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History of Modern India

The eighteenth century India was reduced to being a beehive of sorts for the western colonial forces, who, like the early Turkish and Moghul invaders, were attracted by India's (then called Hindustan) riches, and designed to extend their imperialistic ambitions on this land, which lacked any political unity. But unlike earlier imperial powers they didn't make India their home, but only one of their colonies. Their chief aim was continual economic exploitation of India for their mercenary benefits, but their indirect influences helped the society of India to reach a modern age.

History of Morden India:
The colonial powers were many- Portuguese, Dutch, Britishers and the French- but it was the British rule in India which proved to be the most enduring, and their influences played a decisive role in shaping up of modern India.

The Colonial Cousins
Portuguese were the first of the colonial rulers, who established their presence in Goa as early as 1510. However, they were unable to move much beyond that, as far as their presence in India was concerned.

They were followed by the Dutch, British and French(in that order), who all competed for their slices of India. However, Britishers, through their shrewed political maneuvers and superior military vision, were eventually the most successful in establishing their imperial dominance across India. It should be remembered that the British entry to India was fairly modest, that is as a trading partner. In 1600AD, Queen Elizabeth I of England accorded a charter, which constituted the East India Company for the purpose of trading with India and eastern Asia. British trade representatives landed in Surat in 1612 AD, and the then emperor of Delhi, Jehangir, granted them trading permission with India.

However, during the eighteenth century, Britishers took advantage of the prevalently fragmented political scenario and the absence of a paramount political power(the glory of Moghul rule was fast waning by then), and began actively extending military support to various warring kingdoms in India, which in turn gave them easy access to those states' politics. The Anglo-French wars in the eighteenth century were fought by these colonial powers on behalf of the Indian states, to which they extended their military supports.

The Triumph of the British
Slowly but surely, these states began to be controlled by the Britishers through puppet kings. By the early nineteenth century, British was almost able to subdue the French forces, and East India Company was politically controlling most of the Indian territory through puppet kings. French imperial presence was confined to a few select corners of India. The starting point of the establishment of British rule in India was the Battle of Plassey in 1757 AD. It was fought between Siraj-ud-Daulah, the last 'independent' Nawab of Bengal and the East India Company, which the latter decisively won, and eventually established their political control over the state of Bengal. The defection of the Nawab's Commander-in- Chief, Mir Jafar, to the Company's side, facilitated the British endeavours in that decisive battle, and as a reward, he was installed by the East India Company as their puppet Nawab, subjected to the whims and fancies of the East India Company. That set the ball rolling for the British rule in India, and state after state began to get annexed by their shrewd political designs; which thrived on the then divisive character of Indian politics. Divide and Rule was their mantra of success, and succeed they did.

In this regard, Governor-General Lord Dalhousie's ingenious Doctrine of Lapse in the mid nineteenth century, deserves a special mention. Under this law, the company was permitted to annexe any princely state, whose ruler had demised without living a male heir. Many small princely states like Satara, Sambalpur, Jhansi, Nagpur and finally Oudh fell to Dalhousie's devious designs. At the height of the British power at the end of the nineteenth century, the British Empire in the Indian subcontinent stretched from Burma (now Myanmar) to Afghanistan. It not only comprised modern day India, but also Pakistan and Bangladesh, which together constituted the undivided India.

Free and Unfair Trade
The main premise of the British rule in India was to economically exploit the resources of India, and find an effective market for their manufactured products, which mushroomed from the industrial revolution. Apparently they established Free Trade with India, which in reality was everything but free. They bought our raw materials at throw away prices, which were used for channelizing the production of their manufactured goods. In turn, they sold their manufactured products to us at a whooping profit.

But at the same time, their products were still much cheaper than the products created by our weavers and artisans(cloth from Lancashire Mills was only one example), for the simple reason that the British products involved a superior technology and mass-based production, instead of toiling handwork. The later was bound to be customized and pricey. Moreover, the import tariffs were also kept very low, which further shoved the indigenous industries out of competition. This in turn virtually decimated the Indian cottage industries in the rural areas, and enhanced poverty in villages, and consequently triggered rural-urban migration in search of livelihood opportunities.

Moreover, most of the huge reservoirs of gold, silver, silk, etc. were shipped off to British shores as tax, which also weakened the economic backbone of the then Hindustan. On the other hand, British rulers forced the farmers of certain areas (specially in Bengal) to switch from subsistence farming to cash crop farming; such as cultivation of indigo, tea, jute, etc. which though increased revenue of the British government, made the condition of those farmers unbearable, and also resulted in the rise in food prices.

