The Presence of the British in India can be traced back to the early Seventeenth Century. The entry can first be dated to the entry of Merchants from Britain. It is established that between 1601 and 1613, a British company, East India Company, arranged to take about a dozen voyages to India.
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In effect, William Hawkins arrived in India and sought to be granted the permission to establish British presence in India. His wish was, however, not granted until two years later when Sir Thomas Roe managed to secure the much needed permission that allowed the British to establish their presence in India.
Managing to maintain a tight grip on India was not going to be easy. Several factors led to British success to manage this domination for the first one hundred years. This paper will therefore attempt to delve into some of the factors that enhanced Britain’s domination of India for its first one hundred years’ rule in India.
It has been argued that thirst for civilization was what actually made the British to gain acceptance in India. Mahatma Gandhi observed that it was not the British who imposed themselves on India, but it was India which accepted the British.
He actually observed that the presence of British in India was because Indians desired the modern civilization1. The British were more advanced in the modern civilization as compared to India.
Gandhi found the elements of modern civilization that India modernists so cherished to include railways, conventional medicine, and even the British legal system. These lured the majority into believing that the British were well-meaning2.
Gandhi therefore, decided to enlighten the populace much later that such elements of civilization were just meant to give material comfort to the people, which is not the only level that the masses should be striving for.
True civilization, according to Gandhi, required that the people gain control over their “mind and passions”. But looking at this conflict of the moment it can be easily concluded that the British must have dangled the carrot of good life, thereby making the Indians not to resist them for they were seen to be of great benefit to India.
This point can be proven by the fact that it is only after the Indian populace were shown the other side of British rule by people like Gandhi that resistance started. For a long time the masses had no problem with the British rule.
The question of economic considerations as having led to British domination of India is a not only multi-faceted, but also controversial. The British had their economic interests in India, with the advent of the British East Company way back in 1611.
The ruling Mughal emperors of India allowed the British entry replete with numerous privileges. Thus, the British controlled several aspects of the economy through this company. For instance the company, it was recorded, managed to benefit greatly from exports.
But, with time, it metamorphosed from a trading company to gain other powers and roles. It could, therefore, do tax collection and other ruling duties on behalf of Mughal. It participated in military endeavors too.
Many scholars feel that the proceeds from India are the ones that eventually expanded the British economy. There was indeed capital flight from India to Britain.
On the other side, many have found that though Britain at first set out to build railway lines, canals and even cities in India, this was just intended to hoodwink the masses into accepting the British rule. This could be true since as the modern structures were only exclusive to the British administrators and settlers.
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Some researchers have concluded that economic impoverishment was another strategy that the British used to maintain a strong stranglehold on India for quite a long time. This happened and it has been established that the modernization of Britain happened around such a time3.
Again, when people are impoverished they tend to develop a dependency which they may not wish to do away with4. This impoverishment could be the major motivation that informed the British strategy of not genuinely investing in India.
It could also be the reason why the Viceroy of British India was unequivocally quoted saying, “India is the Pivot of our Empire, losses of any other part of the dominion we can survive, but if we lose India, the sun will have set”.
From this assertion it can clearly be seen that Britain was not the one that was making India survive, but actually the reverse was true. Therefore, it can be concluded here that the need to spur development at home may have even emboldened the British to maintain a tight grip on India for such length of time.
The physical presence of the British in India was not quite significant. Yet, the British managed to maintain its influence for a very long time. One major contributing factor for this dominance was Western education.
The kind of indoctrination that the British curriculum provided was that which impacted greatly on the psychology of learners. Its major target was to mould people who would become “model British subjects”5.
In fact, most of those schooled in the system had acquired a type of indoctrination that was friendly to the British occupation. Indeed the British occupation maximized on this state of affairs to make maximum use of India labor and other resources.
According to the words of Thomas Macaulay, 1935, the purpose of this type of education was to produce an Indian by blood only while the rest of attributes including intellect and opinions would be English.
To brainwash the Indian, a deliberate effort was made to underemphasize Indian culture. This was therefore done through orchestrated destruction of monuments and even books that enshrined rich Indian heritage.
The Indian civilization was viewed with a lot of contempt despite pre-colonial records having recorded glowing tributes to India as a bastion of science and art. One such tribute was given by the Europeans who were there before colonization.
For instance Pierre Sonnerat, who was a French naturalist, observed that India had some of the best antique collections and that people usually travelled long distances to draw from the well of knowledge that India abundantly was endowed with.
Young minds were fed with the idea that India had no known civilization of its own. So, everything was said to have come from invaders. By this, the Indian civilization was downplayed in Indian schools6. It has been a known fact that the Indian civilization greatly benefited the pre-colonial Europeans. This eventually led to European Renaissance.
However the English only dwelt on brain washing the Indian learners that all that Indian civilization espoused was repugnant. The aim of this kind of instruction was to generate a docile learner who would believe that the English were symbols of what was ‘right’. This strategy did work as seen from the eventual long stay and grip that Britain had on India.
But, the English masters, after having made some strides in propagating the type of ‘values’ they wanted imparted, discovered that Indians could still know their rich heritage through some of the material which still existed in Sanskrit language7.
To handle this, the colonial masters developed a stratagem to learn and translate the material to conform to their aims. So, there eventually arose a situation where skewed translation was done to be compatible with the aims of colonial masters.
There was also a deliberate effort to exclude local examples in learning material. All the principles taught were Eurocentric. For instance, the Indian student would not be exposed to remarkable Indian contributors such as Panini, Bhaskar and others, but they would be taught about notable westerners like Isaac Newton, Archimedes etc.
