The British Raj in India

How British Rule of India Came About—and How It Ended

People holding Indian flags during the tri-colour march
The tri-colour march celebrates the anniversary of the 'Quit India' movement.

MONEY SHARMA / Getty Images

The very idea of the British Raj—the British rule over India—seems inexplicable today. Consider the fact that Indian written history stretches back almost 4,000 years, to the civilization centers of the Indus Valley Culture at Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro. Also, by 1850, India had a population of at least 200 million.

Britain, on the other hand, had no indigenous written language until the 9th century CE (almost 3,000 years after India). Its population was about 21 million in 1850. How, then, did Britain manage to control India from 1757 to 1947? The keys seem to have been superior weaponry, economic power, and Eurocentric confidence.

European Scramble for Colonies in Asia

After the Portuguese rounded the Cape of Good Hope on Africa's southern tip in 1488, opening sea lanes to the Far East by piracy on ancient trade lines in the Indian Ocean, the European powers strove to acquire Asian trading posts of their own.

For centuries, the Venetians had controlled the European branch of the Silk Road, reaping enormous profits from the sale of silk, spices, fine china, and precious metals. The Venetian monopoly ended with the establishment of European incursions in the sea trade. At first, the European powers in Asia were solely interested in trade, but over time they became more interested in acquiring territory. Among the nations looking for a piece of the action was Britain.

The Battle of Plassey

Britain had been trading in India since about 1600, but it did not begin to seize large sections of land until 1757, after the Battle of Plassey. This battle pitted 3,000 soldiers of the British East India Company against the 50,000-strong army of the young Nawab of Bengal, Siraj ud Daulah, and his French East India Company allies.

Fighting began on the morning of June 23, 1757. Heavy rain spoiled the Nawab's cannon powder (the British covered theirs), leading to his defeat. The Nawab lost at least 500 troops, while Britain lost only 22. Britain seized the modern equivalent of about $5 million from the Bengali treasury and used it to finance further expansion.

India Under the East India Company

The East India Company was primarily interested in the trade of cotton, silk, tea, and opium, but following the Battle of Plassey, it functioned as the military authority in growing sections of India as well.

By 1770, heavy Company taxation and other policies had left millions of Bengalis impoverished. While British soldiers and traders made their fortunes, the Indians starved. Between 1770 and 1773, about 10 million people (one-third of the population) died of famine in Bengal.

At this time, Indians were also barred from holding high office in their own land. The British considered them inherently corrupt and untrustworthy.

The Indian 'Mutiny' of 1857

Many Indians were distressed by the rapid cultural changes imposed by the British. They worried that Hindu and Muslim India would be Christianized. In 1857, a new type of rifle cartridge was given to the soldiers of the British Indian Army. Rumors spread that the cartridges had been greased with pig and cow fat, an abomination to both major Indian religions.

On May 10, 1857, the Indian Revolt began, with Bengali Muslim troops marching to Delhi and pledging their support to the Mughal emperor. After a year-long struggle, the rebels surrendered on June 20, 1858.

Control of India Shifts to the India Office

Following the rebellion, the British government abolished the remaining vestiges of the Mughal Dynasty and the East India Company. The Emperor, Bahadur Shah, was convicted of sedition and exiled to Burma.

Control of India was given to a British Governor-General, who reported back to the British Parliament.

It should be noted that the British Raj included only about two-thirds of modern India, with the other portions under the control of local princes. However, Britain exerted great pressure on these princes, effectively controlling all of India.

'Autocratic Paternalism'

Queen Victoria promised that the British government would work to "better" its Indian subjects. To the British, this meant educating the Indians in British modes of thought and stamping out cultural practices such as sati—the practice of immolating a widow on the death of her husband. The British thought of their rule as a form of "autocratic paternalism."

The British also created "divide and rule" policies, pitting Hindu and Muslim Indians against one another. In 1905, the colonial government divided Bengal into Hindu and Muslim sections; this division was revoked after strong protests. Britain also encouraged the formation of the Muslim League of India in 1907.

