The British came in India as traders. The English East India Company constituted of only a few hundred people, yet they were able to subdue millions of Indians. The British went on to rule over the vast territory of the Indian subcontinent for about two centuries. How did all this happen? What were the factors which led to the success of British colonialists in India? Before attempting to answer these questions, it is, however, important to understand why people should even bother to think about these issues of the past. Well, the answer is very simple and is succinctly captured in the following phrase by philosopher George Santayana – “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
First and foremost, it must be kept in mind that the whole process of expansion and consolidation of the British power in India did not happen overnight, it took an entire century. In fact, there is no consensus amongst historians regarding the motives of Britishers. While some say that politically controlling the subcontinent was not their actual aim and it happened by chance, others are of the view that Britishers consciously moved ahead step by step in conquering the land, which was their original idea. Meanwhile, in the hundred odd years, the British used all tactics, military and diplomatic to finally emerge as the rulers of the entire landmass. Wars and administrative policies were used simultaneously to achieve maximum results with minimum effort. Hence, there was not a single but a plethora of factors that contributed to British success. Thus, it is not feasible to elaborately and justly discuss all those factors in a single article, so the scope of this article will be limited to discussing only a few of them.
Domination through Consent
The biggest factor (often neglected) responsible for the defeat of Indian people by the colonial powers is the lack of a national consciousness within the masses. Rhetorically, it is widely claimed that the Indian civilisation is a five thousand year old civilisation, however, the truth remains that despite being an age old civilisation, there existed no such “Indian consciousness” prior to the Indian freedom movement. It is the shared oppression under the colonial rule accompanied by the modern ideas of ‘nation and nationalism’ (disseminated by the western educated elite in the late 19th and 20th century and championed by MK Gandhi) that binded the hitherto divided Indian masses. Indians were weak and divided amongst themselves along the lines of caste, religion, etc. On the other hand, after the Age of Enlightenment of 17th century- that gave birth to modern concepts such as rights, secularism, and nationalism, and the economic success of Industrial revolution, the British as well as other European powers were filled with feelings of national glory and pride. Faced with divided Indians, they were able to establish a strong imprint of their own superiority within our minds. This is the reason why despite visible economic loot and plunder, the British kept on believing and preaching the idea of the ‘civilizing mission’ or ‘White Man’s burden’, and the Indians kept buying it. They were thus conquered first not by weapons but by mind. As Antonio Gramsci would put, it was a domination by consent, where the Indians consented to their own suppression.
An ‘Unholy’ Alliance
Besides, another important reason why British could continue to rule for as long as two centuries was due to the support of a particular class of Indians. There was an ‘unholy’ alliance between the British and the upper strata of feudal Indian society, mainly the landed aristocracy. This particular class of people that is, zamindars and local regional leaders, gained from this hand in glove arrangement with the British. Their was a huge power gap in Indian society, which the British were quick to identify and exploit as they aligned with this class and collaboratively drained Indian wealth. Apart, from these ‘philosophical’ reasons which formed the bedrock of British dominance there were other tangible reasons as well, which included, inter alia, superior arms and military strategy and professional and able leadership of British Generals. The British Generals who led wars in India such as Robert Clive, Warren Hastings, Munro etc, had vast experience of warfare. They were trained and had access to technologically superior arms and ammunition in comparison to the traditional weapons that Indian rulers possessed.
Thus, one thing which becomes clear from the above discussion is that the colonization of India was less of a conquest but more of a willing surrender. Our forefathers were not defeated rather they chose not to fight because when they did, the results were the glory of 1857 revolt, the Swadeshi Movement, Non-Cooperation movement, and uncountable small peasant and tribal uprisings. There is a lot that could be learnt from this history of defeat, however, the most important lesson is to remain united, for whenever the society has been divided, ‘outsiders’ have been quick to take advantage. In today’s tumultuous times of communal tensions and disharmony, it can only be hoped that the intended message reaches to the audience.
Picture Credit: Itbritto