What Kind Of Political Legacy Did Colonial

Rule Bequeath To Independent India? Essay, Research Paper

In the approximately two hundred years of British rule in India, the British did many things that still have an impact on India. The civil service set up by the British has managed to survive relatively intact until the present day for example, and large parts of the Indian transport network were built under British supervision. Two hundred years of colonial rule must have a major effect on the colony, for it’s people were not allowed to govern themselves; they had to rely on the colonial power to impose laws on them as they had little power in their own right. This paper aims to examine closely the British rule in India and its subsequent independence, and attempt to ascertain what impact British colonial rule has had on Indian politics since the British left. India’s colonial experience is in many ways untypical of the colonial experience of the rest of the British Empire. One of the major reasons for this was the exceptionalism of India itself, the ‘jewel in the crown’ of the British empire. Logistically, India was (and is) a massive country, one that did not lend itself to harsh rule from the centre, unlike some other British colonies. It would be wrong, however, to paint a picture of the British as some kind of enlightened educators of the Indian masses, for their original and major reason for colonising India was to exploit the great untapped wealth of the Indian subcontinent. Bearing this point in mind, it would also be wrong to dismiss the British rule of India as producing nothing good, despite the fact that some of the advantages that India gained through colonial rule were not achieved with the express purpose of improving India’s lot. A good example of this is the fact that colonial rule bequeathed to India an excellent army and police force, while these were set up by the British to safeguard their own colonial interests and keep order. It is impossible to make a case that any of the ex-colonies, on gaining independence, did not have some sort of colonial legacy. The major question is how much the colonial period affects countries after their independence in the many different spheres of national life. Britain left India a legacy in most areas of Indian life after independence, but the political legacy that they left was particularly strong, both in the political system that was drawn up after independence and in the political culture. The Indian Constitution that emerged in January 1950 “bore an uncanny resemblance to the Government of India Act of 1935″ (Manor, 1990:p33). The Act expanded the electorate to approximately one-sixth of the adult population and greatly increased Indian participation in government, with one of the most notable consequences of this being that the members of the Congress gained valuable governing experience which was to aid them to rule India when it eventually gained independence. The Act also provided for a federal structure of power for India, with states gaining their own powers, and the Congress gained power in 7 of the 11 provinces. It was one of the main political legacies of the British that the Congress gained some (albeit limited) governmental experience and it helped greatly in the Indian transition to independence. In many former colonies, their post-independence politicians had little or no experience in government but the 1935 Government of India Act provided a good interim measure between British and Indian rule and became the basis for the Indian constitution. Although the Act provided the basis for India’s constitution, it was not just repeated wholesale as the new constitution. Important changes had been made, such as the introduction of universal suffrage, the guaranteeing of certain fundamental rights, and the removal of the principle of dyarchy, but the core of the two documents remained remarkably similar. The surprising thing about this state of affairs is that Nehru himself described the Government of India Act as a “charter of bondage” in the 1930’s. In Nehru’s defence, a case could be made that the Indian framers of the constitution were preoccupied with two potentially contradictory aims and how to reconcile them : social stability and a need and desire for change. Social stability was a particularly relevant concern of the constitutional framers, for partition in 1947 and its aftermath proved extremely violent, caused fears of continuing widespread religious, cultural and ethnic unrest. Partition provoked major upheavals and violence as whole communities were left on the wrong side of the border, perhaps the best known example of this being “in the Punjab [where] the boundary award, as anticipated, divided the cohesive and militant Sikh community almost equally between the two states. Here, in mounting hysteria, violence and atrocity, Muslims fell upon Sikhs and Hindus in the West, and Sikhs and Hindus upon Muslims in the East. Before the end of the year half a million people had been killed” (Hardgrave & Kochanek,1993:p52). This violence and unrest had a major effect on the framers of the constitution, and is part of the reason why the Indian constitution also has an authoritarian aspect to it. However, the fact must also be borne in mind that the history of the British in India was also marked by some degree of authoritarianism, so it is possible that the new Indian politicians had learnt the lesson from the British that authoritarianism, in times of emergency, could prove to be a potent political and social weapon. However, in this case the question remains as to whether the ethnic and religious