The British Raj (rāj, lit. “reign” in Hindi) was British rule in the Indian subcontinent between 1858 and 1947. The term can also refer to the period of dominion. The region under British control, commonly calledIndia in contemporary usage, included areas directly administered by the United Kingdom (contemporaneously British India), as well as the princely states ruled by individual rulers under the paramountcy of the British Crown. The region was less commonly also called the Indian Empire by the British. As “India”, it was a founding member of the League of Nations, and a participating nation in the Summer Olympics in 1900, 1920, 1928, 1932, and 1936.
The system of governance was instituted in 1858, when the rule of the British East India Company was transferred to the Crown in the person of Queen Victoria (who in 1876 was proclaimed Empress of India), and lasted until 1947, when the British Indian Empire was partitioned into two sovereign dominion states, the Union of India (later the Republic of India) and the Dominion of Pakistan (later the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, the eastern half of which, still later, became the People’s Republic of Bangladesh).
The budget of the Raj covered municipal affairs, the police, the small but highly trained Indian Civil Service that ran government operations, and the Indian Army. It was paid entirely by Indians through taxes, especially on farmland and on salt. The large, well-trained Indian Army played major roles in both World Wars; the rest of the time it trained to fight off a possible Russian invasion through Afghanistan. Geographical extent
The British raja extended over almost all present-day India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, with exceptions such as Goa and Pondicherry. In addition, at various times, it included Aden (from 1858 to 1937), Lower Burma(from 1858 to 1937), Upper Burma (from 1886 to 1937), British Somaliland (briefly from 1884 to 1898), and Singapore (briefly from 1858 to 1867). Burma was separated from India and directly administered by the British Crown from 1937 until its independence in 1948. The Trucial States of the Persian Gulf were theoretically princely states of British India until 1946 and used the rupee as their unit of currency. Among other countries in the region, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) was ceded to Britain in 1802 under the Treaty of Amiens. Ceylon was a British crown colony but not part of British India. The kingdoms of Nepal and Bhutan, having fought wars with the British, subsequently signed treaties with them and were recognised by the British as independent states. The Kingdom of Sikkim was established as a princely state after the Anglo-Sikkimese Treaty of 1861; however, the issue of sovereignty was left undefined. The Maldive Islands were a British protectorate from 1887 to 1965 but not part of British India. Princely states
A Princely State, also called a Native State or an Indian State, was a nominally sovereign entity with an indigenous Indian ruler, subject to a subsidiary alliance. There were 565 princely states when India and Pakistan became independent from Britain in August 1947. The princely states did not form a part of British India (i.e. the presidencies and provinces), as they were not directly under British rule. The larger ones had treaties with Britain that specified which rights the princes had; in the smaller ones the princes had few rights. Within the princely states external affairs, defence and most communications were under British control. The British also exercised a general influence over the states’ internal politics, in part through the granting or withholding of recognition of individual rulers. Although there were nearly 600 princely states, the great majority was very small and contracted out the business of government to the British. Some two hundred of the states had an area of less than 25 square kilometres (10 square miles).
Aftermath of the Indian rebellion of 1857
Shaken by the events of the Indian rebellion of 1857, Britain dissolved the East India Company and transferred ruling power over India to the Crown. The princely states were mostly kept intact, though they lost their private armies and were more closely watched. The all-British units were doubled in number. After the rebellion, the British became more circumspect regarding rapid modernisation. Much thought was devoted to the causes of the rebellion, and from it three main lessons were drawn. At a more practical level, it was felt that there needed to be more communication and camaraderie between the British and Indians—not just between British army officers and their Indian staff but in civilian life as well. The Indian army was completely reorganised: units composed of the Muslims and Brahmins of the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh, who had formed the core of the rebellion, were disbanded. New regiments, like the Sikhs and Baluchis, composed of Indians who, in British estimation, had demonstrated steadfastness, were formed. The Indian units lost their artillery. From then on, the Indian army was to remain unchanged in its organisation until 1947.
The 1861 Census had revealed that the British population in India was 125,945. Of these only about 41,862 were civilians as compared with about 84,083 European officers and men of the Army. In 1880, the standing Indian Army consisted of 66,000 British soldiers, 130,000 Natives, and 350,000 soldiers in the princely armies. Administrative control of India came under the prestigious Indian Civil Service which had administrative control over all districts outside the princely states. At first all-British, it included increasing proportions of Indians, and totalled about 1000 men. They were very well organised, well-educated and professional, and avoided the bribes and inside deals that had made for great wealth among the officials of the defunct East India Company.
