The Social and Economic Impact of British Rule in India!

Right from the beginning of their relationship with India, the British, who had come as traders and had become rulers and administrators, had influenced the economic and political systems of the country.

Their impact on the cultural and social life of India was, however, gradual.

Till 1813, they followed a policy of non-interference in the social and cultural life of the Indians. Yet, changes were taking place in these fields (the social life of Indians).


These changes related to education, the condition of women, the caste system and various social practices.


Initially, the East India Company did not think that it was its duty to impart education to Indians. It allowed the old system of education to continue. Pathsalas, which imparted a special type of education geared towards meeting the requirements of a rural society, were open to all. Sanskrit education was imparted in tols. Muslims attended Madrasas. Higher education was confined primarily to upper castes. This system of education was eventually changed by the British.

Around the beginning of the 19th century, the Company became aware of the need for introducing Western education in India. However, Christian missionaries, who were interested in spreading Christianity through education, had already established several educational institutions which were attached to their churches.

Charter Act of 1813:

The Charter Act of 1813 directed the Company to spend one lakh rupees on the education of Indians. But even this meagre amount could not be utilised because of a raging debate over the medium of instruction. Orientalists advocated the traditional Indian learning through the medium of the classical languages of Sanskrit and Perisan. The Anglicists, on the other hand, argued that Western education should be imparted through the medium of English.

Thomas Macaulay

Thomas Macaulay, the first law member in the Governor General’s Council, promoted the English language as a tool for educating the people in Western thought and ideals (Macaulay’s Minute of 1835). William Bentinck supported Macaulay’s views. In 1835, the government passed an Act declaring that educational funds would be utilised for imparting Western education through the medium of English.

In 1844, English became the official language and it was declared that people having knowledge of English would be preferred for public employment. This helped the spread of English education in India. In 1854, Charles Wood, the President of the Company’s Board of Control, worked out a plan for educational reorganisation. Through the Wood’s Despatch the Government declared its intention of “creating a properly articulated system of education from the primary school to the university”.

Charles Wood

In accordance with the Wood’s Despatch universities were established in Calcutta, Bombay and Madras (1857). In 1858 Charles Wood Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, the famous Bengali writer became one of the first two graduates of Calcutta University.

Calcutta University

The Government’s educational policies educated a limited number of people. English education was promoted in keeping with Macaulay’s Minute though, eventually, vernacular education and mass education were both given importance. The traditional Pathsalas withered away as a new system of elementary education was put in its place. However, the emphasis was on higher education. English education, too, continued to flourish.

It must be remembered that the need for low- ranking English-knowing Indian clerks was one of the main reasons that prompted the government to take steps to spread Western education. Employing educated Indians was necessary because of the need to man an expanding bureaucracy.

The Bombay University

Employing Englishmen at all levels of the administration was both expensive and difficult. Above all, the idea was to create a class which would be “Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals, in intellect.” Besides, Western education was expected to reconcile the people of India to British rule particularly as it glorified British rule.

Western education, however, influenced Indian society in a way that the British could never have imagined. Theories of philosophers like John Locke, Jeremy Bentham, Adam Smith and Voltaire instilled in the Indian mind notions of freedom, liberty, equality and democracy. As a result of the exposure to such ideas, Indians began to recognise the need for change.

The Madras University

The imposition of English in the education system was a blessing in disguise. Indians from diverse regions speaking different languages could now communicate with each other through the medium of English. English thus united the educated Indians and brought about a feeling of oneness among them. A spirit of nationalism gradually emerged.

Rediscovery of India’s past by the British:

In order to rule India effectively, an understanding of her past traditions and culture was required. Sanskrit was promoted and several educational institutions were set up for that purpose. Many European scholars and government employees became increasingly interested in Indian languages.

The Asiatic Society in CalcuttaWilliam Jones founded the Asiatic Society. Jones himself was a great scholar of Sanskrit. He translated some ancient Indian works like the Manu Smriti. Many of Jones’ scholarly articles on Sanskrit and Indian past were published in the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal.

