Indian society underwent many changes after the British came to India. In the 19th century, certain social practices like female infanticide, child marriage, sati, polygamy and a rigid caste system became more prevalent. These practices were against human dignity and values.
Women were discriminated against at all stages of life and were the disadvantaged section of the society. They did not have access to any development opportunities to improve their status.
Education was limited to a handful of men belonging to the upper castes. Brahmins had access to the Vedas which were written in Sanskrit. Expensive rituals, sacrifices and practices after birth or death were outlined by the priestly class.
When the British came to India, they brought new ideas such as liberty, equality, freedom and human rights from the Renaissance, the Reformation Movement and the various revolutions that took place in Europe. These ideas appealed to some sections of our society and led to several reform movements in different parts of the country.
At the forefront of these movements were visionary Indians such as Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, Aruna Asaf Ali and Pandita Ramabai. These movements looked for social unity and strived towards liberty, equality and fraternity.
Many legal measures were introduced to improve the status of women. For example, the practice of sati was banned in 1829 by Lord Bentinck, the then Governor General. Widow Remarriage was permitted by a law passed in 1856. A law passed in 1872, sanctioned inter-caste and inter-communal marriages.
Sharda Act was passed in 1929 preventing child marriage. The act provided that it was illegal to marry a girl below 14 and a boy below 18 years. All the movements severely criticized the caste system and especially the practice of untouchability.
The impact of the efforts made by these numerous individuals, reform societies, and religious organisations was felt all over and was most evident in the national movement. Women started getting better education opportunities and took up professions and public employment outside their homes. The role of women like Captain Laxmi Sehgal of Indian National Army (INA), Sarojini Naidu, Annie Besant, Aruna Asaf Ali and many others were extremely important in the freedom struggle.
Social and Cultural Policy
The British had come to India with the idea of making immense profits. This meant buying of raw materials at very cheap rates and selling finished goods at much higher prices. The British wanted the Indians to be educated and modern enough to consume their goods but not to the extent that it proved detrimental to British interests.
Some of the Britishers believed that Western ideas were modern and superior, while Indian ideas were old and inferior. This was, of course, not true. Indians had a rich traditional learning that was still relevant. By this time in England there was a group of Radicals who had a humanistic ideology towards Indians.
They wanted India to be a part of the modern, progressive world of science. But the British government was cautious in undertaking rapid modernisation of India. They feared a reaction among the people if too much interference took place with their religious beliefs and social customs. The English wanted perpetuation of their rule in India and not a reaction among the people. Hence, though they talked about introducing reforms, in reality very few measures were taken and these were also half-hearted.
The British took a keen interest in introducing the English language in India. They had many reasons for doing so. Educating Indians in the English language was a part of their strategy. The Indians would be ready to work as clerks on low wages while for the same work the British would demand much higher wages. This would reduce the expenditure on administration.
It was also expected to create a class of Indians who were loyal to the British and were not able to relate to other Indians. This class of Indians would be taught to appreciate the culture and opinion of the British. In addition, they would also help to increase the market for British goods.
They wanted to use education as a means to strengthen their political authority in the country. They assumed that a few educated Indians would spread English culture to the masses and that they would be able to rule through this class of educated Indians. The British gave jobs to only those Indians who knew English thereby compelling many Indians to go in for English education. Education soon became a monopoly of the rich and the city dwellers.
The British Parliament issued the Charter Act of 1813 by which a sum of Rupees One lakh was sanctioned for promoting western sciences in India. But a controversy soon arose. Some wanted the money to be spent on advocating western ideas only.
There were others who placed more emphasis on traditional Indian learning. Some recommended use of vernaculars (regional languages) as the medium of instruction, others were for English. In this confusion people failed to notice the difference between English as a medium and English as a subject for study.
The British decided in favor of teaching western ideas and literature through the medium of English language alone. Another step in this direction was the Woods Despatch of 1854. It asked the Government of India to assume responsibility for the education of the masses. As part of the directive given by the Woods Despatch, Departments of Education were instituted in all provinces and Affiliated Universities were opened in Calcutta, Madras and Bombay in 1857.
