The Home & The World Read Along – Indian History Part II

Continuing from my last post, as part of my August Read Along Event – The Home and The World by Rabindranath Tagore, I come to part 2 of my snapshot of Indian History, in an effort to better understand the socio-economic backdrop of the novel and therefore better understand the nuances of this classic.

In 1498, Vasco Da Gama successfully discovered a direct sea route from Europe to India, which eliminated the need for Arab brokers and put Europe in direct touch with India. The Dutch and the French soon followed, but the most impact full of all these merchant ventures had a nascent beginning in 1617, when the Mughal Emperor Jahangir, impressed, by the ability of a European physician to cure his ailing son, granted a charter for trade to the physician’s company; the Company was called The British East India Company and this was the start of something which Jahangir could have little forseen! Soon, little by little, the British began to expand their commercial empire and the venture recieved a significant impetus, when the then Mughal Emperor  Farrukh Siyar granted them permits for duty-free trade in Bengal in 1717. The Nawab of Bengal, Siraj-ud-Dula, the de-facto Governor, naturally opposed these permits and this brought him in direct conflict with the British powers. However, he had not counted on the greed and treachery of many, including Mir Jafar, his commander in chief and Jagath Seth, his chief banker, who plotted with the British for overthrow of the Nawab in exchange of additional trading rights. If there had been any other company clerk at that time, perhaps this initiative would not have worked or fallen through; but Mir Jafar and Jagath Seth connived with one of the most brilliant and daring Britisher of that time – a little known ensign who would become the Governor of the Presidency of Bengal, Robert Clive. On on 23 June 1757, Robert Clive and the British Company Army under the command of Clive, defeated the Sirj-ud Dula and established the first foothold in India.

Following the colonization of Bengal, the British East India company adopted a series of expansionist policies, which began with open war and later incorporated any and every arbitrary policy from mis-rule as defined by the British to the hated Doctrine of Lapse to increase their colony.The first series of conquests happened in South of India, where the East India company defeated the French to conquer the Madras Presidency. They further consolidated their rule after the Anglo Maratha Wars ((1772–1818) which gave them supremacy over Bombay and conquered and annexed Punjab and Kashmir, following their decisive victory in the Anglo Sikh Wars in 1849. The British Colonial policy gained more territory, when they adopted the infamous Doctrine of Lapse, devised by Lord Dalhousie (1848 -1856). Under this policy, any princely state or territory would automatically be annexed if the ruler was either “manifestly incompetent or died without a male heir”. The latter  clause especially violated the long-established right of an Indian sovereign without an heir to choose a successor, by adopting someone from his/her family.In addition, the British decided whether potential rulers were competent enough, making the Indian kings and Princes, puppets in their own country, expected to serve at the pleasure of The East India Company. They also initiated the  Divide and Rule policy, exploiting the age old religious rivaliries to further their aims, the results of which would be felt more than 100+ years later, when India gained her independence by losing much of its territory to the formation of the state of Pakistan.

The British East India Company not only bought English rule, but also English governance with them.  They introduced a land taxation system called the Permanent Settlement which introduced a feudal-like structure in Bengal, often with zamindars set in place, who lorded over the poor peasants for ungodly taxes. They also tried to “modernize” India by introducing the railways, the telegraph and the English education system. The latter especially would have far reaching results, as suddenly India, gripped in the miasma of medieval barbaric traditions was exposed to the works of Kant and Rousseau and Mill and re-discovered their Vedic roots. The education system which sought to provide clerks to help the company business, was suddenly producing thinkers and heralding a profound social movement termed as the Bengal Renaissance. This movement argued  by many historians began with Raja Ram Mohan Roy (1772–1833) and ended with Rabindranath Tagore(1861–1941). This was social, cultural and intellectual movement that would force India into the modern nation states, and change the way Indians thought! The movement began by the questioning the then prevailing social evils in India – it argued for the ban of Sati (immolation of Hindu women on the cremation pyre of their husbands), fought against child marriage and was vociferous in its favor of education of girls and remarriage of widows,  both an anathema to then Indian Society.The movement received support of some of the more enlightened Governor Generals, with Sati being outlawed under Lord William Bentinck in 1829 and the Hindu Widows’ Remarriage Act being passed in 1856, legalizing marriage of widows. It was also under Lord Bentinck, under the misguided advise of Lord Macaulay, who believed that the Orient had nothing to educate its people, introduced many “modern” schools and universities in the country. The Hare School (1818), Scottish Church College (1830), Wilson College (1832), Madras Christian College (1837), and Elphinstone College (1856) and the founding of the first English style universities – University of Madras (1855) and University of Calcutta and Bombay (1857).

