Colonial Intervention In Indian Society





Intervention In Social And Cultural Fields

Along with British rule also came a link with the West and ideas which were developed in Western Europe made their entry into India. Through trade and travel, India for centuries had been in contact not only with the countries of Asia but also with Europe. Through these sources news of events and happenings in Europe and elsewhere and details of the new thinking taking place in the West were already reaching India in the 18th century. British rule not only hastened their arrival in India but the very nature of the foreign domination quickened these influences with a local meaning charged with immediacy and relevance.

The intellectual life of the Indian people were influenced by such ideas as democracy and sovereignty of the people, rationalism and humanism. These ideas helped Indians not only to take a critical look at their own society, economy, and government but also to understand the true nature of British imperialism in India.

These ideas spread through many channels – education, the press, pamphlets and the public platforms.



The spread of modern education, however, was very limited. If the foreign government initially neglected primary and secondary education, it turned hostile to higher education soon after 1858.

  • The educated Indians began to use their recently acquired modem knowledge to analyse and criticize the imperialist and exploitative character of British rule and to organize an anti-imperialist political movement.
  • In-turn, the British administrators began to press continuously for the curtailment of higher education. The structure, pattern, aims, methods, curricula and content of education were all designed to serve colonialism.

A few other aspects of Indian education arising out of its colonial character should be noted.

  • One was the complete neglect of modem technical education which was a basic necessity for the rise and development of modern industry.
  • Another was the emphasis on English as the medium of instruction in place of the Indian languages. This not only prevented the spread of education to the masses but also created a wide linguistic and cultural gulf between the educated and the masses.
  • Government’s refusal to allocate adequate funds for education gradually reduced the educational standards to an extremely low-level. And because the students had to pay fees in schools and colleges, education became a virtual monopoly of the middle and upper classes and the city and town dwellers.


Impact Of New Economic And Political Life

New ideas, a new economic and political life, and British rule produced a deep impact on the social life of the Indian people; first in the urban areas and later in the villages.

  • Modern industries, new means of transport, growing urbanization and increasing employment of women in factories, offices, hospital and schools promoted social change.
  • Social exclusiveness and caste rigidity were eroded.
  • The total disruption of old land and rural relationships upset the caste balance in the countryside.
  • Though many of the evils persisted but –
    • the penetration of capitalism made social status dependent mainly on money;
    • profit-making became the most desirable social activity.


Impact Of Colonial State’s Policies

In the beginning the policies of the colonial state also encouraged social reform.

  • Efforts were made to modernize Indian society in order to enable the economic penetration of the country sad the consolidation of British rule.
  • To some extent, the humanitarian instincts of some of the officials aroused by the glaring social Injustices enshrined in the Indian caste system and the low status of women in society also played a role.
  • The Christian missionaries also contributed towards the reform of Indian society at this stage.
  • But very soon the basic conservative character and long-term interest of colonialism asserted themselves and colonial policies towards social reform were changed. The British, thus, withdrew their support from the reformers and gradually came to side with the socially orthodox and conservative elements of society.


Intervention In Economy

The exact nature of the colonial intervention in the indigenous Indian economy can be grasped by studying its influence separately in different units of the economy like agriculture, trade and industry.


Impact On Agriculture

The British brought about important transformation in India’s agricultural economy but this was not with a view to improving Indian agriculture but rather to obtain for themselves in the form of land revenue, all surplus available in agriculture and to force Indian agriculture to play its assigned role in a colonial economy. Old relationships and institutions were destroyed and new ones were born. But these new features did not represent a change towards modernization or its movement in the right direction.

Land Revenue Systems

The British introduced two major land revenue and tenurial systems –

  • One was the Zamindari system. (Later, a modified version of the same Zamindari system was introduced in North India under the name of the Mahalwari system).
  • The other was the Ryotwari system.

