Dialogue  October-December 2008 , Volume 10 No. 2

British Indian Colony : History of Exploitation Atrocities and Cultural Annihilation


Monaem Sarker*


As Robert Clive watched the ongoing war from the rooftop of the Plassey House, the foundation of a 200 years old British Indian Empire was being laid down. Though not so sure of his victory at the beginning, Clive was emboldened by reinforcement from Madras. Moreover, the Nawab was also preoccupied with the invasion from the west by Ahmed Shah Abdali of Afghanistan. More than anything else, Clive succeeded infiltrating the Nawab’s highest ranks, his own family, his Army Chief and his financiers. Collusion with Mir Jafar Ali Khan was accomplished through Watts and the ‘Nimak Haramer Deuri’ or the ‘Traitor’s Gate’ still stand today as witness to the secret meeting where Watts met Mir Jafar in disguise of a Borkha clad women in a Palanquin. Though grossly outnumbered by the Nawab’s yet formidable army, the tacit collaboration by the Nawab’s Army Chief was further augmented by the fact that the French assisted artillery of the Nawab failed to save their gun powder from the rain while the English was careful enough to cover it. Finally, in Plassey, the British company used 2 Howitzer ‘Rapid Fire’ field guns for the first time that was an invincible weapon for that time in history. The war gave Clive the glory of winning the Indian Empire for the British, latter known as ‘The Jewel in the Crown’. By promoting treason and forgery, the company rule started with an unsavory beginning and something of that bitter taste has clung to it ever since.                     

      The East India Company had a much humbler origin. On 31 December 1600, the Company was formed through royal charter with monopoly on all trade with the East Indies. The Company’s ships first arrived at Surat in 1608. Sir Thomas Roe reached the court of Mughal Emperor, Jahangir in 1615 and gained permission to establish a factory at Surat. Gradually the British set up numerous trading posts along the east and west coasts of India. In 1717, the Company achieved the most critical success when it received a Dastak or royal edict from the Mughal Emperor exempting the Company from the payment of custom duties in Bengal. Taking this advantage, company employees carried on personal business without paying duty to Nawab Siraj ud Daulah.                            The British conquest had a historical root. As early as in 1669 Gerald Ungier, chief of Bombay factory had written to his directors: “The time now requires you to manage your general commerce with the sword in your hands”. As a policy, the Company had long since decided that regime change would be conducive to their interests in Bengal. In 1752, Robert Orme, in a letter to Clive, noted that the company would have to remove Alivardi Khan in order to prosper. Instructions on October 13, 1756 from Fort St. George, Madras instructed Robert Clive, “to effect a junction with any powers in the province of Bengal that might be dissatisfied with the violence of the Nawab’s government or that might have pretensions to the Nawabship”. Accordingly, Clive deputized William Watts, chief of Company’s Kasimbazar factory and proficient in Bengali and Persian, to negotiate with two potential contenders, one of Siraj’s generals, Yar Latif Khan, and Siraj’s grand-uncle and Army Chief, Mir Jafar Ali Khan. On April 23, 1757 the Board of Directors of the Company approved Coup d’état as its policy in Bengal. Mir Jafar, negotiating through an Armenian merchant, Khojah Petrus Nicholas, was the Company’s final choice. Finally, on June 5, 1757 a written agreement was signed between the Company, represented by Clive, and Mir Jafar. It ensured that Mir Jafar would be appointed Nawab of Bengal once Siraj ud Daulah was deposed.

