The Revolt of 1857 gave a severe jolt to the British administration in India and made its reorganisation inevitable. The Government of India’s structure and policies underwent significant changes in the decades following the Revolt. But more important for changes in. Indian economy and government was the inauguration of a new stage of colonialism in India.
The second half of the nineteenth century witnessed the spread and intensification of the Industrial Revolution. Gradually, other countries of Europe, the USA and Japan underwent industrialisation, and the manufacturing and financial supremacy of Britain in world economy came to an end. Intense world-wide competition for markets, sources of raw materials and outlets for capital investment now began. The competition for colonies and semi-colonies became increasingly intense and bitter as areas open to fresh colonial domination became scarce. Facing a challenge to its dominant position in world capitalism from newcomers, Britain began a vigorous effort to consolidate its control over its existing empire and to extend it further.
Moreover, after 1850, a very large amount of British capital was invested in railways, loans to the Government of India, and to a smaller extent in tea plantations, coal mining, jute mills, shipping, trade and banking. It was necessary that, to render this British capital secure from economic and political dangers, British rule in India be clamped down even more firmly. Consequently, there was a renewed upsurge of imperial control and imperialist ideology which was reflected in the reactionary policies of the viceroyalties of Lytton, Dufferin, Lansdowne, Elgin and, above all, Curzon.
An Act of Parliament in 1858 transferred the power to govern from the East India Company to the British Crown. While authority over India had previously been wielded by the directors of the Company and the Board of Control, now this power was to be exercised by a Secretary of State for India aided by a Council. The Secretary of State was a member of the British Cabinet and as such was responsible to Parliament. Thus the ultimate power over India remained with Parliament.
Under the Act, government was to be carried on as before by the Governor-General who was also given the title of Viceroy or Crown’s personal representative. With the passage of time, the Viceroy was increasingly reduced to a subordinate status in relation to the British government in matters of policy as well as execution of policy. The Secretary of State controlled the minutest details of administration. Thus the authority that exercised final and detailed control and direction over Indian affairs came to reside in London, thousands of miles away from India. Under such conditions, Indian opinion had even less impact on government policy than before. On the other hand, British industrialists, merchants, and bankers increased their influence over the Government of India. This made the Indian administration even more reactionary than it was before 1858, for now even the pretence of liberalism was gradually given up.
In India the Act of 1858 provided that the Governor-General would have an Executive Council whose members were to act as heads of different departments and as his official advisers. The Council discussed all important matters and decided them by a majority vote; but the Governor-General had the power to override any important decision of the Council.
The Indian Councils Act of 1861 enlarged the Governor-General’s Council for the purpose of making laws, in which capacity it was known as the Imperial Legislative Council. The Governor-General was authorised to add to his Executive Council between six and twelve members of whom at least half had to be non-officials who could be Indian or English. The Imperial Legislative Council possessed no real powers and should not be seen as a sort of elementary or weak parliament. It was merely an advisory body. It could not discuss any important measures, and no financial measures at all, without the previous approval of the government. It had no control over the budget. It could not discuss the actions of the administration; the members could not even ask questions about them. In other words, the Legislative Council had no control over the executive. Moreover, no bill passed by it could become an Act till it was approved by the Governor-General. On top of all this, the Secretary of State could disallow any of its Acts. Thus, the only important function of the Legislative Council was to ditto official measures and give them the appearance of having been passed by a legislative body. In theory, the non-official Indian members were added to the Council to represent Indian views. But the Indian members of the Legislative Council were few in number and were not elected by the Indian people but nominated by the Governor-General whose choice invariably fell on princes and their ministers, big zamindars, big merchants, or retired senior government officials. They were thoroughly unrepresentative of the Indian people or of the growing nationalist opinion. The Government of India remained, as before 1858, an alien despot. This was no accident, but a conscious policy. Charles Wood, the Secretary of State for India, while moving the Indian Councils Bill of 1861, said: “All experience teaches us that where a dominant race rules another, the mildest form of government is a despotism.”
The British had divided India for administrative convenience into provinces, three of which—Bengal, Madras and Bombay—were known as Presidencies. The Presidencies were administered by a Governor and his Executive Council of three, who were appointed by the Crown. The Presidency governments possessed more rights and powers than governments of other provinces which were administered by Lieutenant Governors and Chief Commissioners appointed by the Governor-General.
The provincial governments enjoyed a great deal of autonomy before 1833 when their power to pass laws was taken away and their expenditure subjected to strict central control. But experience soon showed that a vast country like India could not be efficiently administered on the principle of strict centralisation.