Irrespective of name of the system –

  • it was the peasant cultivators who suffered. They were –
    • forced to pay very high rents and for all practical purposes functioned as tenants-at-will.
    • compelled to pay many illegal dues and cesses and were often required to perform forced labour or begar.
  • in effect the Government came to occupy the position of the landlord.


Much later, especially after 1901, revenue rates were gradually reduced but then the agrarian economy had been ruined to such an extent and the landlords, moneylenders, and merchants had made such deep inroads into the village that it was of no practical use to the peasant cultivators themselves.


Feudatory Evil

The greatest evil that arose out the British policies with regard to Indian agricultural economy was the emergence of the moneylender as an influential economic and political force in the country.

  • Because of the high revenue rates demanded and the rigid manner of collection, the peasant cultivator had often to borrow money to pay taxes.
  • In addition to paying exorbitant interest, when his crops were ready he was invariably forced to sell his produce cheap.
  • The money-lender, on the other hand could manipulate the new judicial system and the administrative machinery to his advantage. In this regard the Government, in fact, actually helped him, because without him the land revenue could not be collected in time, nor could the agricultural produce be brought to the ports for export. Even to get the commercial crops for export produced in the first instance, the Government depended on the moneylender to persuade the cultivator by offering to finance him through loans. It is not surprising, therefore; that in course of time the moneylender began to occupy a dominant position in the rural economy.
  • In both the Zamindari and the Ryotwari areas, there occurred a large-scale transfer of land from the hands of the actual cultivators into the hands of money-lenders, merchants, official and rich peasant. This led to landlordism becoming the dominant feature of land relationships all over the country.


Sub-Feudatories Evil

Intermediate rent receivers also grew. This process is referred to as ‘sub-infeudation‘. The new landlords and zamindars had even less of a link with land than the old zamindars. Instead of taking the trouble to organise a machinery for rent collection, they merely sublet their rights to intermediate rent receivers.


Regressive System

The impact of British rule thus led to the evolution of a new structure of agrarian relations that was extremely regressive. The new system did not at all permit the development of agriculture. New social classes appeared at the top (landlords, intermediaries and moneylenders) as well as at the bottom (tenants-at-will, share-croppers and agricultural labourers) of the social scale.

The new pattern was neither capitalism nor feudalism, nor was it a continuation of the old Mughal arrangement. It was a new structure that colonialism evolved. It was semi-feudal and semi-colonial in character.


Stagnation Of Agricultural Produce

The most unfortunate result of all this was that absolutely no effort was made either to improve agricultural practices or develop them along modern lines for increased production. Agricultural practices remained unchanged. Better types of implements, good seeds and various types of manures and fertilizers were not introduced at all.

  • the poverty-stricken peasant cultivators did not have the resources to improve agriculture;
  • the landlords had no incentive to help and support cultivators in improving agricultural activities; and
  • the colonial government behaved like a typical landlord, it was interested only in extracting high revenues and did not take any steps to modernize and improve and develop Indian agriculture.

The result was prolonged stagnation in agricultural production. Agricultural statistics as available only for the 20th century and here the picture was quite dismal. While overall agricultural production per head fell by 14 per cent between 1901 and 1939, the fall in the per capita production of food-grains was over 24 per cent. Most of this decline occurred after 191 3.


Impact On Trade And Industry

As with agriculture, the British Indian Government controlled trade and industry purely with a view to foster British interests.

  • India, no doubt, underwent a commercial revolution, which integrated it with the world market, but she was forced to occupy a subordinate position.
  • Foreign trade took big strides forward, especially after 1858, with the growth of Rs. 213 crores in 1899, it reached a peak of Rs. 758 crores in 1924. But this growth did not represent a positive feature in Indian economy nor did it contribute to the welfare of the Indian people because it was used as the chief instrument through which the Indian economy was made colonial and dependent on world capitalism.
  • The growth of the Indian foreign trade was neither natural nor normal; it was artificially fostered to serve imperialism.
  • The composition and character of the foreign trade was unbalanced. The country was flooded with manufactured goods from Britain and forced to produce and export the raw materials Britain and other foreign countries as needed.
  • Last but not least, the foreign trade affected the internal distribution of Income adversely. The British policy only helped to transfer resources from peasants and craftsmen to merchants, moneylenders and foreign capitalists.

