The establishment of British rule in India was an entirely novel phenomenon for her, not comparable with any other invasion or political or economic change. ‘India had been conquered before, but by invaders who settled within her frontiers and made themselves part of her life.’ (Like the Normans in England or the Manchus in China.)’ She had never lost her independence, never been enslaved. That is to say, she had never been drawn into a political and economic system whose centre of gravity lay outside her soil, never been subjected to & ruling class which was, and which remained, permanently alien in origin and character.’
Every previous ruling class, whether it had originally come from outside or was indigenous, had accepted the structural unity of India’s social and economic life and tried to fit into it. It had become Indianised and had struck roots in the soil of the country. The new rulers were entirely different, with their base elsewhere, and between them and the average Indian there was a vast and unbridgeable gulf—a difference in tradition, in outlook, in income, and ways of living. The early Britishers in India, rather cut off from England, adopted many Indian ways of living. But it was a superficial approach and even this was deliberately abandoned with the improvement in communications between India and England. It was felt that the British ruling class must maintain its prestige in India by keeping aloof, exclusive, apart from Indians, living in a superior world of its own. There were two worlds: the world of British officials and the world of India’s millions, and there was nothing in common between them except a common dislike for each other. Previously races had merged into one another, or at least fitted into an organically interdependent structure. Now racialism became the acknowledged creed and this was intensified by the fact that the dominant race had both political and economic power, without check or hindrance.
The world market that the new capitalism was building up would have, in any event, affected India’s economic system. The self-sufficient village community, with its traditional division of labour, could not have continued in its old form. But the change that took place was not a normal development and it disintegrated the whole economic and structural basis of Indian society. A system which had social sanctions and controls behind it and was a part of the people’s cultural heritage was suddenly and forcibly changed and another system, administered from outside the group, was imposed. India did not come into a world market but became a colonial and agricultural appendage of the British structure.
The village community, which had so far been the basis of Indian economy, was disintegrated, losing both its economic and administrative functions. In 1830, Sir Charles Metcalfe, one of the ablest of British officials in India, described these communities in words which have often been quoted:
The village communities are little republics having nearly everything they want within themselves; and almost independent of foreign relations. They seem to last where nothing else lasts. This union of the village communities, each one forming a separate little state in itself… is in a high degree conducive to their happiness, and to the enjoyment of a great portion of freedom and independence.
The destruction of village industries was a powerful blow to these communities. The balance between industry and agriculture was upset, the traditional division of labour was broken up, and numerous stray individuals could not be easily fitted into any group activity. A, more direct blow came from the introduction of the landlord system, changing the whole conception of ownership of land. This conception had been one of communal ownership, not so much of the land as of the produce of the land. Possibly not fully appreciating this, but more probably taking the step deliberately for reasons of their own, the British governors, themselves representing the English landlord class, introduced something resembling the English system in India. At first they appointed revenue-farmers for short terms, that is persons who were made responsible for the collection of the revenue or land tax and payment of it to the Government. Later these revenue-farmers developed into landlords. The village community was deprived of all control over the land and its produce; what had always been considered as the chief interest and concern of that community now became the private property of the newly created landowner. This led to the breakdown of the joint life and corporate character of the community, and the co-operative system of services and functions began to disappear gradually.
The introduction of this type of property in land was not only a great economic change, but it went deeper and struck at the whole Indian conception of a co-operative group social structure. A new class, the owners of land, appeared; a class created by, and therefore to a large extent identified with, the British Government. The break-up of the old system created new problems and probably the beginnings of the new Hindu-Muslim problem can be traced to it. The landlord system was first introduced in Bengal and Bihar where big landowners were created under the system known as the Permanent Settlement. It was later realized that this was not advantageous to the state as the land revenue had been fixed and could not be enhanced. Fresh settlements in other parts of India were therefore made for a period only and enhancements in revenue took place from time to time. In some provinces a kind of peasant proprietorship was established. The extreme rigour applied to the collection of revenue resulted, especially in Bengal, in the ruin of the old landed gentry, and new people from the monied and business classes took their place. Thus Bengal became a province predominantly of Hindu landlords, while their tenants, though both Hindu and Muslim, were chiefly the latter.
Big landowners were created by the British after their own English pattern, chiefly because it was far easier to deal with a few individuals than with a vast peasantry. The objective was to collect as much money in the shape of revenue, and as speedily, as possible. If an owner failed at the stipulated time he was immediately pushed out and another took his place It was also considered necessary to create a class whose interests were identified with the British. The fear of revolt filled the minds of British officials in India and they referred to this repeatedly In their papers. Governor-General Lord William Bentinck said in 1829: ‘If security was wanting against extensive popular tumult or revolution, I should say that the Permanent Settlement, though a failure in many other respects, has this great advantage at least, of having created a vast body of rich landed proprietors deeply interested in the continuance of British Dominion and having complete command over the mass of the people.’
