Under the Influece of British Empire: India During 1807-1907

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Under the rule of the British, India’s political landscape, economy and society did experience significant reforms. These reconstructions prompted debates where some perceive British rule to have been beneficial and contributed to India’s reindustrialization. Apologists such as Niall Ferguson for colonialism argue that the British empire made the modern India, as they introduced democracy, improved literacy rates and the standard of living for the natives. However, this perspective is challenged by Shashi Tharoor who argues that the occupation of the British was a ‘monstrous crime'. The British depleted India of its riches to help its own military and administration of the country, in actuality India was paying for its own oppression. To the British, India was a key possession and was often referred to as the ‘jewel in the crown of the British Empire’. This is due to it generating 45 trillion dollars over the time period of 1765 to 1938 thus boosting their economy, yet to the Indian’s it is was a reminder of their ill treatment.

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Up until the mid-20th century the most dominant view of the British empire was that it was positive. Philip Buckner argued that up until the 1950s the old conclusive view was that the empire was a force for good. Defenders of the British occupation argue that it resulted in the development of infrastructure, the most common example being the railroads that are still very much in use as well as telegraphs, canals and ports. Niall Ferguson argued that ‘the British had invested 270 million in Indian infrastructure, irrigation and industry by the 1870s’. The introduction of the railroads linked remote areas together using remarkable transportation systems. This also created an influx of new jobs which resulted in the decrease of unemployment levels and aided the government to briskly transport goods through the subcontinent. Moreover, canals were constructed by the British ‘where there were high levels of importation from Europe as well as exports of goods such as silk, sugar and tea’. This opened up India to new markets ultimately indicating that there was a positive change towards India’s economy in the year 1807-1907.

On the other hand, critics of the empire argued that the British drained India of its resources and wealth according to Naroji this is referred to as the ‘drain of wealth theory’ and any positives were just by products to benefit the British. Shashi Tharoor states that “changing India was not the objective; making money out of India was'. In the 18th century before the British raj, Indias share of the world economy was 23%, but it decreased dramatically to 3% after the empire. This implies that, while the British invested in the empire for their own advantages, the Indian economy did not grow. Tharoor illustrates how, through high taxes, the British abused India, while the British and European countries could import freely. The rapid commercialization of agriculture by colonial railroads turned vast numbers of peasants into landless farm workers. India has largely remained an agricultural region. Indian farmers were encouraged or even compelled to grow single cash crops such as cotton, which dramatically changed the price and high taxes faced by farmers. This resulted in many farmers facing bankruptcy as well as fears of famine threats that prompted 4 million Indians to lose their lives under the EIC and a startling 25 million Indians under the British Raj. Around 2 million Indians were killed by the famine in Rajputna in 1812, and levels of famine like these were never seen again after independence in 1947, and this shows how the British rule in India caused severe damage. The proportion of the total workforce employed in the rail sector remained small and did not grow. The proportion of workers in agriculture and non-agriculture did not change significantly because the railways caused a decrease in the handloom industry by making imported factory cloth available at prices lower than local weavers could give, since India was reduced to an agricultural country. Consequently, by the time India was given independence in 1947 ‘the British left a society with 16% literacy rate, a life expectancy of 27, practically no domestic industry and over 90% living below what today we would call the poverty line.’ Tharoor conveys how the British occupation of India did more harm than good and any positives were just mere by products to benefit the British.

Admirers of the British empire argue that the British rule of India was optimistic as it improved the country's society. The prohibition of thugee is an example. There were types of organised crime that were basically ritual compliant murders. Suttee was a tradition in which a widow would throw herself into her dead husband's coffin and burn to death, an outlawed practice led by Governor General William Bentinck in 1829 indicating the British were able to put an end to India’s unethical practices. The prohibition of female infanticide, which was the killing of newly born female children, was another radical social change enforced by the British. This was prevented in 1836 under the EIC, where James Thomason, who was a British Lieutenant Governor of the North Western Provenances, helped to eradicate this through the 1870 Female Infanticide Prevention Act. This applied initially to the North Western region but later spread to Punjab and Awadh. Moreover, with the implementation of primary school education and university this shifted away from the gurukhal system that had only included the richest families, there were now greater opportunities for the working class. Under the Raj, 186 new education institutions were opened, showing the advantages that Britain had brought to India. With the introduction of vaccines, the British Raj had also greatly strengthened healthcare in India. Via vaccines as well as the introduction of Quinine, which helped prevent malaria, diseases such as small pox that were very common were avoided. This resulted in a dramatic reduction in children's deaths and an increase from 21 to 32 in life expectancy. There were other factors that improved life expectancy, as well as vaccinations, including a development in urban water sources that provided clean water for many impoverished areas, reinforcing the benefits of the British raj in Indian society, maintaining the view that there was a strong productive shift in Indian society between 1807-1907.

To end up, historians like Tharoor claim, that the British saw India and its people as a source of cheap labour. In places such as factories, Indians were mainly working, indicating that their role was solely to serve the British and their safety wasn’t taken into account. In addition, it is transparent that the societal views the British implemented were racist and based on supremacist ideology. So did India gain more benefits rather than drawbacks? It's still a controversary question as there were both advantages and disadvantages. 

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