Skip to main content

The Rise & Fall of British Empire in India

It’s high time we revisit the British rule of India and particularly question the assumption that Gandhiji led India to freedom. This is important as we seem to be deriving lessons based on the same. This in turn influences our historical understanding that serves as the basis for making future decisions. Indians believe that one fine day British were finally guilt-trapped by Gandhiji’s non-violent movement and set India free without a murmur to ease their conscience.

This version appears to be the received wisdom now and may contain the certain footnotes of assumptions too like inherent British superiority in arms, Indian meekness, and centuries of Hindu-Muslim amity with the sole redeeming feature being the spiritual strength that remained intact.

Why did India succumb to a much smaller British? Were Indians savages with no access to modern weaponry that hordes of Western powers could come and plunder at their will?

For that we begin with what started it all - the political background that facilitated British ascendency.

The Beginning

It is implicitly believed today that the Europe was considerably ahead in terms of science and technology since the 1500s and this paved way to the colonization of much of non-European lands - notably Asia, Africa, South America, North America and Australia.

Indians were supposedly still equipped with pre-modern weapons such as swords, daggers, bow and arrow among others when Europeans fresh from their advanced weapons like artillery, guns etc. were neatly able to suppress masses and rule them.

But, the fact is that India was the leading manufacturer of gun powder till 17th century and many Indian battles employed better weapons than Europeans at that time. A case in point is use of rockets by Tipu Sultan of Mysore against British who found them superior to ones known to them so far. Britishers were soon to use them (with some improvements) in Napoleonic wars with greater success.

Political cartoon making fun of Lord Cornwallis after his
1791 retreat from Seringapatnam [ Tipu Sultan, Mysore state]
While it is true that Americas (North and South), Africa and Australia were rapidly colonized, still that wasn’t enough to overrun Indian armies. The first impressive gain that British made in Indian Territory was in Battle of Plassey in 1757 – a full 157 years after establishing East India Company in 1600 AD. If Britishers were indeed superior in arms, why wait this long?

During the period till 1780s, British won against European powers in Europe and India but faced reverses from Indian powers. (eg. First Anglo Maratha War and First and Second Anglo Mysore Wars)

Here, one may ask how British was able to make significant inroads within 60 years from Battle of Plassey so much that it was in control of much of India by 1818 (after Third Anglo Maratha War)?

What transpired in the meantime that changed the course of history? Therein hangs a tale!

The Indian Military Scenario Before British

Throughout pre-Islamic history Indian military apparatus was much like today’s free markets where Kings could buy latest war equipment from arms merchants and employ skilled warriors [mercenaries] freely available in market.

Maha Janapadas means Great Realm of Foothold of Tribes -
Highly Decentralized governance
Long-standing huge permanent armies [for invasions] were impossible to maintain with the fairly reasonable taxation structure that ensured that farmers, merchants etc weren’t unduly pressurized. In case of emergency, the kings received voluntary assistance from his citizens and security remained strong throughout these periods. During battles, non-combatants weren’t touched and the defeated army wasn’t harmed once they surrendered. In most cases, the defeated king was given back his kingdom and was required to rule in the name of the victorious king after paying indemnities.

An empire was usually confederation of nations and the governance was localized. Hence local populace was attached to its region and actively took part in safeguarding its interests. Change of the emperors mattered little to the general populace because they were always effectively ruled by their own local heads who in turn reported to the Kings/Emperors.

Timur defeats the Sultan of Delhi,
Tughluq in 1397–1398
When Delhi Sultanate [first foreign rule] was established, they built a centralized state wherein all occupied territories were centrally ruled on direct orders from capital. Such a system compromised the local security of remote places [from Capital]. This weakness was exposed when Timur Lame from Samarkhand penetrated mainland India from North West and reached Delhi without much opposition – something unimaginable previously.

Moghuls followed mansabdari system [much like Civil Service of today]. They were officers who ruled regions in the name of the Moghul Emperor and they were transferable. Most of these mansabdars had little affinity with regions and were considered outsiders by the local populace. The system worked well as long as the Moghuls had competent rulers but the centrifugal forces finally tore apart the kingdom upon the death of Aurangzeb.

In 18th century, the long harassed Hindus finally dislodged the Islamic rule and soon Marathas, Jats, and Sikhs became the de-facto rulers of India. But the military system was tampered with though some aspects did remain intact. Mercenaries and free arms market remained. For example, Shahaji Bholse (father of Shivaji Maharaj) was a leader of a band of mercenaries who worked for different kingdoms in the passage of time.