A few English schools and colleges were opened instead of many elementary schools. They ignored the education of the masses. But in reality, it was not sufficient to cater to the needs of the Indian people.
Though the British followed a half-hearted education policy in India, English language and western ideas also had some positive impact on the society. Many reformers like Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Swami Dayanand Saraswati, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, and Swami Vivekananda absorbed western ideas of liberalism and democracy and used it to reform some of the non-humanitarian social and religious practices of the time.
Though education did not reach the masses but some ideas of anti-imperialism, nationalism, social and economic equality took root through political parties, discussions and debates on public platform and the press. The spread of English language and western education helped Indians to adopt modern, rational, democratic, liberal and patriotic outlook.
New fields of knowledge in science, humanities and literature open to them. English became the lingua franca of the educated people in India. It united them and gradually made them politically conscious of their rights. It also gave opportunity to the Indians to study in England and learn about the working of democratic institutions there.
The writings of John Locke, Ruskin, Mill, Rousseau and many others instilled in them the ideas of liberty, equality, fraternity, human rights and self-government. The French and the American Revolutions, and the unifications of Italy and Germany further strengthened their appreciation of these ideas. Cavour, Garibaldi and Mazzini became their favorite heroes. They began to aspire for these ideals for India.
Western thinkers like Max Mueller and Annie Besant encouraged vernacular languages and literary works to instil a sense of pride in Indian heritage and culture. It enabled Indians to revive India’s cultural past.
Also, the important role of press in arousing political awakening and exchange in ideas is noteworthy. The newspapers and journals gave opportunities to share ideas and problems. Similarly, novel, drama, short story, poetry, song, dance, theatre, art and cinema were used to spread views and express resistance to colonial rule. They spoke the language of the people, showcasing their everyday lives, joys and sorrows.
Along with newspapers and journals, they promoted the feelings of self confidence, self respect, awareness and patriotism, thereby developing a feeling of national consciousness.
The British devised several strategies to make their rule effective. The early British administrators in India like Warren Hastings, William Jones, Jonathan Duncan and others glorified India’s ancient past. These scholars and administrators were called Orientalists. They thought that a better understanding of Indian languages, literature and culture would make it easier for them to rule India.
Important institutions that came to be identified with their efforts were the Calcutta Madarsas founded by Warren Hastings (1781), the Asiatic Society of Bengal founded by William Jones (1784), the Sanskrit College at Banaras founded by Jonathan Duncan (1794) and the Fort William College founded by Wellesley (1800). These institutions, especially the Asiatic Society and the Fort William College became the epicenter of the study on Indian culture, languages and literature.
For the first time great ancient Sanskrit writers like Kalidasa became known to the world through translation of their monumental work into English.
Impact of the Reform Movement
The persistent efforts of the reformers had immense impact on the society. The religious reform movements instilled in the minds of Indians greater self-respect, self confidence and pride in their country. These reform movements helped many Indians to come to terms with the modern world.
The reformers felt that modern ideas and culture could be best imbibed by integrating them into Indian cultural stream. They helped other countrymen to appreciate that all modern ideas were not against Indian culture and values. The introduction of modern education guided the Indians towards a scientific and rational approach to life.
People became more conscious of their identity as Indians which was ultimately responsible for their united struggle against the British in the freedom movement of India.
British Administration and Judicial System
The Indians found it difficult to adjust to the new system of administration introduced by the British. The Indians were denied political rights and the British officers treated them with contempt. Indians were excluded from all higher positions in the civil administration and military.
The British also introduced a new system of law and justice in India. A hierarchy of civil and criminal courts was established. The laws were codified and attempts were also made to separate the judiciary from the executive. Efforts were made to establish the ‘Rule of Law’ in India.
But this only helped the British to enjoy arbitrary powers and to interfere with the rights and liberties of the Indians. The law courts were not easily accessible to the common people. Justice became a costly affair. The new judicial system also discriminated between Europeans and Indians.