47 British Raj

“Detriments you call us? Detriments? Well I want to remind you that it was detriments like us that built this bloody Empire and the Izzat of the bloody Raj. Hats on!”

Peachy CarnehanThe Man Who Would Be King

The British Indian Empire (1858-1947), known colloquially as the British Raj (‘Raj’ is Hindi/Urdu for “reign”), was what resulted from the most important nationalisation of any corporation ever. After a rather messy rebellion among the British East India Company’s Indian mercenaries(Sepoys) in 1857 that saw at least a few thousand mercenaries and ex-mercenaries dead, as well as a couple of hundred British citizens, Parliament passed an act which nationalised the company on the grounds that there is no way in hell a corporation could be trusted to govern a hundred million people responsibly and ethically and why didn’t we do this sooner? Rather conveniently, the last Emperor of the Mughal Empire had been touted as a figurehead-leader by the rebellious mercenaries and so he’d been exiled to Rangoon by The Company. This left the official position of ‘Emperor Of India‘ vacant, though the Mughal ‘Empire’ hadn’t actually been a major power for a hundred years by that point.

Even though the Kings of Great Britain would also be The Emperor Of India from that point on, the name of the new territories was somewhat misleading because the British East India company had only controlled about half of India’s land and population. While the proportions of both under their direct control increased over time, it never exceeded two-thirds of either. The remainder of the continent continued to be ruled by several hundred largely autonomous Princely States that were under the suzerainity of the British Crown – the whole thing was a patchwork-Empire reminiscent of, say, 16th-century ‘Austria’ or ‘Spain’ or ‘France’. Even so, India was indisputably “The Jewel in the Crown of the British Empire” as it was the only part of it (settler societies like Canada aside) that didn’t run at a (massive) loss.

Unfortunately for them, they had not counted on the great efforts of a bald lawyer named Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. In 1947, exhausted from World War II and under great pressure from the Indians and facing bankruptcy in trying to keep a lid on the increasing tension, England left India on August 15th, 1947.

However, there was a problem. The British East India Company and The Raj after them had done their best to leave Indian society totally unchanged, merely substituting their bureaucrats into the positions of Viscount or Duke or King or whoever was supposed to rule a certain area. Worse still, there were still a whopping five hundred and sixty five Princely Statesimage when the British left a year early (because they were too broke to stick to the schedule after spenidng every penny they got during WWII) in 1947. The ensuing process of state-building was very, very difficult because they were trying to reform what were effectively pre-modern, largely 18th- and 19th-century bureaucracies into a working modern state. The territory was eventually integrated by a mix of diplomatic and military meansimage, taking nearly two decades to come under central rule. And that’s not even going into the biggest problem—religion. A majority of Indians were Hindu, but there was a large Muslim minority that formed majorities in certain regions—particularly in the northwest, with a bit in East Bengal, as well as Sikh, Jain, Buddhist, and Christian minorities (of which the Sikhs and Christians formed majorities in parts of Punjab and in parts of the north-east, respectively).

Gandhi and Nehru were ambivalent at best about cooperation with the British war effort in World War II—with Gandhi, Actual Pacifist that he was, advocating resistance. On the other hand, Muhammad Ali Jinnah persuaded the Muslim community to fully back the war effort. This last gave some traction to the idea of a separate Indian Muslim state upon independence—before the war, most Muslims were indifferent or hostile to the idea of a separate state. But with the burden of the war appearing to fall disproportionately on Muslim shoulders (or so Muslims were persuaded to believe; whether it did or not is a matter of contention), Muslims increasingly felt separate and accused the rest of the country of not pulling its weight and generally mistreating them. After the war, Gandhi, Nehru, and the Indian National Congress attempted to create a united nation, but now a majority of the Muslims, led by Jinnah and his Muslim League, demanded a new nation exclusively for themselves. The British thought this a splendid idea,note  resulting in the partition to India (although it is referred to as Bharat in most Indian languages), and an almost exclusively Muslim Pakistan (which then split in 1971 into its current form and Bangladesh).

For the army of The Raj see Kipling’s Finest .


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