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The English East India Company had diverse socio-economic, political, military, and religious implications to the overall population of South Asia since its emergence on December 31, 1600.1 In the eyes of Indians, the emergence of the English East India Company was established without any respect for historical subtleties in the Indian community. Indians were not pleased by the emerging rule by the British government, which had started to instill its leadership through westernization, and thus ignoring the Indian culture and traditions. Indians were not willing to experience the drastic changes brought by British rule, and these conflicting factors accumulated with time and later resulted in the Great Rebellion of 1857 by the Indians.
The main objective of this paper is to establish the impact of British rule in South Asia and its contribution towards the Great Rebellion of 1857. Through extensive research, the paper will establish the reasons why the civilization mission was allegedly one-sidedly coupled with claims of trying to transform the people of South Asia to conform to the British ideals of westernization. The civilizing mission perused by British rule from the 1830s onwards was the main reason that propelled various social groups to participate in the Great Rebellion of 1857.
The British rule
The emergence of the British rule expressed a lot of optimism and the establishment of an era, which would unlock all the challenges of beliefs and traditions in South Asia, thus opening the way for the British liberalist ideas. On the contrary, Indians saw the British education mission not as one serving to help the natives to learn, but as an endeavor to assist the British rule to establish their taste, opinions, morals, and beliefs amongst Indians.2
This move would not develop a transformed and independent India, but it would mean loss of Indian arts, morals, literature, and laws. Lord William Bentinck, as the governor in charge, was faced with challenges when implementing the reform agenda, as funds were scarce, and at the same time, he was careful not to ignore the Indians’ opinions. In 1829, Bentinck abolished Sati, which was the ritual burning of widows.3 Outlawing Sati and prohibiting most Indian religious practices was seen as a concerted effort to convert the natives to Christianity.
This perception created a lot of friction between the Indians and the British authorities. The rebels were “motivated not to move to the East India Company, which was seen as a scheme to impose Christianity and enforce Christian laws in India, and thus Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar met his people where he was informed that the natives had come together to protect their religion and faith”4. Some of the foreign Christians and Indians who had converted to Christianity died in the hands of the rebels. The perceived continued threat to bring down Islam and Hinduism motivated people from all over the region to fight for their beliefs, doctrines, and faith, which were allegedly under attack by the British rule.5
Economic changes were significant at this time, as the locals were unhappy with the heavy taxation that the British rulers had imposed. Specifically, the increase in land taxation forced farmers to react and demand the return of their unlawfully confiscated tittle deeds6. Local goods lost value and market due to the unfair competition of imported goods from Britain. The rise in prices of essential commodities made livelihood very difficult for the locals. The British rulers exercised racial superiority, and they even did not consider educated Indians to take jobs in high offices.7
Modern infrastructure and technology were introduced in India, such as communication channels and railways. Political developments for a modern state such as the unification of sovereignty, surveying of the population, and education institutions were developed. Both the Britons and Indians facilitated trade ties, which were meant to benefit the two states. However, the allegedly bilateral trade ties were in favor of the British merchants as they had monopolized the trade.8 British had a hidden agenda in creating an economic edge above all rivals by securing Indian interests and controlling the seas.9
Politically, the local leaders lost their positions in the wake of governance takeover by the colonialists.10 The leaders of Awadh had always been loyal to the British rule, and the annexation of territories was viewed as disrespectful and demeaning to the locals.1112 In addition, the displaced persons from administrative roles, after the unprecedented governance takeover by the Britons, were not paid their dues. Indian soldiers were an important segment of Indian society, and they were too exposed to the oppression of British rule.
The Indian sepoys were termed as inferior, and they were paid lesser as compared to their British counterparts, yet they were expected to perform optimally on top of being loyal to their masters.1314 Discontent against the British rule increased among the Indians as the so-called civilization mission was coupled with so many negatives, which meant to facilitate the exploitation of the Indians by the British.15
Implications of British rule
Modern India was marked by the revolt of 1857- 1858, which was experienced across North India due to the opposition against the British rule. The inevitable revolt was a product of different dissenting voices all geared towards the perceived oppressive British rule in the region. The rebellion was more than military frictions as it involved mass peasant uprisings, feudal nobility, and the rural property owners showing a wide threat to the British administration together with the socio economic policies they were advancing.16 The revolt was primarily steered by the aforementioned socio-economic, political, and religious differences between Indians and the British rulers. However, the uprising revolts led to a substantial long-term transformation in the socio-economic, political, and religious spheres, which could later benefit the development of modern India.
After the revolt was over, the East India Company was replaced by the New Royal Government of India, which sought to facilitate the healing process. The new governance distanced itself from any kind of superiority as portrayed by its predecessor and promised the actualization of the anticipated changes. The development of the Suez Canal opened link to Indian farmers with markets abroad.