The evil of extreme centralisation was most obvious in the field of finance. The revenues from all over the country and from different sources were gathered at the centre and then distributed by it to the provincial governments. The central government exercised strict control over the smallest details of provincial expenditure. But this system proved quite wasteful in practice. It was not possible for the central government to supervise the efficient collection of revenues by a provincial government or to keep adequate check over its expenditure. The authorities therefore decided to decentralise public finance.
The first step in the direction of separating central and provincial finances was taken in 1870 by Lord Mayo. The provincial governments were granted fixed sums out of central revenues for the administration of certain services like police, jails, education, medical services, and roads and were asked to administer them as they wished. Lord Mayo’s scheme was enlarged in 1877 by Lord Lytton who transferred to the provinces certain other heads of expenditure like land revenue, excise, general administration, and law and justice. To meet the additional expenditure a provincial government was to get a fixed share of the income realised from that province from certain sources like stamps, excise taxes, and income tax. Further changes in these arrangements were made in 1882. The system of giving fixed grants to the provinces was ended and, instead, a province was to get the entire income from certain sources or revenue within it and a fixed share of the income from other sources. Thus, all sources of revenue were now divided into three—general, provincial, and those to be divided between the centre and the provinces.
The different measures of financial decentralisation discussed above did not really mean the beginning of genuine provincial autonomy or of Indian participation in provincial administration. They were much more in the nature of administrative reorganisation whose chief aims were to keep down expenditure and increase income. In theory as well as in practice, the central government remained supreme and continued to exercise effective and detailed control over the provincial governments. This was inevitable, for both the central government and the provincial governments were completely subordinated to the Secretary of State and the British government.
Financial difficulties led the government to further decentralise administration by promoting local government through municipalities and district boards. The Industrial Revolution gradually transformed European economy and society in the nineteenth century. India’s increasing contact with Europe and new modes of imperialism and economic exploitation made it necessary that some of the European advances in economy, sanitation, and education should be transplanted in India. Moreover, the rising Indian nationalist movement demanded the introduction of modern improvements in civic life. Thus the need for education of the masses, sanitation, water supply, better roads, and other civic amenities was increasingly felt. The government could no longer afford to ignore it. But its finances were already in disorder due to heavy expenditure on the army and the railways. It could not increase its income through new taxes as the burden of the existing taxation was already very heavy on the poor and a further addition to it was likely to create discontent against the government. On the other hand, the government did not want to tax the upper classes, especially the British civil servants, planters and traders. But the authorities felt that the people would not mind paying new taxes if they knew that their proceeds would be spent on their own welfare. It was therefore decided to transfer local services like education, health, sanitation and water supply to local bodies who would finance them through local taxes. Many Englishmen had pressed for the formation of local bodies on another ground as well. They believed that associating Indians with the administration in some capacity or the other would prevent their becoming politically disaffected. This association could take place at the level of local bodies without in any way endangering British monopoly of power in India.
Local bodies were first formed between 1864 and 1868, but almost in every case they consisted of nominated members and were presided over by District Magistrates. They did not, therefore, represent local self-government at all. Nor did intelligent Indians accept them as such. They looked upon them as instruments for the extraction of additional taxes from the people.
A step forward, though a very hesitant and inadequate one, was taken in 1882 by Lord Ripon’s government. A government resolution laid down the policy of administering local affairs largely through rural and urban local bodies, a majority of whose members would be non-officials. These non-official members would be elected by the people wherever and whenever officials felt that it was possible to introduce elections. The resolution also permitted the election of a non-official as chairperson of a local body. But the elected members were in a minority in all the district boards and in many of the municipalities. They were, moreover, elected by a small number of voters since the right to vote was severely restricted. District officials continued to act as presidents of district boards though non-officials gradually became chairpersons of municipal committees. The government also retained the right to exercise strict control over the activities of the local bodies and suspend and supersede them at its own discretion. The result was that except in the Presidency cities of Calcutta, Madras and Bombay, the local bodies functioned just like departments of the government and were in no way good examples of local self-government. All the same, the politically conscious Indians welcomed Ripon’s resolution and worked actively in these local bodies in the hope that in time they could be transformed into effective organs of local self-government.
