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History of India

Early History
Invasions and empires to A.D. 500
From A.D. 500 to the Mughal Empire
The arrival of Europeans
British India
Independent India 


British India

Government and trade. In the early 1800's, the British in India ended the constant warfare between the Indian states. The modern military technology brought by the Europeans, such as heavy artillery and rapid-firing infantry muskets, had enabled Indian states to engage in increased warfare. The period from 1750 to the 1820's was marked by a series of small but continuous skirmishes among the armies of the Indian princes. 

The dominance of British military power severely reduced the independence of some rulers. Others lost their land completely to the British. Those who were allowed to continue as rulers had their foreign policy closely controlled by British political agents, called residents, and were not allowed to keep large armies. The political unity created by the British in India was welcomed by many enlightened Indians. So too were the moves toward social reform, and the institution of European-style education, based on the use of English. 

In 1814, the East India Company's charter was renewed for another 30 years. However, the company was no longer permitted to keep a monopoly of the Indian trade. Trade was thrown open to British merchants who wished to export goods manufactured in Britain. The company continued to trade in Indian products until 1833, when all its commercial activities were stopped by the British Parliament. 

From 1800 to 1830, the economic policy of the East India Company firmly linked Indian financial affairs to the wider economic interests of Britain. The Industrial Revolution in Britain created many new opportunities for British businesses to increase their trade with India . For many years, Indian cotton spinners and weavers had supplied finished cloth to markets in Asia, Africa, Europe, and even the Americas. It was difficult for foreigners to compete with the Indian workers. Indians produced goods cheaply, and the technology of spinning and weaving cotton by traditional craft methods was difficult for competitors to master. However, once British factory-owners had learnt the techniques of machine spinning and weaving, they imported cheap raw cotton from the American plantations. Finished cloth from British mills became much cheaper than the Indian handloom products. Cotton mills in Lancashire, England, exported more and more cloth to India, and by the mid-1800's much of India's basic needs in cotton clothing was being met by British factories. Indian spinners and weavers lost their jobs, and had to turn to agriculture to make a living. 

The East India Company continued to trade by selling Indian products in Europe. It also exported opium from India to China, in exchange for tea. The new economic system produced a growing trade between India, China, and Britain. 

The economic changes in India resulting from the East India Company's policies were far-reaching. Historians now agree that land taxes were too severe, and caused many difficulties for the Indian farmers. Nor did the industrial changes advance the prosperity of Indian craftworkers. 

The resentment against the British was expressed in a series of revolts by peasants, tribals, and displaced members of the aristocracy. The revolt of 1857, described by the British as a mutiny, was the most serious challenge the British had to face. The revolt started with a mutiny in the Bengal Army, largely composed of Indian soldiers recruited in northern India. It soon spread to other parts of the country. The mutiny was followed by civil rebellion and people from all walks of life joined the revolt.

Causes of the revolt. The precise causes of the revolt remain uncertain. Indeed, many Indian leaders approved the actions of the East India Company. For example, the company had followed a cautious policy in matters of religion, and made no attempt to drastically change Indian social practices. It had allowed all its subjects freedom to follow their own religion. There was no attempt to impose Christianity on Indians, though Christian missionaries did much good work among willing converts. The company had discouraged the practice of suttee (self-burning of Hindu women on the funeral pyres of their husbands). It had also introduced English education in schools and colleges of higher education. Indian leaders such as Raja Rammohan Roy and Dwarakanath Tagore (grandfather of the poet Rabindranath Tagore) had welcomed these limited steps toward removing some social abuses. Such leaders actively encouraged changes in their own communities. Bengali intellectuals in Calcutta and elsewhere in Bengal found a new freedom of expression through the introduction of a free press, and their writings reflected a strong desire for change. 

However, in northern India things were different from Bengal. The East India Company had moved into northern India much later, and had dispossessed many princes, chiefs, and landowners. The peasants were also burdened with heavy taxes. In northern India, Hindu religious sentiments were strong. Although the warlike Rajputs had volunteered to serve in the British-officered army, they were proud of their social and religious identity. When these conservative people realized that the British presence in northern India was not temporary, but had reduced their own power in rural areas, they became alarmed, and even hostile to the British. 

