From Colony to Republic: The Indian Transition

The 26th of January, India’s Republic Day, has a great symbolic significance. But it would be truly unfortunate if this significance is seen only in symbolic terms. This day should be remembered as a reminder of a great transition in India’s long history. This was a transition of India from a British colony to a Republic.

This transition was connected to the transformation of an old civilisation into a modern nation-state. This was also connected to the transition of the world from agrarian to industrial. Most of mankind lived in the agrarian state for thousands of years. It looked as if they were destined to remain trapped in the constraints imposed by the agrarian stage. And then a miracle occurred towards the end of the 18th century in some pockets of North-West Europe. A big technological–scientific breakthrough occurred which ushered in the industrial stage. Many philosophers of those times believed that the industrial revolution had provided the ‘key’ to unlimited human progress, affluence and happiness. A better future began to be seen not as a distant dream but a manifest destiny, well within the human grasp. Moreover this began to be seen as applicable to all the people and societies. This was called the Enlightenment.

The Enlightenment philosophers believed that under modern conditions, the traditional inequalities, belonging to dark ages, would be replaced by modern equality. This however turned out to be a very simplistic optimism. In reality what happened was that the traditional inequalities were replaced, not by modern equality, but by modern inequalities. The dynamic system of industrialism produced affluence but also imperialism and colonialism, under which large parts of the world (countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America) came under the political domination of a small number of countries of West Europe. This modern domination, unlike traditional forms of domination, was systematic, orderly and comprehensive. And it encompassed all aspects of life – economic, social and political. Large and old civilisations of the old world—Indic, Islamic and Chinese—all came under the comprehensive domination of a handful of Western countries. Modernity that brought progress and prosperity to Europe, brought modern slavery to countries of Asia and Africa. The intellectuals and other leaders of these societies began to have doubts regarding the bliss of modernity: Was it a key to progress or a charter of slavery?

It certainly was painful for an old civilisation like India to come under the domination of a small European country like England. Many 19th century writers from Bankim Chandra Chatterjee to Vivekanand lamented this loss of freedom.

The British started conquering parts of India since the 18th century and by mid-19th century almost all of India had come under their control. The colonial rule lasted for two centuries. It impacted not just Indian economy but also polity and society. British colonialism dug such deep roots in the Indian society that it was not easy to remove the traces of colonialism from Indian life after India became free in 1947. At the time of independence the most important task therefore was to rid India of the legacy of colonialism. This really was the crux of the Indian transition from a Colony to a Republic.

What exactly was the legacy of British colonialism? Economy was certainly one area where this legacy was most conspicuous. The 18th–19th centuries was the time when the European countries took a leap and surged ahead of the rest of the world. This was also the time when the economy became the major index of a society’s progress and advance. Sadly for India, at a time when the economy acquired such centrality, Indian economy lost its independence and got colonised. There were some important features of the Indian economy under British colonialism. First, Indian economy got integrated to the British economy in particular and the world economy in general, but in a subordinate and a subservient position. In other words, Indian economy was placed at the service of the British economy and made to fulfil its needs both in the realm of trade and capital. Second, a peculiar international division of labour was forced upon India. India had traditionally been an exporter of cotton textiles. Till the 18th century nearly 20% of the world demand of cotton textiles was met by India. India was the world’s biggest exporter of cotton textiles. Under the new economic arrangements, India became an importer of cotton textiles. India now exported food stuffs and raw materials—cotton, jute, oil seeds and minerals—and imported manufactured products from the British industries. Third, given the colonial nature of Indian economy, modernisation happened without development. Even though all the features of modern economy—railway, transport and communication—were introduced in India, it did not lead to any significant development of the Indian economy. This happened because the surplus produced by the Indian economy was ‘siphoned off’ to England. As a result, India remained a large country with a small economy. The size of the economy remained small. This happened because, under colonial conditions, Indian economy was modernised and underdeveloped at the same time. According to a leading economist, what happened to Indian economy under British colonialism was neither stagnation nor development, but rather the “development of underdevelopment.”

The impact of British colonialism was not confined only to the economy but extended to all spheres of life. The education policy of the British introduced modern education, but in such a way that it completely displaced the traditional Indian educational system. English came to be established as the lingua franca of the intelligentsia. But it created a new divide in the country between the English knowing elite and the rest. To a large extent, the divide persists even today.