While the social reform from the current point of view seems a movement in the right directions, the middle 19th century India, did not seem to think so. Most of the common men, thought that a group of educated Indian elites were seeking to breakdown the Indian culture and tradition and most importantly their religion to gain complete control over the country. While the end was not completely inaccurate, and there were enough missionaries trying to convert “heathen” Indians, the education and the railways, were only to serve the British commercial needs. The changing rules in the British Indian Army, a much coveted post for Indians, also added to the growing disquiet. The final spark was provided by the ammunition for the new Enfield P-53 rifle.These rifles used paper cartridges that came pre-greased and to load the rifle, sepoys had to bite the cartridge open to release the powder.The grease used on these cartridges include tallow derived from beef, which would be offensive to Hindus and pork, which would be offensive to Muslims. Despite knowing the reservations the English continued the production of these cartridges and court martialed any Indian solider refusing to use these rifles. Such practices, along with social reforms that seemed to break down the Indian society  along with unlawful conquest of Jhansi, Saugar and Oudh, states which had stayed loyal to the East India company, under the uniformly abhorred Doctrine of Lapse , finally led to the eruption of the First War of Independence or The Rebellion of 1857, depending on the perspective of the historian narrating the event. The rebellion began as a mutiny of sepoys of the East India Company’s army on 10 May 1857, in the cantonment of the town of Meerut, and soon escalated into other mutinies and civilian rebellions largely in the Northern and Central India, with the major hostilities confined to present-day Uttar Pradesh, the then state of Oudh, northern Madhya Pradesh, especially around Jhansi, Indore and Saugar and the Delhi region. The Rebellion was a horrific event in Indian history and atrocities that belie imagination was committed by both races. The only two factors that came through this event was the British Crown took over the rule of India, ending the unique monopoly of a company and Indian National Congress was founded under the patronage of a British man names A.O. Hume, who thought this would provide a forum for the Indians to present their cause and therefore prevent any such events like the 1857 mutiny.

The Indian National Congress at this time comprised mostly of the upwardly mobile and successful western-educated provincial elites, engaged in professions such as law, teaching and journalism, with no clear aims except to act as a debating society that passed numerous resolutions on less controversial issues such as civil rights or opportunities in government which were submitted to the Viceroy’s government with nothing much to write home about. However by 1900, the the Congress had emerged as an all-India political organisation, especially with the enhanced socio-religious movements. The nationalistic sentiments now coloring the beliefs of  Congress  led to them demanding to be represented in the bodies of government, to have a say in the legislation and administration of India. Congressmen saw themselves as loyalists, but wanted an active role in governing their own country, albeit as part of the Empire. This trend was personified by Dadabhai Naoroji, who went as far as contesting, successfully, an election to the British House of Commons, becoming its first Indian member. It was under this atmosphere that the Nationalist or the Swaraj movement gripped the country. Bal Gangadhar Tilak  was the Indian statesman who pioneered this movement and  deeply opposed the then British education system that ignored and defamed India’s culture, history and values. In 1907,  the Congress was split into two factions: The radicals, led by Tilak, advocated civil agitation and direct revolution to overthrow the British Empire and the abandonment of all things British. The moderates, led by leaders like Dadabhai Naoroji and Gopal Krishna Gokhale, who wanted reform within the framework of British rule. In July 1905, Lord Curzon, the Viceroy and Governor-General (1899–1905), ordered the partition of the province of Bengal supposedly for improvements in administrative efficiency in the huge and populous region.It also had justifications due to increasing conflicts between Muslims and dominant Hindu regimes in Bengal. However, the Indians viewed the partition as an attempt by the British to disrupt the growing national movement in Bengal and divide the Hindus and Muslims of the region. The partition outraged the now educated and well informed Indians, especially the Bengalis. Not only had the government failed to consult Indian public opinion, but the action appeared to reflect the continued British resolve to divide and rule. This act kicked off what would be The Swadeshi Movement and which formed the background of our novel.

I will conclude this historic overview in my last installment with an insight on the Swadeshi Movement and the end of the British Rule in India.

Again while I have not cited any particular sources, but my essay is based on readings of Modern India by Dr. Sumit Sarkar, The Men Who Ruled India by Philp Mason, A History of India by Percival Spear, Awakening: The Story of Bengal Renaissance by Subrata Dasgupta, The Great Mutiny by Christopher Hibbert, Wikipedia and once more, class notes during my Graduate School days from the lectures of Dr. Tanika Sarkar.


20 thoughts on “The Home & The World Read Along – Indian History Part II

  1. I still have a little more to read but when I was scanning to the bottom, I saw the name Christopher Hubbert. Did you mean Christopher Hibbert? If so, he is one of my FAVOURITE non-fiction history writers!!! I respect his writing very much. I had no idea he’d written something on India. I’ll have to keep my eyes open for it!

