What did Colonialism do to India? Ram Puniyani

Guest post by RAM PUNIYANI

A video of Shashi Tharoor speaking at Oxford on a debate related to the colonial period has been ‘viral’ on the social circuit for a while. In this video Tharoor makes a passionate plea to the British that they make reparations for the losses to Indian economy during the British rule. He puts the blame of India’s economic decline on the British and also recounts Jalianwala Bag, Bengal famine as the major highlight of British rule which reflected the attitude of British towards this colony of theirs’. Tharoor points out that resources from India were used by British to build there economic prosperity and to fund their Industrial revolution.

However, Dr. Manmohan Singh (2005), the previous prime minister, had made a very different kind of argument. In this Dr. Singh as a guest of British Government extols the virtue of British rule and gives them the credit for rule of law, constitutional government, and free press as the contributions which India benefitted from.

So where does the truth lie? Not only the context and tone of the speeches by these two Congressmen is totally different, the content is also totally on different tracks. Dr. Singh as the guest of the British Government is soft and behaving as an ideal guest and points out the contributions of the British rule and there is some truth in that. Tharoor as an Indian citizen with memory of the past; is narrating the plunder which this country suffered due to the British rule. He is also on the dot. These are two aspects of the same canvass. What Tharoor is saying is the primary goal of British and what Dr. Sigh is stating is an incidental offshoot.

British (East India Company) did come here looking for markets for their industrial products, gradually went on defeating one after another king, ruling in different areas and brought the whole subcontinent under a single rule, which became one of the ‘Jewel in the Crown’ for British as the whole wealth, raw material, resources from India were pumped out to Britain. In order to achieve this goal they did go on to introduce railways, communication network-postal, telegraph-telephone and modern administrative system and modern education to create the assistants for their officers ruling here.

The lacuna in our systems were primarily because the primary goal of British was to plunder the country and as an incidental thing; as by product; the new institutions, rule of law and later some reforms against ghastly social practices also began (like abolition of Sati). Perceptions do matter while Singh and Tharoor are talking of the same phenomenon from two different angles. The third angle is the one that was articulated by British themselves. British presented their rule as part of “Civilizing mission of the East”! There is very little truth in this, but it can be said that British also did help in the process of social reforms at times.

The major point which is unseen in these perceptions is one which had dangerous consequence on the social-political scenario and that was- British planted the seeds of divisive politics. As such broadly speaking the colonial-imperialist rule sows the seeds of ‘divide and rule’ and in this subcontinent they did it with gay abandon. In the wake of 1857 revolt, when the British East India Company’s rule was shaken, British identified existence of two major religious communities where the wedge could be driven. This is where they introduced communal historiography as a part of ‘divide and rule’ policy. James Mill with his ‘History of British India’ periodized the history on communal lines (Ancient Hindu Period, medieval Muslim period and modern British period). Supplementing this were Elliot and Dawson with ‘History of India as told by her historians’, which reduced the history to the eulogizing account of the courtiers of the kings. These played a major role in deepening the communal understanding of the past.

At social level we see emergence of modern classes, industrialists-workers and modern educated classes while the old classes of feudal lords and kings survive though with some reduced influence. The modern classes came forward to build up anti colonial movement; this movement led by Gandhi with people from all regions, religions, men and women both is what built modern India on the infrastructure of industrialization-modern education. This movement tied the people together in the bond of ‘Indian-ness’ and had imbibed the values of the central pillars of transformations of caste and gender relations. The latter aspects most highlighted by Jotirao Phule, Bhimrao Ambedkar and Periyar Ramasamy Niacker on one side and introduction of girls education with Savitribai Phule opening the girls school on the other. This group underlined that ‘India is a nation in the making’.

On the other hand the declining sections of landlords-kings, both Hindu and Muslim, threatened by the modern changes and seeing the rise of their vassals who were escaping from their grip, shouted that their religion is in danger. They upheld the communal historiography introduced by British. Muslim elite gradually came to form Muslim League. For them the raison d’être of their coming together was Islam being in danger. They held that here the Muslim Nation had been there since the time Muhammad bin Kasim had won over Sindh from Hindu Daher in eighth century and so they have to work for creation of a Muslim nation. That’s how they remained aloof from the freedom movement, which was aiming at the Secular democratic India.

The Hindu landlords Kings in due course came to form Hindu Mahasabha and then RSS. For them this had been a Hindu nation from times immemorial and Muslims and Christians are the alien invaders. They also remained aloof from freedom movement and harped on building Hindu nation in contrast to the goal set by National movement, that of secular democratic India. They constructed their own history of a glorious past of the Hindu rulers and its corruption by the Muslim invaders. Gradually they came to construct the ideology that all the ills of Hindu society are due to the Muslim invaders.

While the national movement brought together the people of all the regions, religions, castes: women and men both, the communal streams nurtured the seeds of divisiveness sown by British, and this is what led to communal violence and later the tragic partition of the country. Here also what is generally analyzed mostly is the fault of leader A or B for partition while overlooking the fact that partition was the part of continuing British policy, to have their interests preserved in the sub continent and that’s how they played their cards well enough to create a situation where partition became an inevitable calamity.

