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Britain used its military and political power as well as clever political policies to establish an empire in India and dominate the Indian subcontinent that includes the modern day’s countries such as India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Using its political and economic power, Britain was able to exert its power in this sub-continent for about two centuries until the year 1947. The reason Britain was able to take control an entire subcontinent despite being a smaller population was that multiple unique events and circumstances that happened in this region. Among these factors, include the lack of unity among the natives, the decline of the Mughal Empire, lack of rivals in the subcontinent, and most importantly, the clever policy of retaining the local elites in power in order to gain their collaboration.
I agree with the argument that the relative peace and tolerance created by the presence of an empire is always rooted in power. This argument reflects the events and outcome of the establishment of the British Empire in India for more than two centuries. These statements suggest that no matter the collaboration and harmony between the local elites and the British government, or the length of the dominance of an empire may seem to be, its stability and dominance in a given regions is ultimately based on the threat of force. In India, the British Government took advantage of the situation and utilized its political and economic power to establish its dominance in this country. According to Wheland (2017), the first move by the British government was the establishment of trading posts in India, which allowed the procurement of spices and other goods that were highly needed in Europe. This trade was highly monopolized by the East India Company, which was owned by private shareholders including aristocrats and traders. Through their trading activities, this company became increasingly famous and caught the attention of the British government. The aspect of power, in this case, come into action when the British government established a private army to defend their interest in this trade, but later used the army for offensive reasons (Welch, 2015).
In the 1750s, the company had established a strong army comprised of Indian and British soldiers, and through the leadership of Robber Clive. This army played a major role in defeating the French allies, the Nawab of Bengal at the Battle of Plassey a victory that turned the East Indian Company into a strong power in India. The army also played role in defeating the French and Indian forces that were opposing the brash rule in India. Through this military power, the British government had established its direct rule in much of the Indian subcontinent by 1760. According to Welch, the British government used the company to further its interest in India. In the remaining decades of the 18th century, the British government through the Company expanded their rule and influence in India and the surrounding regions defeating the native monarchs as well as the powerful Sikh empire. According to Wheland, by 1800, a majority of the Indian sub-continent was under the control of the British government through the East India Company. These advancements by the British government show that the while the Company did not seek to establish its rule in India, it fostered the established of the British Empire in the sub-continent. The British government used its military power to dominate India and its ruler. At first, the intentions of the British government were to trade with the natives and the private merchants who owned the East India Company, however, with time the British government rose to the occasion to establish an empire due to the economic gains it would attain by establishing its rue in India. These events support Lieven argument that no matter how harmonious an empire might appear to have been, it is ultimately based on the threat of force.
The second factor that fostered the use of the British force in order to establish the British Empire in India was the aspect of using indirect rule. According to Wheland, India as a nation was weak because it was divided among multiple local leaders. The decline of the Mughal Empire created a major instability in the nation and the local leaders rose against each other, local religious communities including the Hindus and Muslims fought each other and this unrest continued much in the early decades of the 18th century. According to Wheland, most of the natives welcomed the peace and tolerance the British government brought in the late 18th century. While power was part of establishing their rule in India, the British government employed a clever strategy in this nation. The British government did not take control of the majority of their new territories in India at first; they mostly left the local elites to take charge of all their wealth and privileges.
By letting the local landowning elites to take charge, the British government was able to take control of the nation. Additionally, this strategy meant that the local Indian elites including the Muslims and Hindu accepted the British rule and influence. Though the British government had the power and resources to attack the locals, they made agreements with the local Sultans, Nawabs, and Rajs, which made the British the heirs to the local rulers. According to these agreements, most of the small states in the sub0-continent were bequeathed to the British upon the death of the local ruler. Furthermore, the British signed treaties with the rulers, which allowed them to absorb these regions peacefully, and station military forces in every state. Through such strategy, the British were able to control a majority of the rulers and slowly the local ruler found that they were becoming puppets of the Company under the supervision of the British government (Wheland, 2017).
In addition to this, the British rule in India was also facilitated by the acceptance of the rule by most of the residents. According to Wheland, most of the Indians proved willing to accept the rule of the British government. The residents did not oppose the presence of the British in their country because they anticipated the benefits that would come with the rule. The locals had suffered because of the war and from their experience; the regions that came into direct or indirect contact with the British seemed to be more stable. Furthermore, the growing economic stability because of trade persuaded many to accept the British rule even though they were blind of the exploitation on their hands. According to Peers (2013), the British tolerated the various beliefs and creeds of the locals and did not seek to control or impose any ideology or religion on the Indians. The British in a way revived the tolerant policies of the many local rulers such as Akbar and Ashoka. This practice played an important part in reconciling the Indians to the British rule. Additionally, the British continue to establish their rule in India by adopting a light-touch approach to government and avoided practices or policies that would interfere with the local Indian way of life and customs. According to Wheland, many Indians helped in ensuring that the British rule was spread over a vast and diverse region.
The British rule was also able to spread in India due to the lack of nationalism in and national identity in India. Most of the people in this sub-continent had no real national identity in the 18th century. According to Wheland, most of the people in this region identified with religion, ethnic group or a tribe, which implies that most of these people were divided among themselves. This phenomenon allowed the British to establish their rule with the assistance of the locals. Additionally, the lack of unity and cohesion among the locals, allowed the British to work with some locals and use them to betray the other communities. In brief, this lack of a national unity implies that the British exploited the Indians by adopting a classic rule policy in which the locals betrayed other locals and thereby advancing the British rule. These events and practices support Lieven argument that the relative peace and tolerance created by empire is always rooted in power, and no matter what how harmonious an empire might appear to have been, it is based entirely on the threat of force. The British might have used some of the weaknesses among the Indian community to establish their rule in India or sign peaceful treaties, or rely on the open acceptance from the locals, the fact remains that the British remained powerful and in control because of their political, economic, and military power in the eyes of the Indians.