A significant feature of India’s foreign trade during this period was the constant excess of exports over imports. We should not, however, imagine that it was to India’s advantage. These exports did not represent the future claims of India on foreign countries, but the drain of India’s wealth and resources. We must also remember the bulk of foreign trade was in foreign hands and that almost all of it was carried on through foreign ships.

One of the most important consequences of British rule was the progressive decline and destruction of urban and rural handicraft industries. Not only did India lose its foreign markets in Asia and Europe, but even the Indian market was flooded with cheap machine-made goods produced on a mass scale. The collapse of indigenous handicrafts followed.

The ruin of the indigenous industries and the absence of other avenue of employment forced millions of craftsmen to crowd into agriculture. Thus, the pressure of population on land increased.

Thus, it will be seen that industrial development in India till 1947 was slow and stunted and did not at all present in industrial revolution or even the initiation of one.

  • What was more important, even the limited development was not independent but was under the control of foreign capital.
  • The structure of industry was such as to make its further development dependent on Britain.
  • There was almost a complete absence of heavy capital goods and chemical industrial without which rapid and autonomous industrial development could hardly occur.
  • Machine-tool, engineering and metallurgical industries were virtually non-existent.
  • Moreover, India was entirely dependent on the imperialist world in the field of technology. No technological research was carried out in the country.


Intervention In Polity

Besides economy and social structure, British also sought to transform the existing polity. The main objectives behind the intervention of this factor were to increase the profitability of the Indian possessions and to maintain and strengthen the British hold over India. The administrative machinery of the Government of India was designed and developed to these ends. The main emphasis in this respect was placed on the maintenance of law and order so that trade with India and the exploitation of its resources could be carried out without disturbance.

Let us see some of the main institutions which the British introduced in India.


Civil Service

The Civil Service was brought into existence by Lord Cornwallis. The East India Company had from the beginning carried on its trade in the East through servants who were paid low wages but who were permitted to trade privately. Later, when the Company became a territorial power, the same servants assumed administrative functions. They now became extremely corrupt. By oppressing local weavers and artisans, merchants, and zamindars, by extorting bribes and ‘gifts’ from rajas and nawabs, and by indulging in illegal private trades, they amassed untold wealth with which they retired to England. Clive and Warren Hastings made attempts to put an end to their corruption, but were only partially successful.

Cornwallis, who came to India as Governor-General in 1786, was determined to purify the administration, but he realized that the Company’s servants would not give honest and efficient service as long as they were not given adequate salaries. He therefore enforced the rules against private trade and acceptance of presents and bribes by officials with strictness. At the same time, he raised the salaries of the Company’s servants. For example, the Collector of a district was to be paid Rs. 1500 a month and one per cent commission the revenue collection of his district. In fact, the Company, Civil Service became the highest paid service in the world. Cornwallis also laid down that promotion in the Civil Service would be by seniority so that its members would remain independent of outside influence.

In 1800, Lord Wellesley pointed out that even though civil servants often ruled vast areas, they came to India at the immature age of 18 or so and were given no regular training before starting on their jobs. They generally lacked knowledge of Indian languages. Wellesley therefore established the College of Fort William at Calcutta for the education of young recruits to the Civil Service. The Directors of the Company disapproved of his action and in 1806 replaced it by their own East Indian College at Haileybury in England.

Till 1853 all appointments to the Civil Services were made by the Directors of the East India Company, who placated the members of the Board of Control by letting them make some of the nominations. The Directors fought hard to retain this lucrative and prized privilege and refused to surrender it even when their other economic and political privileges were taken away by Parliament. They lost it finally in 1853 when the Charter Act decreed that all recruits to the Civil Service were to be selected through a competitive examination.

