The British Raj in India

How British Rule of India Came About and How It Ended

Photo of British India by Bourne and Shepherd, 1875-76.
Photo of the Prince of Wales on a tiger hunt in British India, 1875-1876. Library of Congress Prints and Photos

The very idea of British India seems inexplicable. 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 CE, India had a population of some 200 million or more.

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 16.6 million in 1850. How, then, did Britain manage to control India from 1757 to 1947? The keys seem to have been superior weaponry, a strong profit motive, and Eurocentric confidence.

Europe's Scramble for Colonies in Asia:

From the moment the Portuguese rounded the Cape of Good Hope on Africa's southern tip in 1488, opening sea lanes to the Far East, the European powers strove to acquire Asian trading posts of their own.

For centuries, the Viennese had controlled the European branch of the Silk Road, reaping enormous profits on silk, spices, fine china and precious metals. The Viennese monopoly ended with the establishment of the sea-route. At first, the European powers in Asia were solely interested in trade, but over time, the acquisition of territory grew in importance. Among the nations looking for a piece of the action was Britain.

The Battle of Plassey (Palashi):

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 5,000-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, to Britain's 22. Britain took about $5 million from the Bengali treasury, which financed further expansion.

India under the East India Company:

The East India Company traded in cotton, silk, tea and opium. 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 died of famine in Bengal, one-third of the population.

At this time, Indians also were barred from 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. Early 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 started, when mainly Bengali Muslim troops marched to Delhi and pledged their support to the Mughal emperor.

Both sides moved slowly, unsure of public reaction. After a year-long struggle, the rebels surrendered on June 20, 1858.

Control of India Shifts to the India Office:

Following the Rebellion of 1857-58, the British government abolished both the Mughal Dynasty, which had ruled India more or less for 300 years, 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 Secretary of State for India and 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 a lot of 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 them in British modes of thought, and stamping out cultural practices such as sati.

The British also practiced "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. The Indian Army was made up mostly of Muslims, Sikhs, Nepalese Gurkhas, and other minority groups, as well.

British India in World War I:

During World War I, Britain declared war on Germany on India's behalf, without consulting Indian leaders. More than 1.3 million Indian soldiers and laborers were serving in the British Indian Army by the time of the Armistice. 43,000 Indian and Gurkha soldiers died.

Although most of India rallied to the British flag, Bengal and Punjab were restive. Many Indians were eager for independence; they were led by a political newcomer, Mohandas Gandhi.

In April 1919, more than 5,000 unarmed protesters gathered at Amritsar, in the Punjab. British troops fired on the crowd, killing an estimated 1,500 men, women, and children. The official death toll of the Amritsar Massacre was 379.

British India in World War II:

When World War II broke out, once again, India 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 2.5 million-man volunteer army. 87,000 Indian soldiers had died in combat.

The Indian independence movement was very strong by this time, though, and British rule was widely resented. Some 30,000 Indian POWs were recruited by the Germans and Japanese to fight against the Allies, in exchange for their freedom. Most, however, remained loyal. Indian troops fought in Burma, North Africa, Italy, and elsewhere.

The Struggle for Indian Independence, and the Aftermath:

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

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

In 1942, Britain sent the Cripps mission to offer 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.

In any case, 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 burst out across the country but were crushed by the British Army. The offer of independence had been made, however. Britain may not have realized it, but it was now just a question of when the British Raj would end.

The soldiers who had joined Japan and Germany in fighting the British were put on trial at Delhi's Red Fort early in 1946. A series of ten courts-martial were held, trying 45 prisoners on charges of treason, murder, and torture. The men were convicted, but huge public protests forced the commutation of their sentences. Sympathetic mutinies broke out in the Indian Army and Navy during the trial, as well.

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 of 1948.

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

Millions of refugees flooded across the border in each direction. Between 250,000 and 500,000 people were killed in sectarian violence during the Partition. Pakistan became independent on August 14, 1947. India followed the next day.