Concession & Repression 
British Rule in India 1857-1919


Contributed by Dr Robert Carr



In 1882 Britain occupied and administered Egypt. In 1898 the British effectively did the same with the Sudan. Such colonialism was not so much a 'Scramble for Africa' but a means of protecting the Suez and Nile respectively. These waterways were thought crucial in securing access to, and control of, the Jewel in the Crown. Above all it was the Raj which captured the British imagination.

India had long excited both exotic and Romantic notions of the Orient - evidenced, not least, by Coleridge's famed poem Kubla Khan. Tales of tigers and elephants and the works of Rudyard Kipling ensured the Raj had a special place in the British psyche. More than that, however, India offered newly industrialized Britain with valuable raw materials and was a lucrative export market. Besides its economic significance, India was of profound military importance. Indeed Lord Salisbury termed India as "an English barracks in the Oriental seas". The sub-continent was a great source of manpower for wider British foreign policy.

In 1876 Prime Minister Disraeli exemplified the Raj's place in British affections by declaring Queen Victoria as Empress of India. Less than a decade later, the Indian National Congress was set up, under British auspices, as a political forum for educated Indians. Similarly, 1892's Indian Councils Act permitted local comment and criticism over provincial legislation. Although Indians had no decision-making role, they were not entirely excluded from the political sphere. In practical terms, British rule contributed modernization in the form of railways and irrigation projects. If the above bathe the late nineteenth century Raj in a light of kindness, it is certainly possible to present British rule as coercive and repressive.

Why, though, were the British in formal control of India? Like much of British imperial expansion, taking formal control of India was not intentional. Instead when British lives and trading interests (represented by the East India Co.) were threatened by violent reaction to encroaching westernization, London felt obligated to step in to take control of both the situation and the country. In Ahmed Ali's Twilight in India a character relates events of September 1857 and how "ruthlessly Delhi had been looted by them at the time of the 'Mutiny', and then the Mussalmans [Muslims] had been turned out of their city, their houses demolished and destroyed and their property looted and usurped".

Having quashed the Indian Mutiny, British rule was embodied by the new position of Viceroy. One such viceroy (1869-72) was General Mayo who informed his colonial colleagues: "teach your subordinates that we are all British gentlemen engaged in the magnificent work of governing an inferior race".

At the very least there existed the feeling that Indian interests were being subordinated to those of Britain. 1895's excise of 5% on Indian cotton goods was such a case in point; broader allegations included the apparent drain of money to Britain without adequate return and the failure to encourage Indian industry (instead resources fed Britain's interests). Despite such causes for concern, the Indian National Congress cooperated with, rather than challenged, British rule. All this was to change from 1898 with the accession of George Curzon to Viceroy.

Curzon had an ambitious programme designed to keep the British in India 'for at least another hundred years'. Two measures in particular riled sections of Indian society; namely Curzon's Universities Act and his subsequent Partition of the Bengal province.

The 1904 Universities Act increased British controls over private colleges & university bodies. Higher education was something close to the heart of the new middle class; it had given them opportunities and they largely controlled it. His partition of Bengal, however, caused most offence. Out of Bengal he created a new, largely Muslim, province of East Bengal and Assam. In all certainty the Viceroy divided the Bengal people because of their political activity and raised the backward Muslims of East Bengal as a counterpoise. Curzon did not consult Indian opinion about the partition and his act blatantly ignored respect for regional loyalties. Congress led protests through demonstrations, a boycott of British manufactured goods and the burning of Lancashire cotton in particular.

Curzon had created something of a crisis in the Raj - not least because partition can be seen as turning Congress into a full-blown nationalist movement; furthermore, active opposition to British rule now had another outlet with the formation of the Muslim League.

Following the landslide elections of 1906, the new Liberal government sought to soothe Indian nerves. Curzon was quickly replaced: Gilbert Minto was appointed Viceroy and John Morley became Secretary of State for India. In an unprecedented move, Congress leader G.K. Gokale was brought into consultation with Morley and Minto. The result of such discussions was the Indian Councils Act of 1909 (the Morley-Minto reforms). The way was now open for Indian membership of the provincial executive councils (besides the Viceroy's executive council as before); the Imperial Legislative Council was enlarged from 25 to 60 members and separate communal representation for Muslims was established (in response to recent Muslim political organization). Overall, the act was a clear step towards representative and responsible government.

Lord Hardinge succeeded Minto and in 1911 presided over the reversal of the Bengal partition and the removal of the capital to the centre - Delhi. The two Bengals were reunited. The transfer of the capital enraged Calcutta's Europeans but pleased Indian sentiment as a whole. Hardinge secured Gokale's appointment to the Islington Commission which recommended a larger Indian share in appointments to the services (civil and military). Such Anglo-Indian cooperation and progress were effectively pushed aside when World War I engulfed Europe. The war proved a profound turning point for the Raj: India was affected not only by the conflict itself but also by its international ramifications.