Charles Wilkins translated the Bhagavad Gita into English. Max Mueller translated the Rig Veda. The Archaeological Survey of India was set up due to the efforts of Alexander Cunningham and John Marshall. James Princep deciphered the Ashokan inscriptions which were written in Brahmi.

India’s rich and glorious history, as revealed by Western scholars, helped Indians to regain their lost pride and confidence and contributed to the development of nationalism.

Social changes and reforms under the British:

The demand for social and religious reform that manifested itself in the early decades of the 19th century partly arose as a response to Western education and culture. India’s contact with the West made educated Indians realise that socio-religious reform was a prerequisite for the all-round development of the country.

Educated Indians like Raja Rammohan Roy worked systematically to eradicate social evils. A period of social reforms began in India during the time of Governor General Lord William Bentinck (1828-35) who was helped by Rammohan Roy.

In 1829, Sati or the practice of burning a widow with her dead husband was made illegal or punishable by law. Female infanticide was banned. However, even today, infanticide is practised in backward areas in India.

Slavery was declared illegal. With Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar’s assistance, the Widow Remarriage Act was passed by Lord Dalhousie in 1856. Vidyasagar also campaigned against child marriage and polygamy.The cruel custom of offering little children as sacrifice to please God, practised by certain tribes, was banned by Governor General Lord Hardinge.It is important to note that since the reform movement started in Bengal, its impact was first felt here. It took time to spread it all over India.

Impact in the area of transport and communication:

The East India Company was primarily a trading concern. Commercial interests guided British policy in India. Though the Company’s political domination increased, its trading interests were never lost sight of. As the Industrial Revolution gained momentum, the manufacturing class became very powerful in England.

They now wanted the government to promote the sale of machine- manufactured British goods, especially British textiles. At the same time raw materials were imported from India to feed the growing needs of British industries.

Instead of exporting manufactured products, India was now forced to export raw materials like raw cotton and raw silk and plantation products like indigo and tea, or foodgrains which were in short supply in Britain. The demands of an industrialised England necessitated better communication facilities in the colonies.

Up to the middle of the 19th century, the means of transport in India were backward. Goods were transported by road mainly by bullock-carts, mules and camels. Riverine transport by boats was also prevalent. Due to poor communication and slow transport the volume of trade was restricted.

The British rulers soon realised that a cheaper, faster and more efficient system of transport was necessary if British manufactured goods were to flow into India on a large scale and her raw materials were to be secured for British industries.

They introduced steamships on the rivers and set about improving roads. Work on the Grand Trunk Road from Calcutta to Delhi was begun in 1839 and completed in the 1850s. Important commercial centres and areas rich in raw materials were connected by a network of roads and canals. But the most dramatic improvement in transport came with the introduction of the railways.

A railway system had rapidly developed in England during the 1830s and 1840s. Pressure soon mounted for its introduction in India. British manufacturers hoped to open up the vast and hitherto untapped market in the hinterlands for their finished goods and to facilitate the import of Indian raw materials to feed their ever hungry machines.

British bankers and investors also looked upon the development of the railways in India as a channel for the safe investment of their surplus capital. British steel manufacturers regarded it as an outlet for their products like rails, engines, wagons etc. The first railway line from Bombay to Thana was opened to traffic in 1853.

Lord Dalhousie, in particular, stressed the importance of railways for trade and for the maintenance of law and order. The railways would enable the government to administer the country more effectively. The railways would also enable the government to mobilize military troops. In 1853, Lord Dalhousie outlined an extensive programme of railway development. The interiors were to be linked with big ports and the ports were to be connected. By the end of 1869, over 4000 miles of railway track had been laid.

However, in their planning, construction and management, there is nothing to suggest that India’s own interest and well-being were taken into account. The primary consideration was to serve the economic, administrative and military interests of the British people. The railway travel of Indians between the important city centres grew only as a by-product.

