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1858-1947 - British Raj

Raj meant rule. India was the jewel in the crown of the British Empire. It was said that the sun never set on the British Empire, whose territory touched every continent on earth. English imperialism evolved through several phases, including the early colonization of North America, to its involvement in South Asia, the colonization of Australia and New Zealand, its role in the nineteenth century scramble for Africa, involvement with politics in the Middle East, and its expansion into Southeast Asia. At the height of its power in the early twentieth century the British Empire had control over nearly two-fifths of the world's land mass and governed an empire of between 300 and 400 million people.

The British Raj, the period of British colonial rule from 1858 to 1947, treated India as a sort of empire in its own right. People in the eighteenth century tended to think of the empire in terms of trade and commerce. It wasn't until late in the eighteenth century or early in the nineteenth century that the unified concept of empire as it is thought of today emerged.

The Sepoy Rebellion in 1857 was a major turning point in the history of modern India. In May 1858, the British exiled Emperor Bahadur Shah II (r. 1837-57) to Burma, thus formally liquidating the Mughal Empire. At the same time, they abolished the British East India Company and replaced it with direct rule under the British crown. In proclaiming the new direct-rule policy to "the Princes, Chiefs, and Peoples of India," Queen Victoria (who was given the title Empress of India in 1877) promised equal treatment under British law, but Indian mistrust of British rule had become a legacy of the 1857 rebellion.

Many existing economic and revenue policies remained virtually unchanged in the post-1857 period, but several administrative modifications were introduced, beginning with the creation in London of a cabinet post, the secretary of state for India. The governor-general (called viceroy when acting as the direct representative of the British crown), headquartered in Calcutta, ran the administration in India, assisted by executive and legislative councils.

A more thorough reorganization was effected in the constitution of army and government finances. Shocked by the extent of solidarity among Indian soldiers during the rebellion, the government separated the army into the three presidencies. One of the most important reforms carried out in the feudatory principalities was the conversion of their military forces into Imperial Service Troops. The effect of this measure was that small, compact bodies of well-trained, disciplined, and regularly paid troops were substituted for an armed rabble in all native states.

Beneath the governor-general were the provincial governors, who held power over the district officials, who formed the lower rungs of the Indian Civil Service. British India was divided into provinces (suba) for administrative purposes, each headed, depending on size and importance, by a governor or lieutenant governor. Provinces were divided into divisions, and these in turn were divided into districts (zilla), the basic administrative units, encompassing substantial territory and population. In many cases, the provinces and districts followed the lines of those created by the Mughals.

The district officer was the linchpin of the system. The officer was revenue collector as well as dispenser of justice and was called district collector, district magistrate, and, in some areas, deputy commissioner (the DC) with equal validity. District officers were usually drawn from the prestigious meritocracy, the Indian Civil Service. Recruitment to the Indian Civil Service was competitive, based on examination of young men with a British classical education. Exclusively British at its beginning, the Indian Civil Service was forced to open its doors slightly to successful Indian candidates. After 1871 district boards and municipal committees were established to assist the district officers in their administrative functions. Thus elective politics, in however limited a form, was introduced to the subcontinent.

The British Raj lasted as long as it did because it was founded on recognition of India as multiple nations. The governor general was also known as the viceroy and crown representative when dealing with Indian princes. Relations between the British crown and Indian princes were set out in an elusive doctrine of "paramountcy." The princes promised loyalty and surrendered all rights to conduct foreign or defense policy; the crown promised noninterference in internal affairs (except in cases of gross maladministration or injustice) and protection from external and internal enemies.

For decades the Indian Civil Service was the exclusive preserve of the British-born, as were the superior ranks in such other professions as law and medicine. The British administrators were imbued with a sense of duty in ruling India and were rewarded with good salaries, high status, and opportunities for promotion. Not until the 1910s did the British reluctantly permit a few Indians into their cadre as the number of English-educated Indians rose steadily.

The viceroy announced in 1858 that the government would honor former treaties with princely states and renounced the "doctrine of lapse," whereby the East India Company had annexed territories of rulers who died without male heirs. About 40 percent of Indian territory and between 20 and 25 percent of the population remained under the control of 562 princes notable for their religious (Islamic, Sikh, Hindu, and other) and ethnic diversity. Their propensity for pomp and ceremony became proverbial, while their domains, varying in size and wealth, lagged behind sociopolitical transformations that took place elsewhere in British-controlled India.

