My Country The rule of the British Crown 1858 1947

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Anupama Nair


I had written a lot of articles about colonial India and how the use of an Enfield Rifle in 1857, brought about the rise of Nationalism and how the rule of the East India Company came to an end. There was a curse the East India Company would not rule for a hundred years and it came true. India came under the rule of the British Crown and Queen Victoria came to be called as ‘Kaiser-e-Hind’ or empress of India. The immediate result of the Revolt was a general ‘housecleaning’ of the Indian administration. The East India Company was abolished in favor of the direct rule of India by the British government. In layman terms, this did not mean much, but it introduced a more personal note into the government and removed the unimaginative commercialism that had remained with the Court of Directors. The financial crisis caused by the Revolt led to a reorganization of the Indian administration’s finances on a modern basis. The Indian army was also extensively reorganized.

Another significant result of the revolt was the beginning of the policy of consultation with Indians. The Legislative Council of 1853 had contained only Europeans and had arrogantly behaved as if it were a full-fledged parliament. It was widely felt that a lack of communication with Indian opinion had helped to precipitate the crisis. Accordingly, the new council of 1861 was given an Indian-nominated element. The educational and public works programs (roads, railways, telegraphs, and irrigation) continued with little interruption, in fact, some were stimulated by the thought of their value for the transport of troops in a crisis. But insensitive British-imposed social measures that affected Hindu society came to an abrupt end.

Soon after the Revolt of 1857, an Act called Government of India Act 1858 was introduced by the British Parliament. The act also  known as the Act for the Good Government of India, eliminated the East India Company, and transferred the powers of the Government, territories and revenues to the British Crown.

It provided that India, henceforth, was to be governed by, and in the name of, Her Majesty. It changed the designation of the Governor-General of India to that of Viceroy of India. Viceroy was the direct representative of the British Crown in India. Lord Canning, thus, became the first Viceroy of India.It ended the system of double Government by abolishing the Board of Control and Court of Directors.

It created a new office, Secretary of State for India, vested with complete authority and control over Indian administration. The secretary of state was a member of the British Cabinet and was responsible ultimately to the British. It established a 15-member council of India to assist the Secretary of State for India. The council was an advisory body. The secretary of state was made the Chairman of the council. It constituted the Secretary of State-in Council as a body corporate, capable of suing and being sued in India and in England.

‘The Act of 1858 was, however, largely confined to the improvement of the administrative machinery by which the Indian Government was to be supervised and controlled in England. It did not alter in any substantial way the system of Government that prevailed in India’.

On November 1, 1858, Lord Canning announced Queen Victoria’s proclamation to “the Princes, Chiefs and Peoples of India,” which unveiled a new British policy of perpetual support for ‘native princes’ and non-intervention in matters of religious belief or worship within British India. The announcement overturned Lord Dalhousie’s pre-war policy of political unification through annexation of the princely states, and princes were left free to adopt any heirs they desired so long as they all swore undying allegiance to the British crown. In 1876, at the prompting of Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, Queen Victoria added the title Empress of India to her regality. “British fears of another revolt and consequent determination to bolster Indian states as ‘natural breakwaters’ against any future tidal wave of revolt thus left more than 560 enclaves of autocratic princely rule to survive, interspersed throughout British India, for the entire nine decades of crown rule”.

The attitude of the British officials who went to India during that period was, as the English writer Rudyard Kipling said to “take up the white man’s burden.” By and large, throughout the interlude of their Indian service to the Crown. Britishers lived as super-bureaucrats, or “Pukka Sahibs,” remaining as aloof as possible from “native contamination” in their private clubs and well-guarded military cantonments, which were constructed beyond the walls of the old, crowded “native” cities in that era. The Company’s three armies located in Bengal, Bombay , and Madras, which in 1857 had only 43,000 British to 228,000 native troops, were reorganized by 1867 to a much “higher mix of 65,000 British to 140,000 Indian soldiers.

The Indian Councils Act of 1861 transformed the Viceroy’s Executive Council into a miniature cabinet run on the portfolio system, and each of the five ordinary members was placed in charge of a distinct department of Calcutta’s government i.e., home, revenue, military, finance, and law. The military commander in chief sat with that council as an extraordinary member. A sixth ordinary member was assigned to the viceroy’s Executive Council after 1874, initially to preside over the Department of Public Works, which after 1904 came to be called Commerce and Industry. Few viceroys found it necessary to assert their full despotic authority, since the majority of their councilors usually were in agreement. In 1879, however, Viceroy Lytton felt obliged to overrule his entire council in order to accommodate demands for the elimination of his government’s import duties on British cotton manufactures, despite India’s desperate need for review in a year of famines and floods.

Despite continued British adherence to the doctrine of laissez-faire during that period, a 10 percent customs duty was levied in 1860 to help clear the war debt, though it was reduced to 7 percent in 1864 and to 5 percent in 1875. The above-mentioned cotton import duty, abolished in 1879 by Viceroy Lytton, was not reimposed on British imports of piece goods and yarn until 1894, when the value of silver fell so quickly on the world market that the government of India was forced to take action, even against the economic interests of the home country i.e., textiles in Lancashire, by adding enough rupees to its revenue to make ends meet. Bombay’s textile industry had by then developed more than 80 power mills, and the huge Empress Mill owned by Indian industrialist  Jamshedji N. Tata was in full operation at Nagpur, competing directly with Lancashire mills for the vast Indian market. Britain’s mill owners again demonstrated their power in Calcutta by forcing the government of India to impose an ‘equalizing’ 5 percent excise tax on all cloth manufactured in India.

Britain’s major contribution to India’s economic development throughout the era of crown rule was the railroad network that spread so swiftly across the Subcontinent after 1858, when there were barely 200 miles (320 km) of track in all of India. By 1869 more than 5,000 miles (8,000 km) of steel track had been completed by British railroad companies, and by 1900 there were some 25,000 miles (40,000 km) of rail laid. By the start of World War I (1914–18) the total had reached 35,000 miles (56,000 km), almost the full growth of British India’s rail net. Initially, the railroads proved a mixed blessing for most Indians, since, by linking India’s agricultural, village-based heartland to the British imperial port cities of Bombay, Madras, and Calcutta, they served both to hasten the pace of raw-material extraction from India and to speed up the transition from subsistence food to commercial agricultural production.

Now I will be speaking about British rule in the 20th Century and finally the Dawn of Freedom.

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