The immediate cause of the revolt in 1857 was the so-called "greased cartridge." New army muskets used a cartridge with an outer wrapping which had to be bitten off to expose the powder cap before firing. It was rumoured among the soldiers that the cartridges were greased with the fat of cows and pigs, both of which were taboo (unclean) to Hindus and Muslims. Using these animals' fat offended people of both religions.

The spread of the revolt. The first outbreak of the mutiny took place at Meerut, near the imperial capital Delhi. On May 10, 1857, the sepoys (privates) shot their British officers while on parade and took over the command. Shortly afterward, the soldiers marched to Delhi. They declared the Mughal emperor, who lived as a pensioner of the East India Company, to be the rightful ruler of Hindustan. The main leaders of the revolt were the rani of Jhanzi, Kunwar Singh of Arra, Nana Sahib, and Tantya Tope. 

During the fighting that followed the Meerut uprising, many British residents in Indian towns were attacked and murdered. The rebellion brought the British Empire in India to the brink of collapse. However, military aid was sent from Bengal and the Punjab, and the British suppressed the rebellion. The cruelty displayed by British officers toward the rebels and toward innocent civilians damaged relations between Indians and Europeans. The atrocities committed by each side were never forgotten. Thousands of people, mainly Indians, died in the fighting. In 1858, the East India Company's rule was ended, and the British government took control of British-ruled India.

High tide of imperialism. The period from 1858 to 1914 was the "high tide" of British rule in India. The horrors of the 1857 mutiny, and the war that followed, were lessened to some extent by the lenient and conciliatory policy followed by Lord Canning, the first governor general to represent the British government directly. Queen Victoria promised to treat all her Indian subjects with compassion. Her peace proclamation declared that Indians would not be "molested or disquieted, by reason of their religious faith or observances, but that all shall alike enjoy the equal and impartial protection of the law." Indian princes were also assured that the government did not wish to take over their territories and make them part of the British Empire. They were, however, under the indirect control of Britain. The largest and wealthiest of the Indian princely states were Hyderabad, Jaipur, Udaipur, Jodhpur, Gwalior, and Patiala. 

In 1876 Queen Victoria took the title Empress of India. It was felt that because the British possessions in India were so large, the queen could rightfully claim the title of emperor, formerly held by the Mughals. The title of governor general was changed to viceroy. The viceroy was assisted by an executive council. Council members became ministers, responsible for various departments of state. 

The British viceroy enjoyed great personal power and prestige. He had a large residence and staff, and was free from any control by the people of India. The British government felt that the viceroy should display a degree of pomp and ceremony, to show the Indian people that he was following the same courtly traditions as the Great Mughals. 

The Second Afghan War (1878-1881) established India's northern boundary. After the Third Burmese War (1885), all of Burma became a province of India.

Changes in the Indian economy. During the initial phase, the East India Company's main interest in India was to generate internal revenue for promoting its trade. With the onset of the Industrial Revolution, the British interest underwent a change. It now became focused on markets. The economic policy discriminated against Indian handicraft industries and created conditions for the entry of industrial products from Britain. The government also developed a transport network to help its economic, military, and administrative operations. In the 1850's, British-based companies started railway construction in India. By 1870 the cities of Calcutta, Delhi, Bombay (now Mumbai), and Madras (now Chennai) were connected by rail. 

Railway building in India was done for both military and economic reasons. The experience of the 1857 revolt had taught the British army the usefulness of quick transport. After the rail lines were extended to the North West Frontier province, any threat of invasion by Afghans or by Russia could be averted by sending troops quickly to the Punjab. The railways also made it possible to transport agricultural produce such as raw cotton, wheat, oil seeds, and indigo (a blue dye) swiftly to the ports for export. In the 1860's the American Civil War had cut off the supply of American raw cotton to the Lancashire cotton mills, and India was expected to make up the shortfall. Cotton cultivation greatly expanded in western India as a result, and brought a large cash income to the farmers growing cotton. The railways also stimulated trade within India. 

Between 1850 and 1880 the Indian subcontinent suffered a series of harvest failures. Improved transport made it possible to send grain quickly from areas where there was a surplus to areas suffering from food shortage. As a result the price of food grains tended to be the same in all regions. Increased famines and harvest failures led to a government inquiry into their causes. The Famine Commission recommended in 1883 that canals should be constructed to provide irrigation water to farmers when the monsoon rains failed. 

