What impact did British rule have in South Asia in the political, economic and social arenas, especially during the period of formal rule under the Crown (1857-1947)?
Social unrest, political instability and fragmentation, and economic transformations led to the dismantling of the East India Company and the instatement of Crown Rule in 1858. The period during which Crown Rule, known colloquially as the Raj, was first established was known as the Great Rebellion. It was during this time that the Crown came to realize fully the extent to which colonial activities impacted political, economic, and social arenas. The Crown had also come to reckon with the enormous diversity of culture, language, and religion in India. During the Raj, India's strategic alliances shifted according to utility and opportunity. Alliances with the Crown and rebellions against it shaped modern Indian history. British rule introduced a burgeoning capitalist market economy in India, while allowing Indian business concerns to access global markets via the Crown. The groundwork for democratic institutions through the British parliamentary system were firmly laid during the Raj as well. Social class stratification changed surprisingly little with British rule, as India proved only to be a mirror through which British social class stratification could be viewed in a unique light. However, British rule in South Asia did foment tensions between different ethnic groups and those tensions have remained unresolved more than a half century after Independence.
British Crown rule led to tremendous shifts in the social culture of the Indian subcontinent, transforming relationships between different ethnic groups. Immediately after Crown Rule began, the once-trusted Bengali Army rebelled in a highly organized mutiny. The British responded immediately with a "divide and rule" methodology that would characterize many of its social policies in addition to its military organizational strategy (Soherwordi 2). Indeed, ethnic tensions came to a head during the period of formal Crown rule, as centuries of perceived oppression under Muslim Shahs had irked Hindus, Sikhs, Parsis, and other ethnic groups. British rule provided a false and temporary colonial umbrella, but fomented tensions by favoring some ethnic groups over others. These tensions especially came to a head after Independence, throughout Partition, the creation of Bangladesh later, and the failed policies that enabled the ongoing fighting in Kashmir.
Social consequences of Raj rule boil down to race-based policies of favoritism and the cultivation of strategic alliances that would ensure political and economic stability. The insurrection of the Bengali Army in 1859 forced the British to reconsider how it formed strategic alliances with the subcontinent's various ethnic communities. Some ethnic communities were viewed as "martial races," better suited for military service (Soherwordi 2). The Sikhs of the Punjab and the Ghurkas of Nepal were among the favored "martial races." Peasants were also deemed more loyal to the Raj, or at least, more easily curried with favors like land ownership (Soherwordi). Ensuring each regimen would be diverse in terms of socio-economic class or caste, as well as ethnicity, promoted the "divide and rule" policy that was intended to prevent insurrection. The Crown was correct, and the ensuing decades strengthened the armed forces. In 1895, the military was unified into the Indian Army. Meanwhile, the British wooed Punjabi soldiers by promising them land and social status. Gaining the trust of Punjabi people meant a highly trained, efficient, loyalist military service that revealed rifts in the social fabric of the subcontinent between those who supported the Raj and those who did not. Obviously, those who supported the Raj were groups directly benefitting from British rule in economic or political ways.
The Raj transformed the economy of the subcontinent, introducing principles of industrialization, modernization, and urbanization, all of which depended on ascription to capitalism. Consequences of British colonialism and Raj rule both benefitted and harmed the economies of the subcontinent. The "divide and rule" method meant that some groups fared far better than others financially. Generally, "imperial policies did initiate a process of economic growth based on the production of goods intensive in labor and natural resources," (Roy 109). The British constructed vast, extensive, and effective transportation networks including thousands of miles of railway that remain extant and viable today. Likewise, canals and irrigation systems helped to increase farming outputs. The trade.
Yet the British did not provide the social, economic, and political institutions that would allow the subcontinent to perpetuate its burgeoning potential for prosperity. Underinvestment in schools and in public health diminished the productive capacity per worker as well as GDP (Roy). The British could not undo centuries of ingrained social class stratification or patriarchy, and these were also domestic reasons for why Raj rule failed to help the subcontinent maximize its economic potential. Chronic social unrest due to political disenfranchisement and ethnic prejudice threatened to undermine the economic growth and political stability throughout South Asia. The situation was made even tenser due to the expansion of Russian colonial interests into Central Asia, which potentially threatened British strongholds in the subcontinent. British attempts to bolster its Indian armed forces were based in part on mounting tensions in South Asia, but also those brewing in Europe.
Growing dissatisfaction with Crown rule throughout South Asia, and the global movement toward nationalist ideology, led to an inevitable independence movement that began in earnest with the formation of the Indian National Congress in 1885 (Kaul). Its post-colonial agenda was nebulous, though. The Indian National Congress had been initially organized by intellectual elites who wanted to retain many of the core structures and institutions erected by the Crown (Kaul). A schism developed within the Indian National Congress, because many members hoped for a more radical break from raj institutions. In response to the political organization of Hindus, the Muslim League was created in 1907 to help organize Muslims in the subcontinent. These two organizations highlighted the growing political tensions and budding extremism in the politics of the subcontinent. At this time, possible futures for the subcontinent included a unified regional government or the division of South Asia into multiple nation-states. The result was a weak combination of the two. India and Pakistan are both ethnically diverse and divided politically, with Muslims in India being especially weakened in the wake of Partition (Bhatti).
Initially, the Indian National Congress was fragmented and relatively disorganized, and soon became divided over levels of radical responses to how to deal with the Raj. During the First World War, India conscripted members of the Indian Army to aid their own war efforts in Europe, while in the Punjab, a massacre in Amritsar led to mounting resentment against the nature of Crown rule. When the British lost one of their previously most loyal constituent bases, the Sikh Punjabis, its tenure as political overlord had reached a certain end. Chaos and turmoil mounted as the British prepared to extricate itself from its colonies in South Asia after the Second World War. Gandhi's leadership helped unite Hindus under the rubric of nationalism, but it was a brand of nationalism that systematically excluded non-Hindu minorities. By the time the British left, South Asia was perhaps more fragmented than it had been at the commencement of commercialization.
When Independence was finally secured, it was done so in a manner that led to the violent displacement of between ten and fifteen million people between Pakistan and India (Basu; Bates). Bengal had already been partitioned based on Hindu vs. Muslim allegiances, but after Partition, it was Pakistan that was divided into East and West in spite of both segments being Muslim majority regions. Kashmir had never been agreed-upon, and both sides of the border continue to claim possession of the water-bearing and strategic piece of land there. The Sikhs had vied for their own homeland and lost, disempowering that community.
The ethnic tensions that the Crown had allowed to, and in some ways encouraged to, fester came to a head during Partition. Partition entailed the purposefully created ethnic nation-states of India and Pakistan. British power had been centered primarily in what is now India, leading to stronger economic, political, and social institutions in Delhi and Bombay and relatively weak counterparts in what is now Pakistan. Pakistan banked on an underdeveloped agrarian economy, and was unable to compete in the global market as India had been prepared to do. Muslims remaining in India also complain systematically of political oppression as political minorities, as well as lack of economic opportunities, while Indians generally mistrust Pakistan as its northern neighbor (Bhatti). Since Partition, Kashmir and other border regions have suffered from perpetual strife and violence.
Basu, Tanya. "The Fading Memory of South Asia's Partition."…
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