India: Becoming Modern the Colonial Way (1800–1900)

A Brief History of India. Judith E. Walsh. 2nd edition. Brief History New York: Facts on File, 2011.

To the memory of the British Empire in India which conferred subject hood on us but withheld citizenship. To which yet everyone of us threw out the challenge “Civis Britannicus Sum” because all that was good and living within us was made, shaped and quickened by the same British Rule.

~ Nirad C. Chaudhuri, The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian (1968, dedication)

As British armies consolidated imperial control across the subcontinent, British institutions and economic structures reshaped life in towns and cities and in the countryside. British architecture redrew the skylines of urban centers, while British technologies and administrative structures reorganized urban public spaces and public life. In rural India a new focus on exports shifted from agricultural production for local consumption and exchange to farm products to be sold across the subcontinent and in world markets.

These changes had an enormous impact on Indians themselves. For both urban and rural Indians Pax Britannica meant more than just foreign rule and India’s political unity. For the high-caste sons of regional Indian elites it meant attendance at new English-language colleges, an introduction to the ideas and concepts of Western modernity, and futures shaped by the need to succeed within the new occupations and professions introduced into India along with British rule. As early as the 1820s the members of the growing “English-educated elite” formed literary clubs, debating societies, and religious and social reform groups in which they debated the merits of India’s past and their own and their country’s future. By the 1870s many members of this urban, middle-class elite were joining regional political associations.

For rural Indians, however, current conditions posed more urgent problems than debates about the future. As farmers produced more crops for commercial export, substantial food shortages appeared in rural regions, particularly among poorer communities. Both famine and disease spread more quickly than ever before through India’s now closely interlinked provinces. Over the last 30 years of the century major famines ravaged villages, towns, and cities, often followed closely by contagious diseases that further devastated already weakened populations. Sporadic protests during these years revealed undercurrents of local opposition to the changes brought by the new colonial regime.

Colonial Modernity

Over the course of the 19th century the British presence and power in India altered the physical, economic, social, and even domestic landscapes of urban towns and cities across the subcontinent, introducing into them the structures, ideologies, and practices of a British-mediated colonial modernity. Along with governmental and administrative offices, British rule brought to Indian cities law offices, hospitals, hotels, emporiums, schools and colleges, town halls, churches, learned societies, printers and publishers—the full panoply of 19th-century life as it existed in mid-century English or European cities. These changes were most dramatic in India’s capital, Calcutta, but they also reshaped public and work spaces in most towns, cantonments, and cities throughout the Raj.

The use of English rather than Persian as the language of courts and government and the railroads, telegraphs, and unified post all contributed to the new urban British India. Along with these changes came European-style buildings and the institutional structures of Western-style office work and British administrative practices. In downtown Calcutta the old East India Company Writers’ Building was rebuilt over the 1850s and 1870s into a vast Gothic brick building. Its endless corridors and offices made it the proper home for the reports, forms, receipts, officials, clerks, scribes, and peons (servants) of a colonial bureaucracy. Such workers and their array of paper procedures became the standard features of the businesses and other modern occupations introduced into India with British rule. By mid-century, office work and its routines and hierarchies defined daily life throughout urban British India.

Just as imperial-style buildings dominated public space in British India, British concepts of time, efficiency, and order organized life within those spaces. Clock time (a concept almost equally new in industrialized England and Europe) structured daily public life. Office work began and ended at fixed times. Trains ran according to “timetables,” and streets were cleaned on schedule. “How the English appreciate the value of time!” wrote one Indian admiringly. “They work at the right time, eat at the right time, attend office at the right time, and play at the right time. Everything they do is governed by rules…. It is because of this quality that the English get the time to accomplish so much” (Chakrabarty 1993, 6). The pocket watch became an emblem of British colonial modernity for Westernized Indian men.

Printed books and newspapers were equally omnipresent signs of modern colonial life. Print culture and print capitalism—in both English and newly revitalized indigenous languages—grew quickly in the 19th century. Multiple newspapers and tracts addressed the diverse reading publics that coexisted in British Indian towns and cities. English-language newspapers for the Anglo-Indian community dated from the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The first vernacular newspaper, the Bengali Gazette, began in 1816. Bombay had its first Indian press in 1861; Madras had its first Indian-owned newspaper, the Madras Mail, in 1868. By mid-century literate Calcutta families were said to prefer printed almanacs to live astrologers. By the 1860s Indian-printed publications had become so numerous the government needed new laws to catalog and track them. Printing was the capital’s second largest industry by 1911. Throughout the rest of India, as in Calcutta, a large and diverse Indian reading public consumed books of all types in both English and the many regional Indian vernaculars.

Hindu Renaissance in Bengal

The earliest urban Indian response to the ideas and practices of the English came in the 1820s from the Indian elites based in the city of Calcutta. By the 1820s Calcutta was already a “city of palaces,” so named for its palatial European-style mansions. It was the capital of Britain’s Indian empire and the second city of the world (after London) in Britain’s global trading empire. Many well-known Bengali men in the city were descended from families grown rich either working for the East India Company or as zamindars under Bengal’s permanent settlement (or sometimes as both). Dwarkanath Tagore (1794-1846), who founded the city’s most famous family, built upon the fortune made by his family in Calcutta trade and then solidified that fortune through the purchase of extensive zamindari estates in eastern Bengal. Rammohan Roy (1772-1833), later called the “Father of Modern India,” worked for the East India Company in various capacities before retiring to Calcutta as a wealthy zamindar in 1815. Gopimohan Deb, the father of the conservative Hindu Radhakanta Deb (1784-1867), had been Robert Clive’s Persian secretary and munshi (clerk) and acquired large zamindari estates in the late 18th century.

