India has been celebrating the ‘Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav’ to celebrate 75 years of independence. In these years, India has transformed itself from a newly independent dominion which had no certainty about its shape and future, to a vibrant democracy and a strong nation. In the euphoria of such celebrations, our young generation often ignores the importance of knowing all about British rule. There are many aspects of British rule in India, which we must understand and learn from history for a better future. To know more about British rule and seek the answers to some of the questions which are generally not discussed, we spoke with a leading historian Dr. Shalini Singh.
Q1. How did a handful of Britishers manage to get hold of a vast country like India?
Dr. Shalini Singh–When the Britishers came to India, they had less money, resources, and manpower. They came as traders. Due to competition with the French company, the rivalry between England and France, along with the personal interests of officials, the company made their factories (settlements) within India. They also built small armies to safeguard those establishments. For political protection, they used one ruling faction against another. They used the ‘Ring Fence Policy’ by defending their neighbourhood from external invasions and creating buffer states around them. These neighbouring states had to maintain subsidiary forces (trained by English) at their own expense. Later, it was extended as a subsidiary alliance with the Policy of Subordinate Isolation. Under this, the rulers of states had to compromise their sovereignty as they had to maintain the English army and station an English Resident in the court. After the 1857 rebellion, the British government used the Policy of Subordinate Union by bringing in all princely states under the sovereignty of the British Crown for their loyalty to the British Crown.
In parallel to the above, Macaulay minutes helped in creating a working class and controlled Indian minds through education based on western thoughts. This created an impact on the Indian elite class. The Britishers introduced judiciary, collectors, and police system etc. which helped them in winning the support of a sizable population. They did some reforms in society such as the elimination of the Sati system, widow remarriage etc. to gain people’s support.
Q2. After taking over the governance of India in 1858, what were the key challenges faced by the British government?
Dr. Shalini Singh – The British government was surprised by the rebellion of 1857 as nobody had anticipated this type of massive reaction by Indians. This rebellion had significantly dented the pride and prestige of the mighty British empire which had reflections within the Parliament. It had two folds challenges, first to restore British supremacy and second to heal the wounds of the masses and win their loyalty. Earlier the company was acting as ‘Diwan’ of several kingdoms or princely states through subsidiary alliances. But, now by merely taking over the rights of the company, the British government of the crown could not act in the same capacity. So, it assumed the power directly under Parliamentary control. The first challenge before the British government was how to deal with India as there was no well-defined political or administrative structure in place. The company rule had made significant administrative changes which were not standardized across India. The governors of all three Presidencies Calcutta, Madras and Bombay were practically operating independently. There was no standard and universal justice system at the pan-India level. The Parliamentary control over India also brought responsibilities related to defence, education, and healthcare. Eventually, the expansion of western education created an educated class among Indians which subscribed to the western world view and later played a leading role in the freedom struggle.
Q3. What was Congress’s vision for independence?
Dr. Shalini Singh –Since its foundation, Congress never had a consistent vision with a definite goal of independence. Its vision and actions were largely guided by contemporary socio-economic situations and leadership. It’s a fact that Congress was founded by A.O.Hume but there are different theories about the reasons behind that. Some people called it a ‘Safety Valve’ whereas Lala Lajpat Rai said that Congress was a product of Lord Dufferin’s mind. So, there was no definite vision in the public domain when Congress was founded. ‘Independence’ was nowhere in Congress’s vision in the beginning. All 72 founding members of Congress were elites, professionals, intellectuals etc.; and they were not the representatives of the masses.
Before 1905, Congress focused on politically unifying Indians as a nation by building a national-level platform for common people to vent their views and grievances. For that, Congress relied on constitutional methods of petitions to the authorities. In essence, Congress was loyal to the British rule and working towards the outreach of the government to Indians.
After 1905, Congress became a mass movement through Anti Partition of Bengal, Boycott and Swadeshi Movements etc. At the same time, Congress was ideologically divided between ‘Extremists’ and ‘Moderates’. The formers under the leadership of Lal-Bal-Pal had a vision for independence and called that ‘Swaraj’. Once again, both factions calibrated their respective positions for Lucknow Pact with the Muslim League.
