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The Raj, a Hindi word meaning “rule,” is the epithet most closely associated with British rule of the Indian subcontinent. While the English East India Company (EIC) had been present in South Asia from the early seventeenth century, formal British rule began in 1757. The British finally left the subcontinent in 1947, ceding independence to the new states of India and Pakistan on August 14/15. The latter included Bangladesh as East Pakistan, which gained independence in 1971. The period of the Raj covers two hundred years of South Asian history and is one of the most important episodes of colonialism in modern history.
The East India Company (1757–1858)
The origins of British rule of South Asia lay in the founding of the English East India Company (EIC) in 1600. The company’s participation in the lucrative spice trade led it to establish trading posts first at Surat on the Gujarati coast and later at Bombay, Madras, and Calcutta. By the mid-eighteenth century, competition with the French drew the British into the South Asian political scene through alliances with local powers. Political instability following the disintegration of Mughal authority enabled the EIC to transform from a mere trading interest to a territorial ruler. The company exercised power indirectly through local allies and rulers, setting a precedent followed up to 1947.
The indirect exercise of control contributed to the hybridity of EIC governance. An English trading company driven by European ideas of economy as well as European norms and practices of political authority, the EIC was also a participant in the South Asian political universe, asserting its credentials as a successor state to the Mughal empire. It continued to transact the business of government through local allies, according to local custom and in local languages. The company made an extensive effort to codify indigenous law and practice. Yet this effort to preserve and participate in Indian “traditions” fundamentally transformed them. The EIC became the ultimate arbiter of what constituted tradition, and its codification turned previously fluid arrangements of social interaction into rigid systems of social classification. Throughout its reign, the debate as to whether the company’s role was to transform Indian society or to preserve Indian tradition continued unabated.
The Government of India (1858–1947)
Company rule ended with the abolition of the East India Company in 1858 in the wake of the Indian rebellion, more commonly known as the Indian Mutiny. The revolt convinced the British that their efforts at reform of Indian society had been dangerously miscalculated. Consequently the Government of India (GoI) understood its role in an extremely conservative light. India was to be governed for the benefit of the British metropole as cheaply as possible. The GoI’s mission was thus to preserve stability and control, largely through a strategy of “divide and rule.” Government was to be exercised through a collaborative elite responsible for the implementation of government policy in the locality.
The emergence of a national political discourse in the late 1800s came about against the wishes of the GoI, but on a stage prepared by it. Only in a society penetrated by contemporary European ideas of nationalism and tied together by modern communication and transportation technologies could the conceptualization of an “Indian” political community emerge. That conceptualization was dominated by the all-India Congress, initially a vehicle for the collaborative elite to advocate their interests. By the turn of the century however, Congress began to transform itself from a party of collaborators to a party advocating home rule (swaraj ) and eventually independence. During the First World War, Indian nationalists promised their support in exchange for guarantees of postwar political movement. They were bitterly disappointed as the expected peace dividends dissolved in the face of a reassertion of imperial control. The 1920s witnessed the transformation of the Congress and Indian nationalism into a mass political movement. This change was largely engineered by Mohandas Gandhi (1869–1948), who organized mass campaigns of civil disobedience built upon a cross-communal political platform of Indian nationalism. Gandhi’s efforts redefined the bounds of India’s public political space, including parts of society, such as women and so-called untouchables (dalits), previously excluded from political participation. Yet local elites proved wary of the perceived peasantization of politics and the erosion of their autonomy by the nationalist cause.
The preeminence of Indian nationalist discourse was threatened by communalist politics, progressively more prominent from the late nineteenth century. India’s formerly plural religious traditions became increasingly standardized, hardening the boundaries between them. The Anglo-Indian judiciary arguably played the primary role in the standardization of the diverse traditions of India’s various communities, in turn leading to the solidification of communal borders. As the colonial state became more involved in civic disputes through the course of the nineteenth century, it increasingly usurped the spaces formerly regulated by communal “tradition” and “custom.” Faced with an array of competing and often contradictory customs, the judiciary established the parameters of what constituted judicially recognized, and therefore state-sanctioned, “tradition.” The judicial establishment of tradition was followed by its codification by the colonial executive, such as in the Hindu and Muslim law code bills, which created corpuses of standard communal private law. These traditions thus transformed into central tenets of exclusivist communal identities, which in turn became politicized through their patronage by the colonial state. Rather than the state enforcement of uniformity, so often central to the construction of the modern state, colonial authorities codified and enforced difference.
The Raj reinforced this difference through the categorization of its subjects in the decennial census, where it denominated people into religiously based communities to which it then dispensed entitlements. The most important manifestation of this communally centered politics in the formal, state-regulated arena was the creation and extension of separate electorates. Muslims, Christians, and Anglo-Indians were granted separate electoral lists in which candidates and eligible voters were restricted to members of these denominated communities. The Morley-Minto reforms of 1909 first made widespread use of separate electorates, which were significantly extended by the Montague-Chelmsford reforms of 1919 and the
1935 Act on the basis of the 1932 Communal Award. GoI leaders’ official rationale for the use of separate electorates was twofold. First, they sought to deny Indian nationalists an outright majority in the formal structures of government, which they feared open elections would ensure them. Second, the Government believed that by granting Muslims separate electorates where they would be electoral minorities in all but two of the provinces of British India (Bengal and the Punjab) they would be forced to look to the Raj as their protector, thus more firmly tying Muslim fortunes to those of the British. The British believed that because separate electorates would fracture the formal spaces of governance they surrendered to Indians, native politicians would be forced to work on the basis of cross-communal alliances. This course would therefore have a moderating influence on communal politics, which would reward the collaborative, conservative elites on whom British authority largely depended.