In India the bulk of the rains fall during the months from July to August. If the Indian Ocean monsoon fails to arrive, crops fail because of lack of water. Following the advice of the Famine Commission, the government spent large sums of money in northern India and in the Punjab. They built canals which were filled from the plentiful rivers fed by the glaciers of the Himalaya. Areas which had been desert became fertile grain-producing regions. Food supply increased dramatically as a result of the irrigation canal programme. 

The new public works, however, also had drawbacks. The railway lines interfered with the natural drainage of water and created stagnant pools. These were breeding grounds for mosquitoes which carried the disease malaria. Malaria became more common. The seepage of water from the unlined canal banks raised the water table, and brought harmful salts to the surface. Land affected by these salts could no longer grow crops. 

In the second half of the 1800's, India experienced the beginnings of modern industrialization. The first cotton factories, using modern machinery, were set up in Bombay in 1854. Within about 50 years, India had again become an important cloth-producing country. India's large coal deposits were mined to provide fuel for the railways and new factories.

Rise of Indian nationalism. The Indian intelligentsia highlighted the drain of wealth from India and the consequent poverty of the people. The critique of British colonial rule helped to hasten the rise of nationalism. The intelligentsia's admiration for liberal and democratic principles stressed by Western education was another factor that promoted nationalism.

The Indian National Congress. The rise of the Indian nationalist movement started in the early 1880's. At first, it was a moderate, constitutional movement. A. O. Hume, a liberal Englishman, and a number of liberalminded and Westernized Indians, founded the Indian National Congress in 1885. In its early days, the Congress confined itself to an annual debate where political issues were discussed. It asked the government to remedy complaints, but had no constitutional role. However, some Congress members were also members of the Legislative Assembly, which advised the viceroy and the executive committee on the drafting of new laws. 

In the 1890's, a section of the Indian National Congress known as Extremists became critical of the moderate programme followed by the Congress. The group was led by Bal Gangadhar Tilak from Maharashtra, Bipan Chandrapal from Bengal, and Lala Lajpat Rai from Punjab. They urged agitational politics and sought to mobilize the people. Tilak invoked traditional symbols like the Ganesh festival and historical figures like Shivaji to broaden the base of the movement.Drawing upon the ideas of Tilak, a group of young revolutionaries in Bengal, Maharashtra, and Punjab launched terrorist attacks against British officials and Indians working for the British. Some of the prominent revolutionary nationalists who sacrificed their lives for the freedom of their motherland were Kudiram Bose, Bhagat Singh, Chandrasekhar Azad, and Rajguru.

The British responded to terrorist attacks by firm police and military action. Captured revolutionaries were either executed or imprisoned on the Andaman islands in the Indian Ocean. However, the demand by Indians for power-sharing and constitutional changes convinced British politicians that urgent changes were needed. In 1909, John Morley, the British minister responsible for India, and the viceroy, Lord Minto, set up a new electoral (voting) system. The Morley-Minto reforms created separate Hindu and Muslim electorates to elect Indians to the Legislative Assembly. In 1906, Muslims had founded their own political organization, the Muslim League. This rivalled the Hindu-dominated Congress Party.

Gandhi and the satyagraha campaign. The national movement gained greater popular appeal and support during the period following World War I. The Indians had supported British war efforts and Indian soldiers had fought for the British cause. Many of them had distinguished themselves on the battlefields of the European and Middle Eastern campaigns. In return, Indians had expected the British to concede political rights and participation in government. The constitutional reforms introduced in 1919 by the Montague-Chelmsford Act, which provided for joint rule, did not satisfy Indians. The government sought to suppress Indian opposition by curbing civil liberties. Protest meetings were organized throughout India. At Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar, Punjab, thousands of Indians assembled on April 13, 1919. The entrance to the meeting place was blocked by troops and the British commander, General Dyer, ordered the soldiers to open fire without warning. The shots killed nearly 400 people and wounded at least 1,200. This event, soon described as the Amritsar Massacre, made it clear to both British and Indian leaders that government policy in India now rested solely on the use of force. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi led the national protest by launching a noncooperation movement and nonviolent resistance. 

