Friday, May 23, 2008


The Myths of The British Colonial Legacy


May 22, 2008: HPI note: We encountered this website while researching Indian history. It is quite an eye-opener on just how badly India fared under British rule. We include here the introduction and just two of a long list of areas where few Indians understand the truth of what actually happened under the Raj.

While few educated South Asians would deny that British Colonial rule was detrimental to the interests of the common people of the sub-continent - several harbor an illusion that the British weren’t all bad. Didn’t they, perhaps, educate us - build us modern cities, build us irrigation canals - protect our ancient monuments - etc. etc. And then, there are some who might even say that their record was actually superior to that of independent India’s! Perhaps, it is time that the colonial record be retrieved from the archives and re-examined - so that those of us who weren’t alive during the freedom movement can learn to distinguish between the myths and the reality.

Literacy and Education

Several Indians are deeply concerned about why literacy rates in India are still so low. So in the last year, I have been making a point of asking English-speaking Indians to guess what India’s literacy rate in the colonial period might have been. These were Indians who went to school in the sixties and seventies (only two decades after independence) - and I was amazed to hear their fairly confident guesses. Most guessed the number to be between 30% and 40%. When I suggested that their guess was on the high side - they offered 25% to 35%. No one was prepared to believe that literacy in British India in 1911 was only 6%, in 1931 it was 8%, and by 1947 it had crawled to 11%! That fifty years of freedom had allowed the nation to quintuple it’s literacy rate was something that almost seemed unfathomable to them. Perhaps - the British had concentrated on higher education ….? But in 1935, only 4 in 10,000 were enrolled in universities or higher educational institutes. In a nation of then over 350 million people only 16,000 books (no circulation figures) were published in that year (i.e. 1 per 20,000).

Unfair Trade

Few would doubt that Indo-British trade may have been unfair - but it may be noteworthy to see how unfair. In the early 1800s imports of Indian cotton and silk goods faced duties of 70-80%. British imports faced duties of 2-4%! As a result, British imports of cotton manufactures into India increased by a factor of 50, and Indian exports dropped to one-fourth! A similiar trend was noted in silk goods, woollens, iron, pottery, glassware and paper. As a result, millions of ruined artisans and craftsmen, spinners, weavers, potters, smelters and smiths were rendered jobless and had to become landless agricultural workers.

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