How many Hindus supported British rule


Dr. Joachim Betz

To person

Dr. Joachim Betz, born in 1946, is a senior research fellow at the German Overseas Institute in Hamburg and Professor of Political Science at the University of Hamburg. He published, among other things, on development finance, structural adjustment and raw materials policy as well as on the economy / politics of India and Sri Lanka. In addition, Betz is the author of the special edition "India" of the series Information on Political Education (Issue 257, 1997), in which this article appeared for the first time in a longer version.

From the Hindu kingdoms to Mughal rule and colonial times to the republic

This article offers a historical overview from the settlements of the early period and the Hindu kingdoms, the rule of the Muslim Mughal emperors and the British colonial times to the road to independence.


The Safdarjang Tomb in New Delhi, an example of Mughal architecture. (& copy Stefan Lampe)
The earliest traces of human activity found in India to date date back to around 200,000 BC. Stone tools and cave paintings in particular have survived from this period. The development of an agricultural culture and the first approaches to permanent settlements took place in the fourth millennium BC. Starting from here, a relatively advanced urban culture (Harappa culture) developed in the Indus Valley, which later expanded to the south and west and lasted until around 1500 BC. It was financed by an agricultural surplus and carried out extensive trade. This culture probably perished due to ecological and tectonic changes (decrease in precipitation, shifting of rivers due to geological faults).

It is assumed that the Indus culture had perished several centuries before the invasion of the numerically under- but militarily clearly superior Indo-Aryans (part of the Indo-European family). The "Aryan" (the word is derived from nomadic cattle herders who arrived in India at that time and who called themselves arya - the noble ones) passed on to us the Vedas. These are the hymns, legends and liturgical texts written in the classical Indian language Sanskrit, which form the building blocks of the Hindu tradition.

Early civilizations

This new Hindu civilization was characterized by agriculture, a pantheistic religious superstructure, hereditary royalty and a comparatively high technical standard (iron processing, mathematics and astronomy). The caste system and Hindu ideas of a dutiful lifestyle also go back to this civilization. The caste system is based on the idea of ​​a given, hierarchically structured social order and separation. It is in contrast to the ideals of equality and fraternity of other religions. Its positive social function at that time was the integration of a large number of new groupings, which were assigned rank and function in the social division of labor.

The upheaval phase of this civilization (6th century BC) was marked by military conflicts, the consolidation of a number of Hindu kingdoms in northern India and the gradual hardening of the caste system. During this time, two major reform movements developed, Buddhism and Jainism, which retained essential elements of Hinduism such as rebirth, but which showed an individually achievable way to attain salvation, not least through non-violence. Relatively extensive testimonies have been received from the subsequent period - through India's contact with the Hellenistic kingdoms.

In the third century the first large and centrally organized Hindu kingdom (Magadha) was formed, which already occupied a large part of what would later become the whole of India, dominated agriculture and effectively controlled and taxed the trade. The kingdom had a standing army and an extensive civil service. The most famous ruler of the time, Emperor Ashoka, ended the military expansion and developed a new state philosophy of social responsibility (tolerance, nonviolence and compassion). At the same time, a centralized system of land transfer, administration and subjection of the peasants to in kind was established. Ashoka's state ethic was a secularized Buddhism. He was looking for a new basis of legitimation without making it the state religion. After Ashoka's death, his empire and state ideology fell into disrepair. The Brahmins and the kings they legitimized regained the upper hand.

Towards the end of antiquity, the Gupta dynasty succeeded in establishing a great empire. The reign of this dynasty from the fourth to the end of the fifth century AD is considered to be the heyday of classical Sanskrit literature.

The period of ancient India under the Gupta dynasty was later considered the golden age. It brought a considerable upswing in literature, the sciences and also economic prosperity. Unity was lost in the onslaught of the Huns. During this time, South India experienced its own territorial and dynastic conflicts. The best known here is the Chola dynasty, which ruled the Bay of Bengal with its fleet and annexed part of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). The temple was the center of social and economic life in South India at the time, which also contributed to an upswing in South Indian literature. This resorted to topics from Sanskrit literature and thus, despite all the political fragmentation, testified to the cultural unity of all of India.

