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Colonialism in India - Rhea Singh

As the largest colony of the world’s largest imperial power, India is often cited by apologists for the British Empire as an example of “successful” colonialism. With a population of over 1.3 billion people, an economy predicted to become the world’s third largest by 2030, and as the largest democracy in the world, many often attribute this to the British Colonial Rule. People often try to justify the British rule by giving examples such as, “Well the British rule brought telephones and an extensive railway network to India, allowing communication, and brought civilization and more just and fair laws, and a unifying language like English.” Colonialism is often justified using the notion that since it helped with some technological advancements, it was objectively beneficial to the development of India. However, people seem to forget that colonialism is not required for the development of a country. In fact, considering that India is one of the countries that had the earliest scientific discoveries regarding planets and space, physics, ayurvedic medicines, mathematics, and more, India would have been quite capable at achieving modernity without Western “guidance”.Widespread poverty, economic exploitation, systemic racial inferiority, famine, malnutrition, and trauma are not prerequisites for development, and this is exactly what the subcontinent of India suffered at the hands of the British Empire. In fact, even looking at colonialism from a purely economic and developmental standpoint, the British Empire was a disaster to India, and the facts and numbers prove so.

Historically speaking, the Indian subcontinent was one of the wealthiest in the world. Before British rule. India used to be called “sone ki chidiya”, which means the Golden Bird. At the beginning of the 18th Century, India's share of the world economy was 23%, as large as all of Europe put together. By the time the British departed India, it had dropped to less than 4%. The reason for this is quite simple – India was not governed for Indians. India was governed for the benefit of Britain. Recent studies have actually shown that the Empire looted a sum of 45 trillion dollars from India – which is 17 times more than the UK's GDP. Britain didn’t develop India. It is in fact quite the opposite – India developed Britain. As Shahi Thaoor said in his speech on Britain Does Owe Reparations (a speech I highly highly recommend watching), “By the end of the 19th Century, India was Britain's biggest cash-cow, the world's biggest purchaser of British exports and the source of highly paid employment for British civil servants – all at India's own expense. We literally paid for our own oppression.” From 1757 to 1947 – during the entirety of the British Rule – there was absolutely no increase of per capita income within the Indian subcontinent. India’s contribution to world exports fell from 27% to 2%, as Britain's industrial Revolution was built on the deindustrialisation of India. India’s textile industry was ruined and manufacturing was shifted to England, thus forcing India to become an importer of British goods, instead of a self-sufficient exporter. This is one of the main reasons the Swadeshi Movement came about in India in full force during the time of independence, for it was a movement that encouraged domestic production and the boycott of foreign, especially British, goods as a step towards independence.

The treatment of Indian citizens during the British rule shows the complete lack of respect, compassion, or basic human decency towards Indians. From 1872 to 1921, Indian life expectancy dropped by a shocking 20%. In contrast, during the 70 years since independence, Indian life expectancy has increased by approximately 66% – i.e. 27 years. A comparable increase of 65% can also be observed in Pakistan, which was once part of British India. During this ruthless exploitation of the country, between 15 million to 29 million Indians died from starvation. The largest mass-scale famine to take place in India was under the British Rule, when approximately four million Bengalis died in the Great Bengal Famine of 1943, after Winston Churchill deliberately ordered the diversion of food from starving Indian civilians to the already well-stocked British soldiers and European stockpiles. When this large scale murder of Indians was pointed out to Churchill, his only response was, “Why hasn’t Gandhi died yet?”. The lives of Indians clearly meant next to nothing to the British Empire, for Indians were prohibited from riding in first class compartments in the trains that they built, even if they could afford it, as the first compartments were labeled as "Dogs and Indians are not allowed."

The West often tries to argue that despite all this, they helped cement a more equal treatment of people in India by taking emphasis away from the caste system and introducing a more fair justice system. The West still continues to criticize India for regressive laws in regards to the LGBTQ+ community, however what they seem to forget is that these regressive laws were introduced by Britishers themselves. Historically, India did not discriminate towards anyone from the LGBTQ+ community. Fluid sexuality was common in medieval times, even in the royal courts, with ample evidence in mythology and history. So it’s rich to see criticism from western society on such laws, when this history of violence towards the LGBTQ+ community is a legacy that really belongs to them.

It is ESSENTIAL for Britain's dark colonial history to be taught to its citizens. To say the Empire did “some good things” is to deny what that Empire stood for – the conquest, subjugation, enslavement, and exploitation of millions of people. Though people living in Britain today may have nothing to do with what the British Empire stood for, they cannot afford to forget the terror their ancestors unleashed upon millions of people less than a 100 years ago, which really isn’t that long ago. To continue to display the Kohinoor diamond as if it belongs to them, to display their loot in museums as if it is a proud artefact from their history and not stolen war spoils, to continue to only teach the “good bits” of the British Empire, and to continue to deny the reparations that Britain owes, is to erase the horrific structural and symbolic violence that Britain unleashed. Considering that the UK’s entire economy is built on what they looted from India and other countries, it can’t really be argued that Britain does, in fact, owe reparations.

Works Cited

Heath, Deana. "British Empire is Still Being Whitewashed by the School Curriculum – Historian on Why This Must Change." The Conversation, 2 Nov. 2018, theconversation.com/british-empire-is-still-being-whitewashed-by-the-school-curriculum-historian-on-why-this-must-change-105250.

McQuade, Joseph. "Colonialism was a disaster and the facts prove it." https://theconversation.com/colonialism-was-a-disaster-and-the-facts-prove-it-84496#:~:text=During%20the%20heyday%20of%20British,per%20cent%2C%20or%2027%20years, 27 Sept. 2017,

Pandey, Vikas. "Why Legalising Gay Sex in India is Not a Western Idea." BBC News, 31 Dec. 2018, www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-46620242.

Sahni, Manmeet. "5 Ways the British Empire Ruthlessly Exploited India." TeleSUR English, 25 Apr. 2017, www.telesurenglish.net/news/5-Ways-the-British-Empire-Ruthlessly-Exploited-India-20170425-0033.html.

"Viewpoint: Britain Must Pay Reparations to India." BBC News, 22 July 2015, www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-33618621.

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