rise of the British empire in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries
resulted in new challenges to a people who had only recently attempted to
grapple with their new identity as a “British nation”, instead of separate
communities with English, Scottish and Welsh origins. Britain’s colonialism,
as argued by Linda Colley, evoked a sense of “British patriotism” through
the domination over, and in distinction from, the millions of colonial subjects
beyond their own boundaries”. Accordingly, a sense of “Britishness” went
along hand in hand with the empire that was in the making.
This evoked a “civilising” belief that England should assist in advancing
“backward peoples” towards greater refinement, just as the early Romans were
believed to have brought civility to England. The mission originated with the
conquest of Ireland, and the desire to become the “new Romans” of Europe,
which justified the Irish conquest and the subjugation of foreign peoples from
America to India.
exploring the motivations behind British colonialism in India, an underlying
trend can seen in the “civilising mission” that sought to establish British
institutions and ideas in place of the local political culture, through the
ideological hegemony inherent in such a mission. Consequently, in examining the
British colonial legacy and “civilising mission” in India, this paper
proposes that although colonialism significantly transformed the political
culture in India, it did not establish ideological hegemony in the country.
order to examine the extent of political change initiated in India, it is first
important to understand the reasons behind the British “civilising mission”
in India. As Metcalf explains, the initial British attempts to change India’s
political culture stemmed from a belief that it was in a state of “Oriental
despotism”, with the legitimate royal power similar to that of a “master
over a slave”.
Although the ideas of “despotism” were later replaced by notions that India
had been possession of laws since antiquity, the British still sought measures
to successfully govern India, through imposing changes in its political culture,
a desire which could be traced to the fundamental belief that it was bringing
improvement to the people in India.
According to the liberal John Stuart Mill, this was because British dominion of
India could rapidly carry its people through “several stages of progress”,
and “clear away obstacles to improvement”.
Consequently, the liberal transformation of India meant the assimilation of
central British institutions onto Indian soil. Among the most important of
these, were private property, the rule of law, education in Western knowledge
and the liberty of the individual.
concept of private property was introduced by the British in 1793, which
differed significantly from pre-colonial days, during which land was held
communally and a percentage of the produce remitted to the state.
By introducing private property to India, British liberals hoped to eliminate
the “parasitic” intermediaries of communal property, vesting all property
rights in the actual cultivators of the soil.
Moreover, as expressed by Eric Stokes, the introduction of private property was
fundamental in that property rights in land were now secured and maintained by a
Western law system, thereby altering the traditional modes of land tenure, which
were the “heart of Indian society”.
Accompanying these policy shifts were the socioeconomic changes that resulted,
as can be seen in the modifications within the class structure, which
transformed former revenue-collecting officials such as the zamindars
and the taluqdars into a landowning gentry. More importantly, the property laws also
profoundly affected India’s power distribution, as whoever controlled the land
could now control those who had no land.
Consequently, the British could now rely on the new landed class to perform
domestic administrative duties such as the collection of revenue.
rule of law was another important effect of British colonialism. Led by
officials such as Warren Hastings and William Jones, efforts were made to put
into place a legal system that would effectively govern India through the
utilisation of the ancient Sanskrit texts as the basis of Hindu Civil Law.
Fuelled by a belief in India’s ancient laws rather than in its “despotic”
nature, these officials sought to govern India through its own laws, which were
translated into English from their original form.
However, as Cohn argues, the 1864 judicial system reforms resulted in a
transformation of Hindu law into a form of English case law, which was because
of the establishment of authoritative decisions in English. These changes
instituted the authority of precedence in making law, based on the Anglo-Saxon
legal system. Consequently, the intentions of Hastings and Jones to govern India
by its own laws had been supplanted by the ruling of India with English law as
the law of the land.
In a sense, this codification of “procedural” rather than “substantive”
law enabled the British to incorporate the “spirit” of its “civilising
mission”. This was achieved by preserving the Indian difference expressed in
the substantive codes, while at the same time assimilating utilitarian desires
for precision and simplicity in law, as seen in the liberal insistence on
British institution, that of Western-style education, was deemed crucial towards
the British desire to reshape India in its image. This was because
English-based education served to intermingle the codes of power and culture, in
that it both brought prestige and status to those who had “even a slight
command of the language”, as well as imparted the culture of the coloniser
onto that of the colonised.
As coherently explained by Guha, Western-style education served to teach the
colonised an interpretation of the past in terms of the colonisers’ interests.
This was especially since the control of knowledge served as a way to retain
power in the hands of those who possessed such knowledge, establishing a
relationship of authority between educator and educated. As a result, the
education process sought to achieve, as articulated by Thomas Macaulay, the
growth of a class that was “Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes,
in opinions, in morals and intellect”.