Islamic rule

At the end of the 10th century, Turkic Islamic peoples invaded northwest India and conquered Delhi and the Ganges plain by the 13th century. The Sultans of Delhi based their rule on the duties and rights of the Sharia and collected protection money from non-Muslims. However, they did not strive for complete submission to Islam and the abolition of the Hindu social order, although a number of temples were destroyed. Independence efforts of the lower leaders as well as the lack of arrangements for peaceful succession and conflicts (also of a religious nature) with the ruled population let the sultanate break apart and again led to political fragmentation.

The Jama Masjid in Delhi is the largest mosque in India. (& copy Stefan Lampe)
At the beginning of the 16th century, the Mughals from Central Asia invaded northern India and soon brought large parts of India under their control with their technically superior army (field artillery). Immortal buildings such as the Taj Mahal tomb in Agra and the great Jama Masjid mosque in Delhi date from the time of the Mughal rulers. One of the most famous rulers was Akbar (1556-1605), who expanded the empire considerably, ensured efficient, uniform administration and tax collection, and distinguished himself through religious tolerance. He managed the reforms for a stable religious peace between Hindus and Muslims and guaranteed religious and cultural freedoms.

A century after Akbar, however, Aurangzeb (1658-1707), a Mughal, came to power whose policies led Hindus and Muslims to split deeply into hostile fronts. Aurangzeb pursued an orthodox religious course again, had Hindu temples torn down and prevented the population from practicing religion. This approach and the increasing tax bleeding of the agricultural population led to rebellions that brought the end of the dynasty.

The rulers from the area around Bombay (today Mumbai), some of whom had grown up in the service of the Mughals and tried to inherit them, also raised the population against them with high taxes. They failed in the formation of a great empire, were defeated by the invading Afghans in 1761 and between 1775 and 1818 they fought in wars against the English East India Company (East India Company), a private trading company under the protection of the British Crown.

Colonial times

The political fragmentation of India after the death of Aurangzeb made the business of the European trading posts, which had been established in India since the 17th century, difficult; they applied their own law within their territories. The British and French branches supported different factions in the dynastic succession battles in southern and northern India. French forces could not long withstand the British. The British, on the other hand, defeated the Bengal Nawab, who had expelled them from Calcutta (now Kolkata) six years earlier, in the Battle of Plassey against the Bengali in 1757, thus initiating the beginning of English rule on the subcontinent. Great Britain ruled India indirectly through the East India Company until the unrest in 1857, but this did not prevent territorial expansion and economic exploitation. South India and the Ganges plain fell under British rule at the end of the 18th century, central and northeast India followed around 1830, and the Punjab was annexed in 1849. The expansion methods used were the establishment of the East India Company to collect taxes and the conclusion of military alliances (against tribute payments and cession of sovereignty) with the princes.

The factual occupation of large parts of India by the East India Company was initially accompanied by an unprecedented exploitation of the land, until - borne by public outrage - this goings-on with the India Act by 1784 an end was attempted. Private trade was banned, commercial and financial functions were strictly separated, the collection of agricultural taxes was standardized and a system of independent courts was introduced. However, the regulation of land ownership in connection with the establishment of tax collectors (Zamindars) as landlords placed a considerable burden on agriculture and quickly resulted in successive famines. The British only had to adhere to the "landlords" with their property tax demands. These in turn were solely responsible for the delivery of property taxes, so that many succumbed to the temptation of inappropriately excessive claims.

In addition, the import of cheaper cloth from England made millions of Indian weavers and dyers unemployed. India was reduced to the status of a raw material producer. With the English soon came missionaries who could not bring about mass conversions, but whose schools, hospitals and personal commitment had a profound influence on the later movement in India to reform Hinduism. Under the Governor General Lord Bentick, Indian civil and criminal law were codified according to the English model and practices that violated human dignity, such as widow burning or ritual murders, were forbidden. The introduction of Western teaching (in English) forced the previously Persian-speaking administrative elite to make appropriate changes. English became more and more the only official language.