Changes In The Army
The Indian army was carefully reorganised after 1858, most of all to prevent the recurrence of another revolt. The rulers had seen that their bayonets were the only secure foundation of their rule. Several steps were taken to minimise, if not completely eliminate, the capacity of Indian soldiers to revolt. First, the domination of the army by its European branch was carefully guaranteed. The proportion of Europeans to Indians in the army was raised and fixed at one to two in the Bengal army and two to five in the Madras and Bombay armies. Further, the European troops were kept in key geographical and military positions. The crucial branches of the army like artillery and, later in the twentieth century, tanks and armoured corps were put exclusively in European hands. The older policy of excluding Indians from the officer corps was strictly maintained. Till 1914 no Indian could rise higher than the rank of a subedar. Second, the organisation of the Indian section of the army was based on the policy of ‘balance and counterpoise’ or ‘divide and rule’ so as to prevent its chance of uniting again in an anti-British uprising. Discrimination on the basis of caste, region and religion was practised in recruitment to the army. A fiction was created that Indians consisted of ‘martial’ and ‘non-martial’ classes. Soldiers from Awadh, Bihar, central India, and south India, who had first helped the British conquer India but had later taken part in the Revolt of 1857, were declared to be non-martial. They were no longer taken in the army on a large scale. On the other hand, Punjabis, Gurkhas, and Pathans who had assisted in the suppression of the Revolt, were declared to be martial and were recruited in large numbers. By 1875, half of the British Indian army was recruited from Punjab. In addition, Indian regiments were made up of a mixture of various castes and groups which were so placed as to balance each other. Communal, caste, tribal and regional loyalties were encouraged among the soldiers so that the sentiment of nationalism would not grow among them. For example, caste and communal companies were introduced in most regiments. Charles Wood, Secretary of State for India, wrote to the Viceroy Canning in 1861:
I never wish to see again a great army, very much the same in its feelings and prejudices and connections, confident in its strength, and so disposed to rise in rebellion together. If one regiment mutinies, I should like to have the next regiment so alien that it would be ready to fire into it.
Thus the Indian army remained a purely mercenary force. Moreover, every effort was made to keep it separated from the life and thoughts of the rest of the population. It was isolated from nationalist ideas by every possible means. Newspapers, journals and nationalist publications were prevented from reaching the soldiers. But, as we shall see later, all such efforts failed in the long run and sections of the Indian army played an important role in India’s struggle for freedom.
The Indian army became in time a very costly military machine. In 1904 it absorbed nearly 52 per cent of the Indian revenues. This was because it served more than one purpose. India, being the most prized colonial possession of the time, had to be constantly defended from the competing imperialisms of Russia, France and Germany. This led to a big increase in the size of the Indian army. Second, the Indian troops were not maintained for India’s defence alone. The Indian army was the chief instrument for the expansion and consolidation of British power and possessions in Asia and Africa. Lastly, the British section of the army served as an army of occupation. It was the ultimate guarantee of the British hold over the country. Its cost had, however, to be met by Indian revenues; it was in fact a very heavy burden on them.
We have seen that Indians had little control over the Government of India. They were not permitted to play any part in the making of laws or in determining administrative policies. In addition, they were excluded from the bureaucracy which put these policies into practice. All positions of power and responsibility in the administration were occupied by the members of the Indian Civil Service who were recruited through an annual open competitive examination, held in London. Indians could also appear for this examination. Satyendranath Tagore, brother of Rabindranath Tagore, was the first Indian to do so successfully in 1863. Almost every year thereafter one or two Indians joined the coveted ranks of the Civil Service, but their number was negligible compared with that of the English entrants. In practice, the doors of the Civil Service remained barred to Indians for they suffered from numerous handicaps. The competitive examination was held in faraway London. It was conducted through the medium of the alien English language. It was based on Classical Greek and Latin learning which could be acquired only after a prolonged and costly course of studies in England. In addition, the maximum age for entry into the Civil Service was gradually reduced from twenty-three in 1859 to nineteen in 1878. If a young Indian of twenty-three found it difficult to succeed in the Civil Service competition, the Indian of nineteen found it almost impossible to do so.
In other departments of administration—police, public works, medicine, posts and telegraphs, forests, engineering, customs and, later, railways—the superior and highly paid posts were likewise reserved for British citizens.
This preponderance of Europeans in all strategic posts was not accidental. The rulers of India believed it to be an essential condition for the maintenance of British supremacy in India. Thus Lord Kimberley, Secretary of State, laid down in 1893 that “it is indispensable that an adequate number of the members of the Civil Service shall always be Europeans;” and the Viceroy, Lord Lansdowne, stressed “the absolute necessity of keeping the government of this widespread empire in European hands, if that empire is to be maintained.”
Under Indian pressure the different administrative services were gradually Indianised after 1918; but the positions of control and authority were still kept in British hands. Also, the people soon discovered that Indianisation of these services had not put any part of political power in their hands. The Indians in these services functioned as agents of British rule and loyally served Britain’s imperial purposes.
Relations With The Princely States
The Revolt of 1857 led the British to reverse their policy towards the Indian States. Before 1857, they had availed themselves of every opportunity to annex princely states. This policy was now abandoned. Most of the Indian princes had not only remained loyal to the British but had actively aided the latter in suppressing the Revolt. As Lord Canning, the Viceroy, put it, they had acted as “breakwaters in the storm”. Their loyalty was now rewarded with the announcement that their right to adopt heirs would be respected and the integrity of their territories guaranteed against future annexation. Moreover, the experience of the Revolt had convinced the British authorities that the princely states could serve as useful allies and supporters in case of popular opposition or revolt.