In 1817 Tagore and the Debs (father and son), along with other locally prominent English and Indian men, founded Hindu College, a private English-language school for the boys of their own and other similar families in the city. Gopimohan Deb became the school’s first director, and a year later Radhakanta Deb took over the directorship, a position he held through the 1830s. Rammohan Roy also approved of English education and supported the college—but not openly. He was already an anathema to many Calcutta Hindus because of his well-known opposition to Hindu idolatry and his interest in Christianity.

In the late 1820s (the same period in which the government made sati illegal and Roy founded his Brahmo Sabha) students of the new Hindu College began to put their education’s ideas into practice. The students had come under the influence of a young Eurasian teacher at the college, Henry Derozio (1809-31), who had lectured on rationalism, the European Enlightenment, and the French Revolution. Determined to demonstrate their opposition to what they now saw as the irrational superstitions of Hinduism, Hindu College students began to eat meals together that broke Hindu dietary and commensality laws and to attend public meetings at which they were heard shouting “Down with Hinduism! Down with orthodoxy!” (Bhattacharjee 1986, 113). In one scandalous and provocative incident several students threw beef bones into the courtyard of a prominent Brahman family.

The director of Hindu College, Radhakanta Deb, had already made his convictions on reform issues known by founding the Hindu Dharma Sabha (Hindu Association for Dharma), a group that had collected signatures for a Privy Council petition against the new anti-sati law. Blaming Derozio for the students’ behavior Deb and his associates forced Derozio’s resignation from the college. It made no difference. Over the next decade Hindu College students, graduates, and sympathizers—later collectively labeled “Young Bengal”—founded clubs and associations, started newspapers, and wrote tracts and plays, all with the goal of reforming and rationalizing Hindu religious and customary practices, or (as one participant put it) of achieving the “eradication of Hindu idolatry” (Bhattacharjee 1986, 139).

Later scholars would call this movement the “Hindu Renaissance” because of its participants’ desire to see Hinduism “reborn,” shorn of its idolatry and superstitions. But the Hindu Renaissance was as much about social and cultural reform—about adaptation to British colonial modernity—as it was about religion. While a strong Christian missionary presence in and around Calcutta in the 1830s shaped the language and rhetoric with which men such as Roy and the student reformers wrote and spoke, few Hindus actually converted to Christianity in this period. In the second half of the 19th century, as the ideas and practices of British colonial modernity became institutionalized in the routines of office work in Indian towns and cities and through the teachings of an expanding English-language educational system, later conflicts over reform and adaptation would take on a more secular tone.

The Hindu Renaissance was also, as many contemporaries pointed out, a generational struggle among the men of elite Calcutta families. Participants on both sides of the conflict, both “orthodox” men such as Radhakanta Deb and “reformers” such as Roy and the Hindu College students, were members of a Calcutta elite already substantially influenced by Western ideas and practices. What they disagreed over was the degree of adaptation, the degree to which reform ideas and practices should replace older customs and traditions. Later in the 19th century, as the Western-style employment of English-educated men became increasingly necessary for their families’ economic well-being, the Western ideas and practices such men advocated would become more acceptable, even to more conservative family elders.

English Education

The Wood Dispatch of 1854 had established the outlines of an English education system in India with university centers at Calcutta, Bombay, and Madras. Over the next half century, as English-language education became a required credential for elite employment throughout British India, both the number of schools and their enrollments rose dramatically. In 1854 there were only 180 English-language schools at all levels (primary through college) in the country. By 1885 most provinces had English-language schools, and 78 colleges were affiliated to the three university centers. By 1902, 140 arts colleges enrolled 17,000 college-level students. Two years later, the system expanded to five universities with 200 affiliated colleges. By 1918 Calcutta University’s 27,000 students made it the largest university in the world.

Although organized by region, the educational system was remarkably uniform both in structure and in content across British India. Regardless of region, students studied English, a classical language (European or Indian), mathematics, logic, physical science, geography, and history in their first two years. They were tested on these subjects through written examinations whose questions were set two years in advance and whose answers were to be factual and detailed, based on information in a recommended textbook. In history, for instance, exam questions might ask students to name “some of the chief of our liberties established by the Magna Carta,” or ask “Who was the founder of the Mahratta [sic] dynasty? Give a brief account of his career” (Punjab University Calendar 1874, 195; Calcutta University Calendar 1861, 32).

The standard for passing was severe. At the Matriculation Examination (M.E.), required for entrance into the college curriculum, half the candidates regularly failed. At the B.A. level, the pass rate was even lower, just above 10 percent. Between 1857 and 1885, for instance, 48,000 candidates passed the M.E., but only slightly more than 5,100 obtained a B.A. degree. By the end of the century, Indians who had studied in the system but had failed their examinations took to appending “B.A. Failed” to their names on cards and publications as an indication of their English-language credentials.

The English-Educated Elite

The young Indian men who graduated from English education institutions were part of what contemporaries called the “English-educated elite.” The numbers of such men were minuscule in relation to the wider Indian population, not even 1 percent of the total as late as 1900. Nevertheless this elite dominated Indian religious, social, and political movements throughout the late 19th and 20th centuries. It was the urban, middle-class English-educated elite who organized the religious and social reform movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries; it was English-educated men who agitated for widow remarriage, against child marriage, and for women’s literacy and education. In the last decades of the 19th century it would be the Westernized elite that provided the organizational base and the leadership for the Indian nationalist movement.