It is true that the colonial state was a modern state and introduced a modern polity in India. But it also encouraged traditional categories of religion and caste in the Indian politics. Many British thinkers believed that the Indian people were unfit for democracy and should be ruled through some kind of ‘benevolent despotism’. They also felt that Indian society and people could never be welded into a modern nation. The initiative for both democracy and nationhood, in fact, came from the Indian nationalist leaders.

Such was the cumulative impact of the British rule that, when they left India in 1947, they left behind a country that was poor, backward and ridden with exploitative relationships in the economy. The life expectancy of an average Indian was 32 years only. The literacy rate was round 14%. Food availability was very low. During the 2nd World War in 1943, a famine in Bengal claimed around three million lives. It was in this context that Rabindranath Tagore wrote in 1941, a few months before his death: “The wheels of fate will some day compel the English to give up their Indian empire. But what kind of India will they leave behind, what stark misery? When the steam of their centuries’ administration runs dry at last, what a waste of mud and filth will they leave behind them?”

They certainly did leave behind plenty of ‘mud and filth’. It was this baggage of ‘mud and filth’ that Indian leadership had to deal with, when India became free. Overcoming the constraints imposed by two centuries of colonial rule was not going to be easy. But it was the most important single factor, if India had to make a successful transition from a Colony to a Republic. Mere independence from the British was not enough. British had gone, but they had left behind a huge cumulative baggage of two centuries. How did independent India attempt to get rid of this baggage?

The Indian response was to initiate a Revolution, during the period 1947–52. This period needs to be recognised as the period of the making of the Indian Revolution. This Indian Revolution was not based on a single episode but was built around five axes. All the five axes were connected to one another and constituted the core of the Indian Revolution.

First of course was the removal of colonialism. It was clear that British colonialism was the biggest obstacle in the path of India’s transformation. The removal of colonialism was a necessary, though not a sufficient, condition for India’s transformation. This was done with the help of a powerful national movement, led by Mahatma Gandhi, in which millions of people participated in a struggle that stretched for many decades. The Indian national movement was easily the biggest political movement in the history of the modern world.

The second axis of the Indian Revolution was the integration of princely states into the Indian Union. The British had created a dual political structure in India, under which 2/3rd of the territory and 60% of the people were governed directly by the British. The remaining 1/3rd of the territory and 40% of the people were ruled ‘indirectly’ by the British, through nearly 565 princely states. These princely states derived their legitimacy from a treaty signed between them and the British. This implied that after the end of the British rule, these princely states, in principle, could declare themselves to be independent.  Some of these princely states, such as Jammu and Kashmir, Hyderabad and Baroda, were as large as some of the European countries. Indeed some of the rulers of the princely states did nurture the ambition of becoming independent. Their integration into the Indian Union was necessary for the unity and integrity of the country. This task was accomplished by Sardar Patel. He used diplomacy, pressure, persuasion and sometimes also threats and intimidation to ensure that all the princely states eventually acceded to the Indian Union. By the time India became independent on 15 August 1947, this integration was almost completed and constituted an important axis of the Indian Revolution.

Abolition of landlordism in agriculture was the next major component of the Indian Revolution. The British had created a new class of landlords and other intermediaries in agriculture. This class had been given the ownership rights in land, but was otherwise not very interested in agriculture. These big landlords lived like complete parasites on the land who extracted its resources without giving back anything to agriculture. The real agriculturists—poor peasants—worked like tenants without any stakes in the land. It is therefore not surprising that Indian agriculture remained virtually stagnant and did not experience any growth during the colonial period. For any growth in agriculture, it was necessary to rescue land from the clutches of non-agriculturist landlords and restore it to the real stakeholders—the farmers and cultivators. Immediately after independence, the Indian State moved swiftly in this direction, abolished landlordism, and gave the ownership rights in land to the real cultivators and prepared Indian agriculture for sweeping reforms, both institutional and technological.

