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Did India Benefit From Colonial Rule?

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There is no doubt that our grievances against the British Empire had a sound basis. As the painstaking statistical work of the Cambridge historian Angus Maddison has shown, India’s share of world income collapsed from 22.6% in 1700, almost equal to Europe’s share of 23.3% at that time, to as low as 3.8% in 1952. Indeed, at the beginning of the 20th century, “the brightest jewel in the British Crown” was the poorest country in the world in terms of per capita income.”

                                                                                                                    —-Dr. Manmohan Singh

In Oxford University, to receive his honorary degree, former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh summed up the consequence of colonial rule on India in a language he knew best—economics. Dr. Singh’s assertion that India was the richest country in the world until the 17th Century AD, is backed by economic historian Agnus Maddison. In his book World Economy: A Millennial perspective, Maddison quantified long-term changes in the world income and concluded that India was one of the wealthiest places in the world until 1757. It was under the British rule that the country’s per capita income fell drastically and that of the British rose substantially. If India’s share in world income fell from 22.6% before the colonial rule to 3.8% by the end of it, how can we say that the country benefited from foreign rule?

Popularly known as “Jewel in the crown of British empire”, India not only contributed resources and wealth to the British treasury but also a large population which was employed to manufacture their products, produce spices, cotton and opium. The colonial powers used the country’s rich resources and turned it into a dump yard for its manufactured products. Viceroy Lord Curzon had expressed the prominence of India clearly in 1901, “As long as we rule India, we are the greatest power in the world. If we lose it we shall drop straightway to a third-rate power”. With India under their control, colonial powers particularly the British merchants used its seaports to improve their trade and exports. It also became a strategic military base for the British Empire because of the geographical advantage India provided in gaining control of South and South East Asia.  Despite damning evidence of unprecedented plunder and imperialist exploitation of natural resources and valuable assets, a few people consider British rule as a blessing in disguise.  No doubt, some of the things British did had unintended consequences which in the hindsight, worked in India’s favor. English education being one of them.

In the following essay, I’d like to consider a few things people credit the colonial rule for and examine if those were true and in fact beneficial to India.

British United India?

 One of the statements people make in judging colonial rule favorably is, “before British, India was not united. It had different kings and rulers governing their regions independently. “The statement doesn’t take into consideration the fact that colonial powers actively used “divide and rule” to either create new or flame existing divisions among Indians. Initially, British and French backed different kings and created rifts among them to undermine each other’s influence and consolidate their position. They took sides and let kings favorable to them fight with those who weren’t. Later, they played religions, castes and communities against one another.

After the 1857 revolt Sepoy Mutiny against the East India Company, the British Raj aggressively employed divide and rule policy to weaken unity and collective resistance of Indians. They took advantage of the long-existing hostility between Hindus and Muslims following the persecution of non-Muslims under the Mughal rule. In fact, Lord Elphinstone wrote in 1857, “Divide et impera was the old Roman Motto and it should be ours”. They even encouraged the Muslim league by granting its princely leaders everything they asked for to make Congress look weak. Number of historians and public intellectuals support the theory that British strongly supported the Muslim league in its attempts to spread the narrative that Congress is a Hindu-dominated party, giving birth to two-nation theory and leading to eventual partition of India.

In fact, not many know that at the time of India’s independence, the British gave 562 princely states the option of either joining India, Pakistan or remaining independent. This was hardly an attempt to “unite” India. Some of the rulers like Nizam of Hyderabad refused to join either India or Pakistan. It was under the leadership of Home Minister Sardar Vallabhai Patel that India initiated a police action to achieve political integration of states like Hyderabad. He actively lobbied with the princes and rulers to convince them to accede to India. Therefore, it is factually incorrect to say that British united India. It was neither the intent nor the determination of the British to bring India together.

English Education:

English has come to be the link-language between Indians. With 800 languages and dialects, India is one of the most linguistically diverse places on the planet. With English, it became easy for millions of Indians to converse with one another. It is difficult to say which language Indians would have spoken in in the absence of English. But the language has undoubtedly opened doors to innumerable opportunities for Indians both domestically and abroad.

Indian professors, doctors, engineers, journalists and scientists have done exceptionally well all over the world and part of the reason for their success is the ease with which they speak, read and write English language.  English education has also helped India in securing thousands jobs in the IT and BPO sector. “English speaking population” is a factor that India actively uses to its advantage while seeking foreign investment.

However, it can also be argued that China, Japan, Israel, France, Germany and many other countries grew economically without its population speaking a word of English. Would Indian economy have grown at the same pace if we hadn’t spoken English? It is hard to say. But the fact that none of those nations had such large number of people speaking English has certainly worked in India’s advantage while attracting foreign investments.

