The fallacy of British Raj on the Subcontinent

11th April 2022

The below discussion was a result of an argument between me and an Indian nationalist on Quora. This might be considered controversial, however, I feel facts or more important than nationalist feelings and propaganda. Feel free to leave a comment.

In my discussions with many Liberal Indian Nationalists, I have come across a sort of victim mentality and bitter resentment towards the British Raj on the subcontinent. The 'complaints' are of two nature in my experience. The first is that the 'Indian Subcontinent' was looted and it was this money that financed the Industrial Revolution in mainland Britain. The second is that if the British had not 'looted' the subcontinent, it would have been a far more developed and prosperous land. More conservative Indian religious nationalists also make a similar argument against 'the Muslims'. However below I am only going to discuss the claims against the British.

To begin with, it is important to understand that when the British East India Company arrived in Bengal, there was no entity called 'India'. In the English language, the land of the Indus was India (The Indus Valley Basin lies in present-day Pakistan) and the meaning of the term itself changed from time to time. Even Indonesia (Indian Islands) were often included within this definition. The reason being, India was not a country and hardly a single empire. Warring princely states, tribes, and empires, from Rajputs to the Mughals and Sikhs were in almost constant war with each other. Also, unlike in modern times, where the treasury of a country belongs to the 'people'. All of the resources essentially belonged to the ruler, be it the Mughal Badshahs or the Sikh Sardars. The subcontinent was essentially 100s of smaller states allied with almost half a dozen (depending on time period) major dynasties.

By the time the British arrived in Bengal, the Industrial Revolution was well underway in Britain. Powered by Welsh Coal and the invention of the steam engine almost half a century before that, UK was truly the industrial powerhouse of the world. It was not until decades later that Europe finally started to catch up.

Let's not forget that also by the time the British arrived the Rennasiance had already taken place in Europe, Oxford and Cambridge were world-class institutions, Sir Issac Newton had already made his mark and Britain was probably technologically superior to any place on earth. Many of the times greatest advances eg the Telegraph, Railroads, University, Public education, everything that the Subcontinent lacked was brought in by the British over time.

For those that say that the UK 'stopped' the development taking place in India, I would ask for evidence of any sort of renaissance, drive for democracy, world-class universities, or even an attempt to make the printing press common in the Subcontinent. Also, it took the British a very long time to actually colonize all of the subcontinents and beyond. It's wasn't like having a footprint in Bengal meant that places as far east as Lahore were now destined to be backward. It wasn't like whatever places the British did not capture for decades were not particularly advanced either. Let's not forget that the British only stayed in Lahore for about 90 years!!! a far cry from the centuries of British rule that many Indian Nationalists talk about.

It is true that colonialism would have helped the economies of Europe grow, but then again, let us not forget that during those times colonialism and expansionism were the way the world worked. In fact, it was the world order right before WWII. The dynasties on the Indian subcontinent themselves were always in a state of expansionism, the Mughals annexed Kashmir, and the Marathas themselves ventured into Afghanistan!! Given these facts, I feel a little modesty from these nationalists should be expected.

To conclude, I feel that establishing the rise of Britain as an industrial power cannot only be directly related only to its colonial excursions and definitely not those on the Indian Subcontinent. I also do not see any reason to believe that had the British not arrived the Subcontinent would have been a flourishing hub of science, technology, and prosperity.

The point of this discussion was not to justify colonialism, but to point out the uselessness of dwelling in resentment about the past, often based on propaganda, and take responsibility for the future. This is as important for individuals as it is for nations.

Umair Usman is a business person, RTT practitioner, and blogger.