The British decided that both the princes and the large land-holders, by not joining the rebellion, had proved to be, in Lord Canning’s words, “breakwaters in a storm”. They too were rewarded in the new British Raj by being officially recognised in the treaties each state now signed with the Crown. At the same time, it was felt that the peasants, for whose benefit the large land-reforms of the United Provinces had been undertaken, had shown disloyalty, by, in many cases, fighting for their former landlords against the British. Consequently, no more land reforms were implemented for the next 90 years: Bengal and Bihar were to remain the realms of large land holdings (unlike the Punjab and Uttar Pradesh). Economic history
The Indian economy grew at about 1% per year from 1880 to 1920, and the population also grew at 1%. The result was, on average, no long-term change in per capita income levels, though cost of living had grown higher. Agriculture was still dominant, with most peasants at the subsistence level. Extensive irrigation systems were built, providing an impetus for switching to cash crops for export and for raw materials for Indian industry, especially jute, cotton, sugarcane, coffee and tea. India’s global share of GDP fell drastically from above 20% to less than 5% in the colonial period. Fact also remains that India has “third world” status after decolonizing, compared to the way its riches and trade attracted European and Middle Eastern invaders and traders in 18th century. Historians have been bitterly divided on issues of economic history, with the Nationalist school (following Nehru) arguing that India was poorer at the end of British rule than at the beginning and that impoverishment occurred because of the British New middle class, Indian National Congress, 1860s–1890s
By 1880 a new middle class had arisen in India and spread thinly across the country. Moreover, there was a growing solidarity among its members, created by the “joint stimuli of encouragement and irritation.” The encouragement felt by this class came from its success in education and its ability to avail itself of the benefits of that education such as employment in the Indian Civil Service. It came too from Queen Victoria’s proclamation of 1858 in which she had declared, “We hold ourselves bound to the natives of our Indian territories by the same obligation of duty which bind us to all our other subjects.” Indians were especially encouraged when Canada was granted dominion status in 1867 and established an autonomous democratic constitution.
Lastly, the encouragement came from the work of contemporaneous Oriental scholars like Monier Monier-Williams andMax Müller, who in their works had been presenting ancient India as a great civilisation. Irritation, on the other hand, came not just from incidents of racial discrimination at the hands of the British in India, but also from governmental actions like the use of Indian troops in imperial campaigns (e.g. in the Second Anglo-Afghan War) and the attempts to control the vernacular press (e.g. in the Vernacular Press Act of 1878). It was, however, Viceroy Lord Ripon’s partial reversal of the Ilbert Bill (1883), a legislative measure that had proposed putting Indian judges in the Bengal Presidency on equal footing with British ones, that transformed the discontent into political action.
On 28 December 1885, professionals and intellectuals from this middle-class—many educated at the new British-founded universities in Bombay, Calcutta, and Madras, and familiar with the ideas of British political philosophers, especially the utilitarians assembled in Bombay. The seventy men founded the Indian National Congress; Womesh Chandra Bonerjee was elected the first president. The membership comprised a westernised elite, and no effort was made at this time to broaden the base. During its first twenty years, the Congress primarily debated British policy toward India; however, its debates created a new Indian outlook that held Great Britain responsible for draining India of its wealth. Britain did this, the nationalists claimed, by unfair trade, by the restraint on indigenous Indian industry, and by the use of Indian taxes to pay the high salaries of the British civil servants in India.
First World War
The First World War would prove to be a watershed in the imperial relationship between Britain and India. Some 1.4 million Indian and British soldiers of the British Indian Army took part in the war, primarily in Iraq and the Middle East. Their participation had wider cultural fallout as news spread how bravely soldiers fought and died alongside British soldiers, as well as soldiers from dominions like Canada and Australia.] India’s international profile rose during the 1920s, as it became a founding member of the League of Nations in 1920 and participated, under the name, “Les Indes Anglaises” (British India), in the 1920 Summer Olympics in Antwerp. Back in India, especially among the leaders of the Indian National Congress, the war led to calls for greater self-government for Indians.
