Until the British East India Company made their appearance, India was a mish-mash of competing city-states and small kingdoms ruled over by an assortment of nawabs, satraps, sultans, rajas, shahs, khans, nabobs, diwans, princes and various other feckless social climbers. There were dozens and dozens of these vest-pocket countries; for instance, what would later be the Punjab was composed of 34 “princely” states. Several empires had tried to unite the subcontinent into one banner before – Maurya, Chola, Pala, Gupta, Mughal, Maratha, and so forth – but failed. Seems profit rather than power was the key to making India whole.
In 1498 AD Vasco de Gama’s fleet managed to find its way around Africa and “discovered” India, even though some of its kingdoms and empires had been trading with the West since the days of the Roman Empire. The Portuguese stuck trading posts along the coast of the subcontinent; they were followed by the Dutch, the British, and eventually the French – all in the guise of chartered trading companies. The Honorable East India Company, a joint-stock corporation, had been granted its charter by Elizabeth I in December 1600 to trade in basic commodities with the Far East; at its height, it would account for half the world’s trade. In time, it was the only European company with holdings in India.
Besides the complexities of the local politics, what with all those princelings about, the Company also had to deal with the religious locals. India was a land of faith … in fact, many faiths. The subcontinent was the founding place of four major religions – Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and Jainism – with their many sects and offshoots. In addition, several other religions had their toehold, brought by merchants or conquerors, such as Islam, Zoroastrianism and even Judaism. The British had to handle all these “isms” carefully. Some efforts proved successful, such as stamping out the Kali cult of Thuggee; others less so, like trying to curb the rite of suttee.
It was a crisis of faith that led the British government to end the charade of Company autonomy. By 1857, the Company was the dominant power on the subcontinent, with its own administration, army and social infrastructure, corrupt and inefficient as they may have been. Although there were several reasons – as is always the case – for the Sepoy Mutiny, the spark was the introduction of new, greased, cartridges for the muskets used by the native troops. Whether unfounded or not, they came to believe that the cartridges, which had to be bitten to open the powder, were greased with beef tallow (offensive to Hindus) and pork fat (anathema to Muslims). Since the British, displaying their usual insular empathy, insisted their troops use these cartridges, in short order the native soldiers revolted.
After much bloodshed, the British Army had to be called in to quell this “First Indian War of Independence” (though it was hardly so grand); public outrage at the reports of native atrocities in England caused the Crown to dissolve the Company the next year and absorb all its holdings. The British, nothing if not efficient, over the next few years reorganized the Indian army, financial system and colonial administration. India became part of the British Empire, and Queen Victoria had “Empress of India” added to her impressive list of titles. For the next 90 years, the British Raj was the centerpiece of an empire “on which the sun never set.”
While the British busied themselves with completing the unification, skirmishes along the frontiers (making for some wonderful tales of adventure in literature and on film), and squeezing out as much wealth as they could, their rule was not without benefit to the Indians. The British built schools and hospitals and libraries and bandstands and all the other trappings of civilization, to which many Indians had access. They stamped out the bloodier religious sects, and tried to do away with the persistent caste system. They instituted uniform standards of law, coinage, penal incarceration, methods of execution, and postage. The British brought along the advanced technology (well, moreso than the natives had) of the Victorian Age, building a network of telegraph lines, newspapers, irrigation systems, roads and railroads across the land. And they fostered a sense of Indian identity; if nothing else giving all the disparate native peoples an equally-detested common enemy.
Under the Raj, from 1880 to 1920 the Indian economy grew one-percent each year, as did the population. But the British penchant for meddling in the social and moral forms of the locals repeatedly caused upset. For instance, in the last decade of the 1800s various reformers (British and Indian) took up the cause of widow remarriage. Others spoke out against the venerated caste system, and sought to incorporate the “untouchables” into society. In an effort to soothe religious dissention (and improve administrative efficiency), Lord Curzon divided Bengal into a Muslim east and a Hindu west in 1905; that lasted until he was recalled in 1906. The Morley-Minto Reforms of 1909 gave Indians a limited role in the colonial and provincial governments, spurring the growth of the All-Indian Muslim League and the Indian National Congress. With all their reforms, the British had laid a firm ideological and organizational foundation for a nationalist movement to independence, especially among the relatively new Indian middle-class. Oops.