However, at the same, through the spread of western education, a new salaried class started emerging (later termed as the middle class), who were primarily needed to facilitate the functioning of the huge machinery of the British administration. In fact, many historians claim that the Britishers enthusiasm towards western education with an English medium curriculam for India was nothing but a ploy to get the requisite clerks and officers, who were needed to run the well-oiled administration, on the explicit orders of their ICS superiors. Most of these ICS officers were undoubtedly Britishers.

Triggering a Mutiny
The resentment against the British rule in India was simmering in various quarters for decades together, but its culmination took in the shape of Sepoy Mutiny, in 1857. This unsuccessful, but spirited rebellion had diverse social, economic and political causes, but the most popular among them is an overtly religious one. Britishers were then introducing cartridges greased with cow-fat and pig-fat, which was offensive to the Indian sepoys of both religions(Hindu and Muslim), who, ironically, comprised the rank and file of the British armed presence in India. When the news came out, the sepoys refused to use those cartridges, which met with stringent British repression. Eventually the provocation snowballed into a mutiny.

The mutiny was originated in Meerut, a nearby town near Delhi, but soon spread across the entire spectrum of North India like wildfire. For the first time, all the divergent dissenting forces in India were united against a common enemy and perhaps from here the idea of a modern nation, as a single cohesive political entity, started taking shape in India. This idea later became the edifice of our subsequent freedom struggles, which eventually led to our independence in 1947.

Initially, the sepoys made significant advances in Lucknow, Kanpur and Delhi, but eventually they rapidly started losing ground, and soon the rebellion was crushed by the more organized British forces. Some of the valiant heroes of this mutiny or the first war of independence were Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi, Tantia Tope and Nana Sahib. However, except for the weak poet-king Bahadur Shah Zafar, the movement didn't have a centralized leader. Just after the Sepoy uprising, the British Parliament removed all pretences and abolished the garb of East India Company. Instead it placed India directly under the British crown, and proclaimed Queen Victoria as the Empress of India.

Organized Freedom Struggle
That was in 1858. The following ninety years of political turmoils and socio-economic upheavals, fueled the Indian freedom struggle, which eventually culminated in India's independence from the British rule. Organized freedom struggle started in India, in the late nineteenth century, in which the Indian National Congress party played a pivotal role. Formed by a retired civil servant named A.O. Hume in 1885, INC was initially conceived as a 'safety valve' to soothe the rising discontent among the Indian people towards British rule by attempting to provide them some palliatives of concessions. In its nascent days, Indian National Congress was almost entirely represented by the western-educated Indians from the elite class, and was little more than a debating society. Its work was limited to passing numerous resolutions on civil rights or opportunities in government, which lacked any teeth.

But by the beginning of 1900s, Congress had emerged as a political force to reckon with. However, the party was governed by two different ideologies. One group called for extreme action and direct attack by people on the fundamentals of British Raj to attain total independence, while the other group, led by Gopal Krishna Gokhle and Dadabhai Naoroji, propounded for some political gains through negotiations and political dialogue. The former didn't overrule the use of violence, while the later was totally pacifist. The former group was called extremist, and its chief propagators were Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Bipin Chandra Pal and Lala Lajpat Rai, whereas the later group was called moderates. Tilak was the first Indian freedom fighter to call for 'Swaraj' or complete self-rule. The rising differences between the two groups led to a split in Congress in 1907, with the extremist faction leaving the party.

There were other dissenting voices too. During the early twentieth century, many Muslim leaders were feeling totally disillusioned with the Congress and they said that the voices and concerns of the Muslims couldn't be addressed by the Congress. They also expressed resentment over the abysmally low representation of the Muslims in the government service. Furthermore, the rise of Hindu-centric institutions (such as Hindu Maha Sabha), which took a very negative view of cow slaughter and religious conversions, during those times, further alienated them and fomented their sense of insecurity. All these factors led to the formation of All India Muslim League, in 1906, in Dhaka. Swadeshi Movement.

In the meanwhile, Lord Currzon, the then Viceroy and Governor-General, ordered the partition of the province of Bengal in 1905, which clearly reflected upon the British policy of 'Divide and Rule' on the basis of religion. However, massive public uproar and protest , accompanied by the Congress' clarion call to boycott British produced goods; which was religiously practiced by public at large, forced British Parliament to eat humble pie. King George V, on his visit to India in 1911, announced the reverting of this controversial decision. Partition of Bengal was called back, but he also announced the shifting of the capital of British empire from the then politically sensitive Calcutta to Delhi. This massive movement of the boycott of British goods and using only Indian products was an important advancement in the Indian freedom struggle, and it is termed as the Swadeshi Movement. Perhaps it was the only mass-generated movement of freedom struggle in India, during the pre-Gandhian era.