    During Warren Hastings, the first Governor General of India, expansion of British rule was pursued vigorously. In 1784 Hastings was succeeded by Cornwallis, who initiated the Permanent Settlement, whereby an agreement in perpetuity was reached with Zamindars or landlords for revenue collection. During Wellesley, total British territorial expansion was achieved. Major victories against Tipu Sultan of Mysore and the Marathas, and finally the subjugation and conquest of the Sikhs in a series of Anglo-Sikh Wars led to British occupation all over India. In some places, the British practiced indirect rule placing a Resident at the native ruler’s court. By Lord Dalhousie’s notorious doctrine of lapse, native states became part of British India if there was no male heir at the death of the ruler. Often annexation was justified on misrule. These annexation and harsh revenue policies led to many terrible famines in India.                                                                                                                                One salient point in British ascendancy in India was their cunning strategy to use the feuds among local rulers to pit one of them against the other by taking side with those inclined to them. Even in deposing Siraj they manipulated the local conflicts. Later on conflicts between various Indian rulers was also successfully utilized by the British in spreading their domination all over India. This basic strategy of ‘Divide and Rule’ was persistent all through the British domination and lingered into the ending decades of the British rule inciting communal conflicts. They intentionally backed the two-nation theory to make sure that the British India gets divided into warring states and becomes weak in pursuing a real secular and united development approach facilitating neo-colonialism.


       Since 1600, the British trading company used to buy delicate fineries from India and paid in gold and silver, an issue that created vast uproar of protest among the British people, resenting the draining of the precious metals from England to India. In those days, Europe had nothing to export that had demand in India. But as soon as the company seized control of Bengal Taxation, the income generated in India was enough to pay for its quality commodities and the exploitation became self-sustaining and more aggressive. Besides while vying for all of India and even for war waged in foreign location, the British Indian army was financed by the Indian money.                                                                                 As colonizing by British went rampant they set to establish three major types of colonies. In Settlement colonies the colonizing country migrated to and eventually took complete control of the colony, their crops and animals. Colonizer’s culture was imposed on the existing one. Settlers killed many locals in violent confrontations or by exposure to disease. Colonies of settlement were located in temperate zones, with climates similar to Europe’s. Examples of settlement colonies include English colonies in parts of the United States, Canada, and Australia.             Secondly, Colonies of Exploitation were the tropical dependencies. Europeans went to these colonies primarily as planters, administrators, merchants, or military officers. Foreign colonizers established political control, if necessary using force against colonial resistance, but they did not displace or kill native societies. They also did not destroy indigenous (native) cultures. Colonies of exploitation included Indonesia and Malaya in Southeast Asia, and Nigeria and Ghana in West Africa.               In a contested settlement colony, a significant number of European settlers took up permanent residence. They tended to develop their own government, independent of, or even in defiance of, the parent country. Politically, white citizens dominated native peoples. Examples of contested settlement colonies include Algeria and Southern Rhodesia, both in Africa.                                                                                                                    There are several other types of colonialism and imperialism, including preexisting empires. Preexisting empires were or had been powerful states that possessed a large population, strong political structures, and a sophisticated economy. India under English rule is an example.                      For almost 200 years, wealth from India was systematically transferred to Europe. British Banks used Indian capital to fund industry in the US, Germany and elsewhere in Europe. Industrial revolution and modern capitalism in the west were based on the colonization of India. It was the forced pauperization of vast Indian population that allowed nations like Britain and US to industrialize and “modernize”. This capital was collected through various means including uneven trades, forced use of land and labor, great remittance of Indian income and excessive extraction from the common Indians.                                                                       India provided capital to the nascent industrial revolution in England by providing cheap raw materials, capital and a large captive market for British industry. In certain areas, farmers were forced to switch from subsistence farming to commercial crops such as opium, indigo, jute, tea and coffee. This resulted in famines and uprisings on a large scale. In all these plundering exploits, the British company successfully used the local people to extract revenue from their own fellow citizens at the grassroots level. Weapons was used indiscriminately and often at inhuman scale to clear the way to exploitation and destitution.                                  Right after Plassey, the looting and exploitation by the company started unabated. As per agreement with Mir Jafar, Clive collected £ 2.5 million for the company and £ 234,000 for himself from the Nawab’s treasury. In addition, Watts collected £ 114,000 for his efforts. The annual rent of £ 30,000 payable to the Nawab for use of the land around Fort William was also transferred to Clive for life. To put this wealth in context, an average British nobleman could live a life of luxury on an annual income of £ 800.

