The Colonial Context And The Conception Of Colonial Rule


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By the beginning of the 19th century, the process of colonization of India was complete. Henceforth, the foremost concern of colonial rulers was the consolidation of the gains, i.e., the maintenance of colonial rule. For this they needed supporters from among the subjects, which could be achieved only through cultural and ideological hegemony. The creation of a class of landlords and the educated urban middle class, most of whom were absorbed by colonial administrative system and other colonial institutions, were steps to meet the needs of British Colonialism. The colonial education and other cultural undertakings geared towards the establishment of ideological hegemony. This was the social and ideological context in which the political thought during the early colonial rule developed.

A different conception of colonial rule also developed during the course of the nineteenth century. It was based on an appreciation of the traditional institutions and practices.

An important trend of thought, informed by liberal principles, focused attention on the positive aspects of British rule.

Raja Rammohan Roy had considered British rule as a blessing and held that this conversion would yield future benefits. His sharp critique of many degrading aspects of Indian society was probably what made him appreciate the advantages of being ruled by and associated with an enlightened nation like the British.

Keshab Chandra Sen too held that British rule which appeared at a time of grave social and moral crisis was a divine dispensation and not a mere accident. God willed it so. He even held that the temporal sovereign was God’s representative and sedition, therefore, was not only a political offence but a sin against God.

Rabindranath Tagore, Dada Bhai Nauroji, G.K. Gokhale, M.G. Ranade, C. R. Das and Moti Lal Nehru – all spoke, in varying degrees of the benefits that British rule had brought to India.

  • Gokhale in 1905 said : “The country now enjoys uninterrupted peace and order….
  • Nauroji noted that “no educated native will prefer any other rule to English rule….”

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In the face of colonial repression and exploitation, this conception of colonial rule i.e. of the British rule being beneficial, could not last for long. The colonial rule was looked upon as an unnecessary evil and by the beginning of 20th century, anti-colonialism became integral to political thinking.

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Despite the appreciation for certain English values and institutions, all the stream of anti-colonial nationalist thought commonly held that colonial rule was dehumanizing and exploitative. In fact, the roots of nationalist conception of colonial rule could be traced in the liberal tradition of 19th century.

  • Nauroji had laid the blame of ‘material treatment it received at the hands of British rulers.’
  • Gokhale blamed the British rule for ‘steady dwarfing of a race in consequence of its exclusion from power‘ which he considered an ‘enormous evil.’
  • The 20th century liberals, without refuting the ‘civilising’ role of colonial rule, pleaded for the transfer of power.

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The agenda for future nationalist conceptions of colonial rule was set by Tilak.

The decade of 1920s was the decade of radicalization of anti-colonial thinking. A section of the educated youth, critical of Gandhi’s ideas and methods, sought to advance the understanding of British and to evolve new methods of political struggle. The revolutionary nationalists emerged out of this trend. Subhash Chandra Bose and Jawarharlal Nehru became the spokesmen of this section.

Another trend was represented by the Socialist and Communists.

The Communist Party of India came into existence with the inspiration and help of Communist International. It’s conception of colonial rule has based on Lenin’s theory of imperialism as the highest stage of capitalism and Marx’s articles on India in New York Tribue (1853).

M.N. Roy’sIndia in Transition‘ and Rajni Palme Dutt’s ‘India Today‘, both stressed the integration of Indian resources and economy with the British colonial economy to exploit India’s raw materials. M.N. Roy, official ideologue of the Indian Communists in 1920s, emphasized the linking of anti-colonialism with the campaign against world capitalism.

The process of radicalization of Congress led to the emergence of radical nationalism in the form of Congress Socialist Party in 1934. The Congress socialist thinkers, particularly Jaya Prakash Narayan and Acharya Narendra Dev made an attempt to synthesize socialism with nationalism and to press socialism in the service of nationalism, i.e. in the anti-colonial struggle.

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Bibliography : IGNOU – Modern Indian Political Thought

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