A special feature of the Indian Civil Service since the days of Cornwallis was the rigid and complete exclusion of Indians from it. It was laid down officially in 1793 that all higher posts in administration worth more than $500 a year in salary were to be held by Englishmen. This policy was also applied to other branches of Government, such as the army, police, judiciary, engineering. In the words of John Shore, who succeeded Cornwallis :

The fundamental principle of the English had been to make the whole Indian nation subservient, in every possible way, to the interest and benefits of ourselves. The Indians have been excluded from every honour, dignity, or office, which the lowest Englishmen could be prevailed to accept.

Why did the British follow such a policy?

Many factors combined to produce it.

  • One, they were convinced that an administration based on British ideas, institutions, and practices could be firmly established only by English personnel.
  • Second, they did not trust the ability and integrity of the Indians.

Examples –

  • Charle Grant, Chairman of the Court of Directors, condemned the people of India as “a race of men lamentably degenerate and base; retaining but a feeble sense of moral obligation; ….. and sunk in misery by their vices.”
  • Cornwallis believed that “Every native of Hindustan is corrupt.” It may be noted that this criticism did apply to some extent to a small class of Indian officials and zamindars of the time. But, then, it was equally if not more true of British officials in India. In fact, Cornwallis had proposed to give them high salaries in order to help them resist temptations and to become honest and obedient. But he never thought of applying the same adequate salaries to eradicate corruption among Indian officials.

The Reality

The exclusion of Indians from higher grades of services was a deliberate policy.

  • These services were required at the time to establish and consolidate British rule in India. Obviously the task could not be left to Indians who did not possess the same instinctive sympathy for, and understanding of, British interests as Englishmen.
  • The influential classes of British society were keen to preserve the monopoly of lucrative appointments in the Indian Civil Service and other services for their sons. In fact, they fought tooth and nail among themselves over these appointments. The right to make appointment was a perpetual bone of contention between the Directors of the Company and the members of the British Cabinet.

How could the English then agree to let Indians occupy these posts? Indians were, however, recruited in large numbers to fill subordinate posts as they were cheaper and much more readily available than Englishmen.

Steel Frame

The Indian Civil Service gradually developed into one of the most efficient and powerful civil services in the world. Its members exercised vast power and often participated in the making of policy. They developed certain traditions of independence, integrity, and hard work, though these qualities obviously served British and not Indian interests. At the same time they gradually came to form a rigid and exclusive and proud ‘caste’ with an extremely conservative and narrow outlook. They came to believe that they had an almost Divine right to rule India. The Indian Civil Service has often been called the ‘steel frame’ which reared and sustained British rule in India. In course of time, it became the chief opponent of all that was progressive and advanced in Indian life and one of the main targets of attack by the rising Indian national movement.



The second important pillar of the British regime in India was the army. It fulfilled three important functions –

  1. it was the instrument through which the Indian powers were conquered;
  2. it defended the British Empire in India from foreign rivals; and
  3. it safeguarded British supremacy from the ever-present threat of internal revolt.

The bulk of the Company’s army consisted of Indian soldiers, recruited chiefly from the area at present included in U.P. and Bihar.

In 1857, the strength of the army in India was 311,400 of whom 265,900 were Indians. Its officers were, however, exclusively British, at least since the days of Cornwallis. In 1856, only three Indians in the army received a salary of Rs. 300 per month and the highest Indian officer was a Subedar.

A large number of Indian troops had to be employed as British troops were far too expensive. Moreover, the population of Britain was perhaps too small to provide the large number of soldiers needed for the conquest of India. The army entirely had British officials and a certain number of British troops were maintained to keep the Indian soldiers under control.

It appears surprising today that a handful of foreigners could conquer and control India with a predominantly Indian army. This was possible because of two factors.