The next major component of the Indian Revolution came with the first general elections held in 1952, based on adult universal franchise. This election—the largest held anywhere in the world till then—gave India the fully justifiable title of being the world’s largest democracy. Many Western observers had raised doubts about the wisdom of introducing adult franchise in a country with only 16% literacy. Would it not be better to expose Indian society to democracy only gradually and in an incremental manner, linking it to the rise in literacy? As against this, the thinking of the Indian leaders was that if illiterate masses  had the political maturity to fight against, and overthrow, foreign imperialism, they were certainly mature enough to elect their own government. It has to be said that Indian masses have fully lived up to the expectations of their leaders. Indian democracy, with all its imperfections, really thrives on the collective strength of the Indian people.

Undoubtedly the most spectacular component of the Indian Revolution was the introduction of the Indian Constitution on 26 January 1950, truly a peoples’ constitution. Indian Constitution was prepared both by the representatives of the people and also by the best constitutional Indian minds of the times. The result was a constitution that was rooted in the Indian realities and yet had transformative potentials. The Indian Constitutional experiment has proved to be durable, unlike that of neighbouring countries like Pakistan and Sri Lanka, where the constitutions were removed and redrafted thrice. There is no doubt that the Indian Constitution has played an important enabling role in carrying out India’s transformation and has continued to be a relevant and vibrant document in India’s political life, seven decades after it was introduced.

These five, put together, constituted the Indian Revolution. One remarkable feature of this revolution was its largely non-coercive character. Most revolutions in history have entailed a coercive element and have extracted a human cost, on the way to their fulfilment. The Indian Revolution was remarkable in that it was overwhelmingly consensual. In particular, the big landlords and the princes had to pay a heavy cost of the Indian Revolution. But neither of them had to be coerced into giving up their power and legal rights. The Indian Revolution derived its essence from the values of consensus and accommodation, rather than coercion and displacement. The values of consensus and accommodation had deep roots in Indian traditions. This really was the strength of the Indian Revolution. It sought to draw on the positive features of Indian traditions as a major resource to be utilised for India’s transformation into a modern society. It thus attempted to connect India’s past with her future. It is this legacy that is exemplified by the Republic Day. This is the essence of the big Indian dream.

Where does that dream stand today seven decades later? If the leaders of the freedom struggle  were to visit India of the 21st century, they would certainly feel distraught and let down. Poverty reduction has been slower than anticipated. The social fabric appears more fragile than before. Politically the country is more turbulent and violent than before. There is an air of intolerance in the air. Communalism and casteism, instead of diminishing, have become more resurgent and aggressive. All the major values championed by the freedom struggle and enshrined in the Constitution are under siege. As a nation, we are politically unstable, ideologically hysterical, socially turbulent and economically precarious. We arouse neither admiration nor envy in the world. The great Indian experiment does not appear to be working. Something very basic seems to have gone wrong.

Indian society is rapidly industrialising. But this industrialisation is different from that undertaken during the initial decades after independence, is taking frame under an ideological frame known as neoliberalism. The axial question is: during this transition, what is the social cost that is going to be paid by the Indian people and society? How much of the innate and intrinsic India would remain intact? This is the mother of all questions and all those who truly  love India must surely ponder over it. At the heart of this question is the very ‘Idea of India’ articulated so eloquently by Tagore, Gandhi and Nehru. How much of this ‘Idea’ would survive in the process of India’s transformation?

What is this ‘Idea of India’ which may be considered the very DNA of the Indian society? One of its most important constituents is the idea of pluralism and diversity. The big subterranean ideational contest in India appears to be between ‘monism’ and ‘pluralism’. To get it right, plurality or diversity is part of India’s historical tradition. It has not been created or invented by any ideology or vision. It is simply there. The question is: what to do with it? Both monists and pluralists tend to look at this diversity differently. Monists want this existing diversity to be dominated by one religion, or language, or culture, or whatever. Clearly domination, discrimination and exclusion are inherent in this vision. It can also lead to conflict (given that those who are discriminated against, will resist domination, which will lead to friction and conflict, also violence). The pluralists tend to uphold and celebrate this diversity. They look upon India’s plurality not as a liability or an embarrassment, but as a strength and want to preserve and promote it. This then is the big debate on the ‘Idea of India’, with two principal contestants. This is the big dichotomy.


The leaders involved in the making of our Constitution were fully committed to diversity and the vision of a plural India. That was the great Indian dream. It does appear that the big dream is currently under siege. One can only hope that the siege is temporary and of an episodic nature.


Salil Misra is professor of history at Ambedkar University, Delhi and is presently Pro Vice-Chancellor of the University.




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