The British Colonial Rule in India- Can reparations truly heal the wounds of India’s past?

British Colonial rule in India

A million dead, 13 million Indians displaced from their homes, property worth billions destroyed, carelessly drawn maps dividing a great nation, and worse still, the cultural fabric of the Subcontinent violated forever with communal hatred, spewed like venom across this ravaged land. This was the legacy that the British Colonial rule left our country with after 200 years.

India or Bharatvarsha was undoubtedly the JEWEL in Britain’s crown both literally and symbolically.

When the British first set foot in our country, it was a wealthy, thriving society with ample commercial interests, which made it a prospective for the East India Company. Pre colonial India was known to export high quality manufactured goods which were sought after by the creme da la creme of British society. Indian silks, fine looms, precious stones, exquisite jewellery, ceramics, porcelains, pottery, linens, spices, and much of the grandeur were considered prized possessions to have. As a several thousand year old civilisation, our country had world class universities and learning centers, rich musical and cultural heritage, pioneering inventions, great architecture, engineering works, ship building, commerce and trade by land and sea to all known civilisations, bankers and financiers, industry and last but not the least prosperity. Statistics show that 27% of the world’s GDP belonged to India when the British arrived. Indicators of a modern day successful country. 

Unsurprisingly, The East India Company was set up in Bombay, Madras and Calcutta, three of India’s  thriving cities, on the premise of conducting business. With what appeared to be trade with another country, it was not long before the British tactfully established themselves as administrators after the Battle of Plassey. The crumbling Mughal empire around 1707 made it easier for the likes of Robert Clive to pose victory against the very people that made the British feel welcome as traders. 

Slowly but surely, the British consolidated their dominion through the policy of Divide and Rule.

What followed was a policy that deliberately promoted class divisions, religious divisions, and favouritism to stir up the masses. The British administrators made it point to churn out surveys and census data dividing people in methods they had never known before, language, sect, subsect, skin colour etc only to create differences even amongst people who earlier felt the same. The masses were deliberately kept uneducated. 

The top administrative posts were held only by the British, while they used the local Indian rulers to their advantage, a desperate attempt to keep the Indian citizens under control. The East India company destroyed any other self governments that existed. The British was in control of governance, taxation, and even delivered justice, only selectively of course.  

Indian industries were exploited and the agrarian economy was also destroyed. Farmers were systematically forced into giving up their lands into british control, also paying high taxes that made their survival difficult. Ironically, in a country whose primary occupation was farming, famines such as the ones Bengal killed millions, but yet the British paid no heed. Instead they redirected indian produce to other countries. The racist and divisive behaviour of the British officials threatened traditional Indian life. On one occasion, a British field marshall, Lord Kitchener, stated ““It is this consciousness of the inherent superiority of the European which has won for us India. However well educated and clever a native may be, and however brave he may prove himself, I believe that no rank we can bestow on him would cause him to be considered an equal of a British officer.” Such was the extent of Britain’s astonishing belief in the white man’s burden and their superiority over the natives of our country. 

To aid in their 200 year plunder, the British over time built infrastructure to move their loot. One of the world’s largest railway networks to match their requirement, roadworks, telephone networks etc, British policies charged heavily to transport passengers and significantly less to move freight, confirming that all of this infrastructure was to aid further colonisation and  exploitation, thereby draining India’s resources.

In addition to these atrocities, the violence and crimes committed on the Indians can never be understated. Murders, rapes, and physical torture were common occurrences. The British boot was well known to keep the natives in order. Political dissidence was oppressed through strict sedition laws. 

The British left our country after 200 years later not out of their free will to see India a democracy, but more because they couldn’t sustain their colonies any longer. It was a sign of the dwindling power of the British empire at the end of WW2. Here is an interesting statistic, British had an army of 325,000 people- ⅔ of them were Indians. Ironically we were fighting battles for our own oppression. 

Then when the British finally left us, less than 3% of global GDP belonged to us. 90% of the population was below the poverty line. India had a literacy rate of below 17% and a life expectancy of only 31 years.

From the 1900’s to 1947, there was only a 0.001% growth rate, in all aspects. Industries such as textiles were reduced to nothing. Unemployment was at an alltime high. Only 2.5 million people were employed out of the 350 million people of India’s population. Any little development came at a very heavy price of oppression, slavery, illiteracy, forced famines, and poverty. 

With this horrific legacy that was left behind by the British on an India left in shambles, no amount of money can compensate for the damage done to our country. No fixed amount can pay for the loss of a loved one, the racism that was spewed across the country, the oppression of India’s people, and the struggle that the we, Indians had to face. However, if a notional value was to be put for the reparations to be paid to India, financially alone, it would be over 45 trillion dollars, a value that was more than Britain’s entire GDP in the year 2015. This was the extent of the damage done on India. More appropriate than discussing reparations in monetary terms would be the moral valuation that needs to be ascertained for 200 years of oppression and suffering. It is not about guilt tripping the modern day British for their ancestors actions, but it is about creating an awareness about their history on which modern day Britain was built at the cost of oppressing nations, and finding a way to atone for the wrongs done. 

Citations:

  • An Era of Darkness- Shashi Tharoor
  • Freedom at Midnight- Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre

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