Fate of India in the absence of British rule

By Priya Chetty on June 22, 2016

“Asia played a great role in civilizing Europe”- Prakash Om (2000). Colonial rule in India started with the advent of British East India Company in the 18th century. Despite of huge drain of wealth by the colonists from India, the absence of developed statistical methods of national income calculation deprive scholars from knowing the exact amount, hence leading to differences in opinion. But the continuous drain of wealth from the country was an undisputed fact among nationalist scholars (Islahi 1995). India’s share of the global economy shrank from 24% to meagre 4% during the period of the onset of the colonists and after they left (Suraiya 2015). Besides, Indians paid for every luxury enjoyed by even petty British officials, from taxes to build railways and telegrams to human and financial resources during the two World Wars (Suraiya 2015). From cotton to tea, India gradually transformed in to a warehouse storing large stocks of silks, skins, tea, ivory, carpets, spices, feathers and cotton ready to be exported to Britain in exchange for the finished product (Robins 2002). Both the East India Company (especially under the administration of Robert Clive) and the Crown exploited Indians beyond means— 10 million people in Bengal died due to the tripling of land taxes. In fact, during the famine, the Company increased the amount of tax collection all the more (Robins 2002). In Malabar, the Company’s monopoly control over trade ruined the shipbuilding industry and the timber traders. Weavers were discouraged from selling goods to other traders to earn profit by cutting off their thumbs to prevent them from working. Salt tax imposition further left the deprived sections starved, along with affecting the health conditions by increasing vulnerability to heat exhaustion and reducing resistance to cholera and other diseases (Robins 2002; 85).

But how would have the economic state of affairs in the country been if had there been no colonial dominance? To understand the probable state of economy sans British colonial rule, the writer have delved into three crucial avenues significant for development of the economy:

  1. Education,
  2. Agriculture and
  3. Industrialisation.

Whose modern development have been credited by several eminent scholars to the policies introduced by the Imperial government.

Education during British colonial period

Education became a crucial instrument of the British to westernize India and thus a modified version of English education was introduced. Prior to Westernization of the Indian educational system, the Court language of the Mughals was Persian and the common language among Muslim population was Urdu, a mixture of Persian, Arabic and Sanskrit. Besides, education was largely religious and stressed on Arabic and Sanskrit (Maddison 1971). The British Education system aimed at reviving education that will commensurate with the Western ways of living, discarding a large chunk of literature belonging to traditional Indian society (Chaudhary 2007).

Had there been no colonial rule over the country, what would have been the nature of education system?

Mundy (2008) and Chaudhary (2007) in their studies showed that most of the Western education system are influenced by Chinese education system and ideologies. The examination system conducted by the Imperial government have influenced Civil service examination held by the British Colonial government in their native country as well as colonies like India (Chaudhary 2007). In fact later European visitors like the Jesuits of the 16th and 17th centuries recorded admirable accounts of the influence of Chinese education in Europe. Such influences by the former country have been possible due to extensive intercontinental travel among European and Asian travelers (Ball 1998). Such practices of travelling would have influenced the education system of India, had there been no colonial rule. Therefore, it can be held that without the Colonial rule, the education system would probably have been developed into a modern and rational discourse owing to the intercontinental travel, students exchange program (which verily existed since the ancient period) and exchange of policies by educational thinkers, as can be witnessed from the development of the Chinese and Japanese education system (Hayhoe & Pan 2001).

Agriculture was a money making machine for the British

Agricultural setup underwent an institutional change during the colonial rule in context of its administrative setup. Policies regarding land and its administration was primarily based on caste system (Maddison 1971). The Zamindars— the second layer of tax collectors during the Mughal reign adopted repressive policies towards the peasants (Dutt 1906). They started extracting huge revenues from the peasants to earn a good amount of profit after paying the allotted sum of tax to the Crown instead being interested in any agrarian reform (Maddison 1971). Such change in the structure lead to drastic rise in the number of zamindars (Maddison 1971). The peasants on the other hand were mostly landless, with major portion of their lands going in to the hands of the zamindars. Under the unscrupulous injustice rendered on them, they were deprived of any amenities to develop the land (Ramakumar 2009). Under the British policies agrarian sector suffered the most as it was only viewed as the money maker. Historically, India was an agricultural based country, being the largest manufacturer of sugarcane and cotton. It is from India that sugarcane and thereby sugar— a largely priced spice, was traded in Europe in the 18th century (Ramakumar 2009). Had the country not been colonized, the agrarian condition would not have suffered to such a great extent. As Nanavati & Anjaria (1947) recounted that during the period of independence, the agricultural economy of the country was marked by:

  • Low and at times declining yield of crops,
  • Low share of irrigated area
  • Large extent of cultivable land left fallow,
  • Deterioration of soil quality and the use of poor quality seeds lead to poor yields.

With the rise in educational development and exchange of ideas, agrarian reform would have been possible, had the India been not under colonial dominance. Influence from neighboring countries such as Japan— whose Meiji land reforms have considerably developed and shaped the economy in the contemporary period as well, could have helped to develop the agricultural economy of India (Tripathi 2014).

Down fall of industrialisation during the British raj

Until the 18th century, India was a major player in the global export market for textiles, which underwent major downfall by the middle of the 19th century losing all its global as well as domestic markets (Clingingsmith & Williamson 2007). Such a downfall owing to the rule of the East India Company until 1857 resulted in secular decentralization of the country. From being a largest producer with output of 25% in 1750, it came down to merely 2% by 1900. The table below project the downfall of the country’s world manufacturing output two centuries, where a drastic change in the position of the regions can be noticed. With India and China coming down to 2% and 3% respectively, the developed core i.e. present day Europe rose to 92.8%.

World Manufacturing Output 1750-1938 (in %)
Year India China Rest of Periphery Developed Core
1750 24.5 32.8 15.7 27
1800 19.7 33.3 14.7 32.3
1830 17.6 29.8 13.3 39.5
1880 2.8 12.5 5.6 79.1
1913 1.4 3.6 2.5 92.5
1938 2.4 3.1 1.7 92.8

Percentage distribution of World manufacturing Output from 1750 to 1938

(Source: Clingingsmith & Williamson 2007; p.53)

Large scale cotton production during industrialization period in the UK and decline of the Mughal era in India led to reduction of revenue from cotton but the production of other commodities rose during this period (Clingingsmith & Williamson, 2007).

In the absence of British dominion, textile industry in the country would have flourished, earning a greater GDP and having a larger share in the global market. India’s textile industry would have dominated largely, the European regions, who were the biggest importer of fine muslin and other forms of cotton and silk. This would have increased the trade, raised export prices and would have lowered import prices, increasing profitability of traders in India.

From the above three determinants of economy of a country it can be opined that, without the British dominance, India would have flourished and would have developed progressively.


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