The new drama series Indian Summers looks at the decline of British rule in India through the eyes of the colonialists and Indians.
Creator Alan Rutman said, “There’s a generation that’s dying out now for whom empire was a huge part of their lives, so I wanted to ask the question, what did we think we were doing out there?”
Whatever they thought they were doing, Britain’s rulers carved out an empire to generate wealth for themselves.
British rule in India began with the East India Company—that effectively acted as an agent of British state.
It had its own private army, and had effective control of India by the end of the 18th century.
It generated huge revenues for Britain by levying oppressive land taxes, and controlled trade out of India. At the same time it transformed India into a market for British exports.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, manufacturing in India was more advanced than that in Europe. But now the Indian economy served only one purpose—enriching the British ruling class. The flourishing textile industry in Bengal was destroyed.
So while Britain profited, the Indian poor suffered from frequent famines.
The first of these was in 1770, but they continued until the horrific Bengal famine of 1943, which killed up to five million people.
The cause was not lack of food. Food production was higher in 1943 than it had been two years earlier.
But as the Second World War progressed the British state had requisitioned food stocks for the British army.
And British prime minister Winston Churchill refused to send ships with food to India.
This undermines any notion that the Empire played a progressive role.
The revolutionary Karl Marx was referring to British rule in India when he wrote in 1853, that only after a socialist revolution “will human progress cease to resemble that hideous, pagan idol, who would not drink the nectar but from the skulls of the slain.”
British domination relied heavily on racism, brutality and torture.
British colonialists routinely racially abused and beat their Indian servants.
And methods of torture that were used to enforce taxation included searing with hot irons, rubbing chillies into the eyes and genitals and suspension from tree branches. This type of abuse remained right up until independence in 1947. But there was also resistance.
In 1857, Indian soldiers, known as Sepoy, in the East India Company’s Bengal Army launched a mutiny that developed into a national uprising against British rule.
The rebellion spread across northern and central India. It represented a huge challenge to the empire. But the British managed to regain control with a barbaric wave of repression.
They recaptured rebel-held territory by shelling cities, looting, rape and the slaughter of thousands.
Eyewitness Lieutenant Charles Griffiths wrote that after the recapture of Delhi there were dead bodies “in almost every street, rotting in the burning sun.”
British soldiers were ordered to take no prisoners. Some captured rebels were hanged from trees, while others were tied to the mouths of cannon and blown to pieces. But, the company’s rule ended and Britain took direct control in a regime that became known as the British Raj.
The history of the British Empire is characterised by similar waves of resistance and repression.
For example, in 1919 around 20,000 people gathered in Jallianwala Bagh gardens in the centre of Amritsar to protest against British rule.
The protesters were motivated by anger at higher taxes that had been imposed by the British rulers to pay for the First World War.
They were inspired by the Russian revolution in 1917, and the German revolution which had ended the war.
The protest was also an act of defiance against new oppressive laws that allowed the government to imprison Indians without any trial or evidence.
In response, around 90 British soldiers marched into the gardens and fired into the densest part of the crowd, killing more than 1,000 people.
Much of the resistance was organised by the Indian National Congress—a national liberation movement led by Mohandas “Mahatma” Gandhi.
In many ways, Gandhi and the Congress represented heroic resistance to the Empire. Gandhi was imprisoned several times for his role in organising mass civil disobedience.
He understood that organising effective resistance meant building a mass movement with a social base in the working class and the rural poor.
But the leadership of the Congress, including Gandhi, came from India’s middle class. For them, liberation meant replacing the British with an Indian ruling class.
So while they understood the need for mass organisation, they were also careful not to let it develop into a revolutionary movement that could threaten their own interests.
Gandhi’s famous commitment to non-violence helped him to contain resistance in this way.
This tendency to hold back the resistance allowed the British to implement a “divide and rule” strategy.
Rebels in 1857 had united across religious divides. From then on the British did everything in their power to stop this happening again.
One measure they took was to introduce separate electorates for Muslims and Hindus, transforming religious differences into political divisions.
They also encouraged the growth of organisations such as the Muslim League, which sought to organise Muslims separately from the rest of the Indian population.
The Congress’s campaigns, which organised Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs together, could have undercut this. But the Congress leadership held the struggle in check and it was never able to fully develop.
Nevertheless, Britain’s hold on India was weakening. One of the biggest challenges to the empire came with the Quit India movement in 1942.
Quit India was to be a huge campaign of mass civil disobedience. The aim was to break the Empire’s grip not just in India, but also Burma, Malaya, Indo-China, the Dutch Indies, Iran and Iraq.
There were some significant strikes. Some 30,000 workers at the iron and steel works in Jamshedpur struck for 13 days. And in Ahmedabad some 100,000 textile workers struck for almost four months.
In the countryside militant crowds burned police outposts, government buildings, post offices and railway stations.
In some areas, the British were forced out entirely, and revolutionary regional governments were declared.
It took 30,000 British troops to crush the movement with shootings, house burnings and the arrest of more than 90,000 people.
At the height of the movement the Governor General of India, Victor Hope, told then prime minister Winston Churchill that he was dealing with “by far the most serious rebellion since that of 1857”.
It was becoming clear that the days of British rule in India were numbered. Britain’s ability to keep control of its empire had been seriously weakened by the Second World War.
It was the rebellion of 1946 that finally kicked them out.
The rebellion began when sailors in the Royal Indian Navy mutinied in response to the racism of their British commanders.
A general strike was organised in Bombay (now Mumbai) in support of the mutineers, and barricades were erected in many working class areas.
Britain was forced to begin negotiating plans for its exit with Congress. But those plans involved dividing India up into two separate states based on religion—India and Pakistan.
As the negotiations went on, the divisions sown by the British divide and rule strategy developed into violence.
Congress, sensing it was close to its goal, went along with the partition. It refused to organise any further protests or strikes that could pose an alternative to communalism.
The British finally left on 14 August 1947 amid huge celebrations right across India.
But the imperial withdrawal left devastation in its wake. As many as 17 million people were displaced by partition. And up to one million died in the slaughter that went with it.
This was the final legacy of the British Empire. The only part of its history worth celebrating is its downfall, which shows how struggle from below can defeat imperialism and win liberation.