British Imperialism in India: Literature Review

India, one of the fastest developing countries in the world was under British rule during the period of colonialism. The impact of British imperialism on India has been studied by many scholars from many angles. Each angle gives a different perspective. Some studies show that the contribution of the British towards the growth and development of India through new technology, and government structure is huge whereas there are some studies that conclude that there has been a negative impact of British rule resulting in strong divisions among people based on caste and religion. Thesis: The present paper is a review of the literature of British Imperialism upon the subcontinent of India and has two very distinct points of view – that British rule instilled positive reinforcement to a primitive society and that the thoughtlessness of the British government lead to inhumane laws and rampant social divisions.

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Vishal Mangalwadi in his 1997 article in the London Daily Mail points to the numerous benefits to India that were the outcome of British rule. He firmly believes that “the British rule in India was a blessing. It is something in which Britons should feel pride and for which Indians should be grateful” (Mangalwadi, 10). To strengthen his argument further, he says that the establishment of India as a free democratic country was entirely due to the British. Historically, according to Mangalwadi, good things began to happen to India when Charles grant was made director of the East India Company. It was Grant who chose that India must be governed “as well as the British governed themselves”(Mangalwadi, p. 10). Until that point, Mangalwadi says that the Indians had known only the authoritarian rule of despots and kings. The British gave them their first taste of democracy and also helped India build its institutions systematically – institutions such as schools, universities, Parliament, and a free Press. They also gave India the best of European technology in the form of steam engines, railways, banks, irrigation canals, manufacturing goods, etc. Above all, the British can be credited with giving India a “system of trust in public officials and in the state’. “Under British rule, the Congress gained experience in contesting elections and in governing – at provincial and municipal levels” (Candland, 1997, 19). Mangalwadi elaborates that the problems faced by India in the present are mainly of its own making and not because of the British rule. Gita Subrahmanyam (2006) agrees with Mangalwadi and notes that the British Empire was partial towards India in giving it a good governmental structure and she argues that India would not have been the democracy it is today if it had not inherited the political structures from the British to match its own social systems. Robert Carr (2005) while assessing the impact of British Rule in India during a time of transition claims that India at the time of colonization was a great source of manpower and economic power to the British and therefore was very much valued by the British. As a result of this value placed on India, Carr says the British contributed to the progress of India through “modernization in the form of railways and irrigation projects” (Carr, 28). From the philosophical viewpoint, Mark Tunick (2006) analyses the social and political writings of John Stuart Mill while serving the British East India Company and deduces that Mill is a tolerant imperialist, one who felt that the British rule in India was a perfectly justified one. This is indirect acceptance by Mark Tunick that the British Rule in India was for the benefit of India. Generally, Mill was widely known for his support for toleration, liberty, and experiments in living. Hence when he defended British rule in his writings he was criticized for championing the cause of despotism when the victims were non-Western people. Mark Tunick explains that the tolerant imperialism that Mill defends is one that is based on beneficence and not self-interest. In the case of tolerant imperialism, the intervention is not for commercial advantage but for moral purposes. Mill defended British rule in India because he felt that the British were in India not only for some self-interests but also to civilize the native peoples. By civilizing the natives, Mill meant helping them overcome threats of nature in two ways: establishing the rule of law and developing cooperative ventures. Despite the numerous contributions of the British rule to India, Gita Subrahmanyam (2006) says that the British helped India to progress with technology and other benefits only because they considered India valuable to them. Subrahmanyam thus accuses the British Empire of being very calculative.

Whatever be the motive, British rule in India was not without its drawbacks. Though the British system of education was given to India, Ravi Kalia (2006) points to the fact that British India had focused more on educating its citizens in Liberal Arts and Law while other disciplines such as architecture and engineering were not as strongly emphasized. This created a problem when there was a need for urban expansion. Frank DeZwart (2000) makes a more serious accusation against the British. He holds the British Colonial Regime responsible for the construction of the caste system that is found till today to be the cause of several internal uprisings and the basis of political manipulations. He says that during the British Colonial system, the government specified social categories for individuals to register in order to be qualified for jobs, education, or other benefits. This measure served to reinforce the caste system deeper according to DeZwart. The evils of the caste system are now becoming more and more apparent, especially in the educational and political circles. Sudipta Kaviraj’s research also leads to this same conclusion. Conducting research in a similar vein, Sudipta Kaviraj (1997) also finds that during Colonial rule, the Western style of governance strengthened the divisions among people along caste and religious lines. Moreover, Kaviraj says that it was this reinforcement of traditional identities along with the practices of the colonial state structures that are responsible for the partition between India and Pakistan. This is a more serious accusation against the British rule in India than that of introducing casteism and neglecting the sciences. Peter Harnetty (2001) says that the present-day community clashes in India originated with the conversions carried out by the missionaries during the British rule: “Outright proselytization gave way to indirect methods of attracting converts, especially through educational work and medical care” (Harnetty, p. 555). Though these activities involved service, they had the underlying objective of converting people to Christianity. Such activities lead to a widespread belief that missionaries took advantage of the weak, especially in times of famine, to win them to Christianity. As a result of such conflicts, there were clashes between Christian missionary organizations and Hindus who oppose their activities, which are continuing even today. Communal clashes are then, according to Peter Harnetty, one of the sadder legacies of British rule in India. Peter Heehs (1993) points to another negative impact of British rule in India – the birth of terrorism within its borders. He says that when the British aimed to disarm the population by means of the Arms Act of 1878, they “made it impossible for Indian revolutionaries to organize large-scale operations” (Heehs, p. 469). As a result, those who favored violent resistance were drawn into terrorism as a way of protest against British rule. Though it was initially called “militant nationalism” there was no armed uprising throughout the country as implied by the phrase. Instead, there were “small-scale acts of covert violence such as armed robberies and assassinations of officials and collaborators” (Heehs, p. 469). Since 1970, it has been accepted that what happened during the Indian freedom was “revolutionary terrorism” or simply “terrorism”.