Although schooled in different regions and speaking different vernaculars, English-educated graduates had much in common. Most were Hindus, relatively high caste, and from families already literate in the languages of the Mughal Empire (Persian or Urdu) or in Sanskrit. The educational system through which they passed added to this shared background a common language (English) and a perspective shaped by common Western ideas and values of the time. Indian students, although living under the absolute imperial power of the Raj, memorized the “rights” given by the Magna Carta; they learned about science and scientific method; and they rehearsed the “Benefits of British Rule”—an obligatory chapter in many Indian history textbooks that listed the benefits of technology, peace, and prosperity that the British had brought to India.

School textbooks actively urged students to acculturate, to become Anglicized and Westernized, and to leave behind the decadent accretions of their indigenous pasts. After acculturation would come prominent positions within British India, schoolbooks promised; it was the British government’s intention, as one text put it, “to offer a large share in the administration … to natives of India who were qualified by character and education” (Thompson 1908, 393). The educational system, however, taught more than a simple message of acculturation. It also taught schoolboys about India’s “degenerate” past and their own “weak” and/or “effeminate” natures. Caste, idolatry, the treatment of women, India’s debilitating climate, and vegetarianism were, according to schoolbooks, responsible for India’s backward and superstitious culture and its puny and small citizenry. The nationalist leader Mohandas K. Gandhi (1869-1948) recalled from his Gujarati youth a verse that ran

Behold the mighty Englishman,
He rules the Indian small,
Because being a meat-eater
He is five cubits tall. (1957, 21)

British racism was institutionalized within an educational system that simultaneously taught Indian inferiority and British superiority. These superior Western qualities and inferior Indian counterparts became base points of a core identity increasingly internalized over the 19th and 20th centuries in succeeding generations of English-educated families. After graduation, employment in British institutions or under British superiors introduced the educated elite to racial prejudices but in more personal circumstances. One English-educated Punjabi gentleman, for instance, worked as an engineer for the government in turn-of-the-century India and admired many qualities of his British employers, but at work he had the sense of being always “on test.” The British, his son remembers the father saying, “could afford to relax because if things went wrong they managed to explain it to each other…. But when an Indian made a mistake the reaction, if an understanding one, was that the job, perhaps, was too difficult for him” (Tandon 1968, 210-211).

Religious and Social Reform Associations

“The Life of the Educated Native: What Should It Be?” This was the title of a student essay in the 1870s and a question many Westerneducated Indians asked themselves in the second half of the 19th century. “Rationalism” and the “Enlightenment” were the keys to a modern future; just as caste, idolatry, and superstition were its anathema. But beyond schoolbook formulas lay the thornier realm of actual practice. The wearing of a sacred thread, prohibitions against eating beef, restrictions on commensality (sharing food across caste lines), prohibitions against the use of utensils for eating and against overseas travel, the ban on widow remarriage, and the customs of child marriage and of purdah—all were linked to social practices embedded in Hindu daily and domestic life. The changed conditions of life in British-ruled India politicized these practices (and many more), precipitating debates and conflicts within Westernized communities. The religious and social reform associations that formed over the latter half of the 19th century were the contexts in which the Western educated debated the degree to which they would adapt themselves, their religions, and the Indian past to the ideas and practices of British colonial modernity.

The Brahmo Samaj and the Prarthana Samaj

Originally founded by Rammohan Roy in 1828, the Brahmo Samaj expanded throughout the second half of the 19th century, gaining new followers and splitting several times over issues of practice. By the end of the century Brahmos functioned almost as a separate caste within Bengali Hindu society. They had their own religious beliefs and practices, their own “churches,” and their own social rituals. Their children’s marriages were arranged within the Brahmo community.

In the 1840s and 1850s Debendranath Tagore (1817-1905) renewed the Brahmo Samaj as a religious association committed to the monotheistic worship of a formless deity. Then in 1866 Keshab Chandra Sen (1838-84) left Tagore’s society to found the Brahmo Samaj of India, a society in which members could aggressively practice their religious beliefs. Sen’s Brahmos refused to wear the Hindu sacred thread or to perform Hindu rituals or death ceremonies, practices that provoked violence, ostracism, and disinheritance from converts’ families. Sen established ashrams (hostels) for Brahmo converts who needed shelter, and his Brahmos traveled throughout Bengal and India as missionaries spreading the Brahmo faith. In 1878, however, when Sen ignored Brahmo reforms in order to marry his daughter to a Hindu prince, younger members left him to form the Sadharan Brahmo Samaj (the People’s Brahmo Samaj), a sect with even more reformist practices particularly in regard to women. Sadharan girls wore petticoats under their saris and ate at European-style tables using Western utensils; they studied math and science and were encouraged to go to college.

Sen’s missionary lectures in Bombay inspired the founding there in the late 1860s of a West Indian religious reform group, the Prarthana Samaj (Prayer Society). One of its early leaders, Mahadev Govind Ranade (1842-1901), was a Chitpavan Brahman from the Konkan region who became a lawyer and later judge in the Pune region. The Prarthana Samaj shared Brahmo ideas on monotheism and on the desirability of reforming caste customs, particularly in regard to women, but, as elsewhere, orthodox pressure could make it difficult to translate these beliefs into practice. Ranade, for instance, spent much of his life working for social reform, arranging Bombay’s first widow remarriage in 1862, founding the Society for the Encouragement of Widow Remarriage shortly thereafter, and later (1884) founding the Deccan Education Society to promote girls’ education (Wolpert 1962, 11). But when his first wife died in 1873, he did not marry a Hindu widow, as he had long advocated and as he wished; instead he accepted the 11-year-old bride chosen for him by his father.

