Critical Essays The British Raj in India


India was accustomed to invaders by the time the English arrived in the seventeenth century. Beginning with the great Indo-Aryan invasion (2400-1500 B.C.), the natives of the Indian subcontinent had seen parts of their land overrun by conquering armies of Huns, Arabs, Persians, Tartars, and Greeks. Buddhists, Hindus, and Moslems had ruled over parts of the vast country. None had succeeded in ruling all of India — none until Great Britain came onto the scene.

The English arrived at an opportune time, during the disintegration of the Mogul Empire, which had controlled most of India from 1526 until the death of Aurangzeb in 1707. As the empire dissolved, wars for power between Marathas, Persians, and Sikhs began. The English took advantage of these conflicts.

The English did not come as invaders or conquerors; they came as traders. When the British East India Company was formed in 1600, its agents were in competition with the French and Portuguese traders who had preceded them. Whereas the other European traders kept aloof from Indian affairs, the English became involved in them. Trade was their most important consideration, but fortifications and garrisons were necessary to insure security. Warring princes were very interested in obtaining European arms and military skills for their own purposes and willingly paid for them with cash, credit, or grants of land.

In this way power was gradually gained by the British East India Company until in 1757 Robert Clive gained control of India in the Battle of Plassey. In 1774 Warren Hastings became the first governor-general of India; during his regime the foundations of the civil service system were laid and a system of law courts was organized. The power was still in the hands of the East India Company; the company agents extended their control and obtained the right to collect taxes.

The Sepoy Rebellion in 1857 was an attempt by the Mogul emperor to regain power, and it showed a desire on the part of Indians to win back control of their own country. The rebellion, which lacked organization, support, and leadership, left widespread bitterness. In 1858 the British government took over rule of India, with power in the hands of the British Parliament. Great Britain indirectly controlled various territories, known as "Indian States," where the rulers were rewarded for support during the rebellion: titles were conferred, autonomy was granted, and protection against possible revolts was assured.

In 1885 the Indian National Congress was formed. Little more than a debating society, it did represent every geographical area and all religious groups and castes. In 1906 the Moslem League was formed to advance the cause of Mohammedanism in India.

From 1858 to 1914 England firmly established its rule over the country. English governors at the head of each province were responsible to the governor-general (or viceroy) who was appointed by the King of England and responsible to Parliament. In 1877 Queen Victoria was declared Empress of India.

In return for helping Great Britain in World War 1, Indians were promised a share in their own government. This was far from independence, for repressive measures were directed against India. More Indians, however, were elected to the legislature and Indians, for the first time, sat on the Viceroy's Council. There was a constant struggle for independence. The Amritsar Massacre in 1919 indicated the extent of unrest and trouble among the Indians.

India was guaranteed independence before it agreed to help the Allies in World War II. In 1946 Clement Atlee, Prime Minister of Great Britain, offered complete independence as soon as Indian leaders could agree on a form of government that could manage a free India. By 1947 it was clear that only partition could resolve the conflict among the Indian peoples. India and Pakistan became dominions in the British Commonwealth of Nations. In 1949, the new constitution declared the Union of India to be a sovereign democratic republic.