British India During World War I

During World War I, Britain declared war on Germany on India's behalf, without consulting Indian leaders. About 1.5 million Indian soldiers and laborers were serving in the British Indian Army by the time of the Armistice. A total of 60,000 Indian soldiers were killed or reported missing.

Although most of India rallied to the British flag, Bengal and Punjab were less easy to control. Many Indians were eager for independence, and they were led in their struggle by an Indian lawyer and political newcomer known as Mohandas Gandhi (1869–1948).

In April 1919, more than 15,000 unarmed protesters gathered at Amritsar, in Punjab. British troops fired on the crowd, killing hundreds of men, women, and children, even though the official death toll of the Amritsar Massacre as reported was 379.

British India During World War II

When World War II broke out, India once again contributed hugely to the British war effort. In addition to troops, the princely states donated substantial amounts of cash. By the end of the war, India had an incredible volunteer army of 2.5 million men. About 87,000 Indian soldiers died in combat.

The Indian independence movement was very strong by this time, and British rule was widely resented. Some 40,000 Indian POWs were recruited by the Japanese to fight against the Allies in exchange for the hope of Indian independence. Most Indians, however, remained loyal. Indian troops fought in Burma, North Africa, Italy, and elsewhere.

The Struggle for Indian Independence

Even as World War II raged on, Gandhi and other members of the Indian National Congress (INC) demonstrated against British rule.

The 1935 Government of India Act had provided for the establishment of provincial legislatures across the colony. The Act also created a federal government for the provinces and princely states and granted the right to vote to about 10% of India's male population. These moves toward limited self-governance only made India more impatient for true self-rule.

In 1942, Britain sent an envoy to India, led by the British Labour politician Stafford Cripps (1889–1952), offering future dominion status in return for help recruiting more soldiers. Cripps may have made a secret agreement with the Muslim League, allowing Muslims to opt out of a future Indian state.

Mahatma Gandhi with his granddaughters
Bettmann / Getty Images

Arrests of Gandhi and INC Leadership

Gandhi and the INC did not trust the British envoy and demanded immediate independence in return for their cooperation. When the talks broke down, the INC launched the "Quit India" movement, calling for the immediate withdrawal of Britain from India.

In response, the British arrested the INC's leadership, including Gandhi and his wife. Mass demonstrations were carried out across the country but were crushed by the British Army. Britain may not have realized it, but it was now just a matter of time before the British Raj came to an end.

The soldiers who had joined Japan and Germany in fighting the British were put on trial at Delhi's Red Fort in early 1946. A series of court-martial trials were held for 45 prisoners charged with treason, murder, and torture. The men were convicted, but huge public protests forced the commutation of their sentences.

Hindu/Muslim Riots and Partition

On August 17, 1946, violent fighting broke out between Hindus and Muslims in Calcutta. The trouble quickly spread across India. Meanwhile, cash-strapped Britain announced its decision to withdraw from India by June 1948.

Sectarian violence flared again as independence approached. In June 1947, representatives of the Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs agreed to divide India along sectarian lines. Hindu and Sikh areas remained part of India, while predominantly Muslim areas in the north became the nation of Pakistan. This division of territory was known as the Partition.

Millions of refugees flooded across the border in each direction, and up to 2 million people were killed in sectarian violence. Pakistan became independent on August 14, 1947. India followed the next day.

Additional References

  • Gilmour, David. "The British in India: A Social History of the Raj." New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018. 
  • James, Lawrence. "Raj: The Making and Unmaking of British India." New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 1997.
  • Nanda, Bal Ram. "Gokhale: The Indian Moderates and the British Raj." Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1977.  
  • Tharoor, Shashi. "Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India." London: Penguin Books Ltd, 2018. 
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Szczepanski, Kallie. "The British Raj in India." ThoughtCo, Nov. 3, 2022, Szczepanski, Kallie. (2022, November 3). The British Raj in India. Retrieved from Szczepanski, Kallie. "The British Raj in India." ThoughtCo. (accessed April 2, 2023).