The British "Civilising Mission" & its Legacy on India's Political Culture


The 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.[1] 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.[2]

In 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.

In 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”.[3] 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.[4] 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”.[5] 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.[6]

The 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.[7] 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.[8] 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”.[9] 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.[10] Consequently, the British could now rely on the new landed class to perform domestic administrative duties such as the collection of revenue.[11]

The 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.[12] 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.[13] 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 procedural codes.[14]

Another British institution, that of Western-style education, was deemed crucial towards the British desire to reshape India in its image.[15] 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.[16] As coherently explained by Guha, Western-style education served to teach the colonised an interpretation of the past in terms of the colonisers’ interests.[17] 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”.[18] This would then enable the efficient administration of India by a local educated elite, loyal to the dictates of the British Crown.

In 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.

In 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.

The 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.[19] In addition, British infrastructure development in the 1850s stimulated the growth of local industrial development, which laid the “foundation” for capitalist enterprise in India.[20] Related to the development of the economy was the ascension of an Indian business class, which evolved into a powerful bourgeois class by the post-colonial era.[21] 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.

The 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.[22] 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.[23] 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.[24]

Consider 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.

Hegemony, 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.[25] 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.

In 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.[26] 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.

The 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.[27] 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”.[28] 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.

On 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”.[29] 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.

On 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.[30] 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.[31]

Concurrently, 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”.[32] 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.[33]

British 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.

Unlike 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 India.

In 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.[34] 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.[35]

However, 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.[36] 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.[37]

British 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.[38]  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.[39] 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.


Appiah, Anthony, In My Father’s House:  Africa in the Philosophy of Culture, New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Barlas, Asma, Democracy, Nationalism and Communalism:  The Colonial Legacy in South Asia, Boulder and Oxford: Westview Press, 1995.

Cohn, Bernard S., Colonialism and its Forms of Knowledge:  The British in India, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1996.

Guha, Ranajit, Dominance without Hegemony:  History and Power in Colonial India, Massachusetts & England: Harvard University, 1997.

Kumar, Dharma, Colonialism, Property and the State, Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Metcalf, Thomas R., Ideologies of the Raj, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Stern, Robert W., Changing India: Bourgeois Revolution on the Subcontinent, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.


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[1] Thomas R. Metcalf., Ideologies of the Raj, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994, p. 3.

[2] Ibid., pp. 2-3.

[3] Ibid., p.6.

[4] Ibid., pp. 9-10.

[5] Ibid., p. 33.

[6] Ibid., p. 35.

[7] 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.

[8] Thomas R. Metcalf., Ideologies of the Raj, p. 35.

[9] Asma Barlas , Democracy, Nationalism and Communalism, p. 49.

[10] Ibid., pp. 50-1.

[11] Ibid., pp. 51-2.

[12] Bernard S. Cohn., Colonialism and its Forms of Knowledge:  The British in India, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1996, pp. 65-71.

[13] Ibid., p. 75.

[14] Thomas R. Metcalf., Ideologies of the Raj, pp. 37-9.

[15] Ibid., p. 39.

[16] Ranajit Guha, Dominance without Hegemony:  History and Power in Colonial India, Massachusetts & England: Harvard University, 1997, pp. 171-2.

[17] Ibid., p. 171.

[18] Asma Barlas , Democracy, Nationalism and Communalism, p. 57.

[19] Ibid., p. 54.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid., p. 56.

[22] Ibid., pp. 72-3.

[23] Robert W Stern, Changing India: Bourgeois Revolution on the Subcontinent, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

[24] Asma Barlas , Democracy, Nationalism and Communalism, p. 72.

[25] Ibid., pp. 22-3.

[26] Thomas R. Metcalf., Ideologies of the Raj, pp. 69-70.

[27] Ibid., pp. 132-3.

[28] 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.

[29] 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.

[30] Ranajit Guha, Dominance without Hegemony, p. 175.

[31] Ibid., p. 174.

[32] Asma Barlas , Democracy, Nationalism and Communalism, p. 58.

[33] 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.

[34] Robert W Stern, Changing India, p. 136.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ibid., p. 137.

[37] Ibid.

[38] 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.

[39] Ranajit Guha, Dominance without Hegemony, p. 63.