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History of India - The British Raj

British India or British Raj is the term used to refer to the period of direct British imperial rule of the Indian Subcontinent which included the present-day India, Myanmar, Bangladesh and Pakistan from 1858 to 1947. Much of the territory under British control during this time was not directly ruled by the British, but was nominally independent Princely States which were directly under the rule of the Maharajas, Rajas, Thakurs and Nawabs who entered into treaties as sovereigns with the British monarch as their feudal superior.

The British abolished the British East India Company and replaced it with direct rule under the British Crown in 1858. In proclaiming the new direct-rule policy to "the Princes, Chiefs, and Peoples of India", Queen Victoria promised equal treatment under British law, which never materialized.

Many existing economic and revenue policies remained virtually unchanged under British Raj. But several administrative modifications were introduced including the creation in London of a cabinet post, the Secretary of State for India. The governor-general headquartered in Calcutta, ran the administration in India, assisted by executive and legislative councils. Beneath the governor-general were the governors of Provinces of India, who held power over the division and district officials, who formed the lower ranks of the Indian Civil Service. 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. This continued until the 1880s when a small but steadily growing number of native-born Indians, educated in British schools on the Subcontinent or in Britain, were able to assume such positions.

The Governor General of India 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 20–25 percent of the population remained under the control of 562 princes notable for their religious and ethnic diversity.

A more thorough re-organization 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.

British attitudes toward Indians shifted from relative openness to narrow-mindedness and racism. 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. In 1883 there was an attempt to remove race barriers in criminal jurisdictions by introducing a bill empowering Indian judges to adjudicate offences committed by Europeans. However, Public protests and editorials in the British press forced the drastic modification of the bill. It exposed the racial gap that already existed, sparking even greater Indian nationalism and reaction.

Lord Brentford in his speech to Parliament said; “We did not conquer India for the benefit of the Indians. I know that it is said at missionary meetings that we have conquered India to raise the level of the Indians. That is cant. We conquered India as an outlet for the goods of Great Britain. We conquered India by the sword, and by the sword we shall hold it.” An Indian Colonial Administrator F.J. Shore said; “The fundamental principle of the English has been to make the whole Indian nation subservient, in every possible way, to the interests and benefits of themselves. They have been taxed to the utmost limit; every successive province, as it has fallen into our possession, has been made a field for higher exaction ...” Karl Marx summarized the British Policy as “The aristocracy wanted to conquer India, the moneyocracy to plunder it and the millocracy to undersell it.”

British India also experienced a period of unprecedented calamity when the region was swept by a series of frequent and devastating famines. Approximately 25 major famines spread through states such as Tamilnadu in South India, Bihar in the north, and Bengal in the east in the latter half of the 19th century, killing 30–40 million Indians. The famines continued until independence in 1947. The most devastating one was the Bengal Famine of 1943 which killed 3–4 million Indians during World War II.

Observers attributed the famines both to uneven rainfall, drought, and British economic and administrative policies. Since 1857 these policies had led to the seizure and conversion of local farmland to foreign-owned plantations, restrictions on internal trade, inflationary measures that increased the price of food, and substantial exports of staple crops from India to the United Kingdom. It never happened before colonial rule and didn’t happen after independence. So it is not hard to find the culprit.

Ancient civilizations of the East were built primarily upon two foundations. The communal ownership of the land with no private land-ownership and a system of artificial soil irrigation which is vitally necessary to the agricultural life of the country. Indian communal villages are built on this foundation along with the famous handicraft and manufacturing industries, caste system and hereditary division of labor, the numerous variations of religions and cults, and bureaucratic and priestly adjuncts.

The colonial rule overthrew the native village communities and industries. Indian was excluded from importation into England as early as 1697. Indian agriculture fell into complete decay as the system of artificial irrigation which requires continual care and repair broke down. For the first time in thousands of years of Indian history, systems of private ownership of land and land tenancy (Zemindaree and Ryotwar) were created. India became a prime source of food stuffs. English-owned plantations run by forced labor were established to furnish these needs. Heavy land taxes were placed upon the peasantry. The result has been described by Isaiah Bowman in his The New World: “Pressing upon the people of India in a manner to produce great distress is the land tax, in addition to which is the water tax in the irrigated areas. The land tax keeps the mass of the population in a state bordering upon slavery. Millions cannot get sufficient food. At the end of his year of labor, the farmer finds his crop divided between landlord and the government. He has to go into debt to the village shopkeeper, getting credit for food and seed in the ensuing year. Since 240,000,000 people in India are connected directly or indirectly with agriculture, this means that a large majority of them, probably two-thirds, are living in a state of squalor.” Rickarts, an extensive English writer on Indian affairs, estimated that in 60 years of the 18th Century, one thousand millions sterling had been brought back from India. The London Daily News wrote, “The whole wealth of the country is absorbed and the development of its industry is checked by a government which hangs like an incubus over it.”