Other defining features of an empire
For years, Britain was a master of the seas and a leader in the industry, and these advantages allowed the country to have a significant amount of strength in their command. According to Brown (2010), Britain did not practice her power to dominate the world; rather she used her political and economic supremacy to project ideologies of strength around the world. Additionally, Britain used her supremacy to further capitalism, enforce the rule of law, improve many regions across the globe and give native populations the opportunity to advance their civilization. While the aspects of power and coercion might be the major defining features of an empire, other important features define the British Empire in India.
Brown argues that the early British Empire in other regions such as North America was comprised of self-governing colonies settled by Englishmen. However, in the case of India, things changed significantly in that the British began the experiment of governing the people that were not ready for a self-rule while maintaining accord with British political rules. Furthermore, the sheer size of the sub-continent and the time the British government managed it make the history of the colony that shows the best ideologies that governed the British Empire and thus the supreme justification of British imperialism.
According to brown in addition to the use of power and force, other elements such as commercial dealings through the British East India Company played a paramount role in the creation of the empire. In the case of India, the British did not intend to settle in the colony but rather they wanted to commandeer control of the existing colonies. The Company played a key role in facilitating the trade for goods likes spices among other things. According to Blackwell (20080, the Company facilitated the trade of highly demanded goods such as ginger, pepper, and cotton from the southern regions in India. Additionally, the Company also facilitated trade with other European nations including the Portuguese who had secured lands in the west coast and the French who had secured influence in the southeast regions. According to Brown, the main agenda of the East India Company was to trade; however, a combination of factors and events drew the Company into the nation’s politics especially the decline of the Mughal Empire (Brown, 2010).
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In addition to the aspect of the trade, which defines the British Empire in India, the issue of improving the civilization of the Indian people through education, economic reforms was also an important factor in this empire. According to Brown, as the British rule evolved in the subcontinent, their focus on the residents shifted from presiding over a regime to westernizing the nation through economic and political reforms. This drive to improve the conditions of the nation were founded on the idea that the British system was the best and it was their responsibility to advance the Indian civilization. This duty included increasing the advancement of Britain by accomplishing their imperial duties and utilizing the benefits from the trade to improve their own material advancement. With this goal in mind, the British commenced multiple aspiring economic projects and invested significantly in infrastructure systems. These projects would play an important role in increasing the effectiveness of the British administration as well as improving the condition of the Indian commerce and way of life.
Brown continues to assert that the civilization of the Indian subcontinent mission of the British Empire was not limited to economic activities. The British worked towards the improvement of the moral conditions of the nation through legal and educational reforms. The leadership of the mogul dynasty had relied on the ignorance of the masses in this subcontinent to remain in power and introduced barbaric values that could no longer be tolerated under the British rule. According to Bajpai (2010), in the 19th century, the British introduced important developments of the industrial revolution to the Indian subcontinent. The British presented much-needed education in the country in the year 1835 with an aim of strengthening its power and civilizing the Indian people. The Indians excelled in the new system of education with unintended results. Bajpai argues that the Indians learned how other nations gained their freedom and rightly concluded that their lad had the same right to be free and independent but it took them a century to achieve this freedom (Bajpai, 2010).
Brown continues to assert that an economically advanced and prosperous civilization relies on a certain level of political liberty and stability, which the British worked to establish in India. Furthermore, the process of tranquilizing the anarchic forces in the nation required pragmatic decisions and amalgamation of rule under the British. Most importantly, the unification of this decentralized colony and the hostile land was a product of the British rule and effort to secure the peace of the nation as well as the establishment of a centralized administration. Through the organization and establishment of a British education system, the British were actively preparing the Indians to be the foundation of the regime they would leave behind. From this events and activities, it is evident the motives of the British empire in the Indian subcontinent were not all about displaying the British political power and military force. The British role in India was prompted by self-interest but this drive was ultimately a means to improve India. The British were also driven by the belief that the two nations could benefit significantly from their political and economic interactions.
In conclusion, it is true to assert that the relative peace and tolerance sometimes created by an empire is always rooted in power. This phenomenon is demonstrated by the British Empire in the Indian subcontinent that lasted for a century. There are multiple factors that contributed to the establishment of the British rule in India including the creation of the East India Company, the deterioration of the Mughal empire acceptance of the British rule by the locals, as well as lack of national identity. The British might have established peaceful connections with the local rulers and the natives in this nation. However, the force of the British military, and its political power that facilitated the establishment of British rule in these vast and diverse territories. Additionally, power and coercion are the major defining features of an empire, but I this case, other important factors such as trade, advancement of Indian civilization through economic and educational reforms played a critical role in the British Empire in India.
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- Bajpai, D. S. (2010). Chapter Four: India as Colony: 1850 to 1947. In T. S. Monastery (Ed.), History of Hindu India (p. 128). Himalayan Academy,
- Blackwell, F. (2008). The British Impact on India, 1700–1900. EDUCATION ABOUT ASIA, 13(2).
- Brown, R. (2010). The British Empire in India. Ohio: Ashbrook-Ashland University.
- Wheland, E. (2017). Why was Britain able to establish an Empire in India? – DailyHistory.org. Retrieved from https://dailyhistory.org/Why_was_Britain_able_to_establish_an_Empire_in_India%3F#ci te_ref- 13
- Peers, D. M. (2013). India under colonial rule: 1700-1885. London: Routledge.
- Welch, J. (2015). The British Raj and india: British Colonial Influence: 1612-1948. Research Gate.