     Later on, as soon as the company secured Diwani or Tax collection rights for Bengal, Bihar and Orissa, they fueled their exploitation of India by Indian resources. Excessive and atrocious taxing policy loosened widespread devastation in the agrarian sector with a height of inhumanity that killed millions of toiling Indians through frequent famines and perpetual pauperization.                                                              Due to plundering of resources and sheer indifference to the dire straits of the victims, Indian people started suffering from full scale famines. The Great Bengal Famine of 1769-70, caused deaths to 10 million Indians in Bihar and Bengal. During 1782-84, 11 million died for famine in Madras, Mysore, Delhi and Punjub. During 1791-92, another 11 million died in Hyderabad, Southern Maratha country, Deccan, Gujarat, and Marwar. The Agra famine of 1837–38 caused 800,000 deaths. Orissa famine of 1866 killed 1 million. Rajputana famine of 1869 killed 1.5 million. The Great Famine of 1876–78 killed 5.25 million in British territories of Madras and Bombay alone. Bengal famine of 1943 killed 3 million in Bengal. All through the 190 years of British rule, economic exploitation continued, reflecting the fate of a Preexisting Colony of Exploitation.


    Atrocities committed by the British started long before the 1757 Plassey conquest. With their usual cunning and calculative conspiracy, the British company successfully used the internal Indian conflicts to bring down many rulers. These were done coldly with unrestrained use of weapons and widespread atrocities. They started fortifying their trade posts with an imperial greed. The way the British supervised the execution of Siraj and his family after Plassey was another manifestation of wanton atrocities.                                                                                        Rampant and coercive exploitation by the British incited many rebellions aimed to throw away the yolk of colonial subjugation. After Plassey and during the imperial expansion throughout India, the peasants in many areas flared many local peasant revolts and all of these uprising were quelled through extreme atrocities by the British. Especially after the Great Bengal Famine of 1770, both Hindu and Muslim peasants of north and central Bengal revolted against the British and their collective agents. Fakirs like Majnu Shah and Sanyasis like Bhabani Pathak led the uprising that lasted for three decades. It took the British at least a decade of burning villages and slaughtering Indians to quell the revolt. It was followed by another peasant uprising in Rangpur district of north Bengal in 1783-4, the Chuar uprising in Bankura and Midnapur that lasted till 1799. These revolts killed many British and the reprisals from them were brutal. Warren Hastings failed to suppress the Chuar uprising and finally in 1799, Governor General Wellesly crushed the uprising through a pincer attack. Many of the rebels were hung from trees near Salboni in Midnapur, a place still known as the ‘heath of the hanging upland’ or ‘Fanshi Dangar Math’. Among later peasant and working class revolts, more vital ones include Bheel uprising from 1817 to 1846 in Bundelhkand of Uttar Pradesh, Jat revolt of Rohtak and Hissar in Haryana, The Koli revolt of 1839 to 1845 all over Gujarat, aboriginal uprising during 1830 to1833 in Chotanagar among the Mundas. The most important revolt was by the major uprising by the Santals for attaining independence. These entire grassroots level survival struggle against the wanton exploitation by the British gained much ground and at those primary years of colonization they posed major threats to British presence and their mercantile exploitation that oppressed the grassroots poor. This threat of annihilation to budding British rule was smashed by insensitive and all-out atrocities and bloodshed resulting in defeat of the isolated but well-determined liberation struggles by the poorest of the poor under East India Company. Later on, the Muslim led Wahabi and Faraizi uprising, though inspired by Islamic principles, was in fact a direct struggle to uproot British rule from the subcontinent. Invariably in all these rebellion, the British applied wanton atrocities and unprecedented killing verging on genocide to quell the unrest and to secure their domination.                                                                                 