Britain And India: From Imperial Opportunism To Liberal Self-Determination

"Jai Ho" to you.

So say the Grenadier Guards, who are making a point of playing the song popularised by Slumdog Millionaire today (the title is Hindi or Nepali for 'Let There Be Victory').

It was to mark India's 70th anniversary of independence from British rule last year. Today marks 70 years since the Brits finally left.

After a non-violent movement led by the lawyer Mahatma Gandhi, British dominion over India ended in 1947.

the Raj
Gandhi, who led India to independence

Many will imagine that what was lost was the 'jewel in Queen Victoria's imperial crown'.

Indeed, the Raj, rule of India by the British monarchy, did come to a close.

Though British governance and Indian self-rule are far more complicated issues, and the history of Britain in India goes back far longer than that.

As Gregory Fremont-Barnes reminds us in 'The Indian Mutiny 1857-58':

"Britain's connection with India began on 31 January 1600 when Queen Elizabeth I signed the charter of the East India Company, a major commercial enterprise which would compete with other European trading concerns for the spice trade on the sub-continent." 

East India Company
Robert 'Clive of India' ingratiated himself with Mir Jafar by helping him become Nawab of Bengal

It wasn't just the spice trade. Simon Schama's 'History of Britain' describes how the East India Company soon found other goods to take home:

"From toe holds on the south-east and western coasts, they bought brilliantly printed silks and cottons and shipped them home, where the parlours and bodies of the polite classes were suddenly transformed by splashes of Indian colour."

Though Schama points out that, at first, the commercial venture was not meant to deviate from simply doing business.

It was historical happenstance that these mere trading posts would turn into something more.  

Britain had come across a sophisticated culture in India, with Mughal emperors who were descended from Genghis Khan, but they'd done so at just the right (or wrong) moment. 

The Taj Mahal in Agra

The indigenous emperors ruled kingdoms that were in decline. According to Fremont-Barnes:

"The power vacuum thus created enabled the Company to expand its power and influence, converting it from a purely business concern to an imperial agent of the Crown."

Indeed, by the 19th Century, the British-run Indian Civil Service would enable 100,000 Brits to govern 315,000,000 Indians.

The expansion was also likely a case of frustrated imperial ambitions. 

Reeling from the loss of her American colonies in the late 18th Century, Britain seemed to satiate her colonial and commercial passions by instead making further inroads into India.

But at first, British traders arrived with an openness to the culture they found there. 

Imperial India
Interior of East India House, the company's hub in London

Niall Ferguson relates in 'Empire: How Britain Made The Modern World' that the British hadn't had any intention of Anglicising or Christianising India:

"The East India company practised religious toleration out of pragmaticism, not principle. Although it was now more like a government than a company, its directors still regarded trade as their paramount concern. They had no interest whatsoever in challenging traditional Indian culture. Indeed, they regarded any such challenge as posing a threat to Anglo-Indian relations - and that would be bad for business."

The trouble was, the flow of goods through the East India Company to Britain might have made it highly profitable, but it also opened up the enterprise to an imperial reach of another kind: Evangelism.

When the company's charter was to be renewed in 1813, the rules limiting the rights of Christian missionaries to travel to and proselytise in India came under fire.

Britain was in the throes of a religious revival, and 'saving' the world with the Word of God was very much in vogue.

Fremont-Barnes describes how the subsequent spread of Christianity into India only became more intense as years passed:

"By the 1850s, a wave of Christian revivalism had swept across Britain, where efforts to propagate the faith abroad had become a cause celebre bordering on a national obsession."

In time, the face of Britain in India changed. The Georgian traders who'd taken Indian wives and worked hard at establishing good relationships with the sepoys - indigenous men they commanded - was giving way to arrogrant, aloof, Victorian overlords with less interest in or knowledge of Indian languages or cultures.

Now, resentments that had been hitherto overlooked by native Hindu, Sikh, and Muslim troops and populations became rawer.