Canning wrote in 1860:
It was long ago said by Sir John Malcolm that if we made All India into Zillahs (districts), it was not in the nature of things that our Empire should last 50 years: but that if we could keep up a number of Native States without political power, but as royal instruments, we should exist in India as long as our naval supremacy was maintained. Of the substantial truth of this opinion I have no doubt; and the recent events have made it more deserving of our attention than ever.
It was, therefore, decided to use the princely states as firm props of British rule in India. As the British historian P.E. Roberts remarked: “to preserve them as a bulwark of the empire has ever since been a principle of British policy.”
Their perpetuation was, however, only one aspect of the British policy towards the princely states. The other was their complete subordination to the British authorities. While even before the Revolt of 1857 the British had in practice interfered in the internal affairs of these states, in theory they had been considered as subsidiary but sovereign powers. This position was now entirely changed. As the price of their continued existence, the princes were made to acknowledge Britain as the paramount power. In 1876, Queen Victoria assumed the title of the Empress of India to emphasise British sovereignty over the entire Indian subcontinent. Lord Curzon later made it clear that the princes ruled their states merely as agents of the British Crown. The princes accepted this subordinate position and willingly became junior partners in the empire because they were assured of their continued existence as rulers of their states.
As the paramount power, the British claimed the right to supervise the internal government of the princely states. They not only interfered in the day-to-day administration through the Residents but insisted on appointing and dismissing ministers and other high officials. Sometimes the rulers themselves were removed or deprived of their powers. One motive for such interference as provided by the British was their desire to give these states a modern administration so that their integration with British India would be complete. This integration and the consequent interference were also encouraged by the development of all-India railways, postal and telegraph systems, currency, and a common economic life. Another motive for interference was provided by the growth of popular democratic and nationalist movements in many of the states. On the one hand, the British authorities helped the rulers suppress these movements; on the other, they tried to eliminate the most serious of administrative abuses in these states.
British attitude towards India and, consequently, their policies in the subcontinent changed for the worse after the Revolt of 1857. While before 1857 they had tried, however half-heartedly and hesitatingly, to modernise India, they now consciously began to follow reactionary policies. As the historian Percival Spear has put it, “the Indian Government’s honeymoon with progress was over.”
We have seen above how the organs of administrative control in India and in England, the Indian army and the civil service were reorganised to exclude Indians from an effective share in administration. Previously at least lip-service had been paid to the idea that the British were ‘training’ and ‘preparing’ the Indians for self-government and would eventually transfer political power to their hands. The view was now openly put forward that because of their inherent social and cultural defects the Indians were unfit to rule themselves and that they must be ruled by Britain for an indefinite period. This reactionary policy was reflected in many fields.
Divide and Rule: The British had conquered India by taking advantage of the disunity among the Indian powers and by playing them against one another. After 1858 they continued to follow this policy of divide and rule by turning the princes against the people, province against province, caste against caste, group against group and, above all, Hindus against Muslims.
The unity displayed by Hindus and Muslims during the Revolt of 1857 had disturbed the foreign rulers. They were determined to break this unity so as to weaken the rising nationalist movement. In fact, they missed no opportunity to do so. Immediately after the Revolt they repressed Muslims, confiscated their lands and property on a large scale, and declared Hindus to be their favourites. After 1870 this policy was reversed and an attempt was made to turn upperclass and middle-class Muslims against the nationalist movement.
The government cleverly used the attractions of government service to create a split along religious lines among the educated Indians. Because of industrial and commercial backwardness and the near-absence of social services, educated Indians depended almost entirely on government service for employment. There were few other openings for them. This led to keen competition among them for the available government posts. The government utilised this competition to fan provincial and communal rivalry and hatred. It promised official favours on a communal basis in return for loyalty and so played educated Muslims against educated Hindus.
Hostility to Educated Indians: The Government of India had actively encouraged modern education after 1833. The Universities of Calcutta, Bombay and Madras were started in 1857 and higher education spread rapidly thereafter. Many British officials commended the refusal of educated Indians to participate in the Revolt of 1857. But this favourable official attitude towards educated Indians soon changed because some of them had begun to use their recently acquired modern knowledge to analyse the imperialistic character of British rule and to put forward demands for Indian participation in administration. The officials became actively hostile to higher education and to educated Indians when the latter began to organise a nationalist movement among the people and founded the Indian National Congress in 1885. The officials now took active steps to curtail higher education. They sneered at the educated Indians whom they commonly referred to as babus.