  1. First, there was absence of nationalism in the country at the time. A soldier from Bihar or Avadh did not think, and could not have thought, that in helping the Company defeat the Marathas or the Punjabis he was being anti-India.
  2. Secondly, the Indian soldier had a long tradition of loyally serving those who paid his salary. This was popularly known as loyalty to the salt. In other words, the Indian soldier was a good mercenary, and the Company on its part was a good paymaster. It paid its soldiers regularly and well, something that the Indian rulers and chieftains were no longer doing.



The third pillar of British rule was the police whose creator was once again Cornwallis.

He relieved the zamindars of their police functions and established a regular police force to maintain law and order. In this respect he went back and modernized, the old Indian system of thanas. Interestingly, this put India ahead of Britain where a system of police had not developed yet.

  • Cornwallis established a system of circles or thanas headed by a daroga, who was an Indian.
  • Later, the post of the District Superintendent of Police was created to head the police organisation in a district. Once again, Indians were excluded from all superior posts.
  • In the villages, the duties of the police continued to be performed by village-watchmen who were maintained by the villagers.

Success Story Of Police

  • The police gradually succeeded in reducing major crimes such as dacoity.
  • One of its major achievements was the suppression of thugs who robbed and killed travelers on the highways, particularly in Central India.
  • The police also prevented the organisation of a large-scale conspiracy against foreign control, and when the national movement arose, the police was used to suppress it.


In its dealings with the people, the police adopted an unsympathetic attitude.

  • A Committee of Parliament reported in 1813 that the police committed “depredations on the peaceable inhabitants, of the same nature as those practiced by the dacoits whom they were employed to suppress.”
  • William Bentinck, the Governor General, wrote in 1832: “As for the police so far from being a protection to the people, I cannot better illustrate the public feeling regarding it, than by the following act, that nothing can exceed the popularity of a recent regulation by which, if a robbery has been committed, the police are prevented from making any enquiry into it, except upon the requisition of the persons robbed – that is to say, the shepherd is a more ravenous beast of prey than the wolf.”


Judicial Organisation

The British laid the foundations of a new system of dispensing justice through a hierarchy of civil and criminal courts. Though given a start by Warren Hastings, system was stablished by Cornwallis in 1793.

In each district was established a Diwani Adalat, or civil court, presided over by the District Judge who belonged to the Civil Service. Cornwallis thus separated the posts of the Civil Judge and the collector. Appeal from the District Court lay first to four Provincial Courts of Civil Appeal and then, finally, to the Sadar Diwani Adalat. Below the District Courts were Registrars’ Courts, headed by Europeans, and a number of subordinate courts headed by Indian judges known as Munsifs and Amins.

To deal with criminal cases, Cornwallis divided the Presidency of Bengal into four Divisions, in each of which a Court of Circuit presided over by the civil servants was established. Below these courts came a large number of Indian magistrates to try petty cases. Appeals from the Courts of Circuit lay with the Sadar Nizamat Adalat.

  • The criminal courts applied Muslim Criminal Law in a modified and less harsh form so that the tearing apart of limbs and such other punishment were prohibited.
  • The civil courts applied the customary law that had prevailed in any area or among a section of the people since time immemorial.

In 1831, William Bentinck abolished the Provincial Courts of Appeal and Circuit. Their work was assigned first to Commissions and later to District Judges and District Collectors. Bentinck also raised the status and powers of Indians in the judicial service and appointed them as Deputy Magistrates, Subordinate Judges and Principal Sadar Amins.

In 1865, High Courts were established at Calcutta, Madras and Bombay to replace the Sadar Courts of Diwani and Nizamat.

Codification Of Laws

The British also established a new system of laws through the processes of enactment and codification of old laws. The traditional system of justice in India had been largely based on customary law which arose from long tradition and practice, though many laws were based on the shastras and shariat as well as on imperial authority. Though they continued to observe customary law in general, the British gradually evolved a new system of laws. They introduced regulations, codified the existing laws, and often systematized and modernized them through judicial interpretation.

