At a Glance...




Udham Singh: Avenger of the Amritsar Massacre

Udham Singh in Popular Memory

The Tragedy of Komagata Maru

Agrarian Unrest: The Deccan Riots of 1875

"Jolly Good Fellows and Their Nasty Ways", review of John Newsinger, The Blood Never Dried: A People's History of the British Empire

Black Hole of Calcutta

East India Company

Robert Clive

Clive and his Pet Tortoise

Warren Hastings

Battle of Plassey


Indian History

Sir Muhammed Iqbal

Criminality and Colonial Anthropology

Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India








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See additional papers and references at the end of this page

Memsahib in Rickshaw, photograph from South India, C. 1895.

(Click image for a large view.)

During World War I, when Britain declared that India was at war with Germany as well, large number of Indian troops served overseas, and the declaration by the Secretary of State Montagu in 1917 to the effect that it would be the intent of the Government of India to increase gradually Indian participation in the administration of the country was seen as an encouragement of Indian ambitions of eventual self-rule. But following the conclusion of the war, the British sought to introduce draconian legislation to contain the activity of people presumed to be political extremists, and the Punjab disturbances of 1919, including the notorious massacre by General Dyer of nearly 400 unarmed Indians at the Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar in April, marked the emergence of a nation-wide movement against British rule. The events of 1919 also brought to the fore Mahatma Gandhi, who would henceforth be the uncrowned king of the Indian nationalist movement. Gandhi led the non-cooperation movement against the British in 1920-22, as well as a campaign of civil disobedience in 1930-31, and in 1942 he issued the call to the British to 'Quit India'. Negotiations for some degree of Indian independence, led by Gandhi, first took place in 1930 at the Round Table Conferences in London, but shortly thereafter the Congress decided to adopt a resolution calling for purna swaraj, or complete independence from British rule. Meanwhile, relations between the Hindus and Muslims had deteriorated, and during the latter years of World War II, when the leaders of the Congress, including Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Sardar Patel were incarcerated, the Muslim League, which declared itself in support of the British war effort, had a free hand to spread the message of Muslim separatism. When, in the aftermath of the war, and the triumph of the Labor party, the British Prime Minister Clement Atlee declared that the British would grant India its independence, negotiations were commenced with all the major political parties and communities, including the Sikhs, the Congress, and the Muslim League. In launching Direct Action Day in 1946, which led to immense communal killings in Calcutta, the Muslim League sought to convey the idea that an undivided India was no longer a possibility; and the eventual attainment of independence from British rule on 15 August 1947 was accompanied not only by the creation of the new state of Pakistan, comprised of Muslim-majority areas in both the eastern and western parts of India, but by the unprecedented horrors of partition. At least 500,000 people are estimated to have been killed, and many women were abducted or raped; and it is estimated that no fewer than 11 million Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs crossed borders, which to this day remains the single largest episode of migration in history.

Though the political narrative dominates in accounts of the history of British India, as in the preceding pages, the social and cultural histories of the British Raj are no less interesting. There are doubtless enduring, though not necessarily desirable, influences of British rule in contemporary India. The elites of the country write and converse largely in English, and are connected amongst themselves, and to the larger world outside, through the English language. The Constitution of India, howsoever noble a document, has been decisively shaped by the Government of India Act of 1935, which was scarcely designed to alleviate the distress of the predominantly underprivileged population of India, and not much thought seems to have been given to considering how appropriate a parliamentary system, with roughly the same number of seats in the lower (elected) house, the Lok Sabha, as in the House of Commons, might be for India when it is infinitely larger than Britain. The political and administrative institutions of independent India operate on the assumption that the country is still under colonial rule, and that the subjects are to have no voice in governance, unless they make an extreme fuss. The legal structure was handed down by the British, and the presumption remains that it does not exist to serve the common person, any more than does the vast apparatus of 'law and order': it is no accident that the police always arrive late in the popular Hindi film, when communities have already successfully taken the law into their own hands. The only innovations which have of been use in meeting forms of extreme oppression and injustice, such as Public Interest Litigation, are those which have effected a departure from the colonial model of justice.

India inherited from the British its present university system, and the origins of the summer migration of the middle class and elites to hill stations date back to the early nineteenth century. Social institutions such as clubs and gymkhanas, which persist down to the present day, were a critical part of British life, as E. M. Forster's A Passage to India, Orwell's Burmese Days, and the novels of John Masters and Paul Scott so amply suggest. Though the Indian languages were well developed before the arrival of the British in India, the standardization of these languages, and the creation of the first grammars and dictionaries, was achieved under British rule. The influential school of Kalighat painting emerged in late nineteenth century, and can scarcely be understood without a reference to the creation of a modern market, and similarly the printing press, which arrived in India in the sixteenth century, heralded the age of mechanical reproduction in India. In sports, the abiding passion remains cricket (once a preeminently colonial game), and the favorite drink of the Indian middle class male remains scotch and soda. One could point to a thousand different manifestations of the British presence in India, and slowly, one hopes, our histories will also alert us to the transformations wrought in British institutions and practices in post-independent India.


Other related publications on the history of British India by Vinay Lal:

"The Saga of Subhas Bose", review of Leonard Gordon's Brothers Against the Raj, Economic and Political Weekly 27, no. 4 (25 January 1992):155-156.

"The Incident of the Crawling Lane: Women in the Punjab Disturbances of 1919", Genders, no. 16 (Spring 1993):35-60.

"Surat Under the Raj", review of Douglas Haynes, Rhetoric and Ritual in Colonial India, Economic and Political Weekly 28, no. 18 (1 May 1993):863-865.

"Imperial Nostalgia", review of The Raj: India and the British 1600-1947, by C. A. Bayly et al., Economic and Political Weekly 28, nos. 29-30 (17-24 July 1993):1511-13.

"Beyond Alterity", review of Sara Suleri's The Rhetoric of English India, Economic and Political Weekly 30, no. 5 (4 February 1995):254-55.

"The Courtesan and the Indian Novel", a review-article on Hasan Shah, The Nautch Girl, and Mirza M. H. Ruswa, Umra Jan Ada, Courtesan of Lucknow, Indian Literature, no. 139 (Sept-Oct 1995):164-70.

"Masculinity and Femininity in The Chess Players: Sexual Moves, Colonial Manoeuvres, and an Indian Game", in Manushi: A Journal of Women and Society, nos. 92-93 (Jan.-April 1996):41-50.

"Good Nazis and just scholars: much ado about the British Empire", review of P. J. Marshall, ed., Cambridge Illustrated History of the British Empire, Race and Class 38, no. 4 (April-June 1997):89-101.

"Hill Stations: Pinnacles of the Raj." Review article on Dale Kennedy, The Magic Mountains: Hill Stations and the British Raj, Capitalism, Nature, Socialism 8, no. 3 (September 1997):123-132.

"John Stuart Mill and India", a review-article. New Quest, no. 54 (January-February 1998):54-64.

"Everyday Crime, Native Mendacity and the Cultural Psychology of Justice in Colonial India." Studies in History (New Series) 15, no. 1 (1999):145-66.


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