Muslim Education and Reform

Writing about conditions in India after the 1857 rebellion, the well-known Urdu poet Maulana Altaf Hussain Hali (1837-1914) said:

We [Muslims] are not trusted by the government,
Not are we among the prominent courtiers or the ruler
Neither are we among the educated elite
We have no share in trade or the industry
Nor do you found [sic] us in the civil services
Or among the businesses…. (Khalidi 1995, 52)

Muslim elites had been slow to enlist under the British rulers who had replaced them, and Muslim families had been reluctant to enroll their sons in English-language schools. But Muslim religious leaders were not unaware of the changed society around them. Northern Indian Muslim elites saw their control over positions in regional government services steadily declining in the second half of the 19th century, from 65 percent in 1857 to 35 percent by the early 20th century, as Muslims lost ground to English-educated applicants from Hindu trading, money lending, and professional communities.

The six years between 1868 and 1875 saw the founding of competing Muslim educational institutions in the towns of Deoband and Aligarh in northern India (modern Uttar Pradesh). These two institutions appealed to different levels of elite Muslim society and offered different responses to British rule in India. The Deoband Dar-ul-Ulum was a madrassa (religious seminary) founded in 1868 for the education of Muslim ulama (theologian-scholars). It took an orthodox approach to Islamic studies, attracted poorer but elite Muslim students, and produced teachers for local religious schools throughout its region. Deoband offered a traditional Islamic curriculum. But it taught in Western-style classrooms modeled on the British school system and used the North Indian language Urdu. In the 20th century Deoband’s relatively anti-British politics would cause its teachers, students, and graduates to align themselves with the Indian nationalist movement.

The other school, the Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College, was the first Muslim English-language college in India. It was founded at Aligarh in 1875 by the Muslim reformer (and later Muslim separatist) Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan (1817-98). Sayyid Ahmad’s family was highly placed within the Mughal nobility at Delhi, but he himself had worked many years under the British. He founded the Scientific Society in 1864 and a modern Urdu-language journal in 1870, hoping through these media to demonstrate to upper-class Muslims that Western science was compatible with and complementary to the teachings of Islam. Impressed by Western colleges on a trip to England in 1875, Sayyid Ahmad founded Aligarh (as the school came to be known) on the model of Cambridge University. The school taught classes in English and combined Western and Islamic subjects within a single curriculum. Sayyid Ahmad wrote in a letter at the time,

The adoption of the new system of education does not mean the renunciation of Islam. It means its protection…. The truth of Islam will shine the more brightly if its followers are well educated, familiar with the highest in the knowledge of the world; it will come under an eclipse if its followers are ignorant. (De Bary 1958, 745)

Unlike Deoband, Aligarh’s students were drawn from the wealthier Muslim landlord and service communities of northern India.

Aligarh’s “reformist” religious attitudes, however, placed it and its founder in opposition to contemporaneous pan-Islamic movements from the Middle East. In the 1880s, one pan-Islamicist, Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, lived and lectured in both Calcutta and Hyderabad; al-Afghani’s movement stressed the role of the Ottoman sultan as supreme leader of a worldwide Muslim community. In his speeches al-Afghani argued for Hindus and Muslims to unite against the British in India and abroad, a position the Deobandis found attractive, and British government officials, alarming. Aligarh had always received considerable government funding; Sayyid Ahmad’s pro-British views had led the British to hope that the school would develop a new (pro-British) Muslim elite that would dominate Indian Muslim communities. In the 1880s the British further raised their economic support for the college, and this was one of the factors that led Aligarh to become the premier English-language institution for Muslim Indian students in India.

Arya Samaj

The North Indian religious reform association, the Arya Samaj, was founded in 1875 in Bombay and in 1877 in the Punjab. It shared many of the same reform concerns as the Bengal and Bombay associations but added to these an aggressively militant stance in relation to other North Indian religions. Dayananda Sarasvati (1824-83), the society’s founder, was a Gujarati sannyasi (holy man) with little interest in English education. In his early career Dayananda dressed and lived as a holy man, spoke in Sanskrit, and debated orthodox Hindu priests. After a trip to Calcutta in 1872 during which he met Debendranath Tagore and other Brahmos, Dayananda abandoned his mendicant clothing and began speaking in Hindi, a language that allowed him to reach an audience of Western-educated professionals and trading communities (Jones 1989).

His teachings resonated with these groups, particularly in the Punjab and northern Indian regions where followers nicknamed him the “Luther of India.” Dayananda traveled these regions debating competing religionists (Muslims, Sikhs, or Hindu Sanatanists, that is, orthodox Hindus). He based his “purified” Hinduism on the Sanskrit Vedas and rejected the popular Puranas, polytheism, idolatry, caste exclusivity, and customary restrictions on women. In Dayananda’s Hinduism, jatis (local caste divisions) should be replaced by a varna system that would be fixed for boys and girls “according to merits and actions” (Jaffrelot 1996, 14).

In the 20th century both the Brahmo Samaj and the Prarthana Samaj remained focused on religious and cultural reform and subsequently declined in influence and membership. In contrast, the Arya Samaj switched its focus from reform and education to Hindu revivalism and nationalism and remained a vital and popular movement.