If one has to point the major problem which the British rule introduced; apart from the impact on the socio economic life of the sub continent; it is undeniably letting the feudal classes-kingdoms to continue in the face of changing scenario of industrialization-modern education. So in the sub continent on one side we see the emergence of the values of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity as an ideology of the emerging classes, while the feudal ideology of ‘caste and gender hierarchy’ persists as the flag-mast of declining sections of society which came to be represented in the communal organizations, Muslim League, Hindu Mahasabha and RSS. These declining groups construct the ideology of ‘Religion based Nation state’ which is a unique synthesis of feudal values with the modern concept of nation state, their communal politics is a modern phenomena but derives its identity from as ancient as time as possible. As neither Hindu nor Muslim nor Christian Kings were ‘religious nationalist’ so to say; as actually they presided over on the empires based on taxation of the toiling peasants in their kingdoms. Their goals of power-wealth were written on their sleeves; sometimes they adorned the masks of Dharmyudh, Jihad or Crusade for their ambitions of expanding power.

So during freedom movement we see those working for anti colonial movement are saying, ‘India as a nation in the making’ the concept which runs parallel to modernization in transport, industrialization, education and administration in particular. Muslim League said we have been a Muslim nation from eight century and Hindu Mahasabha-RSS asserting that we are a Hindu nation from times immemorial Muslim league derives identity from the Kings’ rule while Hindu Mahasbha-RSS project the concept of nation to times when people were having pastoral pattern and later made a transition to settled agriculture.  For the communalists the major transition of industrialization and modern education is of no consequence.

While the declining classes do eulogize the kings of their religions, it is interesting that none of the kings in the history set out to spread his religion, they set out to expand their empires. To make this rule grounded there of course is an exception, Emperor Ashok who did spread his religion.

Today we cannot say what might have been the course of History had India not been colonized, what patterns of Industrialization-modernization would have taken place, but one thing can be hypothesized that this communal politics, abuse of religions’ identity for political goals might not have been here to torment us, to kill and maim the innocents, may not have been ruling our streets and asserting for authoritarian structures right within the democratic institutions which the country has nourished from last six decades.

So while Tharoor and earlier Manmohan Singh are pointing to two supplementary aspects of British rule, we also need to delve deeper and see the result of their policies which gave rise to communal politics, the politics which is tormenting South Asia as a whole and India is witnessing the worst in the form of Hindu Nationalism, Hindutva which is dominating the political ideology.

8 thoughts on “What did Colonialism do to India? Ram Puniyani”

  1. The history of colonial India has been intrepreted in various ways. But the part played by the oppressed and backward classes should be thoroughly analysed in historical perspective. The Manu system successfully divided the whole fabric of Indian society long before the advent of colonisation . As Dr. Ambedkar rightly analysed, the colonialists would not have succeeded without the support of the backward classes. Manu code made division of labourers an impedement to Indian unity which was smartly exploited by the rulers through the centuries. So, blaming the colonial rulers without considering the caste and class structure is not a complete analysis of our history.


  2. Reblogged this on My Alternate Opinion and commented:
    This post by Ram Puniyani gives us an idea about the inspiration that communalism in India gained from time to time. Britishers exploited not only the Economic conditions during their rule but also sowed the seeds of divisive Politics based on Religion and Communal Hatred. This Write-up seems too helpful for us to understand the root cause of the sustenance of the Indian Right Wing.


  3. It’s really interesting that you bring this up and no one else seems to noticing it.. indeed this is the worst that happened during British rule and still haunt us in the face of what is happening today in our country.


  4. While it is true that colonization also brought modernization, the price of it was paid by the Indian revenue generating system, by profits made in India, as Dr. Tharoor has argued. That this modernization would not have about without the British rule, simply with trade, and no colonization is an argument totally absent in the historiography. The profits made from the empire far exceeded the cost of running the imperial machinery. Several historians like Andrew Porter, A G Hopkins and P J Cain, Hobson have put forth such arguments very persuasively. Dr. Manmohan Singh seems to have taken an extremely one sided, negligent view of the history of British Imperialism in India by arguing only that the Raj brought about modernization. Dr Tharoor has very convincingly even elaborated upon the costs incurred in the construction of the railways under colonial rule, and how it was both mismanaged and inflated, and profited from. This article seems to be referring to some very old historiographical debates citing historians like James Mill, and Dawson. It does not emphasize on the recent arguments like gentlemanly capitalism and others that resonate the tone of Dr. Tharoor’s speech. He also got into the moral side of the debate, calling on the British to make right, some of the wrongs done by the colonial rule, which I found very praiseworthy as a student of history. However, he could have emphasized more on the profitability of the many Imperial trades, besides the land revenue. It is common knowledge that the petty officers of the East india Company took home large sums of money. It is common enough to have been argued by many modern historians like the author of the book Nabobs.