The negative effect of English education is the neglect and endangerment of Indian languages. Since English is seen as an essential skill to get jobs, it has attained an elite status in Indian society. Millions of Indians view the language as their tool to fight unemployment and poverty. Even though, English was introduced to train human resources who could work for the British government in India, it stayed on and has done more good than harm to the country.

Railway infrastructure:

Railway lines were laid by the British to transport raw material from remote parts of India to seaports for exports. By 1853, there was not even a kilometer of railway line in India and by the year 1929, 66,000 kilometers of rail routes were laid serving several districts in the country. British also saw railways as an efficient mode of transport to move large number of armed personnel in short notice to be able to diffuse future revolts and uprisings.

Today, Indian Railways contributes to economic development, accounting for about one per cent of the GNP and has become the backbone of freight needs of the core sector. It accounts for six per cent of the total employment in the organized sector. With nearly 1,15,000 kilometers of track route, Indian railways transports 23 million passengers a day and over 1,000 million tons of freight every year.

Even though there was a selfish-motive to British building a strong railway network for India, it became an asset to the country post-independence. That said, would building a railway network have been an impossible task for an ancient civilization like India that invented Pascal’s triangle and diamond mining? Haven’t Japanese, Chinese, Germans and Russians built a railway network for themselves without the help of colonial powers?  Is railway network really such a big-deal that Indians couldn’t build for themselves?

Besides, railways were built in India at an unusually high cost. British investors could make money by investing in Indian railways where the government attracted funds by guaranteeing returns on capital of 5% net per year. If the railways couldn’t achieve that return, the government made up for the shortfall from its revenues which came from Indian taxes.

Scottish journalist Ian Jack writes in the Guardian, “In the event, it was 20 years before the first lines earned more than 5% of their capital outlay, but that did nothing to inhibit their extravagant spending: a mile of Indian railway cost double the same distance in the equally difficult terrain of Canada and Australia. It was a splendid racket for everyone, apart from the Indian taxpayer. In terms of a secure return, Indian railway shares offered twice as much as the British government’s own stock. ”

British brought Industrialization?

India was a major player in the world export market for textiles in the early 18th century, but by the middle of the 19th century it had lost all of its export market and much of its domestic market. The country’s contribution to world industrial output in 1750 was 25 percent which then fell to 2 percent by 1900. The growth of Indian industries was greatly impeded by British imperialism. With hostile tariff policy, administrative neglect and unfavorable currency manipulations, British hindered industrial growth and pushed millions of people into poverty. India was an exporter of raw material like cotton, jute, rice, spice, tea and opium rather than the manufactured goods.

Writer Jeremy Seabrook mentions the case study of the city of Dhaka(which is now in Bangladesh) under British Raj to describe “the first great de-industrialization of the world”

He writes, “For at least two centuries the handloom weavers of Bengal produced some of the world’s most desirable fabrics, especially the fine muslins, light as “woven air”, that were in such demand for dressmaking and so cheap that Britain’s own cloth manufacturers conspired to cut off the fingers of Bengali weavers and break their looms. Their import was ended, however, by the imposition of duties and a flood of cheap fabric – cheaper even than poorly paid Bengali artisans could provide – from the new steam mills of northern England and lowland Scotland that conquered the Indian as well the British market. India still grew cotton, but Bengal no longer spun or wove much of it. Weavers became beggars, while the population of Dhaka, which was once the great center of muslin production, fell from several hundred thousand in 1760 to about 50,000 by the 1820s.”

British also encouraged landlords and Zamindars who exploited farmers leaving great number of them without any legal rights or safeguards. The destruction of Indian industries in the 19th century pushed millions of artisans and weavers into farming, overcrowding the agricultural sector. Consequently, land available for cultivation fell to about 1 acre per head of the agrarian population. The result is visible even today where 70 percent of India’s population is dependent on agricultural income.  Even in the agricultural sector, British created a land system that favored feudal land lords and pushed large rural population into unspeakable poverty.


Colonial or British rule to be more specific had only one objective–to exploit India’s resources. In the process, they created infrastructure to help them transport their products and provided English education to create human resources to work for them. They gave very little and took away ten times more. Hypothesis that India wouldn’t have been such a big nation-state without British has no basis because British didn’t really make attempts consciously or otherwise to strengthen India socially, politically or economically. A weak, vulnerable and dependent India was more conducive for them to realize their objectives and they did everything in their power to keep it that way.

—-Prashanth Bhat



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