Thus, the British turned against that group of Indians who had imbibed modern western knowledge and who stood for progress along modern lines. Such progress was, however, opposed to the basic interests and policies of British imperialism in India. The official opposition to educated Indians and higher education shows that British rule in India had already exhausted whatever potentialities for progress it originally possessed.
Attitude towards the Zamindars: While being hostile to the forwardlooking educated Indians, the British now turned for friendship to the most reactionary group of Indians, the princes, zamindars and landlords. We have already examined above the changed policy towards the princes and the official attempt to use them as a dam against the rise of popular and nationalist movements. The zamindars and landlords too were placated in the same manner. For example, the lands of most of the talukdars of Awadh were restored to them. The zamindars and landlords were now hailed as the traditional and ‘natural’ leaders of the Indian people. Their interests and privileges were protected. They were secured in the possession of their land at the cost of the peasants and were utilised as counterweights against the nationalist-minded intelligentsia. The Viceroy Lord Lytton openly declared in 1876 that “the Crown of England should henceforth be identified with the hopes, the aspirations, the sympathies and interests of a powerful native aristocracy.” The zamindars and landlords in return recognised that their position was closely bound up with the maintenance of British rule and became its firm supporters.
Attitude towards Social Reforms: As a part of the policy of alliance with the conservative classes, the British abandoned their previous policy of helping the social reformers. They believed that their measures of social reform, such as the abolition of the custom of sati and permission to widows to remarry, had been a major cause of the Revolt of 1857. They, therefore, gradually began to side with orthodox opinion and stopped their support to the reformers.
Thus, as Jawaharlal Nehru has put it in the Discovery of India, “Because of this natural alliance of the British power with the reactionaries in India, it became the guardian and upholder of many an evil custom and practice, which it otherwise condemned.” In fact, the British were in this respect on the horns of a dilemma. If they favoured social reform and passed laws to this effect, the orthodox Indians opposed them and declared that a government of foreigners had no right to interfere in the internal social affairs of Indians. On the other hand, if they did not pass such laws, they helped perpetuate social evils and were condemned by socially-progressive Indians. It may, however, be noted that the British did not always remain neutral on social questions. By supporting the status quo they indirectly gave protection to existing social evils. Moreover, by encouraging casteism and communalism for political purposes, they actively encouraged social fragmentation and backwardness.
Extreme Backwardness of Social Services: While social services like education, sanitation and public health, water supply, and rural roads made rapid progress in Europe during the nineteenth century, in India they remained at an extremely backward level. The Government of India spent most of its large income on the army and wars and the administrative services, and starved the social services. For example, in 1886, of its total net revenue of nearly Rs 47 crore the Government of India spent nearly Rs 19.41 crore on the army and Rs 17 crore on civil administration, but less than Rs 2 crore on education, medicine, and public health and only Rs 65 lakh on irrigation. The few halting steps that were taken in the direction of providing services like sanitation, water supply and public health were usually confined to urban areas, and that too to the so-called civil lines or British or modern parts of the cities. They mainly served the Europeans and a handful of upper-class Indians who lived in the European part of the cities.
Labour Legislation: The condition of workers in modern factories and plantations in the nineteenth century was miserable. They had to work between 12 and 16 hours a day and there was no weekly day of rest. Women and children worked the same long hours as men. The wages were extremely low, ranging from Rs 4 to Rs 20 per month. The factories were overcrowded, badly lighted and aired, and completely unhygienic. Work on machines was hazardous, and accidents very common.
The Government of India, which was generally pro-capitalist, took some half-hearted and totally inadequate steps to mitigate the sorry state of affairs in the modern factories, many of which were owned by Indians. In this it was only in part moved by humanitarian considerations. The manufacturers of Britain put constant pressure on it to pass factory laws. They were afraid that cheap labour would enable Indian manufacturers to outsell them in the Indian market. The first Indian Factory Act was passed in 1881. The Act dealt primarily with the problem of child labour. It laid down that children between 7 years and 12 years of age would not work for more than 9 hours a day. Children would also get four holidays in a month. The Act also provided for the proper fencing off of dangerous machinery. The second Indian Factories Act was passed in 1891. It provided for a weekly holiday for all workers. Working hours for women were fixed at 11 hours per day, whereas daily hours of work for children were reduced to 7. Hours of work for men were still left unregulated.
Neither of these two Acts applied to British-owned tea and coffee plantations. On the contrary, the government gave every help to the foreign planters to exploit their workers in a most ruthless manner. Most of the tea plantations were situated in Assam which was very thinly populated and had an unhealthy climate. Labour to work in these plantations had therefore to be brought from outside. The planters would not attract workers from outside by paying high wages. Instead they used coercion and fraud to recruit them and then keep them as virtual slaves on the plantations. The Government of India gave planters full help and passed penal laws in 1863, 1865, 1870, 1873 and 1882 to enable them to do so. Once a labourer had signed a contract to go and work in a plantation, he could not refuse to do so. Any breach of contract by a labourer was a criminal offence, the planter also having the power to arrest him.
