An English grandee the the eastern India company depicted talk in an Indian procession, 1825-1830. Photograph: print Collector/Getty Images
It is true that prior to British rule, India was starting to loss behind various other parts that the world – yet many the the arguments defending the Raj are based on serious misconceptions around India’s past, imperialism and background itself


The British empire in India remained in effect created at the battle of Plassey on 23 June 1757. The fight was swift, beginning at dawn and also ending close to sunset. It was a regular monsoon day, with occasional rain in the mango groves in ~ the town of Plassey, i beg your pardon is between Calcutta, whereby the British to be based, and Murshidabad, the funding of the kingdom the Bengal. It remained in those mango groves the the british forces confronted the Nawab Siraj-ud-Doula’s army and also convincingly defeated it.

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British preeminence ended virtually 200 years later on with Jawaharlal Nehru’s famed speech on India’s “tryst with destiny” in ~ midnight ~ above 14 respectable 1947. Two century is a lengthy time. What go the British achieve in India, and what did they fail to accomplish?

During mine days as a student at a gradual school in West Bengal in the 1940s, these questions came into our discussion constantly. Castle remain necessary even today, no least due to the fact that the British realm is frequently invoked in discussions about successful worldwide governance. It has also been invoked to shot to guide the us to recognize its function as the pre-eminent imperial power in the human being today: “Should the United states seek to melted – or come shoulder – the royal load it has actually inherited?” the historian Niall Ferguson has asked. That is absolutely an amazing question, and also Ferguson is right to argue the it can not be answered there is no an understanding of just how the British empire rose and also fell – and what it controlled to do.


Arguing about all this in ~ Santiniketan school, which had actually been developed by Rabindranath Tagore some decades earlier, we were bothered through a difficult methodological question. How could we think about what India would have actually been prefer in the 1940s had actually British rule not arisen at all?

The frequent temptation to to compare India in 1757 (when British dominion was beginning) through India in 1947 (when the British to be leaving) would tell us really little, due to the fact that in the absence of brother rule, India would of food not have actually remained the very same as it was at the time of Plassey. The nation would not have stood still had the British occupation not occurred. But how execute we price the question around what difference was made by brothers rule?

To illustrate the relevance of such an “alternative history”, we might consider another case – one through a potential imperial occupation that did no in fact occur. Stop think around Commodore Matthew Perry of the united state navy, that steamed into the only of Edo in Japan in 1853 with 4 warships. Now take into consideration the possibility that Perry was not merely making a present of American toughness (as was in reality the case), however was rather the advance guard of one American occupation of Japan, creating a new American realm in the floor of the increasing sun, rather as Robert Clive did in India. If us were to assess the achievements of the an alleged American dominion of Japan with the simple maker of to compare Japan prior to that imperial conquest in 1853 with Japan after the American dominance ended, at any time that could be, and attribute all the differences to the effects of the American empire, we would miss out on all the contributions of the Meiji reconstruction from 1868 onwards, and also of various other globalising alters that were going on. Japan did not stand still; nor would certainly India have actually done so.

While we deserve to see what actually taken place in Japan under Meiji rule, the is exceptionally hard to guess with any confidence what course the background of the Indian subcontinent would have taken had the British occupation not occurred. Would certainly India have moved, choose Japan, in the direction of modernisation in an progressively globalising world, or would certainly it have remained resistant to change, choose Afghanistan, or would certainly it have sped up slowly, prefer Thailand?

These room impossibly complicated questions come answer. And also yet, even without real alternative historical scenarios, there are some restricted questions that can be answered, which may add to an intelligent knowledge of the role that British dominance played in India. We deserve to ask: what to be the challenges that India confronted at the moment of the british conquest, and what happened in those an essential areas during the british rule?

There was surely a need for significant changes in a quite chaotic and also institutionally behind India. Come recognise the require for change in India in the mid-18th century does not need us to overlook – as countless Indian super-nationalists are afraid – the an excellent achievements in India’s past, with its extraordinary background of achievements in philosophy, mathematics, literature, arts, architecture, music, medicine, linguistics and also astronomy. India had also accomplished considerable success in structure a thriving economy with growing trade and also commerce well before the colonial duration – the economic wealth that India was amply acknowledged by british observers such together Adam Smith.

The reality is, nevertheless, that even with those achievements, in the mid-18th century India had actually in many ways fallen fine behind what to be being accomplished in Europe. The exact nature and also significance the this backwardness were constant subjects the lively arguments in the night at my school.


An insightful essay on India by knife Marx specifically engaged the attention of some of us. Writing in 1853, Marx pointed come the constructive function of British dominion in India, ~ above the grounds that India required some radical re-examination and also self-scrutiny. And Britain did without doubt serve together India’s major western contact, an especially in the course of the 19th century. The importance of this affect would be hard to neglect. The native globalised culture that was slowly arising in India to be deeply indebted not just to british writing, but additionally to books and also articles in various other – that is non-English – europe languages that became known in India v the British.