Theosophical Society

The theosophist movement of the late 19th century was also a religious reform society, but one that drew its membership primarily from Europeans and Americans. The society was founded in New York City in 1875 by a Russian, Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, and an American, Colonel Henry Steel Olcott. The society’s religious ideas were originally drawn from Jewish mysticism and Western occultist movements. In 1879, Madame Blavatsky traveled to India to meet Swami Dayananda Sarasvati, whose Arya Samaj movement greatly interested her. Within a few years the society based its religious ideas on Hindu and Buddhist concepts of karma and reincarnation. Madame Blavatsky established the Indian headquarters of the Theosophist Society in Madras in 1882.

The Women’s Question

Throughout the second half of the 19th century the “women’s question” encompassed a set of concerns debated in many Indian forums. For British critics Indian women’s social conditions demonstrated the backwardness and decadence of Indian civilization. In public meetings and tracts Western-educated Indian men debated the need to reform practices such as the early age of marriage (child marriage), the seclusion of women (purdah), the ban on widow remarriage, and the Hindu religion’s prohibition against women’s literacy and education. At the same time young Western-educated Indian men read Romeo and Juliet in college classes and often wrote passionately of their desire for romantic love and companionate marriage.

Both to reform women’s social conditions and to create wives more to their liking, young English-educated men founded numerous societies for women’s social reform and education during the second half of the 19th century. Women’s education grew rapidly in this period among urban elites. In the mid-19th century provinces such as Bengal had had only a small number of girls in school, but by the 20th century education was an accepted part of an urban middle-class girl’s life. Many customary practices regarding women had changed or been adapted in urban and middle-class families: The age of marriage had risen, women appeared more frequently in public, and even widow remarriage had become marginally acceptable, especially for child widows, that is, girls whose “husbands” had died before the marriage was consummated. Two million girls were in schools in 1927, a small percentage of the total population of women but nevertheless a dramatic increase. Women’s education was now identified with the general progress of Indian society: “Educating a girl,” said one early 20th-century reformer, “means educating a family” (Chanana 1988, 97).

Rural India

Even as British rule reshaped Indian towns and cities and the urban Westernized Indian elite explored the ideas and practices of colonial modernity, in the Indian countryside a much larger population struggled to deal with the consequences of higher land revenues, a more commercially oriented agriculture, famine, and disease. India was a rural and agricultural society throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. In 1901 there were only 2,100 towns and cities in British India; India’s total population was 284 million, and villages held 90 percent of those people.

Although records for 19th-century village life are limited, scholars think villages were populated by multiple castes and subcastes in the north and in the south by castes and subcastes that identified primarily with the Brahman or the Shudra varna. Religious and social relations in northern villages were structured through local castes’ and subcastes’ varna identifications. Hereditary service relationships (called jajmani relations) bound village service and subordinate castes to the dominant caste of a village, that is, to the caste community that owned the greatest amount of the land surrounding the village.

During the 19th century, the British land settlements redefined rural life for the purpose of revenue collection by awarding land ownership to select categories of Indian peasants. In permanent settlement regions, such as Bengal, land ownership was awarded on the basis of prior zamindar (tax collector) status; in later settlements (particularly in south India), on the basis of land cultivation (ryotwari, or peasant, cultivation). In both types of settlement, however, landholdings became further subdivided over time, either as a result of divisions due to inheritance or because landowners subleased their lands to subordinate cultivators. Further, by the 20th century (if not earlier), large numbers of peasant households both owned land and worked as tenants on other families’ lands. In the 1950s when the first direct surveys of land control were done, 75 percent of rural households held less than five acres of land and 23 percent owned no land at all.

Below village landowners, partial landowners, and tenants was the poorest rural class: the landless laborer. These workers had no rights in lands and survived only by working the lands of others. These workers and their families were often desperately poor; in 1881 one British official noted that this class permanently lacked sufficient food. By some estimates, landless laborers and their families numbered more than 52 million in 1901, almost 20 percent of the total Indian population. They came mostly from lower caste and tribal communities.

Commercialization of Agriculture, 1860-1920

During the second half of the 19th century Indian rural products became increasingly integrated into global markets, and Indian peasants shifted to growing raw materials for export to these markets. Peasant proprietors had an absolute need for cash funds both to pay land revenues and sometimes to buy seed crops. Money lenders, whether locals or outsiders (such as Marwari traders said to have come originally from Rajasthan), were the peasants’ only source of funds. Local food crops grown for exchange within the village economy were less attractive than the commercial export crops—cotton, jute, wheat, oilseeds, tea, indigo, opium—that could be grown for cash.

From the 1860s to the 1920s the commercialization of agriculture reshaped rural India, altering the crops planted as well as patterns of rural relationships. Agriculture expanded from 1881 to 1931, and the number of agricultural workers rose 28 percent. But peasant economies, growing crops for export, could now also be destroyed by fluctuating world markets, and both rural indebtedness and loss of land became major rural problems in this period. During the 1860s and 1870s, for instance, the worldwide shortage of cotton caused by the American Civil War encouraged Indian peasants to increase cotton plantings. When the Civil War ended and cotton from the U.S. South reentered the world market, prices for Indian-produced cotton plunged. In addition, as Indian farmers switched to export crops, they lowered their production of food crops, particularly of the millets and pulses that fed poorer people in their economies. Between the 1890s and the 1940s commercial crops increased by 85 percent, but the overall production of food crops declined by almost 30 percent. More rigid contractual agreements and new transportation networks linking Indian regions and tying into a world market worked together to give local producers little flexibility in deciding where their crops would go.


Famine had been a regular feature of Indian life from at least the 12th century, usually caused by the failure or excess of monsoon rains and usually limited in impact to a single region. Severe famines had occurred during both the Delhi Sultanate and the Mughal Empire. Under East India Company rule, in 1769-70 a famine in Bengal killed one-quarter of the region’s population.