Gandhi was born in 1869 in Gujarat. He had trained as a lawyer in England. He had practised law in South Africa, helping Indians oppressed by racial discrimination in that country. Gandhi returned to India in 1915, and joined the Congress. Gandhi's political philosophy appeared strange to both Europeans and English-educated Indians, but appealed to ordinary people. It was based on the idea of nonviolent disobedience, through peaceful mass demonstrations against British rule. Gandhi also organized a boycott of British goods in India. Between 1920 and 1921, he launched the satyagraha, or nonviolent campaign. The independence movement gained in popularity, but demonstrations were marred by violent clashes between police and demonstrators. 

Gandhi was joined by another young Indian politician, Jawaharlal Nehru. Nehru had been educated in England. Unlike Gandhi, he believed that India must adopt European methods to modernize its society and economy. Nevertheless, Nehru realized that the methods Gandhi used to arouse the mass of the Indian people were far more effective than anything he or the Congress Party could master.

New constitution. The 1920's and 1930's saw many political failures, but some progress toward constitutional changes. In 1935, the British Parliament passed the Government of India Act. This new law created a new constitution. It secured the election of Indian politicians to a law-making assembly, and the formation of Indian-controlled governments in the provinces. But the central government remained under the control of the viceroy and the executive council, who could veto all legislation. 

In 1922, Motilal Nehru and Chitta Ranjan Das created the Swaraj (Home Rule) Party. Their aim was to work to gain positions of power within the system to bring about change for the Indian people. The party became very popular and ran for election in 1923 and 1937.

World War II. The outbreak of World War II in 1939 interrupted India's progress toward self-government. The British promised India independence after the war. Denied immediate self-government, members of the Indian National Congress refused to take part in the war. 

After Germany conquered France in 1940, Indians became more willing to help Britain. Indian troops fought with great courage and skill in various desert campaigns in Africa and the Middle East. The nation's factories expanded rapidly and produced war supplies for Britain and other Allied nations. India also provided the Allies with coffee, jute, mica, tea, textiles, and timber. 

In 1941, Japan entered the war on the side of Germany. The next year, Japanese troops captured Burma, India's neighbour to the east. The Burma Road, a vital route to China, also fell to the Japanese. The Allies then built air bases in India and flew supplies to the Chinese to help them fight the Japanese. By the end of 1943, India had become a huge supply base and training centre for Allied armies and air forces.

During World War II, Britain tried to reach an agreement with Indian leaders on independence. In 1942, Britain proposed that, after the war, India would become an independent dominion in the British Commonwealth of Nations. All Indian political groups rejected the plan. In 1942, Gandhi launched another civil disobedience campaign. The entire Congress leadership was arrested, and not released until the end of the war. See QUIT INDIA MOVEMENT. Fresh negotiations between the British and the nationalists were complicated by a demand from the Muslim League for a separate, independent Muslim state in India. When the British government declared its intention to transfer power to Indians, the Muslim League feared that Hindus would dominate independent India. The question of whether Muslims should have a separate Islamic state within India, or an entirely independent country, Pakistan, remained unanswered. The Congress Party opposed the division of India into Hindu and Muslim states. The Muslim League's leader, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, insisted that Muslims could not live safely in a Hindu-dominated India. 

The viceroy of India, Viscount Wavell, met with representatives of the various Indian groups in 1945. He called the conference after riots that supported India's demand for independence. Wavell asked the Indians to cooperate with the Allies until a permanent form of government for India could be agreed. The conference broke down after the Muslim League and the Indian National Congress failed to settle old differences. In June 1945, India was among the 50 nations to sign the charter forming the United Nations. 

The last British viceroy was Lord Mountbatten, Allied supreme commander in Asia during the war . Mountbatten and Jawaharlal Nehru realized that there was no way out of the Hindu-Muslim deadlock. The Muslim League wanted a separate Muslim nation. Indian and British leaders agreed to partition (divide) India into separate states. They saw no other way to end the violence that had broken out between Hindus and Muslims. The western part of the Punjab and eastern Bengal became the independent state of Pakistan on Aug. 14, 1947.

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