Job opportunities increased, thus upgrading the living standards of most Indians. Learning institutions proliferated across the towns with most of them being Indian-based. Part of the learning included English-based knowledge to assist the incorporation of imported technology. The resultant development in culture could not be called westernization, but an intellectual advancement of Hinduism and Islam practices.17
The efforts by the British Company to introduce capitalism were unfair, as they undermined the traditional structures,18 thus exposing peasants to the mercy of greedy merchants. The lack of consultation within the political realm was seen as the key contributor to the uprising. In a bid to counter these atrocities, Indians were introduced in the government and policies were amended to capture the Indian perspectives. However, India had started to accept some of the ideologies that the British government was advancing such as democracy, equality, and the parliamentary government. This aspect implied that despite the past differences, India was gradually coming to terms with some of the British values.
One cannot overrule the crucial role played by the British in helping the Indians to fulfill their aspirations and achieve a modern India in the long term. It can be said that the British rule was precise and quick at achieving its objectives in India. The British rule took control over India in the short term, and thus it advanced its interests in the region by controlling the economies in India. The British masters had acquired market for the surplus production of their industries as well as cheap raw materials.
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This period was crucial for the British masters who were in a superior position to control the world markets. By the time the Indians experienced the vagaries of oppression and the need to reiterate, the British rule had accomplished much of its objectives.19 After the revolt, the British government was ready to withdraw partially by involving much of the Indians in the new dispensation and at the same time giving way sovereignty to the locals. The infrastructure and technology introduced by the British would help the Indians to start their road to modernization.
Following the Indian rebellion of 1857, the nature and the impact of this rebellion has been highly contested and discussed extensively. Different scholars described the event as a mere military mutiny, while others suggested it was a national revolt. As much as these controversies may try to downplay the impacts of the uprising, the aftermath effects have significant implications to the modern India. The sepoys sought to proclaim the country’s rule of the Moghuls and they focused to moving Britons out of the Indian Territory. These were nationalistic sentiments expressing a common and determined purpose to attain independence.
However, following independence most of the central British institutions were maintained by Indian government such as parliamentary system, each person entitled to one vote and district administration. After India took over, the government believed in democracy, the rule of law, and equality. This aspect indicates that despite the parallel relationship at the beginning of the British era, an amicable end could later be achieved following a series of struggles.
At the end of the British rule, it saw a rise of an independent India with better infrastructures and governance that it was before. The modern India can trace its establishment of a new era full of optimism and technological advancements to the basics laid by the British colony. However, the British approach was questionable as it tried to establish their influence forcefully in Indian Territory and overlooking the traditional organization of this state, which was not the appropriate way to bring the much-needed transformation, and thus the civilizing mission led to the Great Rebellion of 1857.
Banerjee, Abhijit, and Lakshmi Iyer. “History, Institutions, and Economic Performance: The Legacy of Colonial Land Tenure Systems in India.” The American Economic Review 95, no.4 (2005): 1190-1213.
Bayly, Christopher. Indian Society and the Making of the British Empire. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
Clark, Peter. South Asia: The Oxford Handbook of Cities in World History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.
Embree, Ainslie. 1857 in India: mutiny or war of independence? Lexington: Heath, 1963.
Jabar, Naheem. Historiography and Writing Postcolonial India. Abingdon: Routledge, 2009.
Metcalf, Barbara, and Thomas Metcalf. A Concise History of Modern India. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.
Michaels, Axel. Hinduism: past and present. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010.
Peers, Douglas. India under Colonial Rule 1700–1885. London: Pearson Longmans, 2006.
Ramusack, Barbara. The Indian Princes and their States: The New Cambridge History of India. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
- Barbara Metcalf and Thomas Metcalf, A Concise History of Modern India, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 44
- Ibid, 64.
- Ibid, 82.
- Barbara Ramusack, The Indian Princes and their States: The New Cambridge History of India (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 324.
- Metcalf and Metcalf, 67.
- Metcalf and Metcalf, 91.
- Ibid, 94.
- Ainslie Embree, 1857 in India: mutiny or war of independence? (Lexington: Heath, 1963), 2.
- Douglas Peers, India, under Colonial Rule 1700–1885 (London: Pearson Longmans, 2006), 88.
- Christopher Bayly, Indian society and the making of the British Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 170.
- Ibid, 169-170.
- Metcalf and Metcalf, 53.
- Ibid, 62.
- Embree, 2.
- Peter Clark, South Asia: The Oxford Handbook of Cities in World History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 94.
- Abhijit Banerjee and Lakshmi Iyer, “History, Institutions, and Economic Performance: The Legacy of Colonial Land Tenure Systems in India,” The American Economic Review 95, no.4 (2005): 1197.
- Axel, Michaels, Hinduism: past and present (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010), 111.
- Metcalf and Metcalf, 307.
- Naheem Jabar, Historiography and Writing Postcolonial India (Abingdon: Routledge, 2009), 73.