The colonial state’s enumeration of people along confessional lines was only one of the ways in which it categorized people. It also enumerated people according to their caste affiliation, specifying their varna as well as jati. The colonial state used these categories to create communal rights and entitlements as well as to facilitate communal punishments. Untouchables, also known as “backward” or “scheduled caste,” mainly suffered social discrimination widespread throughout the subcontinent, while the “criminal tribes” were the objects of penal state regulation. Whereas the separate enumeration of the former by the Raj was partly an attempt to ameliorate their low social position through special state dispensation, the latter was purely a punitive construction of the colonial state creating categories of “group” criminality. Yet the consequences of categorization varied widely throughout India, with members of the “same” community experiencing differential treatment in the various regions of British India as well as in the princely states. The legal positions of both the untouchables and tribals were transformed with the advent of independence, when these groups were granted comparatively extensive political entitlements and reservations. The use of communal patronage and punishment as a strategy of governance imprinted a lasting legacy on Indian politics.
By the end of the First World War, British governing circles reached a consensus that India would eventually have to be granted independence. However, no time line for such a move was agreed upon. Their actions during the interwar period were designed to more firmly embed British rule. The Raj endeavored to undermine the appeal of all-Indian nationalists through the inclusion of Indian elites in local elected assemblies. Yet as the GoI invested localities with governmental responsibilities, it tightened its grip on key areas of governance it considered essential to its paramountcy—defense, communications, and foreign affairs. The British sought to fracture Indian political opinion further through the use and extension of separate electorates for “minorities” within the newly elected assemblies. By channeling state-recognized political power through communal identity, separate electorates had dire consequences for the Indian body politic.
By 1945 the once far-off potentiality of Indian independence had become an imminent reality. The cost of the Second World War, Britain’s early defeats by the Japanese, and the force of Indian nationalism combined to shatter the myth of the Raj’s invincibility. The most extreme anti-British nationalists found expression during the war under the leadership of Subhas Chandra Bose, former president of the Congress, in his Indian National Army (INA) set up under the tutelage and ultimate control of the Japanese. The campaigns against the Japanese and their INA auxiliaries in Burma from 1942 onward had a lasting psychological effect on the Raj. More powerfully however, the activities of mainstream Indian nationalists, culminating in the Quit India movement of 1942, underlined the Raj’s moral and political bankruptcy and also laid bare the costs and limits of what force could achieve. The memory of the wartime experiences of Indian nationalism weighed heavily on the minds of British policy makers as they looked to their future in the subcontinent, forcing an acknowledgment that the local collaborationist politics that had been the foundation of authority during the interwar period no longer served the realities of a postwar world. Opting for a quick exit, the British negotiated the transfer of power with India’s nationalist politicians, represented by Congress and the All-India Muslim League. Congress, proponent of a strong center, jockeyed with the League, which claimed to exclusively represent India’s Muslims and advocated a federal outcome, to author India’s independent future. Under pressure to leave and recognizing the League’s weakness, the British decided on Congress. Their withdrawal led to the independence and partition of the Indian subcontinent into the successor states of Pakistan and India. Partition was accompanied by horrendous communal violence and resulted in the largest forced migration in recorded history. After nearly two hundred years, the Raj succumbed to a bloody and ignominious end.
In the early twenty-first century the memory of the Raj remains contested. In the immediate aftermath of independence, nationalists attempted to minimize the legacy of the Raj and largely expunge it as a historical aberration in the Subcontinent’s history. A nationalist tradition of historiography buttressed popular perceptions of the Raj as an episode of exploitation that was eventually defeated by the strength of the Indian freedom struggle. This image remains firmly fixed in the public imaginations not only of India and Pakistan but also to a significant extent of Britain as well. Nostalgia for the Raj, however, has continued to be a subtle but powerful countercurrent. The belief in the ultimate munificence of the Raj, held by a few intransigent imperialists and their collaborators, has morphed into a more muted romantic reminiscence. The experience of rule is projected through the memory of those who wielded authority, such as the families of imperial administrators, as days of order, innocence, and benevolence. The juxtaposition of “Raj nostalgia” with a narrative nationalist “freedom struggle” underlines the depth of the experience linking South Asia and Britain. Just as the experience of the Raj had a diverse array of expressions, so too does its memory.
- Bayly, C. A. 1988. Indian Society and the Making of the British Empire. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
- Bayly, C. A., and T. N. Harper. 2005. Forgotten Armies: Britain’s Asian Empire and the War with Japan. London: Penguin.
- Bose, Sugata, and Ayesha Jalal. 2004. Modern South Asia: History, Culture, Political Economy. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge.
- Chatterji, Joya. 1994. Bengal Divided: Hindu Communalism and Partition, 1932–1947. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
- Jalal, Ayesha. 1994. The Sole Spokesman: Jinnah, the Muslim League, and the Demand for Pakistan. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
- Metcalf, Barbara D., and Thomas R. Metcalf. 2002. A Concise History of India. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
- Metcalf, Thomas R. 1995. Ideologies of the Raj. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
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