South Asia under British Rule
The British, while they ruled the Indian sub-continent, set up impressive institutions of good governance. However, virtues like dedication, sincerity and integrity for which the Raj was respected, vanished gradually and are nowhere to be found today.
It is a fact that every fifth person in the world is from South Asia, which includes Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. The region has seen centuries of developments to bring it to its present shape. The area has attracted explorers, traders and invaders from times immemorial. Those who came by sea included explorers from the ancient Mediterranean and Middle Eastern civilizations and Arab traders of Muslim countries. The Aryans, Mongols, Mughals and Turks used the land route through the great passes of the North Western areas to invade the rich South Asian subcontinent. The greatest impact on the culture and life of the South Asians was, however, made by the Europeans who came from the sixteenth century onwards. The first of them to land on the southeastern coast at Calicut (Kerala) in 1498, was the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama whose presence encouraged other Portuguese traders, attracted by the ‘spices’ of the region. They brought new crops from Europe to this area and firmly established themselves.
The Dutch followed the Portuguese and got established in the southern region of Ceylon (present Sri Lanka) where they ruled for 137 years. The British East India Company came to explore and exploit the chances of trading in the wealthy cities of India. The Company first established itself at Surat (Western India) in 1608, expanding their base to Madras in 1641 and further to Calcutta in 1691.
1674 saw the arrival of the French Compagnie des Orientales in Pondicherry which was located south of Madras. They slowly consolidated their position during the next 40 to fifty years and offered a serious challenge to the British East India Company. Apart from their trading activity the rivalry was enhanced by the wars between France and Britain in Europe. The British defeated the French at Plassey (Bengal) in 1757 and at Vandivasi (South India) in 1760. These reverses forced the French to remain confined to small establishments like Pondicherry, Chandernagar, etc.
Initially, the British agent in these territories was the East India Company and not the government in London. The Company had come to India with the objective of trading and had extended its hold over areas up to River Sutlej in the Punjab, north of Surat and Madras by 1805. Gradually, the Company’s influence expanded over many areas in India and its officials started assuming an important role in higher administration. This is when the British government became aware of the issue of collection of land revenue in the territories under the control of the Company.
Reports of mishandling of revenue collection in Bengal and Bihar had reached London and the British government wanted to check on the Company officials’ activities and powers. The British government, through India Act of 1784, made the East India Company responsible to Parliament to control its schemes of conquest and extension of dominion in India. Still, the Company extended its control further up to Sindh and Punjab while it ruled, until the uprising in 1857. Following the War of Independence of May 1857, the control of the Company’s territories and rule over the princely states was assumed by the British Crown that also heralded the end of the historical era of the Mughal Empire in India. The annexation was completed by 1914 when the whole of India and Ceylon became part of the British Empire.
The British Rule brought many changes for the Indian population in the fields of education, economy, social sector, judiciary, civil administration, communication, law & order, etc. The British ruled for 90 years but they
changed the face of centuries old India.
Communication was considered as the basic means for economic progress and was given due priority for development of trade and industry. Some areas, however, were not fully developed, like Balochistan, the North-West Frontier Province, Rajasthan, etc.
Canals for irrigation existed even before the British Rule but the technology and engineering provided under the Raj improved tremendously the irrigation system and lots of new lands were brought under cultivation resulting in increased production of crops. With good means of communication already available for transportation, food grain could be switched to areas where needed most without delay to avoid shortage or threat of famine.
Significant changes were brought by the British Raj in the field of education. Reorganization of schools system in the region had started by 1835 with an emphasis on modern subjects and medium of instruction as English. First three universities were founded in 1858 at Bombay, Madras and Calcutta. These were later followed by the Anglo-Oriental College at Aligarh, which later became Aligarh Muslim University in 1875 and the Universities of Punjab and Allahabad in 1887. Of the communities who drew benefit out of the facility, Hindus and Parsees were prominent but Muslims and those living as subjects in the Princely States lagged behind. Apart from promoting education some other policies of the British government had an impact on the social life of the South Asians. The unfair customs like ‘Satti’ among Hindus were abolished and ‘equality before law’ was emphasized. Schools by Christian Missions were started and education was made accessible to the poor.
