The myth of ‘Glorious British Raj’….what did British really leave behind???

The British rule is often glorified with arguments such as the British gave India railways, roads & other infrastructure that helped India after Independence. But this doesn’t even for a bit compensate for the atrocities committed by the British on Indians during its rule.

Here are some facts –

  • 85 million Indians died from 1757 to 1947 due to violent & non-violent reasons
  • India’s GDP contribution to the world when the British came to India was 23% which fell to below 4% when they left
  • India accounted for 27% of world trade when the British came & this was left at below 2% when they left

The British Famine Policy

  • The British made deliberate use of famine & food control as a means to rule.
  • From the beginning of the 11th century to the end of the 18th century there were 14 major famines in India; that’s 2 per century. But just from 1756-1858 under the East India Company rule there were 16 famines!
  • Under the period of British Colonial rule from 1859-1914 there was a major famine on an average of every two years! Due to these famines, the population of India remained at about 220 million for over a century till 1914.
  • The British deliberately created famines in selected regions so that the mass of starving people could then be used as slave labour for creating infrastructure.
  • The worst famine perhaps in all of Indian history was the Bengal Famine in which an approximate 10 million died from starvation.

Tax Farming

  • Tax farming is basically ‘outsourcing’ the right to tax the land. This was the method adopted by the Company to increase its tax revenue.
  • The tax collector had the right to obtain as much tax as he could get as he was the one who had bought these rights at auctions.
  • The one who was taxed – the zamindari – would then extract whatever he could for himself & the tax collector from the poor peasant who worked the land.
  • The zamindari was subject only to the Company’s taxes & had complete power over land & the cultivators. This allowed him to exploit the poor to extract maximum wealth.
  • This looting system left nothing in the hands of the poor & no reserves for times when the monsoon would fail.
  • Neither was anything invested in irrigation works which could have acted as a saviour in times of failed monsoons leaving the poor completely at the mercy of a good monsoon.

Slave Labour Policy

  • The Sepoy Mutiny of the zamindaris had almost broken the British Empire. This is when the East India Company was relieved of its rule & was replaced by a governor-general & a colonial administration. According to a commission (which had also suggested this change in administration), the remedy to the uprising was better transportation & communications infrastructure, & the need for an Indian ruling class that would function as intermediaries for British colonialists.
  • The problem to infrastructure-building was that it was too expensive. So they decided not only to plunder the wealth of the common Indian but even to make him work to build the same.
  • But India didn’t have a landless labouring class which would work as cheap labour. But the British had a solution to this – setting up of ‘famine relief works’.
  • They created famine-like conditions which forced the starving Indians to go to a famine relief center. If an Indian wanted food, then he would have to build infrastructure in return. The person also lost his caste relations & privileges once he ‘enrolled’ into a famine relief center.
  • As people continued to die of starvation while in the process of building infrastructure, new such food-starved people kept coming into the fray. The cycle went on.

The Weapon of Usury

  • As railroads grew at incredible rates, this lead to the creation of an Indian class of money-lenders who were basically intermediaries of the British.
  • This enabled the British to have effective control even on those areas not affected by famines.
  • Prices of food in these famine-protected areas would rise multiple times as food was needed in other parts of the nation. These money-lenders then sold British goods to Indians in these areas at inflated prices, & bought their grains at low prices. They would then sell the same grains at high prices either in the international market or to the very same people during times of famine!
  • Because of the high prices having to be paid by Indians, these transactions were largely carried out on a credit basis leading to large sections of people becoming debt-slaves; that is if they already weren’t ‘famine-slaves’!

An interesting & unique measure of estimating how famine spread in India is to see how railroads expanded in the country – 288 miles in 1857; 1,599 miles in 1861; 3,371 miles in 1865; 9,891 miles in 1881; 19,555 miles in 1895; & a whopping 34,656 miles by 1914!

Also, data about the exports of grains & rice support how the British deliberately created famines – export of rice grew 1.45 times from 1867-68 to 1877-78; during the same period wheat exports grew 22 times (what needs to be remembered is that there was a major famine in 1876-78).

The founder of modern China, Sun Yat-sen had written in 1917 about the rule of the British in India & I quote – ‘Every year, England takes large quantities of food stuffs for her own consumption from India, where in the last ten years, 19 million people have died of starvation. It must not be imagined for a moment that India is suffering from underproduction. The fact is that what India has produced for herself has been wrested away by England…Is that any better than submarine warfare? Nominally, of course, the British are not plundering, but in fact the exorbitant taxation & tyrannical rule in India are such as to make it impossible for the natives to maintain their livelihood; it is nothing but plunder on a grand scale.(Emphasis added)

Forced to export grains instead to feed the starving populace, heavily taxed, pushed into starvation-led slavery – British rule destroyed the very fabric of our glorious nation.

I hope all this has provoked you to reconsider even if for an ephemeral second that the British Raj wasn’t hunky-dory for Indians as opined & shown by many – it was ruthlessness on a humongous scale that involved purposeful genocide not only of lives but also of every moral & ethical right that a human deserves!

Vinayak Jain