From the 1860s into the early years of the 20th century, however, a new pattern of famine emerged in British India. The commercialization of Indian agriculture reduced supplies of locally consumed food crops, at the same time as railroads and roads tied even remote hinterlands into the wider Indian economy. Fixed contracts moved crops out of a region for sale elsewhere regardless of local conditions and even as local shortages mounted. Famines that once had been local or regional now spread more widely, affecting food supplies and causing deaths across several regions or even the whole country. Infectious diseases (bubonic plague in the 19th century, influenza in the 20th) often followed in the wake of these mass famines, attacking populations already weakened by starvation.

The first of this new type of famine was the 1866-67 “Orissa famine,” a spreading series of food shortages and dearth that extended from the Ganges River valley down the eastern seacoast (well past Orissa) through the Madras Presidency and west into Hyderabad and Mysore. The Orissa famine caused 800,000 famine deaths and affected more than 3 million people. (“Famine deaths” are calculated by subtracting the number of deaths normally expected in a region or period from the number of deaths that occur.)

Orissa was followed over the next several decades by an almost continuous series of regional or multiregional famines. In 1868-70 a second famine caused 400,000 deaths in the western Ganges, Rajasthan, central India, and the northern Deccan; 1873-74 saw severe famine in Bengal and eastern India; 1875-76 in the Deccan; 1876-78 in the Ganges region and in the cities of Madras, Hyderabad, Mysore, and Bombay. At the end of the century two devastating India-wide famines occurred one after the other: The 1896-97 famine affected 96 million Indians and caused more than 5 million famine deaths; the 1899-1900 famine affected 60 million Indians, also causing 5 million deaths.

Initially the British Indian government attributed the increased famines to monsoon failures and bad weather and argued that government intervention would only make conditions worse. But during the vice-royalty of Edward Robert Bulwer-Lytton (Lord Lytton) in the late 1870s, public outcry in Great Britain forced some government intervention. In 1883 a more Liberal viceroy, George Frederick Samuel Robinson, Lord Ripon, passed the Famine Code, a series of regulations to guide government interventions in famines and food shortages. The code prescribed methods for the early determination of shortages, declaring states of scarcity and famine, and using railways and shipping to move grain into famine regions. By the early 20th century the Famine Code, in conjunction with more aggressive food relief and public health measures, had all but eliminated mass famine deaths from India.

Rural Protests

After 1857 there was never again a regional uprising that threatened British dominance in India. Nevertheless British land revenue pressures, peasant indebtedness, and widespread famines produced a series of smaller, regional, tribal, communal, and caste uprisings during the second half of the 19th century. Before 1857 local uprisings were most likely to be organized by regional rulers, chiefs, or zamindars dispossessed by an expanding British authority. After 1857, however, surviving princes and zamindars became staunch supporters of the Raj. Rural rebellions and social protests, some of the most important of which are described below, came mostly from lower-caste and -class communities and were not always directed against the British.

Tribal Rebellions

Tribals, or Scheduled Tribes, were forest-dwelling communities linked by kinship rather than caste and found throughout the subcontinent wherever cultivated lands met unexploited forests. By the late 19th century tribals still made up perhaps 10 percent of the total Indian population. British laws gave land and tenancy rights to peasant farming populations that paid land revenues but not to tribal communities that used the forests for hunting and gathering or for shifting cultivation but paid no revenues for this use.

Throughout the 19th century the British government made repeated efforts to force the tribal communities of northeastern Bengal, Bihar, central India, Gujarat, and Madras into cultivation (and the payment of land taxes) wherever possible. Violent protests against these pressures from the 1850s to the 1920s came from the Santhals in northeastern India (1855), from Naikda tribes in Gujarat (1868), and from several different communities in Madras Presidency (1879-80, 1886, and 1900). The largest tribal uprising, however, was the 1899-1900 Ulgulan (great tumult) of the Munda tribespeople of southern Bihar. By the 1890s Munda traditional lands had been seized by Hindu migrants from the plains and encroached on by the British government itself. Birsa Munda (ca. 1874-1900), a sharecropper convert to Vaishnavism with some missionary education, became the leader of the Munda movement in 1899. Claiming to be a new prophet Birsa Munda urged his followers to kill Hindus, Muslims, and Christians, telling them that the weapons of the British police would magically melt into water once fighting began. Between December 1899 and January 1900 the Birsaites attacked churches and police stations in Ranchi district before being captured and imprisoned. Birsa Munda himself died in jail, and 350 Mundas were tried, three of whom were hanged and 44 transported for life.

Moplah Rebellions

Along the Malabar Coast, a Muslim community called the Moplahs (Mappilas) had developed out of mid-seventh to ninth-century Arab trading settlements. When the British took over the region in the early 19th century, they gave landlord rights to Hindu upper-caste groups. A series of violent conflicts between the Moplahs and their Hindu landlords erupted, occurring in 1836, 1854, 1882-85, 1896, and 1921. In these uprisings small bands of Moplahs attacked high-caste Hindu landlords and moneylenders, desecrated temples, and led suicide attacks against local police.

Peasant Protests

Peasant groups in the Deccan and in eastern India used a combination of violence, mass meetings, and legal challenges to seek relief from high land revenues and rural indebtedness in the decades after 1870. In 1875 the Deccan was torn by riots following the fall of cotton prices after the American Civil War. Villagers facing bankruptcy and the loss of lands joined together in attacks on the Marwari moneylenders to whom they were in debt. One of the Deccan’s worst famines followed on the heels of riots, and the combination drove many peasants into banditry. Vasudeo Balvant Phadke (1845-83), a Chitpavan Brahman petty clerk in Pune, led a multicaste dacoit (bandit) gang in this period. Phadke declared himself the new minister to Shivaji II (an 18th-century descendant of Shivaji) and led a series of robberies to finance what he hoped would be a more general rebellion against the British. Captured in 1879, Phadke was sentenced to transportation for life and died four years later.

