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.

Southasia - - Cover story - By Mu­nir Ishrat Rah­mani

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.

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