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:
- “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?
- “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:
- “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.
- “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.