With the end of World War I, there was also a change in the economic climate. By year’s end 1919, 1.5 million Indians had served in the armed services in either combatant or non-combatant roles, and India had provided £146 million in revenue for the war. The increased taxes coupled with disruptions in both domestic and international trade had the effect of approximately doubling the index of overall prices in India between 1914 and 1920. Returning war veterans, especially in the Punjab, created a growing unemployment crisis, and post-war inflation led to food riots in Bombay, Madras, and Bengal provinces,] a situation that was made only worse by the failure of the 1918–19 monsoon and by profiteering and speculation. The global influenza epidemic and the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 added to the general jitters; the former among the population already experiencing economic woes, and the latter among government officials, fearing a similar revolution in India. Demand for complete independence, Salt March: 1929–1931
At midnight on 31 December 1929, during its annual session in Lahore, the Indian National Congress, under the presidency of Jawaharlal Nehru, raised the flag of independent India for the first time, and afterwards issued a demand for Purna Swaraj (Sanskrit: “complete independence”), which Nehru was to later refer to as “a tryst with destiny.” The declaration was drafted by theCongress Working Committee, which included Gandhi, Nehru, Patel, and Chakravarthi Rajagopalachari. Gandhi subsequently led an expanded movement of civil disobedience, culminating in 1930 with the Salt Satyagraha, in which thousands of Indians defied the tax on salt, by marching to the sea and making their own salt by evaporating seawater. Although, many, including Gandhi, were arrested, the British government eventually gave in, and in 1931 Gandhi travelled to London to negotiate new reform at the Round Table Conferences. In local terms British control rested on the Indian Civil Service, but it faced growing difficulties.
Fewer and fewer young men in Britain were interested in joining, and the continuing distrust of Indians resulted in a declining base in terms of quality and quantity. By 1945 Indians were numerically dominant in the ICS and at issue was loyal divided between the Empire and independence. The finances of the Raj depended on land taxes, and these became problematic in the 1930s. Epstein argues that after 1919 it became harder and harder to collect the land revenue. The Raj’s suppression of civil disobedience after 1934 temporarily increased the power of the revenue agents but after 1937 they were forced by the new Congress-controlled provincial governments to hand back confiscated land. Again the outbreak of war strengthened them, in the face of the Quit India movement the revenue collectors had to rely on military force and by 1946–47 direct British control was rapidly disappearing in much of the countryside. Government of India Act: 1931–1937
In 1935, after the Round Table Conferences, Parliament passed the Government of India Act 1935, which authorised the establishment of independent legislative assemblies in all provinces of British India, the creation of a central government incorporating both the British provinces and the princely states, and the protection of Muslim minorities. The future Constitution of independent India was based on this act. However, it divided the electorate into 19 religious and social categories, e.g., Moslems, Sikhs, Indian Christians, Depressed Classes, Landholders, Commerce and Industry, Europeans, Anglo-Indians, etc., each of which was given separate representation in the Provincial Legislative Assemblies. A voter could cast a vote only for candidates in his own category. The 1935 Act provided for more autonomy for Indian provinces, with the goal of cooling off nationalist sentiment. The act provided for a national parliament and an executive branch under the purview of the British government, but the rulers of the princely states managed to block its implementation. These states remained under the full control of their hereditary rulers, with no popular government.
To prepare for elections Congress built up its grass roots membership from 473,000 in 1935 to 4.5 million in 1939. In the 1937 elections Congress won victories in seven of the eleven provinces of British India. Congress governments, with wide powers, were formed in these provinces. The widespread voter support for the Indian National Congress surprised Raj officials, who previously had seen the Congress as a small elitist body. World War II, Muslim League’s Lahore Resolution: 1938–1941 While the Muslim League was a small elite group in 1927 with only 1300 members, it grew rapidly once it became an organisation that reached out to the masses, reaching 500,000 members in Bengal in 1944, 200,000 in Punjab, and hundreds of thousands elsewhere. Jinnah now was well positioned to negotiate with the British from a position of power. With the outbreak of World War II in 1939, the viceroy, Lord Linlithgow, declared war on India’s behalf without consulting Indian leaders, leading the Congress provincial ministries to resign in protest. The Muslim League, in contrast, supported Britain in the war effort and maintained its control of the government in three major provinces, Bengal, Sind and the Punjab. Jinnah repeatedly warned that Muslims would be unfairly treated in an independent India dominated by the Congress.
On 24 March 1940 in Lahore, the League passed the “Lahore Resolution”, demanding that, “the areas in which the Muslims are numerically in majority as in the North-Western and Eastern zones of India should be grouped to constitute independent states in which the constituent units shall be autonomous and sovereign.” Although there were other important national Muslim politicians such as Congress leader Ab’ul Kalam Azad, and influential regional Muslim politicians such as A. K. Fazlul Huq of the leftist Krishak Praja Party in Bengal, Sikander Hyat Khan of the landlord-dominated Punjab Unionist Party, and Abd al-Ghaffar Khan of the pro-CongressKhudai Khidmatgar (popularly, “red shirts”) in the North West Frontier Province, the British, over the next six years, were to increasingly see the League as the main representative of Muslim India.