India was the leading gunpowder producer at that point of time, to have the requisite infrastructure to make planned use of gunpowder through weapons.

The Ascendancy Of British

If one happens to look at it, exactly two discoveries led to ascendancy of the West: Americas and India.

One provided them with the liquid money (gold and slave trade) while the other supplied them technological knowledge and skilled army.

To wage constant wars, unusually large state treasuries are required to pay for soldiers and associated expenses in war-campaigns. More than that, one needs constant liquid money to meet these expenses.

Indian armies at that time had to suffer from poor and delayed payments because Kings didn’t have the necessary means achieve so much liquidity. The tax structure though unfair from pre-Islamic India perspective, was just sufficient to manage affairs.

Lord Clive meeting  Mir Jafar after the Battle of Plassey 
All this changed when British flush with their coffers from pirating Spanish ships and exploitation of Americas introspected Indian political scenario before Battle of Plassey. This battle was in fact an agreement rather than armed confrontation. British entered into secret understanding with Bengal’s Prime Minister Mir Jafer that made him deflect his army in the crucial juncture severely handicapping his Nawab Siraj ud-Daulah.

Between Battle of Plassey (1757) and Battle of Buxar (1764, which was armed confrontation), British started employing Indian mercenaries in large numbers and in the latter battle, of the 7000 men who fought for British, 6000 were Indians.

British landed up in control of gunpowder rich Bengal and Bihar provinces that doubled their power. They monopolized this trade which severely constrained Indian powers and European powers too.

British armies were not only paid better than their Indian counterparts, but also punctually.  This changed the power equations drastically.

The Consolidation

The Zamindari system was (ob)used by British with greater finesse depriving millions of peasants with decent livelihood. The handicrafts industry suffered from invasion of British industrial goods. Likewise, many Indian professions were rendered useless by the British governance.

The caste system which earlier ensured certain means of livelihood to all people now became a tool for exploitation as Britishers no longer needed certain professions (textile industry)while others had inflated worth as they were more required.(Brahmins as clerks). It is this crackdown of original caste system that made caste discrimination possible in India in the first place, as earlier each had their own professional expertise and irrespective of their societal standing they were most needed for the society.

Mass famines became regular feature
in British India
With little means of earning livelihood elsewhere, most Indians found a job in British army lucrative, particularly in the later era when famines costed more lives than mass-massacres of Islamic rulers.

Most of the atrocities committed by British were implemented by Indian soldiers whereas Chinese mercenaries weren’t found to be as effective as their Indian counterparts in suppressing their fellow-countrymen.

This is the secret of British supremacy in India. Once the
centralized governance took firm roots,British used armies of one region to suppress another.

British soldiers looting Qaisar Bagh, Lucknow,
after its recapture on March 15, 1858.
Thus in First War of Independence in 1857, armies from other regions like Madras, Bengal, Bombay, Sikhs etc. actively contributed to Britishers and helped them suppress the mutiny.

British brutality on countrymen without compunction to avenge their reverses to Indian rebels also slowed the rebels down. Our soldiers were unable to see these atrocities and slowly lost the will to fight bitterly [this certainly speaks highly of Indians].

The End Of The Era

Today, Gandhiji has been elevated to a cult status – a saviour who was born for the purpose of leading India to freedom. And Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose is projected as a misguided patriot who though sincere couldn’t succeed because of his violent means.
Whose contribution mattered more? Gandhiji according
our textbooks, but circumstantial evidence points to Netaji

Gandhiji had considerably delayed freedom due to his insistence on non-violent struggle. A stray incident at Chauri Chaura where few British people were killed, led him to call off the non-cooperation movement which was in full-swing then. Many young people felt betrayed and joined revolutionaries. Gandhiji’s assertion that such revolutionaries were misguided caused even more heartburn.

One wonders how successful Gandhiji’s methods would have been if Nazi Germany ruled us instead! We can be sure that all top-brass leaders would be eliminated and the rest disposed in concentration camps. British tolerated Gandhiji mainly because they knew that they were poised to face greater difficulties in his absence than presence. Did Quit India Movement force British to give up India?

Royal Indian Navy Mutineer’s Memorial in Mumbai
The Royal Indian Navy mutiny in 1946 clearly indicated an end of era where the soldiers so far the limbs of the British Empire were no longer prepared to assist it. To the credit of British they took the clue, set a timeline for Independence and promptly vacated in a year.

In light of these observations, things begin to appear more logical. What made British vacate India was a real danger of getting drubbed by the battle-hardened Indian army and not Gandhiji’s non-violent struggle.