Drawing inspiration from these localized revolts, the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 was fought by Hindu and Muslim sepoys together to oust the British, an incident cited by many historians as the ‘First Struggle of Independence’ in India. The exterminating violence resorted to by the British in all revolts proved them to be the bloodthirsty rulers prepared to perpetrate any level of inhuman atrocities, violence and conspiracy to safeguard their colonial possession.                                                                     During the Sepoy Mutiny, rebel sepoys were blown by cannon fires and in Delhi, the Mughal princes were massacred en masse. Force was also used in compelling the local farmers to cultivate cash crops. Under the crown as well, atrocities were perpetrated to quell the armed revolts in various Indian sections. The cruel Jallianwalla Bagh massacre due to protests against the Rowlatt Act in 1919 is another example of such atrocities. In the two World Wars, the British entangled India and used Indian soldiers and money to fight the wars opposing Indian popular dissent. During the nationalistic movements, police atrocities and hateful conspiracy by the British caused deaths to hundreds of patriotic Indians. The British are even indirectly responsible for the communal genocide during partition of India, as they are the one who deliberately incited communal hatred and pressed for the partition of India. Communal division of Punjab and Bengal and the Kashmir issue still remain as a problem today.                                                                                                                     Atrocities by the British went unabated even after the Sepoy revolt as retribution to stop such occurrence in future. But little was the success of such moves. Driven by the paramount urge to extract as much of Indian resources for repatriating to England, their level of exploitation was never downsized and as local Indians got exposed to western education and comparatively human citizen rights prevailing in native lands of the colonial power, a steady sense of independence from the yolk of Foreign subjugation started taking organized forms leading India into nationalistic freedom movement. Starting from the armed resistance to oust British from India up to lawful movement for peaceful settlement of the colonial question, the British, though subdued enough not to be as brutal as before, left no stone unturned to quell such movement by armed might in addition to treachery, conspiracy and hateful collaboration of local cronies.                                                             As awareness and fighting spirit of the Indian masses escalated, the British realized the ineffectiveness and risk of all out suppression of the Indian demand for their legitimate rights. Nevertheless, they utilized every opportunity to split the solidarity of Indians to weaken their demand. Engineering communal divide between Hindu and Muslim communities was one such manipulation that has enduringly negative impact on the oppressed Indian masses and caused indescribable communal conflict and colossus bloodshed both before and after the partition of India. Not much earlier than 1919, the Jalinwalabagh massacre represents such an atrocity on unarmed public to quell the newly emerged nationalistic movement for self rule that ultimately demanded ousting of the British.

