British oppression in India is perhaps one of the most extensively covered topics in Indian history books. Every government in India has tried to include the colonial history of the country in the syllabus.
The reasons are manifold, of course. It is such a significant part of history, which led to two major nations: India and Pakistan. (Some would argue, of course, that it led to the partition of a major nation into two, and rightly so).
As it is often called, the British Raj covered a span of almost 200 years, ending in 1947. However, as many say, the British rule did not end in 1947; it continues even today.
For the British were successful in their endeavors to colonize minds.
This article seeks to elaborate on not merely the topic of British Oppression in India but the lasting impact that it has had in everyone’s minds.
British Oppression in India – an Introduction
The sun never sets on the British Empire. A metaphor for how long the British Empire stretched, from England to other corners of the world. The need to explore the unexplored led certain curious individuals to seek out adventure. And so Vasco da Gama discovered India in the year 1498, setting the road for a curious relation between Europe and this opulent South Asian country.
It didn’t take the West a lot of time after that to seek trade relations with India. The Europeans came running, their tongues lolling out with greed. The British set up the East India Company in 1600 with purely economic motivations (the purity is slightly debatable, from the perspective of the Indians).
Two hundred years pass, and the boundaries blur as India become a subject and Britain, its master.
Colonialism and Imperialism: the Difference it Made
Soon after, the East India Company began interfering in the politics of the land. It began as a slow burn but spread like wildfire through intrigues and drama. We cannot talk about British oppression in India without understanding the meaning of the two words: colonialism and imperialism.
While both seem to have overlapping meanings, they still can be distinguished from one another. To understand the events leading up to the British occupation, one must understand what both of them mean.
Colonialism can be called the policies that enable one country or person to rule another country or person, but the meaning is not quite simple. It also involves the act of maintaining allegiance to one’s own country while settling down in another.
Imperialism involves taking control of both the political and economic aspects of the colony’s rule.
British Oppression In India: The Impact
1.Economic Degradation of India
India’s colonial rule led to several problems and feeble economic conditions. The British oppression in India depleted India’s natural resources. In 1700, India’s GDP was 27%, which, as everyone knows, has plummeted sharply owing to the colonization. After decades of colonial rule, Britain’s GDP rose to 10%, and India was now a country with a broken economy. British oppression in India enabled Britain to steal around $45 trillion from India.
Racism towards other ethnicities was hardly new for the Empire. In India, the British government was blatantly racist towards the people. The laws were different for an Englishman and an Indian. The death of Indians was reduced to mere accidents, while the British’s death was a crime deserving of punishment.
3.Impact on the LGBTQ community
One knows that the British were highly intolerant of homophobes and transphobes. British oppression in India left behind a homophobic legacy in the form of Section 377. While that has been decriminalized, India is yet to achieve legal marriages. India was surprisingly tolerant of the LGBTQ community, which can be found in its diverse mythology.
4.The Hindu Muslim Conflict:
The Revolt of 1857 had shaken the British Empire’s foundations in India. This caused Lord Elphinston to borrow from the Romans an ideology: the ideology of Divide and Rule. It turns out, it worked. Even today, India bears the brunt of that divide and rule policy.
5.The Perpetuation of Gender Roles in India
The Oriental lens forced the British to think of the East as homogeneous and was effeminate and emasculated. Effeminacy was thus equated to weakness, thus perpetuating the gender roles. Furthermore, women were doubly colonized in India, first under the colonial rule and then under patriarchal structures that systemically oppressed women. While there was some reformation in the form of the Widow Remarriage Act, abolishing Sati, British oppression in India also perpetuated gender roles.
6.The Indigenous People’s Rights Violated
The British oppression in India extended to its forest reserves and natural habitats. They clashed with the tribes or the indigenous people of India. Unable to understand the rules of tribes, the British Raj undermined the authority of the tribal leaders. They occupied lands of the tribes and declared that the forests were a part of the state property. The British oppression in India marginalized the tribal community, which has only worsened in the country due to prejudices and systemic oppression. The tribes were displaced from their homes and forced to work for the East India Company in pitiable circumstances.
7.The Coconut Syndrome
The British Raj ruling Indians’ outcome for two centuries was this: the coconut syndrome. What is this peculiar sounding syndrome, you wonder? It is merely the fact that Indians today are brown from the outside but white on the inside to crudely. The postcolonial hangover is real; it affects all Desis, even those who are aware of it. The skincare industry profits from this love for all things Western. Skin lightening creams are major businesses in India because of the masses’ need to attain a whitewashed complexion.