Cripps Mission, Quit India Resolution: 1942–1945
The British government sent the Cripps’ mission in 1942 to secure Indian nationalists’ cooperation in the war effort in exchange for a promise of independence as soon as the war ended. Top officials in Britain, most notably Prime Minister Winston Churchill, did not support the Cripps Mission and negotiations with the Congress soon broke down.
Women’s procession in Bombay during the “Quit India” movement, 1942 Congress in July 1942 launched the “Quit India” movement in demanding the immediate withdrawal of the British from India or face nationwide civil disobedience. On 8 August the Raj arrested all national, provincial and local Congress leaders, holding tens of thousands of them until 1945. The country erupted in violent demonstrations led by students and later by peasant political groups, especially in Eastern United Provinces, Bihar, and western Bengal. The large war-time British Army presence crushed the movement in a little more than six weeks; nonetheless, a portion of the movement formed for a time an underground provisional government on the border with Nepal. In other parts of India, the movement was less spontaneous and the protest less intensive, however it lasted sporadically into the summer of 1943. It did not slow down the British war effort or recruiting for the army. Elections, Cabinet Mission, Direct Action Day: 1946
In January 1946, a number of mutinies broke out in the armed services, starting with that of RAF servicemen frustrated with their slow repatriation to Britain.The mutinies came to a head with mutiny of the Royal Indian Navy in Bombay in February 1946, followed by others in Calcutta, Madras, and Karachi. Although the mutinies were rapidly suppressed, they had the effect of spurring the new Labour government in Britain to action, and leading to the Cabinet Mission to India led by the Secretary of State for India, Lord Pethick Lawrence, and including Sir Stafford Cripps, who had visited four years before. Also in early 1946, new elections were called in India. Earlier, at the end of the war in 1945, the colonial government had announced the public trial of three senior officers of Bose’s defeated Indian National Army who stood accused of treason.
Now as the trials began, the Congress leadership, although ambivalent towards the INA, chose to defend the accused officers. The subsequent convictions of the officers, the public outcry against the convictions, and the eventual remission of the sentences, created positive propaganda for the Congress, which only helped in the party’s subsequent electoral victories in eight of the eleven provinces. The negotiations between the Congress and the Muslim League, however, stumbled over the issue of the partition. Jinnah proclaimed 16 August 1946, Direct Action Day, with the stated goal of highlighting, peacefully, the demand for a Muslim homeland in British India. The following day Hindu-Muslim riots broke out in Calcutta and quickly spread throughout India. Although the Government of India and the Congress were both shaken by the course of events, in September, a Congress-led interim government was installed, with Jawaharlal Nehru as united India’s prime minister The Plan for Partition: 1947
Later that year, the Labour government in Britain, its exchequer exhausted by the recently concluded World War II, and conscious that it had neither the mandate at home, the international support, nor the reliability of native forces for continuing to control an increasingly restless India, decided to end British rule of India, and in early 1947 Britain announced its intention of transferring power no later than June 1948. As independence approached, the violence between Hindus and Muslims in the provinces of Punjab and Bengal continued unabated. With the British army unprepared for the potential for increased violence, the new viceroy, Louis Mountbatten, advanced the date for the transfer of power, allowing less than six months for a mutually agreed plan for independence.
In June 1947, the nationalist leaders, including Sardar Patel, Nehru and Abul Kalam Azad on behalf of the Congress, Jinnah representing the Muslim League, B. R. Ambedkar representing the Untouchable community, and Master Tara Singh representing the Sikhs, agreed to a partition of the country along religious lines in stark opposition to Gandhi’s views. The predominantly Hindu and Sikh areas were assigned to the new India and predominantly Muslim areas to the new nation of Pakistan; the plan included a partition of the Muslim-majority provinces of Punjab and Bengal. Violence, Partition, Independence: 1947
On 14 August 1947, the new Dominion of Pakistan came into being, with Muhammad Ali Jinnah sworn in as its first Governor General in Karachi. The following day, 15 August 1947, India, now a smaller Union of India, became an independent country with official ceremonies taking place in New Delhi, and with Jawaharlal Nehru assuming the office of the prime minister, and the viceroy, Louis Mountbatten, staying on as its first Governor General. The great majority of Indians remained in place with independence, but in border areas millions of people (Muslim, Sikh, and Hindu) relocated across the newly drawn borders. In Punjab, where the new border lines divided the Sikh regions in half, there was much bloodshed; in Bengal and Bihar, where Gandhi’s presence assuaged communal tempers, the violence was more limited. In all, somewhere between 250,000 and 500,000 people on both sides of the new borders, both among the refugee and resident populations of the three faiths, died in the violence.