the midst of rising political discontent and increasingly violent regional movements, the call for complete sovereignty and end of British rule began to find increasing grounds within the Congress leadership. Under the presidency of Jawaharlal Nehru at his historic Lahore session in December 1929, the Indian National Congress adopted a resolution calling for complete self-rule and end of British rule.

The last stages of the self-rule struggle from the 1920s saw the Congress adopt Gandhi’s policy of nonviolence and civil resistance, Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s constitutional struggle for the rights of minorities in India, and several other campaigns. Some activists preached armed revolution to achieve self-rule. Poets and writers used literature, poetry, and speech as toolS for political awareness. Feminists promoted the emancipation of Indian women and their participation in national politics. Others championed the cause of the disadvantaged sections of Indian society within the larger self-rule movement. The period of the Second World War saw the peak of the campaigns by the Quit India Movement, which demanded what Gandhi called “an orderly British withdrawal” from India, and the Indian National Army movement – an armed force formed by Indian nationalists in 1942 in Southeast Asia that fought against the British. The work of these movements led ultimately to the Indian Independence Act 1947, which ended the suzerainty in India and the creation of Pakistan. India remained a Dominion of the Crown until 1950, when the Constitution of India came into force, establishing the Republic of India. Pakistan was a dominion until 1956, when it adopted its first republican constitution. In 1971, East Pakistan declared independence as the People’s Republic of Bangladesh.

Decolonization as Global Struggle

The independence struggle of India was only one of many that succeeded in the post-World War II era. In the aftermath of World War II, European colonies, controlling more than one billion people throughout the world, still ruled most of the Middle East, southeast Asia, Africa, and until 1947 the Indian subcontinent. Independence movements applying a number of different strategies, both militant and based on the civil disobedience model, emerged across the African continent and in regions of Asia that remained under the European control.

In Africa, Britain, and France had the largest holdings, but Germany, Spain, Italy, Belgium, and Portugal also had colonies. As a result of colonialism and imperialism, a majority of Africa lost sovereignty and control of precious natural resources. By the 1930s, the colonial powers had cultivated, sometimes inadvertently, a small elite of leaders educated in Western universities and advocated the idea of self-determination. These leaders came to lead the struggles for independence and included leading nationalists such as Jomo Kenyatta (Kenya), Kwame Nkrumah (Gold Coast, now Ghana), Julius Nyerere (Tanganyika, now Tanzania), Léopold Sédar Senghor (Senegal), Nnamdi Azikiwe (Nigeria), and Félix Houphouët-Boigny (Côte d’Ivoire).

In the northeast the continued independence of the Empire of Ethiopia remained a beacon of hope to pro-independence activists. However, with the anti-colonial wars of the 1900s barely over, modern forms of African nationalism gained strength in the early 20th-century with the emergence of Pan-Africanism. This worldwide intellectual movement aims to encourage and strengthen bonds of solidarity between all people of African descent. It was based on the belief that unity is vital to economic, social, and political progress and aims to “unify and uplift” people of African descent.
Modern Pan-Africanism began around the start of the 20th century. The African Association, later renamed the Pan-African Association, was established around 1897 by Henry Sylvester-Williams, who organized the First Pan-African Conference in London in 1900.

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The red, black, and green Pan-African flag designed by the Universal Negro Improvement Association in 1920: Variations of the flag have been used in various countries and territories in Africa and the Americas to represent Pan-Africanist ideologies. Among these are the flags of Malawi, Kenya, and Saint Kitts and Nevis. Several Pan-African organizations and movements have often employed the emblematic red, black, and green tri-color scheme in variety of contexts. Additionally, the flags of a number of nations in Africa and of Pan-African groups use green, yellow, and red. This color combination was originally adopted from the 1897 flag of Ethiopia and was inspired by the fact that Ethiopia is the continent’s oldest independent nation.

In 1941, United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill met to discuss the postwar world, resulting in the Atlantic Charter. It was not a treaty and was not submitted to the British Parliament or the Senate of the United States for ratification, but became a very influential document. Among the principal points of the Charter were post-war territorial adjustments to be decided in accord with the wishes of the peoples concerned and the statement that all people had a right to self-determination. While Churchill rejected its universal applicability when it came to the self-determination of subject nations, after World War II, the U.S. and the African colonies put pressure on Britain to abide by the terms of the Atlantic Charter.

In Asia, the image of European pre-eminence was shattered by the wartime Japanese occupations of large portions of British, French, and Dutch territories in the Pacific. The destabilization of European rule led to the rapid growth of nationalist movements—especially in Indonesia, Malaya, Burma, and French Indochina. In the Philippines, the U.S. remained committed to its previous pledges to grant the islands their independence, and the Philippines became the first of the Western-controlled Asian colonies to become independent post-World War II. However, the Philippines remained under pressure to adopt a political and economic system similar to their old imperial master. A year after India gained its independence, the exhausted British granted independence to Burma and Ceylon. In the Middle East, Britain granted independence to Jordan in 1946 and two years later ended its mandate of Palestine. Following the end of the war, nationalists in Indonesia demanded complete independence from the Netherlands. A brutal conflict ensued and in 1949, through United Nations mediation, the Dutch East Indies achieved independence, becoming the new nation of Indonesia. France granted the State of Vietnam based in Saigon independence in 1949 whilst Laos and Cambodia received independence in 1953.

In Africa, the struggle culminated in 1960, known today as the Year of Africa, when the number of independent countries rose from nine (with population 95 million) to 26 (population 180 million), gaining their independence from Belgium, France, and the United Kingdom. The Year of Africa altered the symbolic status of Africans worldwide by forcing the world to recognize the existence of African nations on the international arena. It marked the beginning of a new, more Afrocentric era in African studies and it was a major boost for African Americans, who were engaged in a civil rights strife within their own country. The struggle of independence in Africa, however, did not end but was fueled by the events of 1960 as many colonies continued to fight for their independence throughout the 1960s and 1970s.