The native rulers of different grades possessed various degrees of independence; but all were utterly unconnected with one another, their only bond being the suzerainty of the Emperor, the one independent sovereign. There were about eight hundred feudatory states in India, some of them very tiny. Foremost among them must be reckoned the seventeen principalities ruled by Rajputs, who represent the purest Hindu blood : the Rana of Udaipur, indeed, claims descent from Rama, the hero of the Ramayana, who is generally worshipped as an incarnation of Vishnu. The government of these Rajput states is of a patriarchal character, the land being parcelled out between the sovereign and his subjects, who, as members of the same clan, are accounted his kinsmen. The Maharajah of Kashmir is also a Rajput, descended from Gholab Singh, to whom, by a most disreputable transaction, that lovely country was sold on the annexation of the Punjab in 1849. The most considerable Mohammedan prince in India was the Nizam of Hyderabad, whose dominions comprise an area of 82,698 square miles. His importance is indicated by the fact that he was entitled to a salute of twenty-one guns, an honour conferred upon only two other native feudatories, the Maharajah of Mysore and the Guicowar of Baroda.

British attitudes toward Indians shifted from relative openness to insularity and xenophobia, even against those with comparable background and achievement as well as loyalty. British families and their servants lived in cantonments at a distance from Indian settlements. Private clubs where the British gathered for social interaction became symbols of exclusivity and snobbery that refused to disappear decades after the British had left India. In 1883 the government of India attempted to remove race barriers in criminal jurisdictions by introducing a bill empowering Indian judges to adjudicate offenses committed by Europeans. Public protests and editorials in the British press, however, forced the viceroy, George Robinson, Marquis of Ripon (who served from 1880 to 1884), to capitulate and modify the bill drastically. The Bengali Hindu intelligentsia learned a valuable political lesson from this "white mutiny": the effectiveness of well-orchestrated agitation through demonstrations in the streets and publicity in the media when seeking redress for real and imagined grievances.

In a goodwill gesture, in 1911 King-Emperor George V (r. 1910-36) visited India for a durbar (a traditional court held for subjects to express fealty to their ruler), during which he announced the reversal of the partition of Bengal and the transfer of the capital from Calcutta to a newly planned city to be built immediately south of Delhi, which became New Delhi.

England's power and wealth, and in the long run her whole position as a great Power, depend on her possession of India. The Great War began with an unprecedented outpouring of loyalty and goodwill toward the British, contrary to initial British fears of an Indian revolt. India contributed generously to the British war effort, by providing men and resources. About 1.3 million Indian soldiers and laborers served in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East, while both the Indian government and the princes sent large supplies of food, money, and ammunition. But disillusionment set in early. High casualty rates, soaring inflation compounded by heavy taxation, a widespread influenza epidemic, and the disruption of trade during the war escalated human suffering in India.

The country that is today Burma (Myanmar) was, during the time of Orwell's experiences in the colony, a province of India, itself a British colony. Prior to British intervention in the nineteenth century Burma was a sovereign kingdom. After three wars between British forces and the Burmese, beginning with the First Anglo-Burmese War in 1824-26, followed by the Second Anglo-Burmese War of 1852, the country fell under British control after its defeat in the Third Anglo-Burmese War in 1885. Burma was subsumed under the administration of British India, becoming a province of that colony in 1886. It would remain an Indian province until it was granted the status of an individual British colony in 1937. Burma would gain its independence in January 1948.

The breakdown of the delicate entente between the raj and the Indian National Congress in 1939 was followed in 1942 by the collapse of the British following the Japanese invasion in Southeast Asia and the explosive Quit India movement, and finally, in 1943, by the devastating man-made famine in Bengal.

During the colonial period, the British built up the elite Indian Civil Service, often referred to as the "steel frame" of the British Raj. Nehru and other leaders of the independence movement initially viewed the colonial civil service as an instrument of foreign domination, but by 1947 they had come to appreciate the advantages of having a highly qualified institutionalized administration in place, especially at a time when social tensions threatened national unity and public order.

On June 3, 1947, Viscount Louis Mountbatten, the viceroy (1947) and governor-general (1947-48), announced plans for partition of the British Indian Empire into the nations of India and Pakistan, which itself was divided into east and west wings on either side of India. At midnight, on August 15, 1947, India strode to freedom amidst ecstatic shouting of "Jai Hind" (roughly, Long Live India).

India History Map - Political Divisions 1916 India History Map - Presidencies 1937 India History Map - At Independence 1947
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