Cultural Annihilation

    The British looked down on the Indian people. Ironically, Indian civilization was far superior to that of  colonizing England. It only lacked the modern weaponry. From the very beginning, the British negated Indian culture. They introduced alien education to cut off the Indians from their traditional heritage and cultural pride. Zamindars and rich middle class went to England to be educated in ‘civilized’ values by a country which gained economic power through enslaving others and through insensate violence against colonized people.                                                            For running the Indian Empire, owing to limited number of Britons, the service of Indian people was imperative. So, a class of clerically competent Indian people was educated in British system to create a specific class in India who, according to Macaulay, would be individuals ‘Indian in Body but British in Mind’. As many of the Indians, especially the Hindu community was admiring and supporting the British, they vigorously set themselves to learning the clerical version of British Education with a distinctive plot– serving as English speaking loyal subjects as well as to glorify the superficial English education as the pinnacle of wisdom. This alienated them from the persistent plights from British exploitation and made them an accomplice in annihilating the heritage of Indian culture and education that used to be far more superior than the British. At one point these middle class Indians were ashamed of their Indian ancestry and most of these so called English educated people turned into die hard supporters of British colonialism. As leading Indians started abhorring everything Indian, excessively obsessed to destroy the centuries old and racially harmonious Indian wisdom, they failed to appreciate both Indian and British education from the right perspective. In all forms of arts and literature practiced among these privileged collaborators of British exploitation, the indigenous culture appeared obsolete and crude.                                                    Through superior technology, huge resources plundered from the colonies and their supreme status as colonizers, the British were able to impose their culture on the subjugated populace, a phenomenon that Rudyard Kipling ironically described as ‘white men’s burden’ to emancipate barbarian colonized people', whereas most had a superior culture.                                                                                                                                     Thus the older and intrinsically richer Indian civilization was pushed to the backstage. What ensued was an almost irreversible decay in the sense of self-identification for the Indian Mass. The greatest blow to the Indian culture was the inciting of communal tension by the British which disrupted the century-old coexistence of various religions. The ‘divide and rule’ policy of the British had led to the demise of communal and racial harmony and assimilatory culture that once earned respect world over. Totally disoriented by the British plots, the Indians became foreigner in their own land and acted as puppets of the British in all the ill designs against the local people, economy and culture.                                   From the Plessey until the Partition, the British conquest and empire building followed a dark path of vile conspiracy, wanton bribing, breach of faith, sheer atrocity and indiscriminate exploitation to destroy the economy, culture and the very fabric of the superior Indian civilization. People of the subcontinent are still reeling from the blow. Many of our current dire straits are a direct predicament of denuding the Indians from their ancient and profoundly richer culture having a lot to offer to the British colonizers.                                                                                            The deep rooted exploitation, indiscriminate atrocities and deliberate cultural annihilation perpetrated by the British in India has irrevocable ramification for the later history of this subcontinent. People of this one time British colony still suffer from the pervasive decay and lingering divide created and nurtured by the British colonizers. By all standards, the British owe to the colonized Indians and their present generation a profound, true and far reaching ‘Apology’ for their vile maneuvers in the colonial days. This type of ‘historical’ or ‘official’ apology is not a new phenomenon and it has many noticeable precedents. Universal human justice demands that this issue of outrageous siphoning of Indian resources and the permanent harm inflicted by the British rule on the Indian people should be brought into account.                                                                                                             Recent years have seen a wave of official apologies for wrongs committed in the distant past. Most recently in 2008, Italy apologized to Libya for colonial misdeeds and the Canadian and American governments apologized to the Red Indians as did Australia to its aboriginal people. Former Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi expressed “deep remorse” for Japanese World War II era conduct in China and Korea. Following the presidential victory of George W. Bush in November 2004, a website ‘sorryeverybody.com’ suddenly appeared permitting Americans “to offer apologies to the rest of the world.” Other instances include Tony Blair’s 1997 regrets for British inaction during the Irish Potato Famine in the mid-nineteenth century; Danish Prime Minister Poul Nyrup Rasmussen’s apology for the forced relocation of Inuit people in 1953; President Bill Clinton’s apology for failure to act during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda; France’s acknowledgement of the massacre of Algerians at Sétif in May 1945; a Canadian government apology in 2001 for military executions during the First World War; a German government apology for the colonial-era massacre of ethnic Herero people of Namibia by German soldiers; and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s apology for his part in the incitement that led to assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. The most famous apologizer of recent times was the late Pope John Paul II, whose apologies reached far back in history, and included contrition about the Religious Wars, the Inquisition, Jews, women, Blacks, schisms, Martin Luther, and the Church’s denunciation of Galileo.                                                                            Along with these, there are refusals to apologize for historic wrongs. Thus, despite requests, Soviet and later Russian leaders have never apologized for the massacre of thousands of Polish officers in the forest of Katyn in 1940; the Israelis refused the invitation of Egyptian Foreign Minister Mahmoud Riad in 1968 to apologize for their “aggression” the year before; Australian Prime Minister John Howard would not apologize for the European settlers’ treatment of the aboriginal population in that country; and President George Bush, Sr., declined to apologize for the Americans’ use of the atomic bomb against Japan in 1945.                             Despite such cases, the wave has continuing force. Apologies are scarcely ever rejected for being irrelevant or misplaced, but rather for being insufficient, inadequate, or insincere. So the British also owe us a sincere and significant apology, at the soonest possible time. We should demand all possible reparations to address this history of Himalayan plunder and inhuman atrocities inflicted for centuries upon this subcontinent, effect of which still remain as the principle obstruction in the development of this region.                                                                        

On 30 August 2008, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi apologized to Libya for damage inflicted by Italy during the colonial era and signed a 5-billion-dollar investment deal by way of compensation. Similarly, universal justice demands that Britain should also make a compensating apology for the harm inflicted on British India. A compensation of 5 million pound for each of the 190 colonizing years would be the minimum for making a plausible apology.


Dialogue A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati

Astha Bharati