In Their Image

In the wake of their victory at Plassey in 1757 and their conquest of Bengal, and the gradual expansion of their rule over the rest of the country, the British sought to transform India in their image.  One way they did this was in the economic domain. Believing “that private property in land alone ensured stability and progress in society” (Metcalf and Metcalf, 78), and that wealth lay in the land, the British implemented the Bengal Permanent Settlement in 1793.  Essentially, the settlement “vested in the province’s zamindars a full proprietary right in their estate with a revenue assessment fixed in perpetuity” (Metcalf and Metcalf, 78).  This was a marked departure from how ownership of land was understood and practiced in India before British hegemony.  As the historians Barbara and Thomas Metcalf assert, “in India, prior to the coming of the British, the bundle of rights associated with property were not concentrated in a land ‘owner’, but rather dispersed among all those, among them peasant cultivator, the zamindar, and the government, who had an interest in the land” (78).  So, by altering the “bundle of rights associated with property,” the Permanent Settlement altered in turn the bundle of responsibilities and incentives associated with property.

However, the goals and the effects of the Permanent Settlement were just as much social as they were economic.  One can say, then, that a second way the British sought to transform India in their image was in the social domain.  For example, one of the main goals of the Permanent Settlement was to establish a landed aristocracy in India that was modeled on the British.  In the Whig view, “the Zamindar…was an Indian version of the English gentleman-farmer; once his property rights were secure, he would be as enterprising as his English counterpart” (Metcalf and Metcalf, 78).  Additionally, the establishment of private property in land was also meant “to ‘settle’ all of India’s people in a visibly fixed location on the land” (Metcalf and Metcalf, 80).  In the social domain, the settling of India’s people had two main consequences.  First, the tribal peoples and forest dwellers that did not accept the privatization of land were socially and physically relegated to the peripheries.  Second, as Metcalf and Metcalf point out, “those who persisted in wandering found themselves the objects of suspicion, and began to be stigmatized as ‘criminal tribes’” (80).  Therefore, the establishment of private property with the implementation of the Bengal Permanent Settlement created several groups of social outcasts.

A third way the British sought to transform India in their image was in the political domain.  The guiding force behind political transformations was British liberalism.  For instance, “in India,” point out Metcalf and Metcalf, “liberals confidently saw their task as that of stripping off the shackles of ‘despotism’, ‘priestcraft’ and ‘superstition’ that left its people, as James Mill wrote in his History of British India (1818), ‘the most enslaved portion of the human race’” (81).  Thus, with this credo, the British abolished sati, established several government schools that taught Western subjects, and emphasized the importance of the English language in the liberal project.  Ironically, in their attempt to transform India in the image of themselves, the British developed new political institutions in India that eventually made it back to Britain: “as with the contemporaneous trigonometrical survey…and the subsequent introduction of competitive examinations of the Indian Civil Service, the institutions of the modern state took shape in the colony, which can be seen as something of a laboratory of administrative practice, before making it back to England” (Metcalf and Metcalf, 83).

Work Cited

Metcalf, Barbara D. and Thomas R. Metcalf, A Concise History of Modern India. 3rd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

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