    1. Cleo…my bad! Yes…Misspelled in a hurry. thank you for correcting me…have updated! It is Hibbert and he is brilliant. I have read his French Revolution and The Great Mutiny and he is mind blowing. Try and read The Great Mutiny…it is something! I may even join you for it!

  2. I do want to be a part of this but there’s too much going on right now. Maybe later in the month.

    Great historical snapshot, but curses on both your houses for making me want to search out Hibbert now!!
    How will my TBR pile ever decrease with these temptations at every turn ?

    1. Hey Brona…no pressure at all. But it would be no doubt brilliant if you could join us and the event is for the month, so towards the end is absolutely fine! I have to agree with Cleo, we kind of constantly fuel each others TBD. I hope you get around to reading Hibbert…he is great! I have given up trying to control the ever increasing size of my TBR; in fact I think I will be downright worried if I do not add some books to it and it starts decreasing! LOL!

  3. This is so interesting! I had no idea it was the East India Company ruling India for so long, I always thought it was the British government. Wow. That’s just even more wrong than I ever thought it was.

      1. It really is astonishing and totally makes me shift around what I know about British colonialism in India. Clearly I need to get my hands on a book of Indian history!

  4. Very interesting post that tells us a lot about the complex interactions between the British and India. While the British brought modernity do you think it fair to say that they also tried very hard to keep India deindustrialized for as long as possible?

    1. I think the British rule had both its good and bad Ian. Being an Indian, I may be colored in my opinion, but the bad especially in the end seemed to outweigh the good. When the English came, India was in need of a rude wake up call. It needed the forced entry into modern city states, it needed science, railways and telegraphs! But India paid and paid through the nose….there was absolutely no industrialization; the country was supposed to churn out raw materials like cotton for Manchester Mills which would then be sold back to Indians. The indigineous industries were completely destroyed; the acres of valuable crop yielding lands were converted for production of Indigo, which you know destroys the soil. There were wide scale famines and most importantly the Hindu-Muslim divide policy destroyed the nation completely when in 1947, it was brutally partitioned. So its a mixed bag! There were many English men and women who loved this country as their own and did everything possible to help and considered the brown skin Indians there fellow bretheran. But like everywhere, there were a couple of bad ones who destroyed the good all the saner ones did. The History of the Governer Genrals is a case to the point – For every Warren Hastings, William Benetick and Lord Canning, we had a Dalhousie, Auckland and Curzon to destroy all the good done by the former 3.

      1. I think it’s fair to say when countries get involved with other countries, depending on the person or group, there are insightful individuals who wish to truly help, there are short sighted individuals who think they are helping when really they aren’t (or are hurting as much as they are helping) and those who just want to exploit. I think Tolstoy would agree with me when I say, it’s just fate who influences what and we often view them very differently from the lens of historical perspective than we might at that time the issues are occurring.

        It reminds me of a present day situation. A Canadian “official” travelled to Uganda to ask the government what they could do to help. The answer was “stop the aid”! The official was shocked because of course, Uganda is poor and certainly they must need the help of money and goods given to them. The government representative explained that when there are U.N. workers giving out clothes on street-corners, it puts their tailors out of business, when they give out free food, their farmers can’t make a living, and when they give them industrialized equipment, they do not have the tools or the know-how to fix them when they break down. In fact, when the official was there, a helpful program was being started to teach the Ugandans to fix their roads the old-fashioned way (man-power that produces jobs), rather than to rely on outside help, which often complicates the situation. It really made me think differently about aid and helping others. And it reminds me of the essayist Wendell Berry who advocates that it’s only the people who are part of a community who can truly make a positive impact.

      2. That is very interesting about incident about Uganda! But I completely understand….poor countries do not need aid in terms of manufactured goods…they need support to re-build the indigenous industries and locally trade…everything else is a temporary support which does not help in the long run! I have to think about the influence bit… very interesting!

  5. You have been very fair minded. I remember in Orwell’s Burmese Days the friendship the isolated Flory has with Dr Veraswami where the two argue the case for the British in India – Flory condemning it and Veraswami defending. The scale of the deindustrialisation of India and the shocking famines that occurred under their watch is really shocking.

    1. Thank You! ;D I love that book….one of the lesser known of Orwell’s work but one of the most authentic portrayal of the British Colonial policies!

  6. I haven’t heard of the tallow issue before. Very interesting.

    Looks like the Hibbert book is out of print – which, sadly, means that I’ll have to trawl some second hand bookshops now 😉

    1. Its out of print??? Oh! Gosh! Its a great book and its a shame if it is! the tallow issue was the straw that broke the camel’s back. There were already many grievances, but this one was that which became one too many!

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