Yes, the Britishers were a blessing to India.
The presence of the British in India for over 200 years had a positive impact in several ways in India, though many would argue that they did a great deal of harm as well.
Let’s revisit India when the British first arrived in the sixteenth century: Understand how India was at the time, study subsequent actions of the British, and then evaluate the consequences and impact of these actions.
There were two phases of the British Raj in India and each had its own impact on the subcontinent:
- The initial role as traders
- The subsequent role as Colonists
The Arrival of The Traders
The British first arrived as traders in the early seventeenth century and made initial contacts with the local people living in the coastal areas. As the word spread of abundant availability of raw materials, food, textiles, and spices, the British East India Company soon arrived and began establishing trading outposts in Calcutta (Kolkata), Madras (Chennai), and Bombay (Mumbai).
India, at the time, was not a single nation nor a single political identity, but a land with many principalities. The dominant rulers were the Mughals, who originally arrived from Central Asia. Different native rulers ruled the rest of the Indian subcontinent.
As the East India Company began discovering the vast natural resources in India, their interest to deepen their presence led them to the court of Emperor Jahangir (1605-1627), who ruled a large part of India at the time.
The Portuguese and Dutch traders also arrived, but it was the initial closeness of the British diplomat Sir Thomas Roe, and his friendship with Emperor Jahangir, that helped the East India Company gain an early edge. This was the beginning of British expansion in India as traders.
The British Faced Several Challenges;
- They had to deal with different rulers of smaller states.
- The relations between rulers was often hostile.
- Different languages were a barrier.
- The presence of thugs (looters and murderers) was widespread.
- The absence of a common law.
- Lack of education as a barrier to administration.
- Lack of infrastructures like roads and railway.
The British had to overcome these challenges if they were to maintain control over their largest colony and continue to exploiting its resources to fund and sustain the British Empire.
With the full support of the British government in London, the East India Company began to militarily overcome resistance from local rulers. On August 2nd, soon after the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, the British Parliament passed the Government of India Act, transferring power from East India Company to the British Crown.
This was officially the beginning of the British Raj (rule) in India as they transitioned from traders to colonists. The British ruled India until August 15th, 1947.
So how would have India fared if the British had not colonized it?
At the time of British arrival in the late sixteenth century, India was one of the richest regions in the world. Twenty-five percent of global resources output came from India, and it was this wealth that attracted the Mughals, and later, the British to arrive as rulers.
Despite this wealth, there were numerous reasons that held India back from becoming a single political entity until the 20th century. Let’s look at those factors;
Long before the Mughals and the British arrived, Indian rulers were mostly at war among themselves, fighting for territorial control. The arrival of the British helped in controlling the warring factions. This helped India unite in later years in the struggle for independence from British rule, as the warring factions had a common goal.
The absence of English language would have held back the development of India as seen during post-Independence and post-liberalization. While Hindi was a dominant language, India’s diverse cultures refused to accept it as a national language. With the British rule of two hundred years helped keep India together, without allowing language to becoming a barrier to unity.
If India had not adopted the British education system along with the language, India’s global success in IT and other areas today would not have been possible. Indian managers today have an advantage of language and cross-cultural exposure, foundations of which came from the British.
Professional Defense Force (Military)
The absence of a trained professional army would have resulted in the subcontinent being divided into smaller countries. This was a major factor that remains one of the best outcomes of British rule – a world-class, professionally trained army. The prowess was adequately demonstrated during World War I and II, and later in the post-independence period.
India stands as a shining example being the world’s largest and stable democracy and owes it to the Institutions whose foundations were laid by the British and nurtured further by independent India. The Indian Civil Service (later Indian Administrative Service); Judiciary; Revenue services, etc., are all great examples of British legacy.
Parliamentary and Democratic Principles
India’s success as a thriving democracy is due to the legacy of democratic values established by the British. India was able to successfully develop and adapt it to local conditions which have helped keep in check emerging conflicting challenges.
India today owes its infrastructure to the early foundations laid by the British, particularly with railways. The extensive railway network laid by the British helped independent India’s subsequent growth.
The Negative Impact of British Rule
British drained India’s wealth to serve and sustain their empire. Any development undertaken by the British was primarily to serve their interest. This resulted in the once prosperous people of India sliding into abject poverty and facing frequent famine. A challenge, India is still facing. It is perhaps the biggest argument against British rule in India.
By early 19th century, India was an established producer and exporter of the finest cotton, silk, and muslin fabrics. Cossimbazar (Kasimbazar) in West Bengal alone produced two million pounds of raw silk each year. Compare this with 250,000 pounds produced in Sicily, the largest producer of raw silk in Europe at the time. The same for cotton textiles, where India produced far better and larger quantities than the entire European continent. The British destroyed most of these Indian producers to promote its mills in Manchester.
Other traditional industries like dyeing, weaving, metal works, wood works, slowly lost out to machine-made imports from Europe.
The Indian agricultural system was well suited to Indian conditions with the farmer growing two crops a year. It was sufficient to remain well fed and also earn a decent income by selling the surplus. The average yield per acre of wheat in India in 1850 was 56 bushels. With two crops grown per year, the total production was 112 bushels per year. Compare this with 20 bushels per acre in England which grew only a single crop per year. The British ruined traditional methods by introducing European practices, and it was the Indian farmer that paid dearly.
The Indian education system with strong roots in Vedic studies which produced several stalwarts in mathematics, sciences, and arts, downgraded in favor of British education curriculum and system. The unlearning and re-learning cost a generation Indian people dearly.
These are just some of the factors that resulted in a negative impact of the British presence in India.