An American writer and artist called Elbert Hubbard appropriately said, “Freedom cannot be bestowed; it should be achieved.” India was liberated from British rule following 200 years of colonial rule. Freedom was indeed achieved, and not bestowed.
The British first arrived in India on 24 August 1608. Their initial point of entry was Surat in the present day state of Gujarat.
India has a rich history that extends to eons ago. It was supposedly marked by an abundance of wealth and glorious stories of the past are often shared, especially by the political elite. So how did the colonial powers lay siege on India? Perhaps it was because the British boasted a superior military backed by sound artillery. Maybe they were were able to strategise and ideate better.
The arrival of the colonisers
Their initial entry was in the guise of the British East India Company under a charter granted by Queen Elizabeth in the 1600s. It was founded by John Watts and George White primarily to trade with South and Southeast Asian nations. British merchants and aristocrats held positions in the joint stock company.
They came to India as spice traders — an important commodity that saw huge demand in Europe. The East India Company also traded in silk, cotton, indigo dye, tea and opium.
Colonial era industries expanded rapidly and they gradually turned the Indian subcontinent into a British colony. They used Indian soldiers for waging wars with other countries while also discriminating against them based on their physical attributes and economic status.
Not all was ill and evil
British rule led to urbanisation, education for women and might I add, rational thinking. It also led to the abolishing of inhumane practices such as sati, child marriage and the caste system. The ‘Raj’ also introduced the English language to India, although this was initially enforced to ensure smooth administration.
In the times to come, it became advantageous because English has come to be the global language. If one is to look at the best schools of the country, there are several that trace their origins to the pre-independence period.
The colonial rulers also introduced the railways to India. The first railway line was commissioned on 16th April 1853 and the first locomotive ran between Bori Bunder (Mumbai) and Thane, covering a distance of 34 kilometres. Common perception holds that the railways were only built to transfer wealth out of India.
Sure, there is much truth in this outlook but in all fairness, it must also be understood that the Indian Railways are among the top ten employment generators worldwide. An estimated 1.5 million people are employed by the Indian railways. In the seven decades since Independence, not one other such organisation has been established that can boast a similar feat.
Would we have chai if not for the British?
In the eastern state of Assam, as also in North Bengal, the tea plantations are a British hallmark. Tea is Assam’s largest economic contributor and Darjeeling chai is a brand in itself, enjoying worldwide acclaim.
During the rapid spread of smallpox in India, the British administration was well aware of its fatal consequences. They made sure that a compulsory vaccination was administered to prevent the spread of this once fatal disease.
The British administration is also credited with starting the census system. It is conducted once every ten years to collate statistical data comprising citizens’ age, gender, religion, occupation and educational qualification, among others.
The bureaucracy or civil services, and the role of state governors–especially with their titular prefix of a ‘His or Her Excellency’–is a direct carry over from the Raj. The governor is only the de jure head, meaning this position is ‘only in name’. They also occupy palatial homes called the Raj Bhawan, which are often palaces of erstwhile maharajas. The civil services, meanwhile, are a most coveted job role, with several thousand applicants vying for limited positions each year.
In the decades since, India has grown immensely and there have been significant strides made in per capita income and living standards of its citizens. Diverse industries have built firm foundations and a robust agriculture sector has ensured food security for the most part. India’s GDP in 1947 was a mere INR2.7 lakh crore. It clocked INR 147.79 lakh crore as of 2018.
Independence was cherished but it came with a heavy price
I can only imagine what independence might have meant for the people back in 1947. They were extended the ability to lead their country on their own terms and leave a rich legacy. Our freedom fighters’ sacrifices had finally borne fruit although there were negative repercussions too such as the partitioning of India. Many lost their loved ones while large swathes of the population were displaced.
We are constantly told to take pride in our country and to respect its culture and heritage. In my opinion, taking pride in its rich heritage means to abide by its laws, and perform my duties — most notably of keeping my surroundings clean. It also means taking care of public property and of treating all citizens equally.
India is a diverse country and we are indeed united in this diversity. A single word, a sentence or even an entire book will never suffice in fully expressing the multitudes of this magnificent country. Meanwhile, in a rather interesting turn of events, The East India Company is now owned by an Indian. The irony, I am sure, is not lost on you!