After 1917, Gandhi appeared on the centre stage of Indian politics with a vision of using ‘Non-Violence’ for achieving the political goals for both India and Indians. However, after the failure of the Civil Disobedience Movement in 1932, a sizable section of masses and youths in particular lost faith in his vision and leaned towards the left. The shift witnessed the rise of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose in national politics, who had a very clear vision about independence at any cost. After that, on the issues of India’s participation in the World War-2, INA, national language, Princely states, demand for Pakistan etc.; the different factions within Congress had fragmented views.
Q4. How the western education presented a skewed version of Indian society and cultural heritage?
Dr. Shalini Singh– During the consolidation of the company rule more Europeans started coming to India. The scholars and intellectuals among them became curious about India and they were keen to discover her past. For that, Sir William Jones founded the Asiatic Society of Bengal in 1784. But, due to their earlier experiences under Islamic rule along with their rigid and biased western views they gave prominence to European education, literature and culture while denigrating the Indian culture and traditions. For instance, Macaulay compared the entire Indian education and knowledge base to one shelf of European books. Similarly, Charles Grant an evangelist and East India Company official took the position that India could be advanced socially and morally by compelling the Company to permit Christian missionaries into India.
Western academicians and scholars, in general, depicted an inaccurate version of Indian society and culture. They helped in the discovery of our past but freely interpreted in their own way. For example, James Mill wrote the book ‘The History of British India’ in 1817-18. In that book, he denounced Hindu culture and traditions. Interestingly, he had never visited India, nor did he know any of the Indian languages. They were looking to the east with western lenses. They followed an orientalist approach with western interpretation. Fort William College was an institute of oriental studies founded in 1800 in Calcutta by Lord Wellesley to train European Administrators. But there was a conflict between orientalists and anglicists. These western academicians and scholars were interested in their perspective to propagate European knowledge in India. They did not have any effective connection with the masses to understand the fundamentals of Indian society and culture. In those days, education in India was confined to royals and the elite class. They established colleges, especially for royal and elite classes such as Mayo College in Ajmer in 1875. So the western scholars did not have much direct contact with actual spiritual leaders. For their observations and analysis also the sample size of the population was very narrow and skewed. Thus, the lack of adequate knowledge about the society, customs and traditions compounded by the white supremacist approach led to an inaccurate depiction of Indian society and cultural heritage.
Q5. Who should be given the credit for independence?
Dr. Shalini Singh – The independence of India was the result of the combined efforts and sacrifices of thousands of Indians across the social spectrum. In India, political and revolutionary organizations were established at regional and national levels encouraging and training Indian youth and masses to fight for freedom and their rights. Because of this, nationalism evolved as a concept and a cornerstone of the freedom struggle.
India’s Freedom was not a one-man task. Many people sacrificed their lives and suffered a lot not alone but with family to achieve freedom for India. Several groups employed different methods to resist British rule and challenged the mighty British empire. They were mainstream political leaders, revolutionaries, students, tribals and the masses including women freedom fighters such as Kalpana Dutt, Durgawati Devi, Aruna Asaf Ali, Usha Mehta, Sucheta Kriplani and others, who contributed to the freedom struggle.
Congress under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi showed the path of Non- Violence to Indians. Tilak and Annie Besant promoted the idea of Home Rule in India. Revolutionaries fought for instant and complete freedom. We can’t undermine the efforts and sacrifices of any freedom fighter ranging from the Chapekar Brothers to Suryasen, Khudiram Bose to Bhagat Singh, Bal Gangadhar Tilak to V.D. Savarkar, Madam Bhikaji Cama to Sarojani Naidu, Subhas Chandra Bose to Sardar Patel and many others. In my view, all of them should be given credit for independence.
Not only in India but in foreign countries Indian people established organizations for the nation. Revolutionary activities continued even in abroad. Shyamji Krishna Varma founded the Indian Home Rule Society – ‘India House’ – in London in 1905. V.D. Savarkar went to London in 1906 and joined the ‘Indian Society. Gadar party, a political revolutionary organization founded in 1913 in the USA by Lala Hardayal, a revolutionary young man from Punjab, he also published The Gadar, a weekly newspaper.
Thus we should give the credit for independence to every Indian who fought for the nation.
Dr. Shalini Singh is an avid researcher in various aspects of Indian history and has taught Indian History in Banasthali Vidyapith (University) Rajasthan for several years. She is also a senior fellow at Bharat Punj Foundation.