In eastern Bengal, Assam, and Bombay, peasant movements turned to organization and legal actions to protest the imposition of higher land revenues. In 1873 in Pabna district in eastern Bengal, prosperous peasants organized protest meetings, rent strikes, and legal challenges to fight zamindar rent increases. In two districts of Assam in 1893, village assemblies and local elites used rent strikes to protest higher revenue settlements. In the region surrounding Bombay city, the famine of 1896-97 led to the looting of grain stores and to general demands for the remission of revenues. When the Bombay government refused these demands, a Pune political association, the Sarvajanik Sabha, sent representatives out to the villages to inform peasants of their rights to rent remissions under British famine law. In the later famine of 1899-1900 “no revenue” movements also appeared in Surat and Ahmedabad.

Jyotirao Phule’s Non-Brahman Movement

Not all protest was anti-British, however. In 1873 Jyotirao Phule (1827-90), whose family was part of a relatively prosperous but low in status mali (gardener) caste in Pune, founded the Satyashodhak Samaj (Truth Seeking Society), an organization whose purpose was to unify the lower castes. Having completed his secondary education in English at a Pune school run by missionaries of the Free Church of Scotland, Phule read works on the lives of Shivaji II and the first U.S. president, George Washington, as well as the writings of the 18th-century revolutionary Thomas Paine. He wanted to bring together what he called the bahujan samaj (the masses, the multitude) to free them from upper-caste oppression. In Phule’s reading of Indian history the low castes and Untouchables, the original inhabitants of India, had been forced into “Brahmin thralldom” by invading foreign Aryans (Jaffrelot 2003, 153). For Phule the British were liberators, come to India to free “the disabled Shudras from the slavery of the crafty Aryas” (Wolpert 1962, 7). Phule’s movement developed into a 20th-century Marathi protest movement that was village-based and anti-Brahman.

Second Afghan War, 1878-1880

The small revolts in the Indian interior that occurred after the 1857 rebellion could be easily contained by police and armies. But in the 1870s slow Russian advances into the Central Asian region of Turkistan renewed the fears of British officials in London that Russia might attack India through the Afghan country to the northwest. To ensure a sympathetic Afghan regime, the viceroy, Lord Lytton, deposed the Afghan ruler, Sher Ali, in 1878, replacing him with one of his sons, Yakub Khan; however, in September 1879 the British political resident and his entire staff were massacred at Kabul in a popular uprising. British armies retaliated with great brutality. The cost and the violence of the war provoked public opposition in Great Britain. With the fall of the Conservative government and the appointment of the Liberal Lord Ripon as viceroy, the Indian government sued for peace. They supported Abdur Rahman Khan, a nephew of the deposed Sher Ali, as emir (ruler) of Kabul, providing him with an annual subsidy on the sole condition that he have no relations with any foreign powers except Great Britain. By 1881 Abdur Rahman had gained control over all of Afghanistan, which he ruled until his death in 1901. (In 1919 a third, one-month war forced the British to concede the Afghans’ rights to conduct their own foreign relations.)

Vernacular Press Act

To forestall Indian public criticism over the expenses of the Second Afghan War, Lord Lytton’s government passed the Vernacular Press Act of 1878. The act required Indian-language presses (but not those that published in English) to post bonds for their conduct with the government, with the clear threat that such bonds would be forfeited if what the presses published displeased the government. The act provoked angry objections from both press owners and their Indian readers. It became the occasion for political organizing in Calcutta, Pune, and Bombay, where newly formed political associations arranged protests and wrote petitions demanding its repeal. At a public meeting in Pune to oppose the act, speakers from the Sarvajanik Sabha (Public Association) denounced the act for infringing on that “freedom of thought and speech [which] is a right to which all subjects of the British Crown are entitled by their birth and allegiance” (Wolpert 1962, 12).

Regional Political Associations

By 1878 politics was a major interest of urban Indian elites. Indians began forming regional political associations in the late 1860s and early 1870s. The religious or social reform associations of the century focused inward on questions internal to indigenous Indian society: religious practices, women’s social conditions, caste interactions. Political associations, in contrast, looked outward, focusing their activities on the policies and actions of the British Indian government.

English-educated Indians organized their regional political associations along “modern” lines, using contemporary political forms and practices, and framed their concerns using the language and concepts of British constitutional democracy. Political associations elected officers, collected dues and subscriptions, kept minutes of their activities, and held Town Hall meetings to debate and publicize their issues. They petitioned regional governments on issues of concern to English-educated and middle-class communities that supported them. Key issues were access to ICS (civil service) examinations, broader (middle-class) Indian participation in the government’s Legislative Councils, the excessive expenses of the Afghan wars, and government inaction during famines.


One of the earliest and most successful of the regional associations was Pune’s Sarvajanik Sabha. Founded in 1870 out of several smaller groups, Pune’s political association regularly organized public meetings, debates, protests, and petitions on the issues of the day. It provided an early and regional context for the political development of three of India’s most famous nationalist leaders.

