A Mixed Legacy: From the Raj to Modern India

By Wolpert, Stanley | Harvard International Review, Winter 2011 | Go to article overview

A Mixed Legacy: From the Raj to Modern India


Wolpert, Stanley, Harvard International Review


India's recent economic growth and strategic partnership with the United States have completed the transformation of that previously impoverished colony of the United Kingdom into South Asia's superpower. In its 63 years of independence, India has surpassed its former imperial masters in economic development and global power. That historic growth was achieved in great measure with the aid of a rich variety of cultural tools adopted from its old Western rulers, though India's greatest nationalists also reached deeper, tapping root springs of ancient Hinduism and Indian civilization's secular scientific genius, all of which helped to ignite its precocious economic powers.

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For more than a century under the United Kingdom's imperial rule ("Raj"), India's elite mastered the English language and literature, gaining admission to British India's universities, civil service system, and courts of law. They used those powerful institutions, the popular press, British national railways, and post and telegraph networks to attack indigenous feudal lords and princes, as well as racially prejudiced British viceroys, governors, and generals. India's National Congress, born in 1885, was inspired by the British civil servant-ornithologist, Allan Octavian Hume, and met annually during British India's Christmas vacation, passing resolutions that demanded greater access by Indians to positions of governmental power, fewer taxes, reductions in military expenditure, and compulsory elementary education. Although those Congressional resolutions were sent to every Indian viceroy and secretary of state, they were generally ignored, or at best granted only in small measure. India's new young leaders-in-embryo, however, learned from their early failures how better to appeal for justice, equality of opportunity, and fair play--British ideals they culled from the works of Milton, Macaulay, Mill, and Morley, which they memorized and articulated more eloquently than did most British officials.

In 1906, the Muslim quarter of British India's multicultural population launched its own political party, the Muslim League. Like Congress, the League had a British mentor, Tory Viceroy Lord Minto, and was initially led by the conservative Aga Khan. In 1916, during World War I, the Muslim barrister M.A. Jinnah, who completed his legal studies at London's Lincoln's Inn, drafted a proposed postwar plan, jointly adopted by Congress and the League, which called upon the United Kingdom to grant India the virtual autonomy of a self-governing dominion within the empire. Had that Lucknow Pact been implemented, it might well have saved South Asia from the tragedies of partition that followed World War II.

After 1905, when Viceroy George Curzon autocratically and ineptly partitioned Great Britain's premier province of Bengal, most Congress leaders abandoned reliance on polite petitions and pleas, adopting more radical demands for the boycott of all British imports and institutions, including British courts of law and universities. They advocated economic self-sufficiency, or Sva-deshi ("made in our own country"), and Sva-raj ("freedom") from British rule. Then Congress itself divided in 1907, its moderate liberal leadership under Gopal Gokhale favoring "home rule" within the British Raj, and its revolutionary majority led by Bal Gangadhar Tilak insisting on complete independence, or self-government.

India's people and its princes had rallied to support the United Kingdom and its allies during World War I, and by war's end hoped to reap rewards of freedom from a grateful empire. Instead, fearing the return to Punjab of many battle-toughened Indian veterans and the hopeful expectations expressed by Congress politicians, anxious British officers, like Brigadier Reginald Dyer, unleashed their troops to massacre 400 unarmed innocents inside Amritsar's Jallianwala Bagh. Another 1,200 terrified Punjabi civilians were wounded, unable to escape from that enclosed garden. …

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