The British are generally gentle, amicable people. Content with their tea, crumpets, and occasional historic referendums, they lead rather serene lives on a rainy island in the North Atlantic. On the surface, they don’t seem like the kind of people who would have centuries of conquest, colonialism, brutal genocides, and two world wars behind them. But who knows. Maybe this is the calm after the storm.
One of the British Empire’s most prized possessions was, of course, India. Famously known as the jewel in the British Crown, India was under British rule for around two centuries. The British Raj as it is commonly known shaped not only the fate of the subcontinent but also had a sizeable impact on world history.
The British victory at the Battle of Plassey in 1757 is widely believed to be the beginning of significant British influence in India, as the East India Company annexed Bengal immediately thereafter. This week in Feeds Alternate History, we ask, what if Robert Clive had been defeated that summer of 1757? In more general terms, what if the British had never colonized India?
Right off the bat, we must acknowledge that it is very difficult to answer this question in its entirety for various reasons. Try as we might, to be sure of ourselves, any answer will ultimately be speculation. Also, it is not possible to take into account every geopolitical and socioeconomic variable throughout history. Nevertheless, we will try and look at this scenario primarily from an economic and political perspective. Another assumption we’ll make is that India wasn’t colonized by another European power instead of the British (such as the French, Dutch, or Portuguese) because each of those would potentially be Feeds Alternate History articles in themselves.
With all that out of the way, let’s get rolling.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, India was a major world economic power. Indian exports of textiles, spices, and other crops were in great demand in Europe and other parts of the world, and much of this trade was facilitated by the Indian Ocean network. Domestically, the Mughals had established a relatively efficient taxation system and built a network of roads and other infrastructure that facilitated economic activity. As a result, Emperor Akbar earned an annual revenue around £17 million in the late 16th century, more than the £16 million treasury of Great Britain two hundred years later. India’s share in the global economy stood at 24.4% in 1701.
But in 1950, three years after the British left, that share had dropped to a mere 4.2%. India had been reduced to abject poverty, unable to feed its people or pay its debts. To see why this happened, it is necessary to examine Britain’s economic policy vis-à-vis India.
The most prominent feature of the policy was converting India from an exporter of finished products to an importer of British finished goods. This was done by systematically dismantling Indian industries, either by heavily regulating and taxing them or even physically destroying them. The most famous example of this is the treatment of the famed muslin weavers of Dhaka, on which the British not only imposed an 80% duty but also went to the extent of breaking their looms and thumbs to stifle production.
Debilitating high tariffs were imposed on the export of Indian finished goods, while the import of British goods was made completely free. As a result, raw materials were exported from India, processed in the factories and mills of London, Liverpool, and Manchester, and the finished products were brought back to Indian markets. As these goods were heavily subsidized by British policy, they easily out-competed locally produced goods, leading to the rapid decline of Indian industry and the impoverishment of millions of previously well-off Indians.
All in all, British rule was pretty horrible for India’s economy. Would things have been better in its absence?
For one, British rule was different from the pre-colonial rule in a fundamental way; British policy making was parasitic, its objective was to extract wealth and resources from India to fund the British empire. In contrast, it would certainly be in the interest of Indian rulers to create and sustain economic growth domestically. After all, a prosperous populace is a happy populace and is thus less likely to rebel or cause other trouble. In any case, it is highly unlikely that an Indian ruler would implement self-destructive economic policies such as those British had imposed.
You can argue that the Indian economy may have declined over the centuries anyway, perhaps due to other external factors. But without the destructive mechanisms that the British had put in place, the extent of the damage would undoubtedly have been much less.
So yes, India most likely would have been richer without the British Raj.
Now let’s consider the politics. Even in the absence of the British, it was clear that by the 18th century the Mughal Empire was in decline. All Mughal Emperors post-Aurangzeb had been weak and incompetent, and Aurangzeb’s intolerant attitude towards other religions had already alienated the Rajputs, the Sikhs, and the Marathas a century earlier. The Mughals had failed to revamp their feudal economic systems to match the demands of the new world order, and thus both their treasury and influence seemed to be in free fall. Mughal weakness was perhaps best reflected in their inability to defend Delhi against the multiple raids of the Iranian invader Nader Shah.
It is therefore unlikely that the Mughals would stick around for long. After their collapse, it is likely that India would again be divided into a multitude of princely states and kingdoms. The Nawabs of Bengal Hyderabad, the Rajput kings, the Marathas, and all other local nobles would see an opportunity to seize power. Lots of chaos and violence would inevitably ensue, which isn’t exactly excellent for economic growth. Also without the fluid trade routes and systematic movements of goods under the Mughal rule, economic activity would be less efficient.
Sooner or later, however, the fighting would come to at least a temporary halt. It is possible that one of the kingdoms would’ve come to dominate large parts of the subcontinent, the Marathas or the Sikhs being prime candidates. The rulers would eventually realise that fighting was bad for business, and trade would return to normalcy.
It is difficult to imagine, however, how the modern, democratic, and the unified Republic of India would eventually emerge from these disparate princely states and kingdoms. It is not news that India is and was home to an enormous amount of ethnic, religious, and linguistic diversity. There is no other obvious mechanism than collective resistance to an oppressive foreign colonizer that would unite such diverse peoples. In fact, most nation states in Europe were founded on the basis of a shared ethnic and linguistic identity, and have remained more or less homogeneous in that respect till modern times.
So, it seems that India’s 20th and 21st political landscape would look quite different from what it is today. That does not necessarily mean that its residents would be worse off. In fact, considering the economic arguments made earlier, it is very likely that they would be richer, healthier, and more prosperous. With the spread of technology and the increase in global interconnectedness, the ideals of the Enlightenment (individual liberty, human rights, pluralistic democracy) would eventually reach Indian rulers and scholars. We can’t determine the extent to which they would accept these ideas, but it is not far-fetched to imagine the slow transition of these hypothetical Indian kingdoms into constitutional monarchies governed in large part by the will of the people. A real life example of this is Thailand, where the Rattanokosin Kingdom (that came to power in 1782) eventually gave way to a parliamentary constitutional monarchy in 1932.
It is reasonable therefore to argue that without centuries of British rule, India would have been richer, but the political landscape would also have been drastically different. Whether the ordinary Indian would have been better off is an open question.