The Examined Life

Where I torture reality till it confesses the truth

Was the British Raj good for India?

I don’t know the answer and you don’t, either. I just want to point out that there are many wrong ways of looking at it. Two wrong reasons to oppose the British Rule are:

  1. “They did it for selfish reasons!” Excuse me? The question was not whether they wanted to help India. The question is what they ended up doing. So to say that the Railways and the modern system of government that they gave us do not count because they were done for selfish purposes, is fallacious. I especially don’t want to hear this from fellow Capitalists. We spend so much of our time groaning about how the evil Socialists don’t understand that intentions don’t translate into results. How do you think it sounds when you do the same thing?
  2. “India’s share of world GDP went from 22.6% in 1700 to 3.8% in 1952″ If you aren’t a subscriber to the fallacy of zero-sum thinking, what does this prove? This statistic has been used to argue that the British robbed India’s wealth. It is entirely possible that they did, but this statistic does not prove it. It so happens that the Western world was enjoying an Industrial revolution at that time. This revolution hit India late. This is the proximal reason why Britain ended up wealthier than India.Was it Britain’s fault that India’s industrialisation took place late? Many people think so. But the policy they hold responsible for this looks suspiciously to me like… Free Trade.

    Now I can understand how free trade in that specific instance would have led to the deindustrialization of India. The Britons had a comparative advantage in manufactured goods and we in agricultural commodities. But it is wrong to talk just of the unemployment among weavers, but not of the benefits to farmers from cheap clothes. A flood of cheap manufactured consumer goods must have brought some benefit to some people – after all they were getting something they valued at a lower price. Does this benefit cancel out the loss of some livelihoods? I wish someone would run the numbers. Besides, India didn’t just buy consumer goods from the British. We also bought machinery from them – machines which were used to set up textile mills in India by traders who earlier used to import finished cloth from Great Britain. So free trade policies ultimately resulted in the start of the reindustrialization of India. Would protecting the handloom weaver have resulted in the modernization of the textile industry faster? Protection didn’t work during Nehru’s time. What makes you think it would have worked in that bygone era?

    So as I was saying, I would really like to read a criticism of the Raj that doesn’t reflexively assume that free trade was a bad thing. To what extent the did the British deviate from free trade policies? What other bad policies did they follow? The share of world GDP doesn’t tell me anything.

    Actually, even if such criticism could be made, it would not automatically condemn the Raj. All governments are imperfect in some way. The right way to do the comparison is to look at what kind of rule we would have been under if the British had not ruled us. There, I am afraid we enter the realm of speculation.

The supporters of the Raj do indulge in the speculation, but then they go out and say things like:

  1. “The British delivered us from bad feudal rulers!” Really? All of Europe was under feudal rule till about 1600 or so. It was the spread of technologies like the printing press that made possible the widespread change in attitudes that led to the enlightenment. To be fair, the process was two-way – the attitudes in turn led to further technology advancements. It is simply unrealistic to assume that India would not have gotten the benefit of technology and this would not have led to changes in our political structure. Please note – I am not saying that it is unrealistic to conclude the same things after giving the matter some thought. Just don’t assume that the situation would have been the same for 250 years.
  2. “The British united us!” Um… that’s simply not true. As I’ve explained, political unity is one thing. The consciousness of ourselves as a common people is quite another. Political unity requires an army, transport and communications, the technology for which was simply not available before the industrial revolution. But the idea that we Indians have something in common has been in our consciousness for centuries. If an educated class had arisen in India, I’d be very surprised if a movement for unity had not arisen among them. Whether they would have succeeded or not is a different matter altogether.

The challenge then in understanding the benefits or harms from the Raj is in constructing an alternative history which is not completely imaginary. We should be able to say “If events unfolded in a slightly different way, then this would have happened.” I submit that the event that took place on January 14th, 1761 is the most promising place to start.

122 Comments

  1. I think the history books in India should be changed/revised to give an account of the economic impact of the british rule.

  2. India GDP (2000 to 2040)
    ==========================
    Population 15% to 18%
    Land 2% to 5%
    Food Production 8% to 15%
    Electricity 4% to 10%
    Tech 4% to 15% (Cell Phones, Computers, etc)
    Roads 5% to 15% (Roads, Waterways, Railroads)
    Culture 10% to 25% (Movies, Resturants, Events)
    Forex 1% to 10% (Euro, Dollar, Yuan, Taka)
    Debt -1% to -15% (External, Trade Deficit)
    ——————————————————
    Anticipated GDP 10% of world economy (6% to 14%)

  3. It surprises me that u ppl are even debating such a topic. Ppl who point out the “positives” of the rule should take into account that millions and millions (more than half the population in some provinces !!) died due to famine and the British were able to maintain their production and profit in this period, taking little action to alleviate the suffering. One should also take into account the human right abuses (remember Dyer?) and exploitation during their rule.