This would then enable the efficient administration of India by a local educated
elite, loyal to the dictates of the British Crown.
instituting the key changes of property reforms, the rule of law and providing
Indians with a Western-style of education, the British “civilising” mission
hoped to impart its fourth political legacy of ensuring the liberty of the
individual. This could be achieved by ensuring property rights for the
individual, enacting laws to provide for the protection of the individual and
making available Western-style education as a means to “improve” the quality
of life of the individual. Although it can also be argued that these changes to
India were effected for the British interests of efficient administration and
governance, the impact of these reforms were nonetheless important towards
ensuring the liberty of the individual.
addition to the effects of British institutions on Indian political culture,
colonial rule also introduced governance structures to effectively administer to
the needs of the Indian economy. These resulted in the introduction of concepts
of government and foreign exchange that significantly transformed India’s
political culture. Of these, the most important avenues of change can be seen in
the rise of the modern economy and the bureaucracy.
roots of the modern Indian economy can be traced to changes that occurred as a
result of the British introduction of private property, the rule of law, modern
education and a laissez-faire economy.
These changes included the free circulation of capital, productive enterprise
and a system of large-scale production.
In addition, British infrastructure development in the 1850s stimulated the
growth of local industrial development, which laid the “foundation” for
capitalist enterprise in India.
Related to the development of the economy was the ascension of an Indian
business class, which evolved into a powerful bourgeois class by the
This new class was therefore crucial in India’s formative independent years,
as it attempted to define a new society free from direct British influence.
modern Indian bureaucracy, like the modern economy, developed as a result of the
introduction of private property, the rule of law and modern education, as these
three changes facilitated the efficient government and administration of India
by the British rulers. Consequently, in the attempt to manage India, British
colonialism set in place a system of government radically different from the
pre-colonial Mughal era, exercising direct control over certain parts of India,
while at the same time being bound in a series of sanads
or agreements with more than five hundred princely states.
This dual system of government, while serving to marginal the princes from
political power, also created an intricate system of government that the British
used in controlling India.
In this manner, the princely states served as “royal instruments without
political power”, with the ability to defend India militarily and at the same
time checking against other states and against threats from below.
the ideological effect of Britain’s “civilising mission”. On the surface,
it can be argued that because the British were able to change India’s
political culture significantly, this served as the premise that ideological
supremacy had been established. However, a closer examination of the
“civilising mission” and its impact reveals that ideological hegemony was
not established by the British. On the contrary, the British influence in India
had instead conformed to the very political culture it had sought to control.
as defined by Gramsci, refers to the “predominance” obtained by consent
rather than force through the “diffusion” and “popularisation” of its
world view. Consequently, Gramscian hegemony involves the expansion of a ruling
class ideology so that it is propagated throughout society.
Applying this concept to India, British colonialism would be able to gain
ideological hegemony only if it was able to expand its own ideas and propagate
it throughout Indian society, replacing local beliefs with British concepts.
However, this proposition did not apply to the “civilising mission” in India
in all four aspects of its liberal legacy.
considering the British efforts towards reforming property laws, it can be
argued that by ordering the distribution of land in a manner similar to that in
Britain, colonialism had perpetuated its ideological dominance on India,
especially since concepts of private property remain in post-colonial India.
However, contrary arguments, such as that of the “village community”, have
been proposed to refute such claims. This theory, as articulated by Charles
Metcalfe, suggest that Indian villages exist like “little republics” which
are self-sufficient and remain inert to warfare or devastation. While such ideal
“village communities” are unlikely to have existed in the exact manner
described by Metcalfe, the idea is credible in establishing that communalism was
and is present in India. Hence, private property per se
might have been a British institution established towards the achievement of
control in India, but it did not disrupt the strong local networks inherent in
the socioeconomic relationships of the Indian people.
judicial system reforms, while establishing the primacy of British-style
legislation and the rule of precedence-based case law in India, established
merely a procedural hegemony on Indian legislation, separate from local
substantive codification. Moreover, the British separation of “Hindu” and
“Muslim” law, although initially instituted as a product of administrative
convenience, recognised inherent differences within the Indian population. As there were no notions
of distinct “Hindu” or “Muslim” communities in the pre-colonial era,
British categorisation of such distinctions in law resulted in policy changes
which ironically accentuated the differences of the two “communities”,
especially due to the British perception that Hindus were “passive” and
“indolent” as compared to the general suspicions imposed on Muslims, who
were believed to be “violent” and “despotic”.
