Essay on Economic Critique of Imperialism over India


Perhaps the most important part of the early nationalists’ political work was their economic critique of imperialism. They took note of all three forms of contemporary colonial economic exploitation namely, through trade, industry and finance.

They clearly grasped that the essence of British economic imperialism lay in the subordination of the Indian economy to the British economy.

They vehemently opposed the British attempt to develop in India the basic characteristics of a colonial economy, namely, the transformation of India into a supplier of raw materials, a market for British manu­factures, and a field of investment for foreign capital.


They organised a powerful agitation against nearly all important official economic policies based on this colonial structure.

The early nationalists complained of India’s growing poverty and economic backwardness and the failure of modern industry and agriculture to grow; and they put the blame on British economic exploitation of India.

Thus Dadabhai Naoroji declared as early as 1881 that the British rule was “an everlasting, increasing, and every day increasing foreign invasion” that was “utterly, though gradually, destroying the country”.

The nationalists criticised the official economic policies for bringing about the ruin of India’s traditional handicraft industries and for obstructing the development of modern industries.


Most of them opposed the large-scale investment of foreign capital in the Indian railways, plantations and industries on the grounds that it would lead to the suppression of Indian capitalists and the further strengthening of the British hold on India’s economy and polity.

They believed that the employment of foreign capital posed a serious economic and political danger not only to the present generation but also to generations to come. The chief remedy they suggested for the removal of India’s poverty was the rapid development of modern industries.

They wanted the government to promote modern industries through tariff protection and direct averment aid. They popularised the idea of swadeshi or the use of of Indian goods, and the boycott of British goods as a means of mooting Indian industries.

For example, students in Poona and in other towns of Maharashtra publicly burnt foreign clothes in 1896 as part of the larger swadeshi campaign.


The nationalists complained that India’s wealth was being drained to England, and demanded that this drain be stopped. They carried on a persistent agitation for the reduction of land revenue in order to lighten the burden of taxation on the peasant. Some of them also criticised the semi-feudal agrarian relations that the British sought to maintain.

The nationalists also agitated for improvement in the conditions of work of the plantation labourers. They declared high taxation to be one of the causes of India’s poverty and demanded the abolition of the salt tax and the reduction of land revenue.

They condemned the high military expenditure of the Government of India and demanded its reduction. As time passed more and more nationalists came to the conclusion that economic exploitation, impoverishment of the country and the perpetuation of its economic backwardness by foreign imperialism more than outweighed some of the beneficial aspects of the alien rule. Thus, regarding the benefits of security of life and property, Dadabhai Naoroji remarked:

The romance is that there is security of life and property in India; the reality is that there is no such thing. There is security of life and property in one sense or way i.e. the people are secure from any violence from each other or from Native despots.


But from England’s own grasp there is no security of property at all and, as a consequence, no security for life. India’s property is not secure.

What is secure and well secure, is that England is perfidy safe and secure, and does so with perfect security, to carry away from India, and to eat up in India, her property at the present rate of £30,000,000 or £40,000,000 a year.

Therefore venture to submit that India does not enjoy security of her property and life. To millions in India life is simply ‘half- feeding’, or starvation, or famine and disease.

With regard to law and order, Dadabhai said: ‘Pray strike on the back, but don’t strike on belly. Under the native despot the people keep and enjoy what they produce, though at times they suffer some violence on the back.


Under British Indian despot the man is at peace, there is no violence; his substance is drained away, unseen, peaceably and subtly he starves in peace and perishes in peace, with law and order!

Nationalist agitation on economic issues led to the growth of an all-India opinion that British rule was based on the exploitation of India; leading to India’s impoverishment and producing economic backwardness and under-development. These disadvantages far outweighed any indirect advantages that might have followed British rule.

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