Better labour laws were, however, passed in the twentieth century under the pressure of the rising trade union movement. Still, the condition of the Indian working class remained extremely depressed and deplorable. The average worker lived below the margin of subsistence. Summing up the condition of the Indian workers under British rule, Prof. Jurgen Kuczynski, the well-known German economic historian, wrote in 1938: “Underfed, housed like animals, without light and air and water, the Indian industrial worker is one of the most exploited of all in the world of industrial capitalism.”
Restrictions on the Press: The British had introduced the printing press in India and thus initiated the development of the modern press. The educated Indians had immediately recognised that the press could play a great role in educating public opinion and in influencing government policies through criticism and censure. Rammohun Roy, Vidyasagar, Dadabhai Naoraji, Justice Ranade, Surendranath Banerjea, Lokamanya Tilak, G. Subramaniya Iyer, C. Karunakara Menon, Madan Mohan Malaviya, Lala Lajpat Rai, Bipin Chandra Pal, and other Indian leaders played an important part in starting newspapers and making them a powerful political force. The press gradually became a major weapon of the nationalist movement.
The Indian press was freed of restrictions by Charles Metcalfe in 1835. This step was welcomed enthusiastically by educated Indians. It was one of the reasons why they had for sometime supported British rule in India. But the nationalists gradually began to use the press to arouse national consciousness among the people and to sharply criticise the reactionary policies of the government. This turned the officials against the Indian press and they decided to curb its freedom. This was attempted by passing the Vernacular Press Act in 1878. This Act put serious restrictions on the freedom of the Indian language newspapers. Indian public opinion was now fully aroused and it protested loudly against the passage of this Act. This protest had immediate effect and the Act was repealed in 1882. For nearly 25 years thereafter the Indian press enjoyed considerable freedom. But the rise of the militant Swadeshi and Boycott movements after 1905 once again led to the enactment of repressive press laws in 1908 and 1910.
The British in India had always held aloof from the Indians believing that social distance from Indians had to be maintained to preserve their authority over them. They also felt themselves to be racially superior. The Revolt of 1857 and the atrocities committed by both sides had further widened the gulf between the Indians and the British who now began to openly assert the doctrine of racial supremacy and practise racial arrogance. Railway compartments, waiting rooms at railway stations, parks, hotels, swimming pools, clubs, etc., reserved for ‘Europeans only’ were visible manifestations of this racialism. The Indians felt humiliated. In the words of Jawaharlal Nehru:
… We in India have known racialism in all its forms ever since the com-mencement of British rule. The whole ideology of this rule was that of Herrenvolk and the Master Race, and the structure of government was based upon it; indeed the idea of a master race is inherent in imperialism. There was no subterfuge about it; it was proclaimed in unambiguous language by those in authority. More powerful than words was the practice that accompanied them, and generation after generation and year after year, India as a nation and Indians as individuals, were subjected to insult, humiliation and contemptuous treatment. The English were an imperial Race, we were told, with God-given right to govern us and keep us in subjection; if we protested we were reminded of the ‘tiger qualities of an imperial race’.
Under the British rule, India developed relations with its neighbours on a new basis. This was the result of two factors. The development of modern means of communication and the political and administrative consolidation of the country impelled the Government of India to reach out to the natural, geographical frontiers of India. This was essential both for defence and for internal cohesion. Inevitably this tended to lead to some border clashes. Unfortunately, sometimes the Government of India went beyond the natural and traditional frontiers. The other factor was the alien character of the Government of India. The foreign policy of a free country is basically different from the foreign policy of a country ruled by a foreign power. In the former case it is based on the needs and interests of the people of the country; in the latter, it serves primarily the interests of the ruling country. In India’s case, the foreign policy that the Government of India followed was dictated by the British government. The British government had two major aims in Asia and Africa: the protection of its invaluable Indian empire and the expansion of British commerce and other economic interests in Africa and Asia. Both these aims led to British expansion and territorial conquests outside India’s natural frontiers. Moreover, these aims brought the British government into conflict with other imperialist nations of Europe who also wanted extension of their territorial possessions and commerce in Afro-Asian lands.
The desire to defend their Indian empire, to promote British economic interests, and to keep the other European powers at arm’s length from India often led the British Indian government to commit aggression on India’s neighbours. In other words, during the period of British domination, India’s relations with its neighbours were ultimately determined by the needs of British imperialism.
But, while Indian foreign policy served British imperialism, the cost of its implementation was borne by India. In pursuance of British interests, India had to wage many wars against its neighbours; Indian soldiers had to shed their blood and Indian taxpayers had to meet the heavy cost.