This set the stage for factional rivalry that culminated in the post-colonial
separation of the territory into India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. While it cannot
be argued that the British were directly responsible for the Hindu-Muslim
factionalism and conflict, they can be held responsible at least in the sense
that they formalised such differences through the legal changes, allowing a
heightened sense of identity within each community.
a similar note, the inter-caste rivalry in Indian culture was amplified through
the categorisation of society under the judicial system reforms. While this
promoted the legal rights of the various castes, it also raised new questions on
the existing caste system, as can be seen by the debate on introducing a
separate political identity for the “untouchables”.
Consequently, the ideological hegemony embodied by an orderly Indian society
through the rule of British-style law failed to become reality as it instead
accentuated divisions within Indian society, impervious to preconceived British
notions of law and order.
the surface, British educational reforms seemed to create an ideological
hegemony through its creation of an educated Indian elite who had appeared
receptive to ideas of British control through performing local administrative
functions. This was because an education in English was believed to
“deposit” Western values into the “soul of the educated”, and at the
same time detach from Western-educated individuals discourses of traditional
scholarship, thereby alienating them from their traditional way of life.
However, as Guha articulates, Western-style education and the instruction of
English in India were confined to “word-book knowledge”, which, while
sufficient for the daily administrative functions of government, could not
assimilate the values and ideas of British liberalism well enough to justify the
notions of British ideological hegemony.
when the local educated elite was able to seriously study Western scholarship of
liberty, democracy and nationalism, it provided an additional difficulty for the
British. This was because such educated individuals not only sought to occupy
the administrative posts once exclusively reserved for Europeans, but also began
to provide a direct opposition to British rule by their propagation of
“hostility to the established order”.
In addition, because the British was compelled to provide Indian education of a
non-religious nature, unlike the situation in Victorian England, this reflected
a compromise in the British “civilising mission”, therefore reaffirming the
lack of British total ideological control over Indian education.
ideology has failed in its “civilising mission” of obtaining hegemonic
control through its characteristic institutions, as can be seen in the areas of
private property, the rule of law and Western-style education. Similarly, this
concept also holds true to the British liberal ideas of individual liberty. To
the extent that these three institutions were created to ensure the liberties
and rights of the Indian individual, the lack of ideological control over these
three institutions also reflects the inability of British ideology to dominate
the fourth aspect of India’s political culture, as expressed in the liberty of
the individual. Consequently, it can be argued that the project of transforming
India into an ideological image of Britain has also not been achieved in
advancing the rights of the Indian individual.
the distinct manner in which ideological hegemony can be studied in the attempts
to impose British institutions on India, an examination on how ideology affects
other key political concepts is more difficult. This is because there is no
distinct “civilising mission” in the British attempts to create the
governance structures of the modern economy and bureaucracy. Hegemony, in these
instances, can be seen in the indirect manner by which the British attempted to
create governance structures so as to enable the efficient colonial rule of
considering British control over the modern Indian economy, this can be
perceived as an ideological project with the intention of establishing a local
Indian economy capable of supplementing the British economy through trade and
other economic enterprises. To this extent, there is a considerable hegemony
over the nature of the Indian economy, as can be argued because the roots of the
local enterprise were embedded in colonial policies. In addition, the colonial
government utilised a system of “bits and pieces” to develop Indian
industry, as can be seen by railway developments as used to transport
agriculture, commerce and troop movement rather than to promote local industry. Moreover, most of the
complex machinery was manufactured in England, including the heavy machinery of
India’s highly developed cotton textile industry. These developments, as well
as the consolidation of expertise in British hands through establishing key
management positions, and the British ownership of most of India’s foreign
trade, left no questions as to the
centrality of the British role in shaping the Indian economy.
it must be noted that while the British government believed that profits were
important, it also believed in the vitality of not arousing local sentiments
against British practises. Consequently, a laissez-faire
ideology was adhered to in British economic policy. This resulted in Indian
traders having a certain degree of leeway in their trade practises.
Consequently, the “predominance” of the British ideological project can no
longer be strictly adhered to, as Indian influences were also important in
shaping the direction of its industry. This is especially since the development
of the bourgeois class remained “embryonic” until the post-colonial land
reforms of the 1950s.
notions of Indian bureaucratic control were inherent in the idea that through
its institutions, there could be the creation of a local educated elite capable
of maintaining the day to day functions of Indian administration, and at the
same time preserving the supervisory role of the British government. In
addition, the princely system of governance allowed the British to establish at
worst a tolerant body of rulers who did not object violently to colonial rule by
force of arms. In this sense, ideological control over the bureaucracy can be
argued to have created a system of governance which allowed the British to rule
over India in a consensual contract of ruler and ruled. However, as argued by
Anthony Appiah, British indirect rule and the use of “native
administrations” resulted in the preservation of local elitism throughout the
colonial era. This resulted in the promotion of local traditions and
“customary law[s]”, which were a legacy of the pre-colonial state and
innately distinct from British colonial practises.
