Essay on Social and Cultural Policy in India implemented by the British Government


We have seen that British authorities reorganised and regulated India’s economy in the interests of British trade and industry and organised a modern administrative system to guarantee order and security.

Till 1813 they also followed a policy of non-interference in the religious, social and cultural life of the country, but after 1813 they took active steps to transform Indian society and culture. This followed the rise of new interests and new ideas in Britain during the nineteenth century.

The Industrial Revolution, which had begun in the middle of the eighteenth century, and the consequent growth of industrial capitalism, was fast changing all aspects of British society. The rising industrial interests wanted to make India a big market for their goods.


This could not be accomplished merely by adhering to the policy of keeping peace, and required the partial transformation and modernisation of Indian society. And so, in the words of the historians Thompson and Garratt, “the mood and methods of the old brigandage were changing into those of modern industrialism and capitalism.”

Science and technology also opened new vistas of human progress. The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries witnessed a great ferment of new ideas in Britain and Europe which influenced the British outlook towards Indian problems. All over Europe “new attitudes of mind, manners, and morals were appearing”.

The great French Revolution of 1789 with its message of liberty, equality, and fraternity generated powerful democratic sentiments and unleashed the force of modern nationalism.

In the realm of thought, the new trend was represented by Bacon, Locke, Voltaire, Rousseau, Kant, Adam Smith and Bentham; in the realm of literature by Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley and Charles Dickens.


The impact of the new thought the product of the intellectual revolution of the eighteenth century, the French Revolution, and the Industrial Revolution was naturally felt in India and to some extent affected the official notions of government.

The three outstanding characteristics of the new thought were rationalism or faith in reason and science, humanism or love of man, and confidence in the capacity of man to progress. The rational and scientific attitude indicated that only that was true which was in conformity with human reason and capable of being tested in practice.

The scientific progress of the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and the tremendous powers of production released by the application of science to industry were visible proofs of the power of human reason.

Humanism was based on the belief that every human being was an end in him and should be respected and prized as such. No man had the right to look upon another human being as a mere agent of his own happiness.


The humanistic outlook gave birth to the doctrines of individualism, liberalism, and socialism. According to the doctrine of progress, all societies must change with time: nothing was or could be static. Moreover, man had the capacity to remodel nature and society on rational and just lines.

I the new currents of thought in Europe came into conflict with the old outlook and produced a clash of attitudes among those who determined Indian policy or ran the Indian administration. The older attitude, known as the conservative or traditional attitude, was that of making as few changes in India as possible.

The early representatives of this attitude were Warren Hastings and Edmund Burke, the famous writer and parliamentarian, and the later ones were the famous officials Munro, Malcolm, Elphinstone and Metcalfe.

The conservatives maintained that Indian civilisation was different from European civilisation but was not necessarily inferior to it. Many of them respected and admired Indian philosophy and culture. Realising that it might be necessary to introduce some Western ideas and practices, they proposed to introduce them very cautiously and gradually.


Favoring social stability above all, they opposed any programme of rapid change. Sweeping or hasty innovations, they felt, would produce a violent reaction in the country.

The conservative outlook remained influential in England as well as in India up to the very end of British rule. In fact, the majority of British officials in India were generally of conservative persuasion.

By 1800, the conservative attitude was fast giving way to a new attitude which was sharply critical of Indian society and culture. Indian civilisation was condemned as static; it was looked down upon with contempt. Indian customs were considered uncivilised, Indian institutions corrupt and decadent, and Indian thought narrow and unscientific.

This critical approach was used by most of the officials and writers and statesmen of Britain to justify political and economic enslavement of India and to proclaim that it was incapable of improvement and must therefore remain permanently under British tutelage.


However, a few Englishmen, known as Radicals, went beyond this narrow criticism and imperialistic outlook and applied the advanced humanistic and rational thought of the West to the Indian situation as they saw it.

The doctrine of reason led them to believe that India need not always be a fallen country, for all societies had the capacity to improve by following the dictates of reason and science.

The doctrine of humanism led them to desire the improvement of Indian people. The doctrine of progress led them to the conviction that Indians were bound to improve.