War with Nepal, 1814: The British desire to extend its Indian empire to its natural geographical frontier brought them into conflict, first of all, with the northern Kingdom of Nepal. In October 1814, a border clash between the border police of the two countries led to open war. The British were far superior in men, money and materials. In the end, the Nepal government had to make peace on British terms. It accepted a British Resident. It ceded the districts of Garhwal and Kumaon and abandoned claims to the Tarai areas. It also withdrew from Sikkim. The agreement held many advantages for the British. Their Indian empire now reached the Himalayas. They gained greater facilities for trade with central Asia. They also obtained sites for important hill-stations such as Shimla, Mussoorie and Nainital. Moreover, the Gurkhas gave added strength to the British-Indian army by joining it in large numbers.
Conquest of Burma: Through three successive wars the independent kingdom of Burma was conquered by the British during the nineteenth century. The conflict between Burma and British India was initiated by border clashes. It was fanned by expansionist urges. The British merchants cast covetous glances on the forest resources of Burma and were keen to promote export of their manufactures among its people. The British authorities also wanted to check the spread of French commercial and political influence in Burma and the rest of Southeast Asia.
Burma and British India developed a common frontier at the close of the eighteenth century when both were expanding powers. After centuries of internal strife, Burma was united by King Alaungpaya between 1752–60. His successor, Bodawpaya, ruling from Ava on the river Irrawaddi, repeatedly invaded Siam, repelled many Chinese invasions, and conquered the border states of Arakan (1785) and Manipur (1813) bringing Burma’s border up to that of British India. Continuing his westward expansion, he threatened Assam and the Brahmaputra valley. Finally, in 1822, the Burmese conquered Assam. The Burmese occupation of Arakan and Assam led to continuous friction along the ill-defined border between Bengal and Burma.
In 1824, the British-Indian authorities declared war on Burma. After an initial setback, the British forces drove the Burmese out of Assam, Cachar, Manipur and Arakan. The British expeditionary forces by sea occupied Rangoon in May 1824 and reached within 72 km of the capital at Ava. Peace came in February 1826 with the Treaty of Yandabo. The Government of Burma agreed to the following conditions: (1) to pay one crore of rupees as war compensation; (2) to cede its coastal provinces of Arakan and Tenasserim; (3) to abandon all claims to Assam, Cachar, and Jaintia; (4) to recognise Manipur as an independent state; (5) to negotiate a commercial treaty with Britain; and (6) to accept a British Resident at Ava while posting a Burmese envoy at Calcutta. By this treaty the British deprived Burma of most of its coastline, and acquired a firm base in Burma for future expansion.
The Second Burmese War which broke out in 1852 was almost wholly the result of British commercial greed. British timber firms had begun to take interest in the timber resources of Upper Burma. Moreover, the large population of Burma appeared to the British to be a vast market for the sale of British cotton goods and other manufactures. The British, already in occupation of Burma’s two coastal provinces, now wanted to dominate commercial relations with the rest of the country. They also wanted to strengthen their hold over Burma by peace or by war before their trade competitors, the French or the Americans, could establish themselves there. A full British expedition was despatched to Burma in April 1852. This time the war was much shorter than in 1824-26 and the British victory was more decisive. The British annexed Pegu, the only remaining coastal province of Burma. There was, however, a great deal of popular guerrilla resistance for three years before Lower Burma was brought under effective control. The British now controlled the whole of Burma’s coastline and its entire sea-trade. The brunt of fighting the war was borne by Indian soldiers and its expense was wholly met from Indian revenues.
Relations between Burma and the British remained peaceful for several years after the annexation of Pegu. The British, of course, continued their efforts to open up Upper Burma. In particular, the British merchants and industrialists were attracted by the possibility of trade with China through Burma. In 1885, King Thibaw signed a purely commercial treaty with France providing for trade. The British were intensely jealous of the growing French influence in Burma. The British merchants feared that the rich Burmese market would be captured by their French and American rivals. The chambers of commerce in Britain and the British merchants in Rangoon now pressed the willing British government for the immediate annexation of Upper Burma. The British invaded Burma on 13 November 1885. King Thibaw surrendered on 28 November 1885 and his dominions were annexed to the Indian empire soon after.
The ease with which Burma had been conquered proved to be deceptive. The patriotic soldiers and officers of the Burmese army refused to surrender and vanished into the thick jungles. From there they carried on widespread guerrilla warfare. The people of Lower Burma also rose up in rebellion. The British had to employ a 40,000 strong army for nearly five years to suppress the popular revolt. The expenses of the war as well as of the campaign of suppression were once again thrown on the Indian exchequer.