In the process of 'civilising' the Indians, the British had imposed their own property and legal codes, disrupting hereditary systems that had already been in place.

Admittedly, a good number of the British reforms were for the better: Men from different classes and castes who would have otherwise not gone near each other had learnt to work together under the new caste of the British Army in India.

Likewise, the thagi (or thuggee) practice of ritual strangulation of travellers was significantly curbed (the word 'thug' is derived from them), as was female infanticide and the custom of sati, a ritual requiring a Hindu widow to commit suicide by leaping into the flames coming off the funeral pyre of her dead husband.

But for all the good the British may have managed to do, their increasing arrogance and Christian zeal were making them unwelcome.

The straw that broke the proverbial camel's back was the rumour amongst some sepoy units that pork and beef fat had been used to grease the musket balls they were to be supplied with, in defiance of the Hindu tradition not to kill cows, and the Muslim edict to not eat pigs. (The musket balls were in pouches that were torn open with a soldier's teeth). 

British troops during the Indian mutiny (plate by Gerry Embleton from The Indian Mutiny)

What happened next was an appalling display of brutality by both sides.

On May 2, 1857, a 'mutiny' started (it is regarded as an attempted war of independence by some historians).

The sepoys killed any European they could find, including women and children.

Pankaj Mishra's 'From the Ruins of Empire' quotes one dispossessed former landlord making his rage known to a former British overlord whom he had chosen to save:

"Sahib (the name for British soldiers in India), your countrymen came into this country and drove out our King. You send your officers round the districts to examine the titles to the estates. At one blow you took from me lands which from time immemorial had been in my family... I have saved you. But now - now I march at the head of my retainers in Lucknow to try and drive you from the country."

Rage also permeated instructions given to Indian mutineers:

"Come forward and put the English to death... some of them should kill them by firing guns... and with swords, arrows, daggars... some lift them on spears... some should wrestle and break the enemy into pieces."

For their part, when the British came down on the rebellion, they too slaughtered the enemy in droves, and thousands of those they captured were executed by being strapped to cannons and blown to pieces. 

1857 Indian Mutiny

Despite this dark episode, by the 1930s, concessions towards Indian self-government were made, though full Indian independence was still unthinkable to some, such as Viscount Rothermere:

"British rule in India is irreplaceable. It has been bought by British lives, and built up by British capital. If we had not gone to India, she would still be in a state of semi-barbaric anarchy. Our duty there is not to argue with base agitators, but to govern."

The documentary 'British Occupation of India in Colour' also features army wife Florence Riddle, who had a very different view to the likes of Rothermere:

"The way in which most women in India pass their days is too boring for me. I have never been nervous of natives, for there is something in our white blood which gives us a feeling of superiority over black blood. I've learnt that when one passes a strange bundle of dirty rags, it is not a dangerous lunatic, but merely a holy Hindu. Extreme dirt appears to accompany extreme holiness."

But in the end, no matter how the British felt about the indigenous population, the trouble was that granting full independence was no simple matter.

India consisted of seven provinces, with multiple languages and religions.

There was violence, with clashes between Muslims and Hindus occurring often. If this went on before the British left, there was a strong possibility that it would only get worse once they'd done so. 

But with onerous taxes and the exploitative use of resources by the Britain in the face of widespread poverty, the yearning to be rid of the colonisers would only get stronger.

The same documentary points out that "by the 1930s, a new generation of British civil servants were beginning to understand India's plight".

Writing to his mother in England, Assistant Commissioner of the Punjab Penderel Moon (said): 

"The poverty of the people is really astounding. Not so poor, no doubt, as 40 years ago, but they are conscious of their poverty nowadays, and resent it. I don't know what the government is going to do about Gandhi - unless we're very skillful, or very lucky, the situation is going to get steadily worse. I'm all in favour of granting full dominion status in say 10 or 12 years, but I suppose the government can be trusted to move with that fatal slowness which constitutes 'ordered progress'."