problems that erupted at this time were themselves a legacy of British colonial rule and its ‘divide and rule’ early philosophy. On closer examination, the British colonial authorities cannot be totally blameless in this area, although it is debatable to suggest that they were fully aware of what the outcomes of their policies towards the differing ethnic and religious groups would be. As the new constitution was being framed, it must be noted that all the Indians’ experience of parliamentary government and limited democracy had been under British rule. Also, the longevity of British rule in India must have left some imprint on the character of India, for its most immediate model of parliamentary democracy was one that, at the time, was widely respected as giving social stability and economic expansion; namely the British model. Add this to the fact that most of the new Indian middle classes (which were themselves one of the most enduring social legacies of the British) had studied in Britain at some point and it begins to look fairly inevitable that the British parliamentary system should prove to be the major influence on the prospective Indian parliamentary system. The Indian constitution provides for a parliamentary system comprising a bicameral legislature and a Prime Minister, both of which are major features of the British political system, but it also has a President and a Supreme Court, which owe more to American government than they do to the British system. The constitution also allows the election to be called at the discretion of the governing party during the maximum of five years that the government has in power, in the same way that the Prime Minister is allowed to do in the British political system. The authoritarian rule of the British, as already mentioned, played a role in shaping the constitution, but another consequence of it was to make the framers concerned to protect the rights of both the individual and the various ethnic and religious groups in India. This conflicted, however, with the fact that some parts of British authoritarian rule had proved effective in establishing and maintaining social order, so through necessity the constitution is a self-contradictory document in some parts. One of the major political legacies left to the newly independent India was the Indian bureaucracy, the ’steel frame’ that had aided the British so much in governing India and implementing its laws. This gave India another advantage over most former colonies, as they already had in place a highly organised, experienced and efficient bureacracy which made their job of governing easier. It is to the Indians’ credit that they were pragmatic enough to realise that British rule had given them some advantages in trying to govern a newly independent country, for they could have dismantled the apparatus of state left by the British in an outbreak of nationalism. The Indian post-independence leaders were, through necessity, pragmatists and they drew on the lessons of the British colonial period in governing the independent India. It must be noted also that the struggle for independence gave birth to the Indian National Congress, later to become the Congress Party, who have ruled India for virtually the whole period since independence and whose members were instrumental in drawing up the Indian constitution. This movement came into being because of a common desire to, first of all, have more say in the running of their own country, and later to gain independence for their country and eventually govern it. The Congress was a major unifying factor in both pre- and post- independence Indian political life and although it would be wrong to see them entirely as a British legacy, they and the whole independence movement came into being as a reaction to India’s colonial status. The Congress came into being as a direct consequence of British rule, and their history provides one of the most enduring legacies of British rule. Much of contemporary Indian political culture can be seen as a legacy of British rule and the independence movement. As has already been mentioned, the strands of authoritarianism in Indian politics can be directly traced to British rule, as can the principle of secularity that plays such a major role in both Indian political and social life. Add this to the lessons gained through the independence movement and the respect for the rule of law and it becomes obvious that British colonial rule still has great impact on India’s politics and political system. To conclude, there can be no doubt that India would be a radically different country today if it were not for the British colonial period, for over the approximately two hundred years of British rule India went through many changes that still directly affect it today. British rule has left a large political legacy in India, some of it good, some of it bad. It is impossible to speculate the state of India today if the colonial period had not occurred, but there is no doubt that it would be a radically different country. ` `Bibliography Hardgrave, R and Kochanek, S : 1993 `”India : Government and Politics in a Developing Nation” `(HBJ : Florida) Brass, P : 1990 `”The Politics of India since Independence” `(Cambridge University Press) Talbot, I : 1991 `”British rule in the Punjab 1849 – 1947″ in “Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History” (Vol 19, No. 2) Manor, J : 1990 `”How and why liberal and representative politics emerged in India” in “Political Studies” (March 1990) Kothari, R : 1970 `”India” `(Little, Brown and Company : Boston)


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