Taking a more neutral view on the issue, Robert Carr suggests that while the British rule did bring some benefits to India, there were some measures that created a feeling that “Indian interests were being subordinated to those of Britain”. However, things took a turn for the worse with the accession of George Curzon as Viceroy. Two measures that he took were considered detrimental to the growth of India – the 1904 Universities Act that increased British controls over private colleges and university bodies and the partition of Bengal which resulted in a largely Muslim province of East Bengal and Assam. The British showed oppression through the Rowlatt Acts and “utter barbarism” through the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. Thus, Carr concludes that there were both positive and negative impacts of British imperialism in India. Carr concludes that the time of British rule in India “can be seen as one of concession and repression”.

The paper examines the existing literature on British imperialism in India in terms of its impact on India. Vishal Mangalwadi (1997) stresses the positive aspects of British Imperialism on India in a very strong manner whereas Mark Tunick (2006) indirectly holds that British imperialism helped India to become civilized. Gita Subrahmanyam says that all these gifts of British rule were based on the profit motives of the British. Ravi Kalia (2006) finds fault with the educational system left behind by the British imperialism while Frank DeZwart (2000) and Sudipta Kaviraj (1997) hold the same responsible for the caste and regional divisions. Peter Harnetty (2001) suggests that British imperialism leads to communal clashes whereas Peter Heehs seems to think that it leads to the birth of domestic terrorism in India. Robert Carr (2005) however takes a neutral view and suggests that while British rule in India was beneficial in some ways, it was also detrimental in some other ways. British imperialism brought India its railroads, irrigational canals, structured government, and democratic setup but it also fortified caste divisions and regional divisions and contributed towards the partition of Bengal and the Partition of India-Pakistan. Moreover, communal clashes and domestic terrorism are considered to have been created by British rule. A study of these sources gives me a fresh insight into colonial rule in India. I agree with Gita Subrahmanyam’s view that India was definitely treated differently from other colonies and was given new technological and political advantages by the British government. I had earlier been aware of only the benefits of British rule. However, studies by Ravi Kalia, Sudipta Kaviraj, Peter Heehs, and Peter Harnetty have shown me that there is a darker side to the issue. The British, under the pretext of civilizing the country, have exploited the manpower and money power of the country and tried to rule by dividing. These studies point to the issue of casteism, Partition of Bengal, and Partition of Pakistan as major setbacks to India due to colonial rule. I believe that all of these issues are rooted in the basic British philosophy of ruling by dividing. This philosophy of ruling by dividing has hurt the country deeply as it faces troubled relations with both Pakistan and Bangladesh in present-day circumstances. Thus, it is true as Robert Carr says, that the results of British imperialism in India are mixed.

Works Cited

  1. Candland, Christopher (1997). Congress Decline and Party Pluralism in India. Journal of International Affairs, 1997, Volume 51, Issue 1, 19
  2. Carr, Robert (2005). Concession & Repression: British Rule in India 1857-1919 Robert Carr Assesses the Nature of British Rule in India during a Key, Transitional Phase. History Review, 2005, Issue 52, 28+
  3. DeZwart, Frank (2000). The Logic of Affirmative Action: Caste, Class, and Quotas in India. Acta Sociologica, 2000, Vol. 43, Issue 3, 235-249
  4. Harnetty, Peter (2001). The Famine That Never Was: Christian Missionaries in India, 1918-1919. The Historian, 2001, Volume 63, Issue 3, 555
  5. Heehs, Peter (1993). Terrorism in India during the Freedom Struggle. The Historian, 1993, Volume 55, Issue 3, 469+.
  6. Kalia, Ravi (2006). Modernism, Modernization and Post-Colonial India: A Reflective Essay. Planning Perspectives. 2006, Vol. 21, Issue 2, p. 133-156
  7. Kaviraj, Sudipta (1997). Religion and Identity in India. Ethnic and Racial Studies, Vol. 20, Issue 2. p. 325-344.
  8. Mangalwadi, Vishal (1997). The debt my country still owes Britain. Daily Mail, 1997, 10-11
  9. Subrahmanyam, Gita (2006). Ruling Continuities: Colonial Rule, Social Forces and Path Dependence in British India and Africa. Commonwealth and Comparative Politics. 2006, Vol. 44, Issue 1, 66-92
  10. Tunick, Mark. Tolerant Imperialism: John Stuart Mill’s Defense of British Rule in India. The Review of Politics, 2006, Volume 68, 586-611.
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