The Mahatma Arrives
However, till the arrival of Gandhi(full name Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi), the Indian freedom struggle was by and large elitist in character, and was confined to the upper echleons of the Indian society. The involvement of the common men and women, barring the instance of Swadeshi movement in the wake of Partition of Bengal, was negligible. To Gandhi(1869-1948) goes the credit of endowing the freedom movement with a mass base, which threatened the very fundamentals of the British Raj. Satyagraha or a peaceful non-violence resistance, was the cornerstone of his political philosophy.

Just after the Jalianawala Bagh massacre in 1919, which was a ghastly killing of thousands of people, who gathered to stage a peaceful protest against the oppressive Rowlatt Act, Gandhi launched the Non-Cooperation Movement. His Non-Cooperation Movement, which thrived on Satyagraha, became his first blow to British imperialism. Through this movement he urged the Indian people to boycott British goods, and wear only hand-woven khadi. He also called for boycotting of British educational institutions and law courts; resignation from government service; refusal to pay taxes; and forsaking of British titles and honours. His calls met with success from all sections of the society, which threatened the economic and political structure of the British government. However, just when the movement was gaining momentum, Gandhi called it off, after an angry mob torched a police station in Chauri Chaura, which resulted in the death of 22 policemen.

His pioneered other important mass movements, namely the Civil Disobedience Movement in 1930, in protest against the repressive salt law of the British government, and of course the Quit India Movement in 1942, where he rejected the dominion status offer of Cripps Mission, and urged for immediate independence of India, and protested against sending of Indian soldiers in the World War II. The Civil Disobedience Movement started off with the famous Dandi March, which was a march of 400 km from Ahmedabad to the coastal town of Dandi. He started the almost month-long march with only 78 people, but along the way thousands joined him.

He and his thousands of fellow marchers reached Dandi and openly defied the British salt law by making their own salt from sea water. That move was a slap on the British tax on salt. Together, all these three mass movements built the collective consciousness of the nation and induced it to fight unitedly, concertedly and nonviolently against the mighty British empire. The huge human and economic losses suffered in the World War II, accompanied by the potent attacks on the British political machinery by Gandhi's mass movements, which all but put it to a screeching halt, made the Britishers to accede to the freedom of India.

The Road Less Traveled
However, besides Gandhi Indian Freedom Struggle did have many other great leaders. Some like Jawaharlal Nehru(the first Prime Minister of India) and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel(known as the Iron Man of India, he was the first Defence Minister of India, and was credited with the integration of various princely states into the Indian Union) followed Gandhi's footsteps, while some others chose for a violent revolutionary struggle. Although their means were different, but their aims were no less noble. Sardar Bhagat Singh and his associates Sukhdev and Rajguru, Chandrasekhkar Azad, Bagha Jatin and Khudiram Bose were among the many great freedom fighters who chose the path of violent struggle, and gave their lives for the cause without remorse.

No account of Indian freedom struggle can be complete without the mention of Subash Chandra Bose. His differences with Gandhi and Congress in general led him to quit Congress in 1939 and forming a new party named All India Forward Bloc. A great freedom fighter, he formed the Indian National Army(INA), comprising the Indian prisoners of war with the Japanese. Earlier he attempted to take military support from Germany, the chief Axis power in the World War II, to overthrow British rule in India.

Though his move was controversial, his ultimate motive behind it cannot be blamed. But the change of tide in World War II forced him to flee Germany and land in Japan, where he formed his dream army to fight Britishers. Despite the inadequate arms and poor supplies from Japanese, flawed logistics and lack of proper training, he launched an armed freedom struggle against the might of British empire, in the dense jungles of Arakan, Burma and Assam, mainly armed with his zeal for patriotism. However, his untimely and tragic death in a plane crash in 1945 ended the movement, and following the surrender of Japan in the World War II, many of the INA soldiers were brought to India for trial by the British government.

Partitioning the Freedom
The freedom of India came with a great price, whose scars are still visible. The name of that price was partition,which resulted in the loss of crores worth of valuable properties, and lakhs of invaluable lives, which include women and children. Millions lost their near and dear ones and were displaced from their homes, and millions lost their all belongings. Overnight many were reduced to being penniless, and... family less. The germ of this ghastly act lies in religious fundamentalism, and it still continues to rear its ugly head in our society and polity. The All India Muslim League and its leader Muhammad Ali Jinnah was very much in favour of the two nation theory, and was adamant on a new country for the Muslims, known as Pakistan.

