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British Rule in India


For better or worse, the British Empire played an important role in shaping modern India. It was considered as the ‘Jewel in the Crown’ for the British Empire due to its resources and location. In 1858, British Raj was established in India, ending a century of control by the East India Company. Britain kept India under its rule for almost a century, denying independence to a country with a population more than 10 times larger than its own. This period of turmoil marked the nature of political, social and economic rule that the British established in its wake.

India gained its independence from Britian in 1947, after decades of clashes and protesting, mostly thanks to the fundamental contribution of Mahatma Gandhi and the Indian National Congress.

Here we want to take a brief look at the history of the British Empire in India and how it has transformed India today:


  • The British rule in India started with the East India Company, a private company owned by stakeholders
  • The British Crown established the Raj in 1858 to control the Indian subcontinent, a political role that existed for almost a century
  • The anti-colonialism movement emerged in response to the “divide and rule” approach used by the British
  • Gandhi, and his revolutionary methods of protest, played a pivotal role in Indian independence
  • India became independent from British rule on 15 August 1947.
  • The most tangible legacy of the British are of course the railway, the colonial architecture, and the Anglo-Indian cuisine

The history of the British rule in India

The history of the British rule in the Indian subcontinent is long, complicated, and covering it all would be impossible. Here we have gathered some basic information to help you understand how it started, what was characterized by, and how it finally came to an end.

Pax Britannica & the British East India Company

The Pax Britannica was established during a long period of peace between the Great Powers, with the British Empire becoming a global hegemonic power. The British Royal Navy was an unchallenged sea power, and it held a dominant position in world trade.

The East India Company was a private company owned by stakeholders, and it managed to rule until 1857, when Indians rebelled against it. After the rebellion, the Company was dismantled, and the British government began to directly administer the Indian subcontinent.

The main purpose of the British Raj was of course to gain economic profit and political control, but it also managed to unify the subcontinent, introduce western education, a centralized administrative system, a network of railways, etc. Under the Raj, economy grew 1% every year for 40 years, and the same is true for the population.

However, it is important to not forget that during the rule of the British Raj, India suffered some of the worst famines of its long history: during the Great Famine of 1876-78, about 8 million people died; and more about 10 million people died during the famine of 1899-1900. According to historians, these famines were made even more sever by British policies.

Towards self-government

The rise of the Indian nationalism is one of the most important events of the 19th century, caused by a clash of interests with the British, racial discriminations or the revelation of India’s past (historians disagree on the matter).

The anti-colonial movement started when the British split Bengal in two – one half Muslim, one half Hindu. The people of Bengal were obviously outraged, and the province was finally reunited in 1911.

Even though there were not a lot of British in India, they ruled over 52% of the country, and had a considerable leverage on princely states who governed on the remaining portion of the subcontinent. Indian people started gaining recognition when the Crown appointed some Indian Counsellors to advise the British viceroy, and when provincial councils with Indian members were established.

However, despite these concessions, the British kept ruling the country sometimes with an iron fist: a sad reminder of this attitude is the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre, when British troops opened fire on peaceful protestors. The massacre led to the Non-cooperation Movement of 1920-22 and, after that, leaders like Gandhi began to popularize peaceful methods to contrast the British.

World War I

The relationship between Britain and India would have never been the same after World War I. Britain declared war on Germany, on India’s behalf, but without consulting the Indian leaders first. About 1.4 million of Indians joined the British army (43.000 of which died), and their participation had a huge cultural impact.

During this period, there were still many Indians who were eager for independence, and Gandhi became an extremely important political figure.

World War II

Once again, India hugely contributed to the British war effort. The princely states donated troops and an important amount of cash. During WWII, India had an astonishing 2.5 million volunteer army, and more than 87.000 Indian soldiers died in action.

During this time, the independence movement was at its peak, and the vast majority of the population resented the British. About 30,000 Indians were recruited by Germany and Japan to fight against the Allies in exchange for their freedoms – however, most Indians remained loyal.

Gandhi kept demonstrating against the British Rule and, in 1935, the Government of India Act established provincial legislatures across the colony. A federal government was created and the right to vote was granted to about 10% of the male population.

Partition and independence

In 1942, Britain sent an envoy to India. Sir Stafford Cripps, offering future dominion statues and asking for more soldiers. However, Gandhi didn’t trust the envoy and demanded immediate independence. The movement “Quit India” was launched, with many people asking for the immediate withdrawal of Britain from the subcontinent.

The British responded by arresting Gandhi and his wife. Protesters arose all across the country, but the British army crushed them. By this time, the British Raj was about to came to an end.

In 1946, Hindus and Muslims started a violent fight; and in 1947, Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs agreed to divide India along sectarian lines, with the Muslim area becoming Pakistan. Millions of refugees crossed the border in both directions, and about 500,000 people were killed in sectarian violence. Pakistan finally became independent on August 14, 1947, India, the day after.

English bequest in India

Besides the main historical events, it is important to also look at what was the effect of the British rule on the country. Every history of colonialism has a complex legacy: in this case, for some historians the British rule greatly improved the country and helped it to come out of poverty; for others, the British left India poorer than before. The controversy is endless. Our purpose here is to state some undisputable facts about the British legacy, some of which can be still witnessed today.