The three men were Mahadev Govind Ranade (1842-1901), a leader of the Prarthana Samaj in Bombay, Gopal Krishna Gokhale (1866-1915), and Balwantrao Gangadhar Tilak (1856-1920). All came from Maharashtra, from the elite Chitpavan Brahman community, and all three were English educated: Ranade and Gokhale at Elphinstone College in Bombay and Tilak first at Pune’s local Deccan College and then later at Elphinstone. Ranade, the eldest of the three, was a lawyer and judge, college teacher, historian, and above all else, social reformer. He founded in 1887 the National Indian Social Conference. Gokhale, Ranade’s disciple, was a founding member of Pune’s Fergusson College, where he taught for 20 years. He was committed to secular social reform, founding the Servants of India Society in 1905, an organization of full-time volunteers dedicated to welfare work. In contrast, Tilak was the editor and publisher of two popular Pune newspapers: the English-language Mahratta and the Marathi-language Kesari (Lion). In his newspapers and speeches Tilak rejected the idea of social reform. He preferred to direct his energies toward the revival of Hinduism and the use of Hindu religious images and festivals for political organizing in the region. Over the years, from the 1870s until their deaths in the 20th century, the two younger men, Gokhale and Tilak, fought out their opposing views—first on social reform and religion, later on politics— both within Pune’s Sarvajanik Sabha and later on the national stage.


In Bombay city, the English educated came from commercial and trading communities, one of the most visible of which was the Parsis. Descended from 10th-century Zoroastrian migrants from Iran, the Bombay Parsis had been early supporters of English-language education. Their most famous member in the 19th century, and one of India’s earliest nationalist writers, was Dadabhai Naoroji (1825-1917). Naoroji was an early graduate of Elphinstone College who had founded one of the first Indian business firms in London and Liverpool in the 1850s. Traveling frequently between England and India, he wrote on British-Indian economic relations and became a mentor in England to Indian boys sent abroad for education. In the 1890s he became the first Indian elected to the British Parliament. Another politically prominent Parsi was Pherozeshah Mehta (1845-1915), a prominent Bombay lawyer. Mehta began his long career in regional and national politics in the late 1870s, when he was drawn into local efforts to protest the Vernacular Press Act. He and other members of Bombay’s urban elite formed a local political association, the Bombay Presidency Association, in 1885.


In the 19th and early 20th centuries Madras Brahmans dominated the local English-educated community, and local Brahman communities competed for control over the city’s political activities. G. Subramaniya Ayyar and M. Viraghava Charia, joint publishers of the leading Madras newspaper, the Hindu, initially founded a local political association, the Madras Native Association, in 1878. When disagreements split that association during the 1883-84 Ilbert Bill controversy, the original founders reformed it as the Madras Mahajana Sabha (Great Peoples’ Association). Madras politics were further complicated after 1893, when the English Socialist Annie Besant (1847-1933) moved to the city. Besant, who became the Theosophical Society’s president in 1907, actively involved herself in regional (and national) politics on the side of Indian political self-determination.


Bengal was home to what was probably the oldest political association in the country. The British Indian Association was a loyalist organization of princes, zamindars, and, later, industrialists founded in the 1840s. In 1875 a new political organization, the Indian League, was founded by members of the English-educated Bengali community who worked in the city’s new professions of law, education, and journalism. After a year, it was supplanted by the newly formed Indian Association, founded by Surendranath Banerjea (1848-1926), a former ICS officer who had been fired from the service and had turned instead to college teaching and journalism. Under Banerjea’s leadership the Indian Association aggressively pursued public issues of interest to its members, among other things helping to organize a multiregional protest by Indian elites against the 1878 Vernacular Press Act.

The Ilbert Bill

The return of a Liberal government to power in Britain had brought the marquis of Ripon to India as viceroy in 1880. Ripon began his term in a mode popular with Westernized Indians by repealing the Vernacular Press Act of 1878. He also encouraged the growth of primary and secondary schools and created governing boards in municipalities and districts that elected two-thirds of their members. But in 1883 he aroused the fury of the Anglo-Indian community when his law member, Sir Courtney Ilbert, proposed modifying an 1873 law to allow certain cases involving Europeans to be tried by Indian judges. At well-organized public meetings and in newspaper ads, the Anglo-Indian community declared the Ilbert Bill “intensely distasteful and humiliating to all Europeans” (Metcalf and Metcalf 2006, 120). In blunter language, Anglo-Indian associations denounced the idea that “nigger natives” could be considered their “peers or equals” (Wolpert 1989, 257). In 1884 Ripon’s government gave in and amended the bill to mandate that if a European’s case was to be tried by an Indian judge, his jury must be at least half Europeans. For Anglo-Indians this was a great victory. For Westernized Indians, both the process and the resolution demonstrated the fundamental racism of Anglo-Indians and the Indian government in which they served. The bill also demonstrated to the Indian elite the power and effectiveness of organized public protest.

By the time of the Ilbert Bill controversy, British rule in India had transformed many aspects of Indian society. The British Raj had introduced British administrative structures and the ideas and practices of the West to a newly forming urban Indian elite. British economic structures had transformed Indian agricultural production even as government-subsidized railroads and roads bound the subcontinent more tightly together. In rural India, these changes left peasants more vulnerable than ever both to the economic fluctuations of the global marketplace and to the spread of calamitous famine and disease. In urban India, over the course of the 19th century the new elites of British Indian towns and cities had adapted themselves to the office work, administrative structures, and Western practices of the British Raj. By the late 19th century these elites had begun to change their focus. From earlier preoccupations with religious and social reform, acculturation, and self-improvement, they now wrote and spoke more about the revival and protection of indigenous religion and culture, about finding ways to participate in India’s imperially controlled government, and even about nationalism, independence, and swaraj (self-rule).