In the years following World War Two, while some in Britain were impressed by how the empire had rallied around it, others saw the hypocrisy inherent in having defeated two 'evil' empires - Germany and Japan - while Britain continued to be an empire herself.

One woman at the time said:

"I don't like empire and what it signifies. The coloured peoples have been exploited by us as a means of profit, and by doing so, unemployment and poor living has been created at home. I don't mind British commonwealth, but definitely not empire."

Clement Atlee had also replaced Churchill as Prime Minister, and the Labour leader was far more open to the Indian cause.

And quite apart from anything else, Britain had promised independence to India in 1942 in exchange for her support in the war (though had done so begrudgingly). 

India's Viceroy, Lord Archibald Wavell, put it this way:

"So, there has been a landslide in favour of Labour. I'm afraid there would be a lot of inexperienced and rather wild legislators among them. However, there were a very many stupid and tiresome Tories. I think Labour is likely to be more sympathetic towards India, but I shall find it difficult to persuade them that they must go slow."

The Viceroy held talks between both sides of the Indian independence movement, Muhammad Ali Jinnah of the Muslim League, and Mahatma Gandhi, leading the Hindu-dominated congress. 

Indian independence
Gandhi and Jinnah

They could not come to an agreement, and communal rioting began. Tensions between Muslim and Hindu, and their British overlords, were running high.

Bringing new leadership to bear, Lord Mountbatten replaced Wavell and became the last Viceroy of India.

He too was reluctant to grant independence quickly with the prospect of civil war brewing between Hindu and Muslim, but he also feared that he could not hold the country together for much longer. 

Indian independence
Lord and Lady Mountbatten with Gandhi

Lady Mountbatten did what she could to help, visiting refugees fleeing from communal violence in the Punjab:

"I talked to a great many of the victims. One's heart ached for them. Many families have been completely destroyed, whilst those who survived lived in permanent fear of future aggression. It was such a sad tour - the devastation is like the Blitz at its worst: The killed, maimed, homeless - it's tragic."

On August 15, 1947, the British Empire in India officially ended, but the political strife there had not. 

Partition India
A crammed train, a common sight during the forced migrations in the Punjab

One Qasim Mohammed stated:

“On the 15 of August came freedom, the freedom to burn, loot and murder. While Delhi and Karachi were celebrating, Central Punjab was burning.”

Forced migrations followed - Pakistan would be Muslim, and India predominantly Hindu, requiring non-majority populations in the wrong dominion to switch places. One million died and 10 million were displaced as mass killings and other atrocities were committed on and by both sides.

Gandhi himself would not escape the violence. Fasting to promote religious tolerance, and pressing the new Indian government to pay debts owed to Pakistan, he was shot dead in January 1848 by Nathuram Godse. The extremist Hindu nationalist had decided that the leader of the entire Indian independence movement was too soft on Muslims. Gandhi would at least live on in deed, as his adherence to non-violence would inspire Martin Luther King Jr's tactics in the US Civil Rights Movement.

By the summer of 1948, with most of the British gone, Lieutenant-Colonel Hubert Boyd Hudson of the 15 Punjab Regiment, described the scene:

“India is full of ghosts, houses I have lived in now inhabited by Indians remind me of the days which will never come again. When the Viceroy drove past with a cavalry escort in redcoats. I have seen the greatness of the British India, but now it is all ended, and we are the last to leave - the few who are trying to tidy up the mess which the sudden splitting of an old Empire has caused.”

For more on the Indian Mutiny, read The Indian Mutiny 1857-58 by Gregory Fremont-Barnes, The Indian Mutiny by Christopher Wilkinson-Latham, and visit Osprey Publishing for more military history.

Cover image: Mughal emperor Shah Alam hands a scroll to Robert Clive (1765) of the East India Company giving him tax collecting rights in Bengal 

More: From Mud Through Blood To The Green Fields Beyond

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