Their Charter Act of 1833 conferred all law-making power on the Governor-General-in-Council. All this meant that Indians were now to live increasingly under man-made laws, which might be good or bad but which were openly the products of human reason, and not under laws which had to be obeyed blindly and which could not be as they were supposed to be divine and therefore sacred.

In 1833, the Government appointed a Law Commission headed by Lord Macaulay to codify Indian laws. Its labours’ eventually resulted in the Indian Penal Code, the Western-derived Codes of Civil and Criminal Procedure and other codes of laws. The same laws now prevailed all over the country and they were enforced by a uniform system of courts. Thus it may be said that India was judicially unified.


The Rule Of Law

The British introduced the concept of the rule of law. This meant that administration was to be carried out, at least in theory, in obedience to laws, which clearly defined the rights, privileges, and obligations of the subjects and not according to the caprice or personal discretion of the ruler. In practice, of course, the bureaucracy and the police enjoyed arbitrary powers and interfered with the rights and liberties of the people.

One important feature of the concept of the rule of law was that any official could be brought before a court of law for breaches of official duty or for acts done in excess of his official authority. The rule of law was to some extent a guarantee of the personal liberty of a person.

It is true that previous rulers of India had been in general bound by tradition and custom. But they always had the legal right to take any administrative steps they wanted and there existed no other authority before whom their acts could be questioned. The Indian rulers and chiefs sometimes exercised this power to do as they wanted.

Under British rule, on the other hand, administration was largely carried on according to laws as interpreted by the courts though the laws themselves were often defective, were made not by the people through a democratic process but autocratically by the foreign rulers, and left a great deal of power in the hands of the civil servants and the police. But that was perhaps inevitable in a foreign regime that could not in the very nature of things be democratic or libertarian.


Equality Before Law

The Indian legal system under the British was based on the concept of equality before law.

This meant that in the eyes of law all men were equal. The same law applied to all persons irrespective of their caste, religion, or class. Previously, the judicial system had paid heed to caste distinctions and had differentiated between the so-called high-born and low-born. For the same crime lighter punishment was awarded to a Brahmin than to a non-Brahmin. Similarly, in practice zamindars and nobles were not judged as harshly as the commoner. In fact, very often they could not be brought to justice at all for their actions. Now the humble could also move the machinery of justice.

There was, however, one exception to this excellent principle of equality before law. The European and their descendants had separate courts and even laws. In criminal cases they could be tried only by European judges. Many English officials, military officers, planters, and merchants behaved with Indians in a haughty, harsh, and even brutal manner. When efforts were made to bring them to justice, they were given indirect and undue protection and consequently light or no punishment by many of the European judges before whom alone they could be tried. Consequently, miscarriage of justice occurred frequently.

In practice, there emerged another type of legal inequality. Justice became quite expensive as court fees had to be paid, lawyers engaged, and the expenses of witnesses met. Courts were often situated in distant towns. Law suits dragged on for years. The complicated laws were beyond the grasp of the illiterate and ignorant peasants. Invariably, the rich could turn and twist the laws and courts to operate in their own favour. The mere threat to take a poor persons through the long process of justice from the lower court to the highest court of appeal and thus to face him with complete ruin often sufficed to bring him to heel.

Moreover, the widespread prevalence of corruption in the ranks of the police and the rest of the administrative machinery led to the denial of justice. Officials often favoured the rich. The zamindars oppressed the ryots without fear of official action.

In contrast, the system of justice that had prevailed in pre-British times was comparatively informal, speedy, and inexpensive. Thus, while the new judicial system marked a great step forward in so far as it was based on the laudable principles of the rule of law and equality before law and on rational and humane man-made laws, it was a retrograde step in some other respects: it was now costlier and involved long delays.



Bibliography : IGNOU – Modern Indian Political Thought

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