British rule thus consolidated itself by creating new classes and vested interests which were tied up with that rule and privileges which depended on its continuance. There were the landowners and the princes, and there was a large number of subordinate members of the services in various departments of government, from the patwari, the village head-man, upwards. The two essential branches of government were the revenue system and the police. At the head of both of these in each district was the collector or district magistrate who was the linchpin of the administration. He functioned as an autocrat in his district, combining in himself executive, judicial, revenue, and police functions. If there were any small Indian states adjoining the area under his control, he was also the British agent for them.
Then there was the Indian Army, consisting of British and Indian troops but officered entirely by Englishmen. This was reorganized repeatedly, especially after the mutiny of 1857, and ultimately became organizationally linked up with the British Army. This was so arranged as to balance its different elements and keep the British troops in key positions. ‘Next to the grand counterpoise of a sufficient European force comes the counterpoise of natives against natives,’ says the official report on reorganization in 1858. The primary function of these forces was to serve as an army of occupation—’Internal Security Troops’ they were called, and a majority of these was British. The Frontier Province served as a training ground for the British Army at India’s expense. The Field Army (chiefly Indian) was meant for service abroad and it took part in numerous British imperial wars and expeditions, India always bearing the cost. Steps were taken to segregate Indian troops from the rest of the population.
Thus India had to bear the cost of her own conquest, and then of her transfer (or sale) from the East India Company to the British Crown, for the extension of the British Empire to Burma and elsewhere, for expeditions to Africa, Persia, etc., and for her defence against Indians themselves. She was not only used as a base for imperial purposes, without any reimbursement for this, but she had further to pay for the training of part of the British Army in England—’capitation’ charges these were called. Indeed India was charged for all manner of other expenses incurred by Britain, such as the maintenance of British diplomatic and consular establishments in China and Persia, the entire cost of the telegraph line from England to India, part of the expenses of the British Mediterranean fleet, and even the receptions given to the Sultan of Turkey in London.
The building of railways in India, undoubtedly desirable and necessary, was done in an enormously wasteful way. The Government of India guaranteed 5 per cent interest on all capital invested and there was no need to check or estimate what was necessary. All purchases were made in England.
The civil establishment of government was also run on a lavish and extravagant scale, all the highly paid positions being reserved for Europeans. The process of Indianization of the administrative machine was very slow and only became noticeable in the twentieth century. This process, far from transferring any power to Indian hands, proved yet another method of strengthening British rule. The really key positions remained in British hands, and Indians in the administration could only function as the agents of British rule.
To all these methods must be added the deliberate policy, pursued throughout the period of British rule, or creating divisions among Indians, of encouraging one group at the cost of another. This policy was openly admitted in the early days of their rule, and indeed it was a natural one for an imperial power. With the growth of the nationalist movement that policy took subtler and more dangerous forms and, though denied, functioned more intensively than ever.
Nearly all our major problems today have grown up during British rule and as a direct result of British policy: the princes; the minority problem; various vested interests, foreign and Indian; the lack of industry and the neglect of agriculture; the extreme backwardness in the social services; and, above all, the tragic poverty of the people. The attitude to education has been significant. In Kaye’s ‘Life of Metcalfe’ it is stated that ‘this dread of the free diffusion of knowledge became a chronic disease . . . continually afflicting the members of Government with all sorts of hypochondriacal day-dreams and nightmares, in which visions of the printing press and the Bible were making their flesh creep, and their hair to stand erect with horror. It was our policy in those days to keep the natives of India in the profoundest state of barbarism and darkness, and every attempt to diffuse the light of knowledge among the people, either of our own or of the independent states, was vehemently opposed and resented.’
Imperialism must function in this way or else it ceases to be imperialism. The modern type of finance-imperialism added new kinds of economic exploitation which were unknown in earlier ages. The record of British rule in India during the nineteenth century must necessarily depress and anger an Indian, and yet it illustrates the superiority of the British in many fields, not least in their capacity to profit by our disunity and weaknesses. A people who are weak and who are left behind in the march of time invite trouble and ultimately have only themselves to blame. If British imperialism with all its consequences was, in the circumstances, to be expected in the natural order of events, so also was the growth of opposition to it inevitable, and the final crisis between the two.