Consequently, the prevailing practise of pre-colonial culture implied
that the British, while retaining control of the macro situation in India, did
not and could not influence the micro situation in the country, an idea inherent
in the very nature of British colonial rule itself. In this sense, there was
therefore no ideological hegemony implicit in the indirect manner of control
established by the British.
As can be seen, the British imperial experience in India transformed significantly the country’s political culture, and shaped its transition from the fragmented remains of an empire to a modern parliamentary democracy. In playing an integral role towards such a political transformation of the country, British colonialism left behind a legacy of institutions and governing structures that profoundly modified the Indian political landscape, considerably altering it towards a new stage of its political life. However, this political legacy, despite the motivations of the British “civilising mission”, failed to establish ideological hegemony over the Indian political culture. This was because the British colonial practises, being themselves symbiotic in nature, attempted to impose an indirect rule on India through the maintenance of a local administrative elite. It was this failure to completely abolish elements of the pre-colonial culture, assimilating it completely to the British image that identified the failure of British ideological hegemony. Consequently, the failure of colonial rule to expand its own ideas and propagate them throughout colonised society marked its hegemonic failure in that local beliefs ultimately prevailed over those imposed by British colonialism, shaping to a substantial extent, the post-colonial political culture of Indian society.
The above essay was written by Mark Lim Shan-Loong on 8th June 2000.
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The Writing Page
 Thomas R. Metcalf., Ideologies of the Raj, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994, p. 3.
 Ibid., pp. 2-3.
 Ibid., p.6.
 Ibid., pp. 9-10.
 Ibid., p. 33.
 Ibid., p. 35.
Asma Barlas , Democracy, Nationalism
and Communalism: The Colonial
Legacy in South Asia,
Boulder and Oxford: Westview Press, 1995, p.49. Barlas notes the transition
between the pre-Mughal to Mughal periods, during which the king’s share of
the produce had increased from one-sixth to one-third, but communal property
remained the norm.
 Thomas R. Metcalf., Ideologies of the Raj, p. 35.
 Asma Barlas , Democracy, Nationalism and Communalism, p. 49.
 Ibid., pp. 50-1.
 Ibid., pp. 51-2.
 Bernard S. Cohn., Colonialism and its Forms of Knowledge: The British in India, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1996, pp. 65-71.
 Ibid., p. 75.
 Thomas R. Metcalf., Ideologies of the Raj, pp. 37-9.
 Ibid., p. 39.
 Ranajit Guha, Dominance without Hegemony: History and Power in Colonial India, Massachusetts & England: Harvard University, 1997, pp. 171-2.
 Ibid., p. 171.
 Asma Barlas , Democracy, Nationalism and Communalism, p. 57.
 Ibid., p. 54.
 Ibid., p. 56.
 Ibid., pp. 72-3.
 Robert W Stern, Changing India: Bourgeois Revolution on the Subcontinent, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.
 Asma Barlas , Democracy, Nationalism and Communalism, p. 72.
 Ibid., pp. 22-3.
 Thomas R. Metcalf., Ideologies of the Raj, pp. 69-70.
 Ibid., pp. 132-3.
 Ibid., pp. 133-4, 139-40. Metcalf notes that the 1857 revolt was perceived as a product of enduring Muslim animosity although it originated in the army and had both Hindu and Muslim supporters throughout Northern India.
 Robert W Stern, Changing India, pp. 76-8. Stern relates the conflict between Mahatma Gandhi and Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar. He narrates Ambedkar’s lobbying to win for the “untouchables” a separate political identity with the approval of the British. However, when Gandhi embarked on a “fast unto death” protest, Ambedkar reluctantly withdrew his proposal.
 Ranajit Guha, Dominance without Hegemony, p. 175.
 Ibid., p. 174.
 Asma Barlas , Democracy, Nationalism and Communalism, p. 58.
 Thomas R. Metcalf., Ideologies of the Raj, pp. 39-41. Metcalf explains that because religion could not be inscribed into the Indian education system, English was instead used as the central element of the school curriculum, a move that was not subscribed to even in Victorian England.
 Robert W Stern, Changing India, p. 136.
 Ibid., p. 137.
Appiah, Anthony, In My Father’s
House: Africa in the Philosophy
of Culture, New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992. p. 165.
While Appiah’s discussion is mainly focussed on the effect of colonialism
in Africa, his ideas nevertheless also hold true in India.
 Ranajit Guha, Dominance without Hegemony, p. 63.