The various phases of British colonialism and its consequences on India’s economic and social structure have had mixed results. But some questions – How was the British rule in India different from all the earlier rulers? Did British colonialism only destroy the Indian economy and society or did it also play a progressive role in making India stand on better economic, social, and political grounds? In other words, what is the nature and significance of British colonialism in India? Or did it have positive and negative effects?
Meaning and definition of colonialism
Colonialism can be defined as a policy pursued by one country to exert political or economic authority over another country’s people and physical territory. The main objective of colonialism is typically the economic dominance and exploitation of resources of the targeted region.
Definition of Colonialism
The term “colonialism” finds its roots in the Latin word “colōnia,” which translates to “a place for agriculture.” The standard definition encompasses the notion of a powerful entity extending control over weaker populations or territories. Throughout history, various civilizations across different continents have employed colonialism, but in contemporary usage, it commonly refers to the European economic and political dominion in various regions from the late 16th century to the early 1970s.
It is important to distinguish between colonialism and imperialism, as the two terms are often used interchangeably. To understand the nuances that set them apart, one can refer to the “Difference Between Colonialism and Imperialism” article.
Karl Marx’s point of view
Karl Marx, the great socialist thinker, did the work of putting forward the negative and positive aspects of this colonialism before and after Britain took over the rule of India.
Marx wrote a series of articles on India in 1853 when the charter of the East India Company came up for ratification by the British Parliament for the last time. Explained the difference in victory.
Comparison with British and other foreign invaders
As mentioned above, according to Marx the Arabs, Turks, Tatars, and Mughals, who conquered India one after the other, soon became an integral part of Indian culture. The barbaric conquerors were vanquished by the superior civilization of their subjects, affirming an eternal law of history.
In contrast, the British rule was altogether different. It was the rule of a modern country that had ended its feudal system and was representing the progressive commercial and industrial capitalist society and culture in India.
A capitalist nation is more powerful than a feudal society from a social, political, economic, and cultural point of view because it is based on relatively advanced and sophisticated production technology. (3)
The old foreign conquerors did not make any changes in the economic structure of India i.e. self-sufficient rural economy and they gradually got settled in this structure.
In contrast, British rule almost completely destroyed the old bases of the economy and remained a foreign ruler controlling England.
Impact on Agriculture and Farmer
The major factors at the root of this process of destruction were widespread direct plunder, neglect of irrigation and public works to be patronized by the pre-British kings, the introduction of private land ownership in the form of zamindari and private ownership of peasants, The conversion of agricultural land into private property by introducing the right to buy and sell, restrictions on the export of produce to England and Europe, and heavy duties, etc. Industrial interests became prominent after the Industrial Revolution was completed in England.
Impact on Village Industries
After 1813, the influx of industrial production from England devastated Indian industry. India’s rural system was based on the harmony of agriculture and small-scale industry. The loom and the charkha were the pillars of ancient Indian society.
British colonialism broke the loom and the spinning wheel and brought about the greatest social revolution that had never been seen or heard before in Asia. This revolution not only destroyed the old industrial cities of India and drove the people living in those cities to the villages but also disturbed the economic balance of the villages.
It was from here that severe pressure on agriculture started. Apart from this, rent was collected ruthlessly from the farmers, and in return, no facilities were given for the necessary expansion of their cultivation.
But Marx did not shed tears over the decline of the rural system and the destruction of the old economic base of Indian society. Along with the sufferings resulting from the capitalist social revolution, Marx also saw the reactionary character of the rural system and sought to use it for the development of mankind. Also felt the inevitable need for the destruction of the system. (4)
While Marx termed the British economic policy in India as ‘swinish’, he also considered the British conquest of India as an unconscious tool of history. Historically, the purpose of British colonialism in India was twofold. The first is destructive and the second is reconstructive i.e. destroying ancient Asian society and laying the foundation of the materialistic foundations of Western society.
Marx mentioned several signs of revival brought about by colonialism, such as
(a) Political unity – a much firmer and wider unity than that established under the reign of the Mughal emperors, which would certainly be strengthened by the electric telegraph;
(b) The Indian Army;
(c) The introduction of freedom of newspapers for the first time in Asian society,
(d) The establishment of private ownership of land in Asiatic society;
(e) The creation by the British, even if on a small scale, of an educated class of Indians who had the requisite knowledge to govern and were familiar with European science;
(f) Development of regular and speedy means of communication with Europe by means of steamships. (5)
Rise of the educated middle class
In other words, there were some indirect benefits of British colonialism in India, such as the general development of ideas, the feeling of individual freedom, the emergence of such an educated class in the society that found freedom of thought natural and inevitable, the awakening of national feeling, etc. The British rule established peace and order in the country.
End of social evils
With the help of English-educated social reformer leaders in India, took concrete steps towards social reform by stopping activities like Sati Pratha, child marriage, infanticide, and human sacrifice.
Development of railways
The potential importance of the construction of railways and other public works – which were built from the point of view of purely imperialist interests and for which the general public had to suffer a lot – cannot be denied. Similarly, the Economic Revolution, which aimed only at making profits for the British merchants and industrialists and severely exploited the Indian masses, played an important role in breaking India’s medieval isolation and bringing its economic life closer to the modern era.
But this does not mean that British colonialism should be given the status of a progressive force in India that had the potential to liberate the Indian people and bring them on the path of social progress.
When Marx talked about the reviving role of British capitalist rule in India, he made it clear that he was only referring to this role of imperialism. That it has created the material conditions for modern progress.
But this new progress can be made by the Indian people only in free India or it can be accomplished by the victory of the working class in Britain. Until this happens, all the material achievements brought by imperialism in India will neither benefit nor improve the condition of the Indian people.
Rise of a capitalist economy
The abolition of the economic isolation based on India’s rural economy and the transformation of India as an economic unit by a capitalist economy was a progressive result of British colonialism from a historical point of view. But as far as this transformation was inspired by the needs of British trade, industry, and banking, to that extent it hindered the free and continuous development of the Indian society.
British colonialism transformed India’s feudal economy into a capitalist economy, though this transformation was incomplete and distorted. The decline of old land relations and handicraft industry and the rise of new land relations and modern industry in their place also helped to some extent. New classes emerged in both urban areas during British colonialism.
Rise of a new class
The new classes that emerged in the rural areas were as follows-
(a) Zamindars, the owners of the land, a part of whom lived in the cities.
(b) Tenants who take land on rent from these landlords.
(c) Landowners, rich, middle, and poor farmers.
(u) agricultural laborers and
(e) Modern merchant and modern usurer In the cities where the handicrafts class ended, it was replaced by new classes, such as (a) industrial, commercial, and financial capitalists and (b) workers in factories, traffic, mines, etc. Modern working class: (c) small traders and shopkeepers and artisans associated with the modern capitalist economy; and (d) the middle class of intellectuals and professionals like doctors, lawyers, teachers, journalists, managers, clerks, etc.
In this way, the impact of British colonialism was not only on the economy but on the entire structure of India. Where British colonialism destroyed the economic structure of India, but on the other hand gave birth to more intellectual and social changes. Social evils were abolished and education was given a modern basis.
1 – Marx and Engels – On Colonialism, pp. 19, 35, 77, 81
2- Desai A. R. – Social background of Indian nationalism – page 83
3- Marx and Engels – On Colonialism page 41
4- Rajni Palm Dutt – Today’s India page 117
5- Marx and Engels – On Colonialism page 81
6- Moore Barrington, Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy (Penguin, 1968), p. 347
7- Marx and Engels, On Colonialism page 81
8- A.R. Desai, Opp. cit., p. 34-35.