They were also not exposed to great Indian writers like Jataka or even Panchatantra. Also, the literary theories that they were exposed to were all Eurocentric.
The British had several strategies and one among them was the divide and rule strategy. Though the Indian society had its diverse elements like religion culture and even the caste system, the English capitalized and even made sure that these divisions were structured in such a way that they gained so much prominence8.
Religion was a major target. The Indian society comprised of Hindu, Muslims and even Buddhists among others. The English therefore, designed strategies to alienate these diverse groups from each other. The society became fragmented.
At one point this fragmentation has been claimed to account for the violent confrontations towards the last 25 years of British rule in India. Communities rose against each other and violence erupted9.
Britain’s initial fear of Islam led to the blanket exclusion of all Indians from holding positions of authority in India. No Indian was therefore granted a position of influence. To further alienate the Muslims, official documents were done in Sanskrit or English, and not Urdu, which was associated with Islam.
This alienated the Muslim elite from the day to day running of the state of affairs. Thus, no local language family would find its way into official matters.
Further, the caste system added to this mix. The British structured the caste system. In fact the system dates back to pre-colonial times, many have viewed the British as having advanced it. This is because they classified everyone into caste, religion and even tribe.
This made it possible for the English to wade off a united resistance, in case one arose10. This strategy worked well for it managed to divert the attention of Indians from social troubles such as state of the economy.
Faced with imminent revolt, the British had an organized force that was to be used to crush any dissent. For this to be achieved, legislation was passed so as in case the people labeled as extremists revolted, they would be adequately stopped in their tracks as the way the disturbances of the Punjab of 1919 were stopped.
In fact, this situation did manifest itself in the massacre of about 400 unarmed Indians at Jallianwala11.
Records show that in its effort to destroy Indian heritage, the British converted forts into military garrisons. There were numerous barracks that were constructed to replace these forts and other sites which initially had monumental significance. These places were converted beyond recognition.
The British, though with low significant numbers in India, managed to control India through a crop of loyalists in India. The nationalists were against the British but loyalists formed the group that countered these nationalists.
The British thus relied greatly on this group to survive for a long time since it divided the cause of the nationalists. To achieve this, the British capitalized on the rivalries that were there between native rulers. The Indians Maharajas also gave the British the much needed support and loyalty.
Another group that provided the much needed support was the new British educated intelligentsia12. Loyalism became a strong political force that the British used to extend its grip on India. The elites greatly feared the rule of the masses. Due to this, they preferred the British rule.
The British on the other hand, reciprocated this unfettering support by feting these loyalists. They rewarded these loyalist elements in society. The loyalists did not at all question anything that the British did. In fact the loyalists kept mum even as British transferred Indian wealth to Britain.
One such loyalist was Sir Salar Jung who was the prime minister of the state of Hyderabad. He employed mercenaries on behalf of the British to handle a mutiny that occurred.. This Brute force to tackle the mutineers was just motivated by his loyalty to the British. In the end the British feted and praised him by referring to his support and contribution as “Priceless”.
The long stay of British in India has been a puzzle to many, considering the long time it took to maintain such grip. What is even amazing is that the British physical presence was not quite significant. However, all fingers point at shrewd strategy and the nature of India at that time.
For instance British capitalized on the diversity of the Indian society such as castes, religion, tribe and even political rivalry to achieve this end. All in all, the British stay in India forms an interesting study.
Cotton, James Sutherland and Payne, Edward John. Colonies and Dependencies. London: Macmillan Publishers, 1883.
Desai, Akshayakumar Ramanlal. India’s Path of Development: A Marxist Approach. Bombay: Popular Prakashan, 1984.
Riddick, John. The history of British India: a chronology. Pennsylvania: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2006.
Said, Edward. Culture and Imperialism. New York: Vintage Books, 1993.
Shiva, Vandana. India Divided: Diversity and Democracy under Attack. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2005.
Taher, Mohammed. Muslims in India: Recent Contributions to Literature on Religion. Philosophy History and Social Aspects. London: Anmol Publications PVT, 1993.
1 Mohammed Taher. Muslims in India: Recent Contributions to Literature on Religion. Philosophy History and Social Aspects. London: Anmol Publications PVT, 1993, p. 67
2 Vandana Shiva, India Divided: diversity and democracy under attack. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2005, p. 58
3 Mohammed Taher. Muslims in India: Recent Contributions to Literature on Religion. Philosophy History and Social Aspects. London: Anmol Publications PVT, 1993, p. 99
4 Vandana Shiva, India Divided: diversity and democracy under attack. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2005, p. 79
5 Edward Said. Culture and Imperialism. New York: Vintage Books, 1993, p 134
6 Vandana Shiva, India Divided: diversity and democracy under attack. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2005, p. 112
7 John F Riddick. The history of British India: a chronology. Pennsylvania: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2006, p. 112
8 Sutherland Cotton,James and Edward John Payne. Colonies and Dependencies. London: Macmillan Publishers, 1883, p.68
9 Mohammed Taher. Muslims in India: Recent Contributions to Literature on Religion. Philosophy History and Social Aspects. London: Anmol Publications PVT, 1993, p. 154
10Akshayakumar Ramanlal Desai. India’s Path of Development: A Marxist Approach. Bombay: popular prakashan, 1984, p. 76
11 Sutherland Cotton,James and Edward John Payne. Colonies and Dependencies. London: Macmillan Publishers, 1883, p. 98
12 Akshayakumar Ramanlal Desai. India’s Path of Development: A Marxist Approach. Bombay: popular prakashan, 1984,p. 79