    To even think that the British rule was somewhat beneficial probably means that you were brought up in Britain, where history is distorted and people are fed with trash regarding the benevolence of British rule!!!

  4. To the Brit supporters out there, namely Clive A. Lincoln, thats an absurd argument, its like saying “the victims of Charles Manson should be greatful they werent killed by Hannibal Lector because Manson didnt eat them” lesser of the evils yes but evil all the same.

    we keep bringing up Islam (im hindu) but were you aware that if a hindu converted to islam he became a brother who ate the same food and slept under the same roof. Why is it that when a buindu converted to the british religion (christianity) he still slept with the dogs? Because the British are a rascist lot.

    Oh yeah and thanks for one other thing you Brits introduced…. Peodophilia (sorry about the spelling im in a rush)

    Top of teh mornin to ya Guvna!

  5. i read a few points everyone’s pointed out…and all id like to say is tht whtever the british did in their rule over us for over 200 yrs has left us ruined…. before they “plundred” india, india was amongst the richest countries IF not the richest in the world… i went to windsor castle in london and there i see the throne of tipu sultan covered with jewels which they’ve proudly displayed. and this is only one of the 1000s of artifacts which they’ve stolen frm us…im actually shocked at those who say tht the rule actualy proved good…had they not ruled…india wldve bin the superpower well before USA became one…..

  6. the british managed to ban sati and related evil social practices its worth comending.but these kinds of benefits are few and far in between.british were satanic.

  7. the british managed to ban sati and related evil social practices its worth comending.but these kinds of benefits are few and far in between.british were satanic.but ultimately we won our freedom

  8. Rana Ranjeet Singh was going to conquer all of North India. And he had Europeans in his Army including Russians and French generals and weapons experts. In time all of India would have fallen under his rule. From there industrialization would have taken place. India allways, and I stress Allways led the world in technology. So to think that it would be different if the British did not come is the inferiority of the Hindus talking again again. They have trouble seeing themselves as what they were. India was allways a nation, Ashoka’s memory never faded. Even Akbar knew who he was. Abdl Fazl told Akbar to govern as Ashoka Had. India would have been better off without them. There is no doubt on this.

  9. I stand mutual on the topic (not done enough research yet), however i’m doing an essay this is the title, any ideas?

    To what extent did India benefit from British colonial rule between 1914-48?

    It is split into 4 sub topics:

    1)economic
    2)social
    3)administration
    4)military and security

  10. Just to say, most of you believe that there were no benefits, however it is an essay requires balance, although the conclusion may be that on the whole britain did not benefit India

  11. I really & truly support the british fore ruling india. The present development in india is only possible due to the british rule. Otherwise it will be in a pathetic state. I have the emotional connect with british when ever i tour the places in india i find their architecture the charishma. Infact they oneof the most developed races on this planet as early as they ruled india for 2 centuries. I Love their architecture, thinking, Charishma ( men & women looks cute ). Places like North easrt india is having highest literacy is due to the british rule. The age old railways etc.; are constructed way back centuries. They used the most advanced artillery.

    Hail the British atleast we indians should be grateful enough to those people/ race. British ruled not only india but many countries/ colonies.

    I”m an indian & belong to the same place of ravikiran ( guess difficult enough for others to guess. LOL…………………:) )

    Hail the british. What does the country developed even after british have left the country ( nope… not that much compared when it is a british colony ). I”m a born indian but i’m not indian . Firangis rule………………………………………………………………………….

  12. sdddasdd

  13. So what was so BARBARIAN about the Muslims that is not about the Hindus even of modern days? Did the Muslims touch the Temples, or is it ok for some to be labelled as peacemakers and others as ‘barbarians’? Or is it just our subservient mentalities/imperial subject mindset doing the talking?
    K Prasad?

  14. Superb write-up by Ravi Kiran and excellent discussion.
    All of you who say that British rule did more good than harm, see http://jaidharma.sulekha.com/blog/post/2006/02/economic-exploitation-during-the-british-raj.htm.
    The author JaiDharma, who I suspect is one of you, compiles excellent information drawing on western sources.