Adding to this impetus for self-rule was the reoccurrence of severe famine, allegedly due to colonial mismanagement and the shipment of food stuffs back to England for profit. The Great Famine of 1876-78 AD took 5.5 million lives in British-controlled territory alone, and millions more in the yet unincorporated princely states. The famine twenty years later cost another five million dead, and two years after that the 1899 famine another million. And this doesn’t count the rounds of pandemics that decimated the population on a regular basis. Although the subcontinent certainly had natural disasters aplenty before and after the Raj, the British were blamed for these deaths. And the 64.5 thousand casualties among Indian regiments during World War I.
The First World War proved a watershed in the progression towards independence, and self-reliance. It was greeted – at first – with an outpouring of patriotic fervor by the Indian nationalists, and most others in the country. The already revered Mahatma Gandhi agreed to actively recruit his young countrymen for the war … and in contrast to his recruitment efforts during the Boer and Zulu wars, this time for combat roles rather than the medical corps. (Some apologists have argued he did so in order for India to have a trained and experienced military when it did gain its independence later.) The various native political parties as well as the general nationalist movement waved the flag with gusto, save for a few hotspots such a Bengal where the unrest was such as to paralyze the local administration. But the high casualty rates, soaring inflation compounded by high taxation, and disruption of trade united the usually bickering nationalist organizations, who argued the sacrifice of the Indian peoples deserved a reward... like self-rule. In 1916, the Hindu National Congress and the Muslim League forged the Lucknow Pact, an agreement to work together to pressure the British to get out.
In 1921 AD, in the wake of the bloody 1919 Amritsar Massacre, Gandhi assumed leadership of the Indian National Congress, not without controversy. With the influence of Gopal Gokhale and other moderates, he was elected president and promptly implemented a policy of resistance through non-violent civil disobedience. This led other leaders of the movement to resign from the Congress, among them such militant stalwarts as Chitta Das, Annie Besant and Motilal Nehru. The Congress was split.
For the next 20 years Gandhi, as the “image” of resistance to British rule, organized rallies, boycotts of British imports, protests and marches, including the famous “Salt March” in 1930, in which he and thousands of followers marched to the sea to make salt in protest of the British tax on it. He was imprisoned on a number of occasions, including a two-year stint in 1942 for his role in the Quit India movement, during which his wife died and he contracted malaria. He was soon released because the British authorities feared he would die in prison, making him a martyr to the cause. (He became one eventually, being assassinated by a Hindu nationalist just months after independence was granted.)
Weakened by two world wars and frustrated in finding no answer to Gandhi’s irritating tactics, in 1947 the British Parliament passed the Indian Independence Act. The act set a date for withdrawal of all British administrative and military presence and a partition of the British colony into two countries along the much-disputed Radcliffe Line: Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan. On August 14 at 11:57 p.m. Pakistan was declared independent and free; just after midnight, at 12:02 am, the same for India. The remaining 560 princely states were given the right to join one or the other or be independent – a commendable intent which didn’t last long once the Indian and Pakistani military got rolling.
The partition and creation of two nations with radically different beliefs in this faith-ridden land set off one of the greatest mass migrations in history as some 15 million believers scrambled to get on their side of the Radcliffe Line. The refugees, abandoning everything, displayed sound good sense, for it also saw unimaginable acts of mass violence, as the two new nations were simply unable to stem a tide of bloodshed that belied the non-violent nature of the successful resistance that had brought freedom. It is estimated that over a million Hindus, Moslems and Sikhs were killed, leaving a legacy of distrust between Pakistan and India.
In January 1950, India was declared a socialist, democratic republic. Since then, India has become a progressive and peaceful – save for the occasional war with Pakistan and border dispute with China – member of the brotherhood of nations.