Essay on the Impact of British Rule on Indian Society


British imperialism was more pragmatic than that of other colonial powers. Its motivation was economic, not evangelical.

There was none of the dedicated Christian fanaticism which the Portuguese and Spanish demonstrated in Latin America and less enthusiasm for cultural diffusion than the French (or the Americans) showed in their colonies. For this reason they westernized India only to a limited degree.

British interests were of several kinds. At first the main purpose was to achieve a monopolistic trading position. Later it was felt that a regime of free trade would make India a major market for British goods and a source of raw materials, but British capitalists who invested in India, or who sold banking or shipping service there, continued effectively to enjoy monopolistic privileges.


The main changes which the British made in Indian society were at the top. They replaced the wasteful warlord aristocracy by a bureaucratic-military establishment, carefully designed by utilitarian technocrats, which was very efficient in maintaining law and order.

The greater efficiency of government permitted a substantial reduction in the fiscal burden, and a bigger share of the national product was available for landlords, capitalists and the new professional classes. Some of this upper class income was siphoned off to the UK, but the bulk was spent in India. However, the pattern of consumption changed as the new upper class no longer kept harems and palaces, nor did they wear fine muslins and damascened swords.

This caused some painful readjustments in the traditional handicraft sector. It seems likely that there was some increase in productive investment which must have been near zero in Moghul India: government itself carried out productive investment in railways and irrigation and as a result there was a growth in both agricultural and industrial output.

The new elite established a Western life-style, usiAg the English language and English schools. New towns and urban amenities were created with segregated suburbs and housing for them. Their habits were copied by the new professional elite of lawyers, doctors, teachers, journalists and businessmen. Within this group, old caste barriers were eased and social mobility increased.


As far as the mass of the population were concerned, colonial rule brought few significant changes. The British educational effort was very limited.

There were no major changes in village society, in the caste system, the position of untouchables, the joint family system, or in production techniques in agriculture. British impact on economic and social development was, therefore, limited. Total output and population increased substantially but the gain in per capita output was small or negligible.

Establishment of a New Westernized Elite The biggest change the British made in the social structure was to replace the warlord aristocracy by an efficient bureaucracy and army. The traditional system of the East India Company had been to pay its servants fairly modest salaries, and to let them augment their income from private transactions.

This arrangement worked reasonably well before the conquest of Bengal, but was inefficient as a way of remunerating the officials of a substantial territorial Empire because (a) too much of the profit went into private hands rather than the Company’s coffers, and (b) an over rapacious short- term policy was damaging to the productive capacity of the economy and likely to drive the local population to revolt, both of which were against the Company’s longer-term interests.


Clive had operated a ‘dual’ system, i.e. Company power and a puppet Nawab. Warren Hastings displaced the Nawab and took over direct administration, but retained Indian officials. Finally, in 1785, Cornwallis created a professional cadre of Company servants who had generous salaries, had no private trading or production interests in India, enjoyed the prospect of regular promotion and were entitled to pensions (2). All high-level posts were reserved for the British, and Indians were excluded.

From the 1820s to the 1850s the British demonstrated a strong urge to change Indian social institutions, and to westernize India they stamped out infanticide and ritual burning of widows (sati). They abolished slavery and eliminated dacoits (religious thugs) from the highways.

They legalized the remarriage of widows and allowed Hindu converts to Christianity to lay claim to their share of joint family property. They took steps to introduce a penal code (the code was actually introduced in 1861) based on British law, which helped inculcate some ideas of equality.

‘Under his old Hindu law, a Brahmin murderer might not be put to death, while a Sudra who cohabited with a high-caste woman would automatically suffer execution. Under the new law, Brahmin and Sudra were liable to the same punishment for the same offence (6).


There was a strong streak of Benthamite radicalism in the East India Company administration (7). James Mill became a senior company official in 1819 after writing a monumental history of India which showed a strong contempt for Indian institutions.

One of the most significant things the British did to Westernize India was to introduce a modified version of English education. Macaulay’s 1835 Minute on Education had a decisive impact on British educational policy and is a classic example of a Western rationalist approach to Indian civilization. For these reasons Macaulay had no hesitation in deciding in favour of English education, but it was not to be for the masses: “It is impossible for us, with our limited means to attempt to educate the body of the people.

We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect. To that class we may leave it to refine the vernacular dialects of the country, to enrich those dialects with terms of science borrowed from the Western nomenclature, and to render them by degrees fit vehicles for conveying knowledge to the great mass of the population”.

Until 1857 it was possible to entertain the view (as Marx did) that the British may eventually destroy traditional Indian society and westernize the country. But activist Westernizing policies and the attempt to extend British rule by taking over native states whose rulers had left no heirs provoked sections of both the Hindu and Muslim communities into rebellion in the Mutiny of 1857.


Although the Mutiny was successfully put down with substantial help from loyal Indian troops including the recently conquered Sikhs, British policy towards Indian institutions and society became much more conservative. Furthermore, Indian education was of a predominantly literacy character and the provision for technical training was much less than in any European country. Education for girls was almost totally ignored throughout the nineteenth century.

Because higher education was in English, there was no official effort to translate Western literature into the vernacular, nor was there any standardization of Indian scripts whose variety is a major barrier to multi-lingual amongst educated Indians. Primary education was not taken very seriously as a government obligation and was financed largely by the weak local authorities.

As a result, the great mass of the population had no access to education and, at independence in 1947, 88 per cent were illiterate the elite with its classical education and contempt for business were quite happy establishing law and order, and keeping ‘barbarians’ at bay on the frontier of the raj.

They developed their own brand of self-righteous arrogance, considering themselves purveyors not of popular but of good government. For them the word ‘British’ lost its geographic connotation and became an epithet signifying moral rectitude.

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