A significant contribution of the British Rule in South Asia was to train and prepare the military on modern lines. Locals were inducted in the of- ficer cadre and trained on scientific lines. A number of military training institutions were established and the reorganization of the forces was undertaken to bring them on the lines of the British armed forces. It had a definite advantage for the Raj too as the force they trained, fought for them in the First and Second World Wars.
The civil administration too went through a lot of change. Initially the officials of the East India Company were required to do only trading and negotiate deals but after getting opportunity of assuming political control of the areas, they became involved in civil administration. They were now negotiating political agreements, collecting taxes, dealing with the Indian princes and more significantly performing quasi-judicial functions in the areas within the Company’s jurisdiction. Post-1858 era saw the introduction of the Indian Civil Service though initially only British officers were inducted. Indians were allowed to compete for entering the service in 1868 but the examination was held only in England. It was only from 1922 that the locals were allowed to take the examination in India. The British built the field administration around the position of the district collector and it was fully established in such a way that it continues to this day.
The policies of the Raj were mainly influenced by the governments in England. The British outlook towards India differed between the parties in power at Westminster: Conservatives’ views were different from those of Liberals and later Labour. Liberals in 1909 introduced Morley-Minto reforms and the India Act of 1909 and also allowed the Indians to join executive offices. Increasing association of the Indians in every branch of administration was gradually, though reluctantly, encouraged by the Government. When the freedom movement, initially led by the Indian National Congress and later joined by the Muslim League, gained momentum climaxing during the Second World War, the British government had to concede to the popular demand of the Indians resulting in the creation of an independent India and an independent Pakistan.
The British government has often been criticized for certain policies: • While they did a lot for bringing large areas under cultivation to add to the crops’ produce, they ignored improvement of the life of the landless peasants. • The concept of state under the Raj for India was nothing more than that of a police state. The power was vested in the hands of an elite group that looked down upon the Indians as ‘the bloody natives’. • The class of Indian bureaucrats developed by the British considered their position as ‘agents of the Raj’ more than ‘civil servants’ to serve the people. • The government readily exploited the ideological differences between the Hindu and the Muslim population. It suited them well to let the Congress and the Muslim League clash over issues that would keep them busy and allow the Government to concentrate on governance. • A big failing of the British rulers, criticism of which echoes till today, was the hasty manner in which the partition was executed and power transferred to India and Pakistan. Once His Majesty’s Government had resolved to transfer power by June 1948, then why did the last Viceroy Lord Louis Mountbatten bring forward the date of transfer of power? A number of complicated questions concerning execution of the plan had to be resolved. The process of transfer of power; distribution of assets; demarcation of the border in the provinces of Bengal and the Punjab that were to be divided; placement of military
and law enforcement personnel at appropriate stations to supervise and ensure safe movement of railway/road traffic; and the huge migration of population to new areas of residence; should have been better planned, particularly in view of the experience of the British government. Many historians have blamed Mountbatten squarely for the loss of life and property that resulted due to the ill-planned transfer of population and transfer of power in haste. It was in “His Majesty’s Plan” to allow the Rulers of states to make a decision based on geographical location of their state, economic and strategic factors and the wishes of their people, whether to accede to India or to Pakistan. In practice this was not done and a number of burning issues were left unresolved. The legacy of the Raj was faithfully carried forward by the bureaucracy in India and Pakistan after independence and it ruled with the same ‘colonial style’ for some time till the new crop replaced the old guard. However, virtues like dedication, sincerity and integrity for which the officers of the Raj were respected, vanished gradually and was difficult to be found after a decade among the government officials, whether bureaucrats or others.
India and Pakistan inherited economies from the British Raj that were overwhelmingly based on agriculture. Almost 90 per cent of the Pakistani population lived in villages and nearly 80 per cent in India, with about 65 per cent involved in agriculture. Both countries had a large sized land-less class and together with evergrowing population, it needed some dynamic action to combat this situation. India had an advantage in having better infrastructure for industrial progress and took less time to recover. The pace of economic planning in Pakistan can be better judged by the fact that its first Five Year Plan took eight years to appear. The writer is a former Colonel of the Pakistan Army. He is a graduate of the Command and Staff College, Quetta and has fought during the 1965 and 1971 Indo-Pakistan Wars. He was stationed in East Pakistan during the 1971 conflict and is the author of a forthcoming book on Indo-Pak military history.