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Historical
British Contribution
Jan 2008
Prof

Since the time of Dadabhai Nauroji, it was known as to how much produce the British had taken away from our economy. They had managed to buy raw materials cheap and sell manufactured goods expensive. An unusual feature of the British rule was that for a long period India ran large export surpluses. These were neither offset by increase in India�s foreign exchange reserves nor by any overseas lending. The surpluses were used for payment of political tribute. This was the genesis of the famous theory of drain of wealth from Indians. The items included payments for (i) government�s external obligations, (ii) transfer of private savings and dividends and profits of European firms and (iii) invisible charges. This was a clear cut case of exploitation of India by a colonial power.

The other charges often levelled against the British is that they divided the Indians, that is, they sowed the seeds of discord between Hindus and Muslims in order to rule India. There is no substance in this; and facts speak otherwise. Even after the British crown assumed direct rule in 1858, no attempt was made to redivide the country. Uncannily, the Viceroy for the princely states and the Governor General for British India were combined in the same person. Assuming that the British had adopted the policy of divide, would they have taken the structural measures that they did early in their rule over India? For example, the three Presidencies of Bombay, Calcutta and Madras had been established independently of one another. Yet, they were brought under one umbrella by the Regulating Act of 1773, hereafter Warren Hastings was promoted from Governor of Bengal to Governor General of India. Decades later, the Agra Presidency was formed, also to be answerable to the Governor General and not directly to the Board of Directors of the East India Company in London.

If the policy was to divide, why was MaCaulay supported in his zeal for introducing English as the medium of instruction? This reform contributed more to bringing Indians together than any other. Without the English language how could a Bengali converse freely with a Gujarati? There was no rashtra bhasha or national language then. And without education in English, would our leaders across the sub-continent have imbibed from the west the spirit of liberty and the concept of nationalism. For purposes of administration, a few Indian officials could have been especially trained in English For the rest, education would have continued in the so called vernacular languages. On the British crown assuming the administration of India in 1858, many changes were made, but none in the direction of abolishing English, or making the presidencies more autonomous. Instead, the office of viceroy for the princely states and of the Governor General for British India were combined in the same person.

It can also be argued that the British began their rule in the 18th century without any intention to divide India, and it was only after some experience, developed second thoughts. If that were so, they would have introduced structural changes in the early decades of the 20th century. For example, they could have done to other provinces what they did with Burma, now Myanmar, which was separated from the rest of India in 1937. There was no protest or even a murmur at this change. Sind was taken away from the Bombay presidency and constituted as a separate province. Bihar and Orissa were similarly excluded from the Bengal presidency and made into separate provinces. Again without a murmur or protest.

The British could have taken steps, with the full support of the rajas and the nawabs, to try to ensure that British India did not get easily integrated with the rest of the country. Instead, the Independence of India Act 1947, passed by Parliament in London, provided that every princely state would either join the Indian Union or the dominion of Pakistan. None of this smacks of a policy of divide and rule.

On the contrary, it would be useful to recount what Indian scholars and national leaders had to say about British contribution to the economic, political and social development of India. Let us begin with Sir Jadunath Sarkar, one of the most distinguished Indian historians of his time. 

The modernization of India is the work of the English, and it has affected the entire Indian continent. In many respects the English have continued, but in a more thorough fashion and over a much wider area of India, the work begun by the Mughal empire. In some other direction they have introduced new forces which were unknown in the Mughal age. The English influence on Indian life and thought, which is still very far from its completion, is comparable only to the ancient Aryan stimulus, in its intensity and its all pervasive character.

The first gift of the English to India is universal peace or freedom from foreign invasion and internal disorder. How valuable peace is for national growth can be best understood by contrast if we study the history of western India before 1817 or of the Punjab in the eighteenth century. The English have admitted us to the entire outside world, not only in Asia, but in all other continents as well, and they have admitted the rest of the world to us, in a degree not dreamt of under Muslim rule.
The greatest gift of the English, after universal peace and the modernization of society, and indeed the direct result of these two forces, is the Renaissance which marked our nineteenth century. Modern India owes everything to it. The renaissance was at first an intellectual awakening and influenced our literature, education, thought, and art, but in the next generation it became a moral force and reformed our society And religion. Still later, in the third generation from its commencement, it has led to the beginning of the economic modernization of India

An �aggressive� Hinduism replaced the shy passive creed that formerly used to be almost ashamed of itself and to stand ever on the defensive amidst growing foes and a diminishing number of adherents. The uniformity of administrative system which is a gift of the British age, they have also been tending to fuse the various races and creeds of India into one homogeneous people and to bring about social equality and community of life and though, which are the necessary basis of nationality.