After the First World War, a vigorous modern nationalist movement arose in Burma. A widespread campaign of boycotting British goods and administration was organised and the demand for Home Rule was put forward. The Burmese nationalists soon joined hands with the Indian National Congress. In 1935 the British separated Burma from India in the hope of weakening the Burmese struggle for freedom. The Burmese nationalists opposed this step. The Burmese nationalist movement reached new heights under the leadership of U Aung San during the Second World War. And, finally, Burma won its independence on 4 January 1948.
Relations with Afghanistan: The British Indian government fought two wars with Afghanistan before its relations with the government of Afghanistan were stabilised. Afghanistan was placed in a crucial position geographically from the British point of view. It could serve as an advanced post outside India’s frontiers for checking Russia’s potential military threat as well as for promoting British commercial interests in central Asia. If nothing else it could become a convenient buffer between the two hostile powers. The British wanted to weaken and end Russian influence in Afghanistan, but they did not want a strong Afghanistan. They wanted to keep her a weak and divided country which they could easily control.
The British decided to replace the independent ruler of Afghanistan Dost Muhammed with a ‘friendly’, i.e. subordinate, ruler. Their gaze fell on Shah Shuja, who had been deposed from the Afghan throne in 1809 and who had been living since then at Ludhiana as a British pensioner, and they decided to put him back on the Afghan throne. Thus without any reason or excuse the British government decided to interfere in the internal affairs of Afghanistan and to commit aggression on this small neighbour. The British launched an attack on Afghanistan in February 1839. Most of the Afghan tribes had already been won over with bribes. Kabul fell to the English on 7 August 1839, and Shah Shuja was immediately placed on the throne. But Shah Shuja was detested and despised by the people of Afghanistan, especially as he had come back with the help of foreign bayonets. Many Afghan tribes rose in revolt. Then suddenly, on 2 November 1841, an uprising broke out at Kabul and the sturdy Afghans fell upon the British forces.
On 11 December 1841, the British were compelled to sign a treaty with the Afghan chiefs by which they agreed to evacuate Afghanistan and to restore Dost Muhammed. But the story did not end there. As the British forces withdrew they were attacked all along the way. Out of 16,000 men only one reached the frontier alive, while a few others survived as prisoners. Thus the entire Afghan adventure ended in total failure. The British Indian government now organised a new expedition. Kabul was reoccupied on 16 September 1842. But it had learnt its lesson well. Having avenged its recent defeat and humiliation, it arrived at a settlement with Dost Muhammed by which the British evacuated Kabul and recognised him as the independent ruler of Afghanistan.
The First Afghan War cost India over one and a half crores of rupees and its army nearly 20,000 men. The British now followed a policy of non-interference in Afghanistan’s internal affairs. During the 1860s, as Russia again turned its attention to central Asia after its defeat in the Crimean War, the British followed the policy of strengthening Afghanistan as a powerful buffer. They gave the Amir of Kabul aid and assistance to help him discipline his rivals internally and maintain his independence from foreign enemies. Thus, by a policy of non-interference and occasional help, the Amir was prevented from aligning himself with Russia.
From 1870 onwards, there was a resurgence of imperialism all over the world. Anglo-Russian rivalry was also intensified. British statesmen once again thought of bringing Afghanistan under direct political control so that it could serve as a base for British expansion in central Asia. To force British terms on Sher Ali, the Afghan ruler, a new attack on Afghanistan was launched in 1878. This is known as the Second Afghan War. Peace came in May 1879 when Sher Ali’s son, Yakub Khan, signed the Treaty of Gandamak by which the British secured all they had desired. They secured certain border districts, the right to keep a Resident at Kabul, and control over Afghanistan’s foreign policy.
The British success was short-lived. The national pride of the Afghans had been hurt and once again they rose to defend their independence. On 3 September 1879, the British Resident, Major Cavagnari, and his military escort were attacked and killed by rebellious Afghan troops. Afghanistan was again invaded and occupied. But the Afghans had made their point. The British reversed their policy and went back to the policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of a strong and friendly Afghanistan. Abdur Rahman, a grandson of Dost Muhammed, was recognised as the new ruler of Afghanistan. Abdur Rahman agreed not to maintain political relations with any power except the British. Thus the Amir of Afghanistan lost control of his foreign policy and, to that extent, became a dependent ruler. At the same time, he retained complete control over his country’s internal affairs.
The First World War and the Russian Revolution of 1917 created a new situation in Anglo-Afghan relations. The Afghans now demanded full independence from British control. Habibullah, who had succeeded Abdur Rahman in 1901 as Amir, was assassinated on 20 February 1919 and his son, Amanullah, the new Amir, declared open war on British India. Peace came in 1921 when, by a treaty, Afghanistan recovered its independence in foreign affairs.