8.Partition of Bengal
The Bengal famine was one of the worst mistakes of the Empire, which killed several. Documents related to the famine were wiped out of the system, another scary realization of an Orwellian future. But that came later after the British had already torn apart the state into two halves. A separate country. The Viceroy Lord Curzon ordered the partition of Bengal in 1905. East Bengal was now created as a means further to embed religious intolerance amongst the Hindus and Muslims. The sugarcoated reason stated by the Company was the large size of Bengal made it difficult to govern.
9.Partition of India
India could never recover from the imperialist strategy of divide and rule. Religious stride weakened the country’s social fabric and led to Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination by Nathuram Godse in 1948. The country was partitioned into two, which led to the birth of Pakistan. The Partition caused by British oppression in India left destruction in its wake. A million lives were lost, 13 million people were forced to move out of their homes, properties were destroyed. The end of the British empire worsened the strife between Hindus and Muslims. India was fraught with communal riots.
British oppression may have ended some time ago, but Indians are still paying for the consequences. An obsession began, where all things white and western immediately commanded supremacy over anything Indian.
English moved out the practice of Hindi and other tongues, reigning over the other languages. Thankfully for Indians, the British weren’t able to completely erase the deep-rooted culture passed down from generations. This enabled them to retain their history, Indian history, unmarred by the whites.
Gifts Left By the British Raj: Myths or Facts?
British Oppression in India is not without its advantages, or so would apologists of colonization. It is the reason Indians have a working Railway system. Some would say that India’s British oppression led to progress: they legalized the widow remarriage act, women were actively encouraged to pursue education, Sati was declared illegal, among other things. Let’s not forget that the very concept of India as one nation was propagated by Britain. Before that, India consisted of a multitude of small provinces, ruled by several.
Let’s dismantle some myths regarding the gifts left by the British oppression in India.
The Concept of India as a Country
People would argue that India was never really a nation before the British Empire set up their government. That, however, is a myth. The conceptualization of India began much before, citations of which can be found in the Vedas. The mass of land that existed between the stately Himalayas and the seas was known a Bharatvarsha.
The Indian Railways
Well, fine. There was a pre-existing concept of India as a country. But what about the Railways? Clearly, the British were benevolent about it, you argue.
Sadly, no. The Indian Railways was no gift either. It was a perfectly calculated move by the British Empire to sugarcoat what really happened: the Indian railway transported loot. It was an investment that aimed to serve only colonial interests. Remember that no India was tasked with the running of the railways. The trains moved raw materials such as coal and other minerals to ports to enable Britain’s easy transportation. The raw materials were then used in industrialized England.
Welcome to the Tea Party!
Tea is a big thing in Britain. One can always find the average meme referencing the pinky finger that sticks out whilst sipping English Breakfast tea. When the British came to India, they also brought their tea obsession.
Apparently, the British discovered tea in India. They decided to cultivate tea in various tea plantations and consumed it before India achieved independence in 1947. At the beginning of the 1800s, tea was imported from China into India and grown in the plantations of the state of Assam.
Plantations are labor-intensive in nature, which is why the British had used slaves previously. Slavery, however, was legally banned, and the East India Company needed to find a way. Therefore they decided to use ‘indentured laborers‘ in India. These were not slaves but contract laborers. The contracts legally bound them to work for the tea plantations for a stipulated amount of time.
Language and Literacy in Colonial India
Language and literacy might have been said to flourish in colonial India. However, the truth is that India was only 16% literate by the time the British left. This was because they used the English language as a colonial tool to serve self-interests. English and Western education were selectively propagated in India because the British profited from it. They needed clerks and other intermediaries who could serve their own purposes. Today, English has replaced indigenous and local Indian languages as the language of choice and status.
British oppression in India led to a lot of changes, yes. But one can’t classify these as progressive if the West serves as a parameter for progress.
The problem lies in the fact that one feels the need to oppress a certain community or race, or country to Enlighten them. The world is composed of opposing, contradictory ideas, and one is never necessarily concurrent with another. That is no excuse to impose one’s values on another.
British Oppression in India: Conclusion
British oppression in India may have ended on 15th August 1947, but people often forget its continuity that exists in our minds. Indians may have rid themselves of the British Empire’s control, but the cultural and social barriers remain.
To gain insight, therefore, one must always educate oneself. This obviously includes reading and sourcing as much information as possible. While the British quite conveniently skip these chapters in schools, Indians can’t afford to lose sight of such an important struggle.
One of the strategies of the Indian Nationalists was to reclaim the glory of the past. To understand the glory of rich culture and to differentiate between Indian and postcolonial norms.
To understand the depth of British oppression in India, you can find several books available online and otherwise (support local bookstores!). Some of them are:
The Discovery of India by Jawaharlal Nehru, A Passage to India by E.M Forster, Inglorious Empire and Era of Darkness by Shashi Tharoor, Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie, among others.