Awareness that the country�s borders must be secured came with British rule. After Lord Lytton became Viceroy and Governor General in 1876, a frontier policy began to be officially evolved. Afghanistan was the central concern, because beyond it was the expanding Tzarist empire, and below it, in the south, were what were called tribal areas, belonging to the Afridis and others. Even then, there was no precisely delineated border between India and Afghanistan until 1894 when the Durand Line was drawn after Sir Mortimer Durand negotiated it by visiting Kabul. Lord Curzon, who became Viceroy in 1899, was acutely conscious of the importance of secure borders. In his words quoted by Michael Edwards, in his book High Noon of Empire, London 1965: �frontiers are indeed the razor�s edge on which hang suspended the modern issue of war or peace. Of life or death to nations. Edwards continued, Britain�s nervousness about the North-West Frontier was of long standing. All the invasions on India except that of the British themselves had come by way of the passes of the north-west.

During the first months Curzon�s administration, hostile Russian activity was not confined to the hills of north-west. In Burma, for example, the Russian government asked permission to establish a vice-consulate at Rangoon. In Curzon�s view, this could be intended as nothing other than a centre for espionage. At Kashgar, too, in what was then a centre known as Chinese Turkestan, the Russian representative was engaged in trying to undermine the position of the British Agent.

Edwards further said, Tibet had sent troops over the border into the little state of Sikkim. Under the terms of a treaty between Britain and China concluded in 1890, Sikkim was under British protection and her actual ruler was a British political officer. Theoretically, Tibet was under Chinese protection. The Tibetans, aware of China�s military weakness, were preparing to throw off Chinese rule and the Chinese were unable, even had they been willing to enforce the treaty provisions on the Tibetans.

Along India�s northern border was Nepal. Curzon was surprised to discover that relations between British India and the independent state of Nepal were practically non-existent. Nepal�s isolation constituted a danger to India. Curzon therefore invited the Nepalese prime minister to visit India. Further east, the McMahon Line drawn as the border between Tibet and Assam. It was negotiated between Lhasa and the British at the Simla conference held during 1913-14. All in all, although Lord Curzon might have been overzealous, but the British government demonstrated the need to be aware of the importance of clearly delineated frontiers. How one wishes that the government of independent India had been equally conscious? Had that been so the Nehru government could have had the Sino-Indian frontier reconfirmed in exchange for recognizing Peking�s, now Beijing, suzerainty over Tibet way back in 1950. Regarding British intentions, why should they have governed so diligently had their plan been to leave India distraught and divided?

Sir Percival Griffiths ICS, who served all his working life in India and wrote extensively, also deserves to be quoted. Speaking at the City of London Tavern on the occasion of a dinner given to him by the Honourable East India company on 6th July 1831 Raja Rammohan Roy said : Before the period in which India had become tributary to Great Britain it was the scene of the most frequent and bloody conflicts. In the various provinces of the Eastern Dominion, nothing was to be seen but plunder and devastation; there was no security for property or for life, until, by the interference of this country, the great sources of discord were checked, education has advanced and the example of the British system of dominion had a conciliating effect on the natives of the East. Mr. Gokhale, apostrophizing the British, said: the blessings of peace, the establishment of law and order, the introduction of Western education and the freedom of speech and appreciation of liberal institutions which have followed in its wake � all these are things which stand to the credit of your rule.

After speaking of the anarchy and insecurity of the pre-British period, Dadabhai Naoroji goes on to say, contrast this with the result of British rule. Law and order are its first blessings. Security of life and property is a recognized right of the people, and is more or less attained according to the means available, or the sense of duty of the officials to whom the sacred duty is entrusted. The native now learns and enjoys what justice between man and man and that law instead of the despot�s will is above all. To the enlightenment of the country, the results of the universities and educational establishments bear witness. In place of the old general darkness and ignorance, thousands of natives have derived, and millions will derive hereafter, the benefit of the highest degree of enlightenment which man has obtained. In material progress it can easily be seen what impulse will be given to the development of the natural resources of the country by railways, canals, public roads, etc., but more by the introduction of English enterprise generally.

The last but the least of the benefits which India is deriving at the hands of the British is the new political life they are being inspired with. They are learning the most important lessons of the highest political condition that a nation can aspire to. The freedom of speech which the natives are now learning the necessity of, and are enjoying, and with which the natives can now talk to their rulers face to face for what they want is another invaluable blessing.

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