International events, in the form of the overthrow of Tsardom and the ascendancy of the USA, helped raise the ambitions of Indians. For India, the Russian Revolution signalled both the collapse of an autocratic European power and a population throwing off its reactionary rulers. The arrival of the Americans on the world stage meant a new, alternative international power which rejected colonialism. President Wilson's famous Fourteen Points were a response to 5 years of world war: he demanded the right for national self-government.

Of more local significance was the fact that 36,000 Indians lost their lives fighting for Britain; thousands of others were wounded or maimed in action on the Western Front, in North Africa and the Middle East. Consider too that India donated 100 million outright to Britain's war budget and provided a further 20-30 million annually. Besides those bereaved or maimed during the war, Muslim loyalties in India were strained by conflict with the Ottoman Sultan who served as a religious figurehead i.e. Islamic Caliph.

Perhaps what most hurt is the experience of returning soldiers: the 800,000 Indian combatants were no longer regarded as invaluable allies, instead they reverted immediately to the status of second class 'natives'.

There was, however, some recognition that a debt was owed to India: in August 1917 the new Secretary of State for India, Edwin Montagu acknowledged the need for "the gradual development of self-governing institutions, with a view to the progressive realization of responsible government in India". The government, then, envisaged India having 'home rule' as already enjoyed by the white dominions.

What emerged was 1919's Government of India Act which was a move towards double government or 'dyarchy'. The Act created 11 self-governing provinces of British India and Indian ministers were given 'safe' portfolios including control over public health, education and agriculture. Power was still firmly where it had always been: British ministers controlled justice, foreign policy and the economy; moreover, the Viceroy could veto legislation, suspend provincial councils and if necessary rule as an autocrat. While making apparent concessions, the British also applied coercion in the form of the Rowlatt Acts.

For many, self-government (or an end to the Raj at least) couldn't come soon enough. World War I had brought India a shortage of goods, rising prices and even civil restrictions. Moreover, India expected self-government for its war-time assistance to Britain. As a consequence there was anti-British agitation across the country. The government appointed a committee, headed by Mr Justice Rowlatt, to find a solution.

The resulting legislation extended wartime emergency measures - judges could try political cases without juries and provincial governments could assert the power of internment without trial. The manner in which the Rowlatt Acts were passed caused further offence by ignoring the unanimous opposition of the Legislative Council's Indian members.

Such repression constituted British treachery and heralded the emergence of a certain Congress member called Gandhi. He called upon his countrymen to disobey the acts and, instead, protest through inactivity (known as hartal). While Gandhi was an advocate of non-violence, agitation was evident in the Punjab in particular. When nationalist 'troublemakers' were deported from the region, rioting broke out in protest in Amritsar city - British banks were set ablaze and seven Englishmen killed. The local commander, General Dyer, took it upon himself to break up a prohibited (albeit peaceful) meeting at Jallianwallah Garden. Dyer's modus operandi saw almost 2,000 rounds fired, without warning, on a crowd of 10,000 men, women and children. Three hundred and seventy-nine were killed and the 1,200 wounded were left without medical attention.

Rather than being a civilizing influence on India, the British were guilty of utter barbarism at Amritsar. The issue didn't stop there however. Although General Dyer was retired by the military following the massacre, the Indians were appalled to learn of a vote in his favour in the House of Lords and the raising of a heavily subscribed fund in appreciation of his services.

Any positive steps intended by Viceroy Montagu or the India Act were utterly undone by the punitive and callous nature of Rowlatt's legislation and Amritsar respectively. Undoubtedly, Britain had lost the moral authority to govern India. Any vestige of local support for the Raj was also surely lost. In August 1919 Gandhi carried the Congress with him in launching a non-cooperation movement. This included the boycott of impending council elections, resignation of government office and withdrawal from government schools and colleges. The movement caught the imagination of the country and gained a unique all-India character by drawing on both Hindu and Muslim support.

A year later, on the death of B.G. Tilak, Gandhi became undisputed head of the Congress movement. In seeking independence, Gandhi's peaceful satyagraha ('soul force') contrasted sharply with British rule from 1857 to 1919 and, indeed, thereafter.

Just as the Mutiny of 1857 was a reaction to westernization, India had found, in Gandhi, a leader who rejected Western ideas. By spinning cotton and advocating the ashram, Gandhi promoted Indian traditions and institutions.

The period 1857-1919 in the British Raj can be seen as one of concession and repression. Arguably, the reforms highlighted above may well have disguised a determination to hang on to India for as long as possible. Just how could the British have remained a further generation following the events of 1919? For every Morley, Minto or Montagu, there was a Mayo, Curzon or Dyer. Certainly, the Raj was characterized by both reformists and reactionaries. Perhaps more than any other domain, foreign policy is victim to politicians' personal attitudes, ambitions and arrogance.

Further Reading
A History of India volume 2
by Percival Spear
Empire - The British Imperial Experience from 1765 to the Present
by Denis Judd
The British Empire 1815-1914
by Frank McDonough


Dr Robert Carr is the author of a study guide on the History of 20th Century India that includes activities and tasks. It is available from: Waterstones




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