    Some of India’s worst current problems can probably be traced to the massive drain of resources, systematic suppression and pauperization of a majority of local artisans, weavers, etc. Consider this: the British levied 70-80% duty on exports from India- for the opposite direction, it was 2-4%! Consider the burden these practices placed on India after 200 years. It was robbery on a scale unprecedented anywhere in the world.

    For those who say the British developed infrastructure, the article I quoted above also shows that truth.
    Agriculture was severely neglected. Keep in mind that even today, the vast majority of India’s rural masses depend on agriculture. We were left behind by the rest of the world-the rest of Europe, USA were making giant strides in agriculture, industrialization, transportation technology, etc. In other words, we missed the entire industrial revolution. If anyone knows the per capita income data for different countries in the 200 years prior to independence, they will likely find that India’s per capita income stagnated while that of England, European countries, USA grew by the leaps and bounds during this same period.

    Some of the major investments the British made in India were to ensure the comfort and luxury of their officers (bungalows, offices, guest houses, etc). They also developed transportation networks to ship away the loot.

    HOW WOULD INDIA HAVE LOOKED TODAY HAD THE BRITISH NEVER SET FOOT ON OUR LAND?

    Historically, India was a civilization that attained great heights in literature, arts, science, etc, without being seriously threatened by any external powers (Himalayas prevented the Chinese, the oceans prevented the rest). Punjab and parts of North-Western India are probably the exceptions. For no fault of India’s forefathers, the culture and mindset was more attuned to attainment of spiritual knowledge, arts, etc. Contrast this with the Europeans’ heritage of constant warfare, aggression and invasion. Now such a situation would normally still be in India’s favor, provided both parties were equal technologically (from a warfare point of view). Sadly, 250-300 years ago, the Europeans were more advanced with firearms and naval warfare. They were not a 100 hundred years ahead, probably only 30-40 years. But this was enough to create an imbalance and give them an advantage given our naivete.

    Had the British not conquered India, undoubtedly the French, Dutch or Portuguese would have gladly substituted for them. We are then left arguing about the relative merits and demerits of these nations.

    Let us assume that none of these countries were able to establish themselves in India (it would only have been possible through extremely good fortune). We would have to assume that India’s individual kingdoms were able to detect the threat from the Europeans, understood that the Europeans were a greater threat than their neighbors and feverishly developed their own terrestrial and naval warfare technology. Assume that they formed hasty syndicates to fight off the Europeans.

    How would India look today in such a past scenario?

    Here’s my rather optimistic attempt: 10 or 15 countries, largely based on linguistic homology. They would be comparable to today’s France, Germany, Italy, Spain, etc. All these countries would be technologically advanced and industrially developed.

    There a couple of big IFs here. Ancient Hindusim never considered the development of ~60% of our population-our dalits. In my mind, this is the greatest failing of our great religion (or that of its interpreters). This would have been a huge obstacle to overcome- a huge problem for domestic stability, economic progress and standard of life. The European countries I mentioned never had to face this challenge-they did not have our super-rigid caste system.
    Hindu-Muslim relations- I suspect this would not be as major a problem as the above one. The British were at least partly responsible for creating the enmity between our Hindu and Muslim brothers.

    TODAY’s INDIA
    we the people of India seem to have a huge problem with dealing with democracy. Why do we keep electing the worst kind of people? There are some other aspects to our mindset that I don’t understand. For instance a large percentage of us seem to attach super-humanly noble attributes to some people (tragically to film stars in AP and TN). Perhaps education will solve this problem.

    And what about corruption? What made this “who cares?” attitude so common? Something that has carried on from the British rule? Is that where we developed this apathy?

  15. British spread uniformity with education to all, uniform, culture, punctuality, technical educations, building schools, colleges, universities, dams, post offices for purely Indian benefit. They had give a justice system for justice to common people. They made functioning democratically elected local governments. Had they not been there, there wouldn’t be a unified INDIA first of all. Still we are using British build dams, Rastrapathi bavan, universities, railways and so on, which were built without corruption.India would had got Islamized/chinesized or remained educationally and politically ignorant Selfish caste people would have ruined India to a much extent, if British hadn’t come.
    Jusitice system is totally in collapse in current/old India. They abolished sati and suppressed the thugs.They increased India’s may be 1% literates (mainly caste people) to 20% or more common people.
    During British times they promoted Indians to achieve Nobel prizes, and sponsored really tallented people like Ramanujam.. British even gave Mysore to a Hindu king after defeating Tipu. They suppressed only those who were against them.Corruption was not there as much as now after independence. We were subjects of a world ruler with world communication language, than corrupt local mafia/corrupt guys who rewrite/hide histories. Those are the facts to acknowlege the atleast. Truely speaking, Europeans did lot good than bad.