Indian wealth and resources helped British defeat France at Waterloo and later it was Indian army that supported British worldwide. When the same army refused to cooperate, British Empire simply collapsed.

Indian Soldiers - The Cause of both
Rise and Decline of British Supremacy
With the loss of India, British were demoted to second-rate power from the world superpower. 

65 years later, India rose from the ashes to become the fourth largest economywhile Europe suffers from debt crises and official figures as of July 2011 put British national debt at 61% of total GDP. [Lest India becomes complacent the per capita income continues to be abysmally low]

PS 1: Another visible reason for Indian Independence was decline in British power post-World War II. Also, India was a desperately poor nation by then. The efforts required to extract wealth from India were far higher than the wealth that could be extracted. It didn't make business sense to hang on any longer.

PS 2: Several parallel developments influenced British supremacy too. British had access to the best gunpowder (through India) for a considerably long period which was upset when Germans invented a chemical process that generated better gunpowder. Discovery of gunpower in Argentina was another factor. The lucrative slave trade – the source of liquidity – was soon abolished as the frequent mutinies were unbearable.

PS 3: This is not to deprive Gandhiji of any credit in the Indian National Movement. His contributions were great. But he was human enough and his shortcomings were great too. My intention is put things in perspective. 


  1. Madhav, excellent analytical piece.

    The canvas is too wide to fit the blog format but I am impressed with the way you pulled it off.

  2. Jai Garu,

    Thanks for your kind remark.

    I genuinely believe that if we Indians grasp the opportunities well, 21st century belongs to us. Lets hope we see India rapidly advance in our lifetime.

    Thanks again.

    1. Nice article. The way you presented with pics is awesome. Who made indian laws after independence. He should be highly blamed for the present india

    2. Thanks King babu. Indeed, those at office post-Independence are really to be blamed.


Post a Comment

All-time Hits

The Controversial Caste System of Hinduism

Imagine concepts like feudal system, slavery, capitalistic exploitation and anti-Semitism being used to define the core of Christianity! Christians will be outraged at this inappropriate mixing of the core universal values of Christians and societal & historical aspects which merely existed in a Christian world.
Now this raises the question – why is caste system defined as the core of Hinduism? Especially as “caste” itself is a western construct. Sounds irrelevant?
Okay. Now imagine concepts like slave-trade, war on infidels, brutal subjugation of masses, temple destruction, and forceful conversions marking the core of Islam.
It is considered sensible to first understand what the core scriptures speak about the religion and its universal values. The ills of the community & its societal aspects are differentiated from its core philosophy.
Now, this brings us to the most interesting question – why is Caste System (caste based on birth) propagated to be the defining feature of Hindu…

Chetan Bhagat : His Literary Style and Criticism

Chetan Bhagat’s (CB) recent column created a furore, chiefly because of his audacity to speak for Muslim community and what many people conflate with his support for Narendra Modi’s Prime Ministerial ambitions.  
But what interested me most - and what this post would focus on - is questioning of his literary merit (or lack of it). Many journalists ridicule CB’s style of writing and his oversimplistic portrayals of characters sans nuance or sophistication. But I suspect this has more to do with the fact that his readers alone far outnumber the combined readers of many journalists - a point that many don’t appear capable of digesting.
No takers for layman’s language!
When Tulsidas rewrote Ramayana in Avadhi (a local contemporary dialect then), many conservative sections of society came down heavily upon him for defiling the sanctity of a much revered epic (originally written in Sanskrit). When Quran was first translated in Urdu (by Shah Abdul Qadir in 1798), it faced intense opposition by …

The concept of Dharma in Ramayana

The concept of Dharma is not adequately understood by Hindus themselves, not to mention others. Dharma is not a set of do’s and don’t’s or a simplistic evaluation of good and bad. It requires considerable intellectual exertion to even begin understanding Dharma, let alone mastering its use.

Is Dharma Translatable?
Few words of a language cannot be faithfully translated into another without injuring its meaning, context & spirit. English translations of Dharma are blurred and yield words like religion, sense of righteousness, discrimination between good and bad, morals and ethics or that which is lawful. All these fall short of fully grasping the essence of Dharma.
Every language has an ecosystem of words, categories and grammar which allow a user to stitch words together to maximum effect such that meaning permeates the text without necessarily being explicitly explained at each point. Sanskrit words such dharma, karma, sloka, mantra, guru etc., now incorporated in English, lose thei…

Trending Now