British economic and political interest in India began in the 17th century, when the East India Company established trading posts there. Eventually the British took full control of Indian political and economic affairs, acting more as governors than traders on the Indian sub-continent. This had an affect on trading, culture and government affairs in India.
Beginnings of Imperialism
At first, the ruling Mughal Dynasty in India was able to keep the traders under close scrutiny. Beginning around 1707, however, the dynasty collapsed into dozens of small states. In 1757, the East India Company defeated Indian troops at the Battle of Plassey. The East India Company became the foremost power in India, and India became the "crown jewel of the British Empire."
India became increasingly valuable to British interests after a railway network was built there. The railroads were used to transport raw products from the inner parts of the Indian sub-continent to the ports. Manufactured goods made at the ports would be transported back to the inner zones. Nearly all the materials used in manufacturing were produced on plantations, including tea, cotton, opium and coffee. In particular, the British would ship opium to China in exchange for tea that was sold in England. The trade goods had an enormous impact on Indian politics. The 1850s Crimean War, for example, cut off supplies of Russian exports to Scotland. In turn, the exports of products in the Indian province of Bengal increased. The U.S. Civil War boosted cotton production in India. The British further replaced India's political aristocracy with a bureaucratic military adept at maintaining law and order. This led to a reduction in fiscal overheads, leaving a larger share of national product available to the British while simultaneously stripping self-governance rights and natural products from the Indian people.
As the economy increased, so too did the Indian infrastructure. However, the British held most of the political and economic power and they used this to restrict Indian-owned industries including cotton textiles. This led to a loss of self-sufficiency for many locals and, in the late 1800s, India experienced a severe famine.
Beyond economic concerns, the British had a more-or-less hands-off policy when it came to religious and social customs in India. However, British missionaries increased during the imperial era, with hopes to spread Western Christianity. Many of the British officials working in India were racist, impacting the political climate. Many Indians who worked with British officials for administrative purposes were portrayed as disloyal or deceitful to their Indian brethren by the British.
Resentment against the British mounted in the mid 1800s. In southern India, for example, the British and the French allied with opposed political factions to extract Indian goods for their respective domestic uses. A strong sense of nationalism began to take hold. In 1857, Indian soliders -- called sepoys -- came to believe that the cartridges of their rifles were greased with pork and beef fat. This was important because to use the cartridges, the user had to bite off the ends. This was a religious concern for Hindu and Muslim sepoys who were forbidden to eat these meats. This led to the Sepoy Mutiny when 85 soldiers refused to use the cartridges. The soldiers were jailed by the British and on May 10, 1857 the sepoys marched to Delhi. Once there, they were joined by other soldiers and eventually the captured the city.
Decline and Political Regeneration
The Sepoy Mutiny spread to much of northern India, sparking an intense battle between British forces and the Indian soldiers. It took the East India Company more than one year to regain control. However, the event weakened Britain's political position. Growing nationalism led to the founding of the Indian National Congress in 1885 and then to the Muslim League in 1906. Both groups called for self-government. During the 1930s, the British slowly enacted legal changes and the Indian National Congress began to win many political victories. Among those campaigning for Indian nationalism was Ghandi, a civil rights leader who advocated non-violent civil disobedience. India finally gained full independence from the United Kingdom in 1950, the Indian constitution and the parliamentary system of government's design was influenced by Great Britain. To this day, India remains part of the British Commonwealth.
Jeremy Bradley works in the fields of educational consultancy and business administration. He holds a Master of Business Administration degree.