The railways built by the British are an infinite paradox: they are the biggest gift left by the colonialists, but they were not meant to serve the locals. The vast rail network greatly facilitated commerce and travel, creating an infrastructure that India had never seen. They greatly contributed to shape of India we know today – but they were also seen as the principal instrument of colonialization.

The railways began in 1853, as a blatant instrument of military control, and the biggest controversy was created by the treatment of third-class passengers, who were virtually all Indians. This unfair treatment greatly contributed to the birth of the nationalistic sentiment.

Nowadays, getting on an Indian train is a unique experience for any foreigners. They have 18 million daily passengers, 17,000 trains on over 64,000 kilometers of track. If you want to move around the country while experiencing what could be a life-changing journey, traveling on a train is the way to go.

Colonial architecture

The British began to build several architectural masterpieces in the late 19th century, as it is blatantly clear in New Delhi. Buildings like the Viceroy’s sprawling residence and Parliament House are an excellent example of this style that mixes the English school of architecture with traditional Indian styles.

The architect responsible for the overall plan of Delhi was Sir Edwin Lutyen, who was responsible for much of the architectural design and building during the period of the British Raj. – he also designed the Viceroy House (Rashtrapati Bhavan).

If you visit New Delhi, be sure to not miss visiting Parliament House, India Gate, Rashtrapati Bhawan, the Central Secretariat, and the Supreme Court of India.

Cemeteries of the Raj Era

There are several cemeteries built by the British all over India. One of the most important ones is the British Cemetery at Lovedale, Ootacamund, which opened in 1832. There are 124 tombs, of which 110 are of British Christians.

The Garrison Cemetery, in Srirangapatna, has 307 tombs of the British Army. The tombs are ornate with Neoclassical and Egyptian motifs (like obelisks, urns, and columns).

These are just two of the thousands European cemeteries present in India today. Many of them today are in a serious state of decay. Some are currently being restored, as more people are enquiring of their heritage. They see this as a lasting sign of the English hegemony or if now they are part of the Indian culture.

Raj cuisine

Raj cuisine – better known as Anglo-Indian cuisine – is the cuisine that sparkled from the interaction between the British wives and their Indian cooks.

The British developed a taste for Indian cuisine – especially for curries, made less spicy – and introduced some dishes like chutneys, salted beef tongue, ball curry, and mulligatawny soup.

Some famous dishes

Maybe the most famous of these dishes is chicken tikka masala, apparently invented in Glasgow in the 70’s. Chutneys are another staple food of the Anglo-Indian cuisine: they are made with cooked and sweetened fruit, nuts or vegetables, giving it a sweet and tangy flavor. Pish pash, a rice soup with small pieces of meat, is another popular dish.

Anglo-Indian stew is made with any kind of meat spiced with a combination of Western and Indian flavors, which is true also for the mulligatawny soup (a chicken soup flavored with Indian spices).


The British soldiers living in India were always longing for the tastes of their home country, especially beer. Beer will often spoil during the long trips, therefore the British brewers resolved this by adding more hops (a flower plant or also called seed cones) – the India Pale Ales descends from this practice.

Beside beer, also gin and tonics owe their existence to British colonialism. The quinine was used to fight malarial (a property already known to the Romans), and the British tried to made a cocktail out of it, combining the medicinal quinine syrup and the gin to create a uniquely pleasant beverage. Lime and sugar where used to cover the bitter taste of the quinine.

English influence on the languages of India

The Indian subcontinent is extremely diversified, and it is home to a wide array of different languages. In India, there are 22 official languages, 150 major languages and 1,652 languages and dialects.

When the Indian and the British culture collided together over a long period of time, their two languages began to influence each other, with words from one language being assimilated into the other.

Status of the English language in India

Nowadays, alongside Hindi, the Constitution of India indicates English as the second official language of the country. Approximately 86 million Indians stated that English is their second language, while 39 million reported it as their third language. Less than the 0.1% of the Indian population uses English as their first language.

English, despite the constant pressure from nationalist, remains embedded in Indian society. It is used in the media and higher education. It is normally used among the ruling class and speakers that don’t have the same first language.

South Asian English (or “Hinglish”)

In term of pronunciation, many Indian speakers – as well as in many other South Asian countries – do not differentiate the “v” and the “w” sound. Sometimes, they replace the “th” sound with a “t” or a “d”.

Another common phenomenon is code-switching: mixing words, phrases and sometimes even whole sentences from one language to another within the same conversation. Sometimes, the use of Hindi words can communicate a sense of shared identity with other speakers.

…and the influence of Hindi on English

There are tons of words that are used today in modern English that derived from Hindi. Some of the most famous ones are:

  • Avatar – in Sanskrit, it means “incarnation”
  • Guru – Sanskrit for “teacher”subcontinent, a political role that existed for almost a century
  • Zen – The English word actually comes from the Chinese “Chan”, which is a derivation of the Sanskrit “Dhyana”
  • Mandra – Sanskrit for “incantation” or “chant”
  • Jaggernaut – it derives from “Jagannath”, the name of Vishnu
  • Shampoo – From “champo” that means “massage into hair”
  • Bungalow – “Bangla”, a kind of house
  • Pajamas – from “Paijama”, a “leg garment”

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