    -Ravi

  16. First of, the article is truly an excellent one! An article written three years back still receiving comments is unprecedented.

    I have read the two sides presented thus far by the original article and several of the others in the comments section. The argument that the Britishers developed Indian infrastructure selectively for their own benefit also admits that the Britishers did some good for the country anyway. However, the statement that Britishers deliberately tried to help India in any way is unlikely and unsubstantiated.

    Think of it this way. You are a growing economy that needs capital and you have recently taken over a rich state which has poor military. Would you not do your best to plunder the rich state? It is common sense to do so! But what the Britishers did was to do it in the most efficient way possible by inciting as little resentment in people of India. So much so, that even now we are left bewildered as to discuss the topic at hand.

    Why did Britishers leave India? A simple cost benefit analysis that took into account the world war 2, India’s own lack of wealth due to constant draining of resources and increasing trouble to keep together the sweet system that was so cleverly introduced would reveal that India was no longer a good investment.

    What puzzles me most deeply is the hatred that the Britishers must have held for Indians? If not for that, why would they have split up India into two and leaving a “parting present” that would ensure continued trouble in the nation.

    If the Britishers did so much for us, why was it that we had no advanced agricultural means already instituted in Indian farms in villages? Why was it that we didn’t have any of the industrialization that had burgeoned over a 100 years ago in Europe?

    However, there is credit due where it belongs. By ruling over India, the Britishers inadvertently brought together the whole of India against the Britishers. We must thank them for that.

  17. Any thing and every thing that British did during their rule in India was done in order to help themselves . Indians think that the railways were build by the British has helped us ,yes it did ..but they did so in order to amass and plunder our riches .the only thought of themselves ..they called us uncivilized though it was not true . with the riches we had before the Brits came to India we would be way ahead today,like other Asian countries like japan and china .We were made to believe that we were inferior by the British for decades in order to control ,break our confidence and submit to their rules .its is obvious from the commentary’s from Indians like Raghu . we are talking about corruption not being there during British rule ????being naive are we? they were draining our wealth for heavens sake . the only difference being ,,these days it stays within the country in the hands of corrupt handful Indian nationals . I feel that with the wealth and intelligence that India had before India became a British colony we would be way ahead like any other nations that have never been a colonized . India then was a very generous country welcoming alien religion ,people and culture which was a plus point but which led her to trouble too.

  18. Ravi you maybe right in some ways , but India had to pay a heavy price to the British for a handful of buildings? ,bridges ?, abolition of certain crude religious believes and the other invaders? [all these were done for their comfort with India's own resources ?not a cent from their country]. when you weigh the two …India’s loss seem more heavy. with the advent of time all these so called luxury we would have had with or without British rule ..

  19. Dear Clive A Lincoln , there isn’t much difference in the way the Dutch, the British,the Portuguese and the Spanish colonized other countries .they plundered what ever riches they could lay their hands on, tried to destroy the native culture . Indians would have learned English eventually with or without the British invasion like every other country today . As for the Burmese they stopped teaching English after the Brits left Burma because they didn’t want to do any thing with the British and the language English . No amount of railways, bridges would erase the human misery and the drain of wealth that the British caused during their reign in India as their colony .

  20. You may be interested to see this article from the Hindustan Times (14.11.08).

    It is an unexpected take from the prominent Indian novelist and journalist, Khushwant Singh. This article came across my radar recently and doesn’t seem to have been picked up by others in the UK yet. In line with his reputation for being a bit controversial, he is countering a particular ‘politically correct’ line which Indian patriots (are expected to?) take (at: http://www.hindustantimes.com/StoryPage/StoryPage.aspx?sectionName=HomePage&id=6fa471b4-4c1f-4385-ba3b-dde06f1c8a2a&&Headline=Good+things+to+the+Raj+times)

Trackbacks

  1. Psychotic Rambings Of A Mad Man… » Blog Archive » The Bharateeya Blog Mela, PRM Edition
  2. The Examined Life » Blog Archive » So what happened on January 14, 1761?