  5. An important essay…this is the continuing legacy of the British Raj..and there is no way that the heir to the British Raj will ever compensate for it


  6. Mr Puniyani’s insinuation that Dr. Singh went soft on the Brits because he was a guest of the British Government is contemp[tible and ignores the simple fact that in any academic debate there have to be two sides and each side must have someone to speak on its behalf. Did he want Singh to say the same things that Tharoor did?

    He writes: Today we cannot say what might have been the course of History had India not been colonized, what patterns of Industrialization-modernization would have taken place, but one thing can be hypothesized that this communal politics, abuse of religions’ identity for political goals might not have been here to torment us, to kill and maim the innocents, may not have been ruling our streets and asserting for authoritarian structures right within the democratic institutions which the country has nourished from last six decades.

    Apparently, however, he can say with full confidence that a singular Indian nation (with the geographical boundaries of British India ca. 1947), democratic in design, would somehow have come about between 1757 and 1947, with its seat in the Red Fort.
    Before the Brits savaged Shahjahanabad in 1858, the city had been plundered by the Iranians, the Afghans, the Jats, the Rohillas, the Sikhs, and the Marathas (with some French help) during the preceding 150 years. And the huge other city that existed outside the walls—it was then known as the Old City (Shahr-e Kohna)—had been razed to the ground. Now it is known as New Delhi, where the present Indian Nation holds court, and wants to raise its own emblems of presumed identity and grandeur.


    1. Why Shashi Tharoor is a poor historian of India, Colonialism and Reparations

      Colonialism is no doubt, an obnoxious probably the most oppressive system in the world (is, because it continues in many forms). However, what Dr. Shashi Tharoor has presented is a version of national history/postcolonial history of India, which according to the preeminent Indian historian Tanika Sarkar conceptualizes flow of power from one single source of colonial authority to the colonies. This position is obliviously elitist and at most a leisurely indigenism ignoring the pre-colonial history of India, which was drenched in the most audacious systems of discrimination based on gender, caste and class. Indian society harbored forms of oppression which undoubtedly equaled any form of oppression under colonialism.

      A single instance of slavery would do it. Why do Tharoor falls back upon Afro-American or Carribean Slavery when in his courtyard ―Kerala to which Tharoor belongs―had a form of slavery which forced the LMS Missionary Samuel Mateer in the late 19th century to remark that “the Pulayan [slave] was, therefore, in an infinitely worse condition than ever the American slave was.” These slaves were owned by upper caste Hindus and upper caste Christians― Tharoor also belongs to an upper caste Hindu feudal family and the media still celebrates the feudal power of his family to kill the slaves/‘administer justice’―and were sold, maimed, raped or killed by their indigenous masters. If reparations are to be made― as argued by Tharoor―the descendants of those “untouchable” slaves should also be handed down reparations of slavery.

      As the Oxford Debate goes on, a recent book by Indian historian Sanal Mohan, Modernity of Slavery: Struggles Against Caste Inequality in Kerala published by Oxford University Press, India which shows the necessity of reparations—if ever happens—might happen first in India. Hope Tharoor will get his history lessons updated next time.


  7. Analysis of the British colonial Raj in South Asia is complicated by the fact that the state established therein was simultaneously imperial, colonial and modern.

    The imperial aspect was just a continuation from the past all over the world, where powerful individuals or clans would militarily and diplomatically subdue other polities to create an empire. Religion and family lineage were then used to legitimize the authority of such rulers, and in the case of the Raj, notions of race were added to the mix so that all Englishmen were elevated over the natives.

    The colonial aspect was economically the most drastic. In some sense, all states are colonial. But in the case of the Raj, extraction of revenue and driving Britain’s industrial revolution was the primary motivation for most of its existence. The fact that the metropolis was now located in a geographically distant location and was more or less alien to the colonized population most drastically showcases the consequences. Between 1901 and 1951, England’s life expectancy went from 47 to 65 despite two massive wars, whereas India’s only went from 24 to 32.

    And this brings us to the third aspect. Modern state. If one understands the state as a provider of public goods, then the modern state developed in Europe was a radical departure from those existing around the world at the time. The main public good pre modern states ranging from Qing China to the Ottomans provided was security and stability. Justice was usually claimed as a provision, but really was left to local elites. Apart from this there were some grand initiatives like the Grand Canal, Kallanai dam and the Roman aqueducts.

    But the modern state had a drastically different impact on the day to day lives of the people. Mass education via public schools, public postal systems, transportation, public utilities like power and water supply, mass accessible courts and so on. All this sounds good, and this is probably why so many lose sight of the fact that it was the process of setting up this modern state in the context of a racist and colonial regime, and an extremely heterogenous, feudal society which proved most divisive of all.

    All sorts of questions of identity, culture, history, languages, scripts got mixed up with the recruitment of personnel to establish such a state and this is where a lot of our problems started.


We look forward to your comments. Comments are subject to moderation as per our comments policy. They may take some time to appear.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s