The telegraph and postal systems:

The introduction of the railways, telegraph and postal system linked different parts of India and promoted an exchange of ideas among the people, especially among her leaders. The first telegraph line from Calcutta to Agra was opened in 1853. The Post and Telegraph Department was also established in the same year. A half-anna postage stamp would carry a letter from one part of the country to another.

The improvement in communications eventually helped to foster a sense of unity among Indians. The concept of the country as a whole now took precedence over regional and provincial isolationism. Books, journals and newspapers circulated widely and were now easily available to educated Indians all over the country.

The introduction of the railways in particular helped to break down barriers of religion and caste. People from different religions and social backgrounds, while travelling in a railway compartment, mingled with one another thereby challenging the age- old orthodox notions of untouchability, caste- based eating habits etc. These are the fundamental gains for the development of Indian nationalism.

Land continued to be the main source of revenue for the British. Since tax on land formed the main source of income for the Company, the British tried to introduce an efficient system of its collection. In 1765, by the Treaty of Allahabad, the East India Company got the right to collect revenue from Bengal, Bihar and Orissa.

In 1773, when Warren Hastings became the Governor General of India, he introduced the system of auctioning the right of collecting revenue for a period of five years. The right was given to the highest bidders but they were often unable to collect the stipulated revenue. In a bid to retain their contracts, they tried to extract money from peasants.

The Permanent Settlement (1793 A.D.):

To remove the defects of the revenue system, Lord Cornwallis introduced a new system of revenue collection in Bengal, Bihar and Orissa, known as the Permanent Settlement. Under this system, the zamindar or the revenue collector of an estate became the permanent holder of the land.

The zamindar gained hereditary rights over the land. He was required to pay a fixed amount of revenue as tax to the Company by a fixed day of the year. If he failed to pay by the fixed day, his zamindari would be confiscated and sold. The cultivators now became tenants of the zamindars. They could be evicted by the zamindars for non-payment of their dues. Many of them lost their land.

The Permanent Settlement benefited the landlords more than the government. The Company was assured of fixed revenue at a fixed time no doubt, but it was deprived of a share of any additional income of the landlords from increasing cultivation on land. The cultivators were also left at the mercy of the zamindars who exploited them.

Mahalwari System:

The Mahalwari System was introduced in Punjab, parts of Madhya Pradesh and Western Uttar Pradesh. It was a settlement with the village community because common ownership of land prevailed in these areas. (Mahal means group of villages.) The talukdar or head of the mahal was responsible for collecting revenue from the villages.

The Ryotwari System:

In the Madras Presidency, Ryotwari System was introduced. In this system direct settlement was made between the Government and the cultivators or the ryots. Land revenue was fixed for a period of 30 years. Peasants had to pay about half of the total produce as tax.

Drain of Wealth:

The greatest impact of British policies was the drain of wealth from India. The Indian economy, no doubt, was primarily a rural economy, but Indian artisans produced goods in bulk to meet the demands of Indian and European buyers. Several towns had flourished as centres of trade. There had been a great demand for muslin from Bengal and silk from Bengal and Benaras.

British merchants bought these Indian products in large quantities. But, at the beginning of the 18th century, Britain and other European countries passed laws prohibiting the entry of cotton and silk textiles from India although there was a demand for it. After the advent of the Industrial Revolution, India was forced to produce cotton, indigo and other products which British industries required.

Indian markets were flooded with cheap, machine-made textiles manufactured in England. Indian hand-made textiles could not compete with the cheap machine-made textiles. India was transformed into a supplier of raw materials and a market for British manufactured goods.

While British goods were exempted from duties while entering Indian markets, Indian goods entering England were burdened with heavy customs duties. Thus, the self-sufficient economy of India collapsed under the impact of British colonial policies. With the decline of the cotton industry, the towns that had flourished as centres of trade or industry also declined.

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