Figures such as the Calcutta thinker Ram Mohan Roy, born in 1772, were affected not just by classic knowledge the Sanskrit, Arabic and also Persian texts, but also by the cultivation familiarity through English writings. After ~ Roy, in Bengal itself over there were additionally Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Madhusudan Dutta and also several generations that Tagores and their followers that were re-examining the India they had inherited in the light of what they witnessed happening in Europe in the 18th and also 19th centuries. Their main – often their just – source of information were the books (usually in English) turn in India, thanks to brother rule. That pundit influence, covering a wide selection of european cultures, survives strong today, even as the military, political and economic power of the brothers has decreased dramatically.


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The Gateway that India in Bombay, a monument commemorating the landing that King George V and Queen mary in 1911. Photograph: robertharding/AlamyI was encouraged that Marx to be basically right in his diagnosis that the require for some radical change in India, as its old order to be crumbling as a an outcome of not having been a component of the intellectual and also economic globalisation that the Renaissance and the Industrial change had initiated across the human being (along with, alas, colonialism).

There was arguably, however, a severe flaw in Marx’s thesis, in certain in his implicitly presumption that the British occupation was the only window on the contemporary world that could have opened for India. What India needed at the moment was an ext constructive globalisation, yet that is not the exact same thing as imperialism. The difference is important. Throughout India’s lengthy history, that persistently delighted in exchanges the ideas and also of products with the exterior world. Traders, settlers and also scholars moved between India and further eastern – China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand and also elsewhere – because that a an excellent many centuries, beginning much more than 2,000 year ago. The far-ranging influence that this activity – particularly on language, literature and architecture – can be watched plentifully also today. Over there were additionally huge global influences by means of India’s open-frontier attitude in welcoming fugitives native its early on days.

Jewish immigration right into India started right after the fall of Jerusalem in the first century and also continued for many hundreds the years. Baghdadi Jews, such together the extremely successful Sassoons, come in huge numbers even as late together the 18th century. Christians started coming at the very least from the 4th century, and possibly lot earlier. There space colourful legends about this, including one that tells us that the first person St thomas the Apostle met after comes to India in the first century to be a Jewish girl play the flute on the Malabar coast. Us loved the evocative – and undoubtedly apocryphal – anecdote in ours classroom discussions, because it shown the multicultural roots of Indian traditions.

The Parsis started arriving from the at an early stage eighth century – as soon as persecution began in your Iranian homeland. Later on in the century, the Armenians began to leaving their footprints indigenous Kerala to Bengal. Muslim Arab traders had a considerable presence top top the west coast of India from about that time – well prior to the come of Muslim conquerors numerous centuries later, with the arid terrain in the north-west the the subcontinent. Persecuted Bahá’ís native Iran came just in the 19th century.

At the moment of the battle of Plassey, over there were currently businessmen, traders and also other specialists from a number of different European nations well worked out near the mouth the the Ganges. Being subjected to imperial ascendancy is therefore not the only way of making connections with, or discovering things from, international countries. As soon as the Meiji Restoration established a brand-new reformist federal government in Japan in 1868 (which was no unrelated to the interior political affect of Commodore Perry’s show of pressure a te earlier), the Japanese went directly to discovering from the west without being based on imperialism. They sent world for training in the US and also Europe, and made institutional transforms that were plainly inspired by western experience. Lock did not wait to be coercively globalised via imperialism.

One the the accomplishments to i m sorry British royal theorists often tended to offer a an excellent deal of emphasis was the duty of the brothers in producing a united India. In this analysis, India to be a repertoire of fragmented kingdoms until British dominance made a nation out the these varied regimes. It was suggested that India was formerly not one nation at all, yet a thoroughly separated land mass. It was the british empire, for this reason the claim goes, the welded India right into a nation. Winston Churchill also remarked that prior to the brother came, there was no Indian nation. “India is a geography term. That is no much more a united nation than the equator,” he as soon as said.

If this is true, the empire plainly made an indirect donation to the modernisation of India with its unifying role. However, is the cool claim around the huge role that the Raj in bringing about a unified India correct? Certainly, when Clive’s eastern India firm defeated the nawab the Bengal in 1757, there was no single power judgment over all of India. However it is a good leap from the proximate story of brothers imposing a solitary united routine on India (as did in reality occur) to the substantial claim that only the British might have produced a united India the end of a collection of disparate states.

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That means of looking at Indian background would walk firmly against the reality of the large domestic empires that had characterised India throughout the millennia. The ambitious and energetic queens from the 3rd century BC did not accept the their regimes were complete until the mass of what they took to be one nation was united under their rule. There were significant roles right here for Ashoka Maurya, the Gupta emperors, Alauddin Khalji, the Mughals and also others. Indian background shows a sequential alternation of big domestic realms with swarm of broke up kingdoms. Us should therefore not do the mistake of assuming that the broke up governance of mid-18th century India to be the state in i beg your pardon the country typically found itself throughout history, until the brother helpfully come along to hold together it.