Many a times the misguided actions by the Hindu fundamentalist organisation Hindu Mahasabha and other rabid Hindu elements, probably lend credence to Jinnah's misplaced fears, which bordered on dogma. This constant clamour, pregnant with considerable political repercussions, induced the British to partition India and create a nation out of a nation. This division of country on the religious lines, created a massive exodus of people from both sides of the borders, and generated a mood of severe religious unrest across a cross-section of Hindus and Muslims, which in turn was fomented by communal forces on both sides for vested interests to create a huge crescendo of violence, rape and arson... which seemed to have no end.

The then British government must also take the onus of casualties of Partition. Many historians claim that if the independence was not declared in haste before the actual partition, the new governments of India and Pakistan wouldn't have to be exposed to the enormous challenge of maintaining law and order in a climate of massive religious unrest and exodus from both sides(triggered by the fear of religious backlash), which they completely failed. Even by conservative estimates, five million died and about eleven million were rendered homeless in this human catastrophe, that has few parallels in modern history.

Social Uprisings
The nineteenth century India in general, and the nineteenth century Bengal in particular, experienced a number of path-breaking social reform movements, which together helped India to come out of its medieval darkness, and emerge into the modern age. Some great social reform movements/institutions of that period were the Brahmo Samaj by Raja Rammohan Roy, the Arya Samaj movement by Dayanand Saraswati, and the Theosophical Society of Annie Besant. Rammohan Roy called for western education to open the windows of the cobwebbed, ignorant and insular mind of the majority of Indians of that time.

This insular outlook helped the so called custodians of religion and morality to perpetrate various heinous social practices. He conceived and developed the Brahmo religion, which encapsulated the spiritual essence of Hinduism minus its ostentation and rituals, which sadly was then the part and parcel of Hinduism. Brahmo practice can be more appropriately defined as a fresh approach towards Hinduism, reflected in the modern light of western education, rather than a different religion. The followers of Brahmo religion believed in one God and shunned idol worship and religious ostentation. Rammohan Roy, with active support from then Governor-General William Bentick, was instrumental in abolishing the ghastly custom of Sati.

He was also an ardent campaigner of women's education and widow remarriage, and is justly regarded as the father of Bengal Renaissance. Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, another great social reformer of the nineteenth century Bengal, followed up his good work in women's empowerment, and tirelessly fought to make widow remarriage gain legal sanction. His efforts paid off ultimately, in 1856 AD. However, still more than a hundred years after Vidyasagar's death, widow remarriage is yet to gain its much deserved social sanction in India. Another great follower of Raja Rammohan Roy was Debendranath Tagore, the father of Nobel laureate poet Rabindranath Tagore, who consolidated Rammohan's reform movements in the society.

Arya Samaj was a revivalist movement started by Swami Dayananda Saraswati in 1875, who advocated the society to imbibe the Vedic principles, and abide by them in their life. According to Swami Dyananda Sarawati, Vedas were the divine revelations and the fountainhead of knowledge and wisdom, and he advocated the prejudice-ridden society of those times to 'Go Back to the Vedas,' for getting rid of its ill and misery and attaining spiritual enlightenment.

Succinctly, he was in favour of spreading a Vedic culture across India. He was not in favour of the western influences, which did caste a spell on the selected elites of the nineteenth century India. He did set up a number of Vedic Schools in India, which put an emphasis on imparting Vedic values and culture among its students. Arya Samaj played a crucial role in spreading education in the late nineteenth century India. Arya Samaj and Brahmo Samaj have similar outlook on polytheism, idolatary and hereditary caste system. Both condemn them.

The British Connection
It is very easy to deride the Britishers as colonial exploiters, and pinpoint only the negative aspects of the British rule in India, but their contributions, which made enduring influences in our socio-cultural and economic spheres, and helped us to make a transition from a feudal society to a semi-modern nation, cannot be any way undermined. Though it can be argued that they did all these to satisfy their own interests, but there is no denying the fact that our colonial masters' actions also helped a lot in building an edifice of a modern nation; an edifice on which we have to strive to build our own dreams. The process of building our dream is still continuing, though without much success, still after sixty years since 1947...

Some of the important lasting contributions of the colonial era are the railways, telecommunication, an impressive network of roads, bridges and public transport, institutionalized higher education(which helped Indian society to look outwards and open its mind in the process), rule of law and independent judiciary, execution of many social reforms like prevention of Sati and permitting widow remarriage, and of course some beautiful architecture and pristine hill stations. Britishers(more specifically Sir William Jones) also helped us to realize our ancient culture in a modern light, through the Asiatic Society. The discovery of Khajuraho temples, and Mohenjodaro and Harappa Civilizations can also be credited to the Britishers. They in a way made us come face-to-face with our heritage.

Last Updated On: 2011/08/18

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