And so the Radicals, though few but representing the better elements of British society, desired to make India a part of the modern progressive world of science and humanism.

To them, the answer to India’s ills appeared to lie in the introduction of modern Western sciences, philosophy and literature in fact, in all out and rapid change along modern lines. Seem of the officials who came to India in the 1820s and after were deeply influenced by the Radical outlook.

It must, however, be emphasised at this stage that such honest and philanthropic Englishmen were few and that their influence was never decisive so far as the British administration of India was concerned. The ruling elements in British-Indian administration continued to be imperialistic and exploitative.

They would accept new ideas and adopt reformist measures only if, and to the extent that, they did not come into conflict with commercial interest and profit motives and enabled economic penetration of India and the consolidation of British rule.

Modernisation of India had to occur within the broad limits imposed by the needs of easier and more thorough exploitation of its resources.

Thus modernisation of India was accepted by many English officials, businessmen and statesmen because it was expected to make Indians better customers for British goods and reconcile them to the alien rule.

In fact many of the Radicals themselves no longer remained true to their own beliefs when they discussed Indian policy. Instead of working for a democratic government, as they did in Britain, they demanded a more authoritarian regime, described by them as pacernalistic.

In this respect they were at one with the conservatives who too were ardent champions of paternalism which would treat the Indian people as children and keep them out of the administration.

The basic dilemma before the British administrators in India was that while British interest in India could not be served without some modernisation, full modernisation would generate forces which would go against their interests and would in the long run endanger British supremacy in the country.

They had, therefore, to follow a delicately balanced policy of partial modernisation, that is, a policy of introducing modernisation in some respects and blocking and preventing it in other respects.

In other words, modernisation of India was to be colonial modernisation, carried out within the parameters of, and With a view to promoting, colonialism.

The policy of modernising Indian society and culture was also encouraged by Christian missionaries and religious-minded persons such as William Wilberforce and Charles Grant, the Chairman of the Court of Directors of the East India Company, who wanted to spread Christianity in India.

They, too, adopted a critical attitude towards Indian society but on religious grounds. They passionately believed that Christianity alone was the true religion and that all other religions were false. They supported a programme of Westernisation in the hope that it would eventually lead to the country’s conversion to Christianity.

They thought that the light of Western knowledge would destroy people’s faith in their own religions and lead them to welcome and embrace Christianity. They, therefore, opened modern schools, colleges and hospitals in the country.

The missionaries were, however, often most unwilling allies of the rationalist Radicals whose scientific approach undermined not only Hindu or Muslim mythology but Christian mythology as well.

As Professor H.H. Dodwell has pointed out: “Taught to question the validity of their own gods, they [the Westernised Indians] questioned also the validity of the Bible and the truth of its narrative.”

The missionaries also supported the paternalistic imperialistic policies since they looked upon law and order and British supremacy as essential for their work of religious propaganda.

They also sought the support of British merchants and manufacturers by holding out the hope that Christian converts would be better customers for their goods.

The Radicals were given strong support by Raja Rammohun Roy and other like-minded Indians, who were conscious of the low state to which their country and society had sunk, who were sick of caste prejudices and other social evils, and who believed that the salvation of India lay in science and humanism. We will discuss the outlook and activities of these Indians at length in the next chapter.

Another reason reasons why the Government of India followed a policy of cautious and gradual innovation and not of all out modernisation was the continuous prevalence of the conservative outlook among the British officials in India and the belief that interference in their religious beliefs and social customs might produce a revolutionary reaction among the Indian people.

Even the most ardent Radicals paid heed to this warning for, along with the other members of the British governing classes; they too desired most of all the safety and perpetuation of British rule in India. Every other consideration was of secondary importance.

As a matter of fact, the policy of hesitant and weak modernisation was gradually abandoned after 1858 as Indians proved apt pupils, shifted rapidly towards modernisation of their society and assertion of their culture, and demanded to be ruled in accordance with the modern principles of liberty, equality and nationality.

The British increasingly withdrew their support from the reformers and gradually came to side with the socially orthodox and conservative elements of society. They also encouraged casteism and communalism.

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