The Harp, January 1908.
Republished in James Connolly: Selected Political Writings, (ed. Owen Dudley Edwards & Bernard Ransom), New York 1974.
Transcription & HTML Mark-up: Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
“The educated classes of India may find fault with their exclusion from full political rights ... But it was by force that India was won, and it is for force India must be governed.” – London Times, Feb. 1, 1886.
The appearance at the International Socialist Congress at Stuttgart of an Indian delegate, voicing the aspirations of the people of India for freedom, and the news items continually appearing in the capitalist press of sporadic acts of revolt in that country – harbingers of the greater revolt now fermenting throughout that vast empire – justify us in placing before our readers the following brief résumé of conditions in that country in order that it might be more possible for them to intelligently follow events as they develop.
British rule in India, like British rule in Ireland, is a political and social system established and maintained by the conquerors in the interest of the conquered. So runs the legend. But there are not wanting men and women who, strangely enough, maintain that British rule, whether in India or Ireland, is one of the heaviest curses ever inflicted upon an unfortunate people; that its fruits are famine, oppression and pestilence, and that it has but one animating principle wherever found, viz., to extract the utmost possible tribute from the labor of its unfortunate subjects. With that aspect of British rule peculiar to Ireland we are all in a position to be thoroughly acquainted, but there are, unfortunately, many reasons why a like acquaintance with the history and facts of British rule in India is impossible of attainment to the vast majority of our fellow countrymen. Therefore the writer, having had for some time exceptional opportunities of learning the real position of affairs in that country, feels he is doing a service to the cause of freedom and humanity in laying before the readers of the Harp a short sketch of the predisposing causes which had led up to the devastating famine which at present holds and the incipient rebellion which threatens the Indian Peninsula. The first point to note is that the reader must in discussing Indian affairs at once rid himself of all the extravagant ideas about the ‘wealth of India’ with which the reading public have been familiarized through the writings of ignorant English romancers, avaricious English adventurers or unscrupulous English statesmen. India is, in reality, one of the poorest, if not the poorest, of all the countries in the world. Her immense population live from generation to generation in a state of such chronic misery that death from actual hunger excites no comment whatever except when, as in the present famine, their numbers swell so that it is feared even the patient Hindoo may refuse to bear it longer. Thus when we read that the tribute extracted from India by the imperial government in payment of home charges, pensions to retired officials, remittances, contributions to imperial expenditure, etc., reaches an annual total of from 20 to 27 million pounds sterling, the sum, though large in itself, does not at first appear so exorbitant when levied on a population of two hundred million people. It is only when we are aware of the average daily income of the people upon whose labor this tax is levied that we begin to understand how it is that the ‘inestimable benefits of British rule’ (?) have been so potent a factor in working out the destruction of this people that the failure of a single harvest is enough to bring upon them all the horrors of famine.
The wages of the agricultural laborers of India – where 70 per cent of the population derive their sole subsistence directly from the cultivation of the soil – are not such as to induce any very extravagant mode of living or to fire the imagination of a glutton. In Bihar, the northwest provinces, the greater portion of the Deccan and Oudh, the average remuneration of the laborer is certainly not more than one anna, six pie, or one and one-half pence (three cents) per day. In some portions of East Bengal the wage sometimes rises to three pence (six cents), or four pence (eight cents) per day – an almost princely remuneration. It should also be remembered that the entire native population is excluded from all share in the government of their country, except in the most menial positions, and that on the other hand the Indian Civil Service is entirely manned by Englishmen, whose salaries are the highest in the world for such services. Thus the poorest people under the sun are taxed to support the wealthiest (and most insolent) official class. It might be interesting, in order to bring the matter more vividly before the reader, to give a few instances of the disparity of means between official England in India and the unfortunate people upon whom it is quartered. The late Professor Fawcett, in an article upon a proposed loan to India, called attention to a few items illustrating the extravagant expenditure of Anglo-Indians when the cost of such extravagance can be saddled upon the Indian people. Two of these items, viz., £1,200 for outfit and passage of a member of the Governor-General’s Council, and £2,450 for outfit and passage of the Bishops of Calcutta and Bombay, convey their own lesson so well that no words of mine could possibly add point to their eloquence. Ten million pounds have been spent by the imperial government in erecting for their military garrisons regimental quarters so luxuriously equipped that one Anglo-Indian writer, General Strachey, enthusiastically declared “our soldiers’ barracks are now beyond comparison the finest in the world,” whilst Florence Nightingale, a thoroughly impartial witness, wrote: “We do not care for the people of India; the saddest sight in the East, nay, probably in the world, is the peasant our Indian empire.” “We suppose,” says a young Indian writer, “it is inseparable from an alien rule that the living of an English soldier should be of primary importance.” And again, “ten million pounds wrung from the hard earnings of semi-starved dwellers in mud hovels for the rearing of ‘palatial’ barracks. Surely we should pause before we congratulate ourselves on this.” We are constantly informed by all Anglo-Indian writers that the English in India have been mighty instruments of Divine Providence for winning the land from anarchy and oppression, bringing it within the area of civilization and order; and, finally, of introducing its people to all the inestimable benefits of modern civilization.
We Irish are, of course, well enough acquainted with the ways of English officialdom to be able to discount to a certain extent the brightly colored reports of progress emanating from such sources, and they constitute the sole medium by which Indian news is allowed to filter through to the reading public. But it would, nevertheless, be a mistake to suppose that the present writer denies that progress has been made in India under British rule. The only question is, in what degree is that progress due to British rule, and in what degree is it that progress which, under any circumstances, would have been made by an intellectual people with a continuity of literary and philosophic activity stretching back for two thousand years and more? We are told that the English rulers of India were the first to abolish the hideous custom of suttee, by which the Hindoo widow was forced to sacrifice herself on the funeral pyre of her deceased husband.
But an educated Hindoo, Ram Mohun Roy, greatly venerated by his countrymen, had begun a crusade against the custom ten years before the edict was first formulated in 1829. It is more than probable that the exertions of this Indian patriot would eventually have been successful even without English intervention, which at the most perhaps, hastened the desired consummation.
The vast irrigation works established throughout India are also often alluded to as specimens of the advance of civilization in the East, largely resultant from the paternal efforts of the English government on behalf of its Indian subjects.
Here again the reader is apt to draw erroneous conclusions and picture to himself the government of England laboriously instructing the ignorant Indian natives in the functions and uses, theory and practice of irrigation works. But the remorseless hand of history rudely shatters all belief in the fidelity to truth of any such picture. So far from such irrigation works bejng the product of English enterprise or genius they are, as a matter of fact, only feeble and halting imitations of the magnificent works and public enterprise of the former Mohammedan rulers whom the English have supplanted. Dr. Spry, writing in 1837, on Modern India, declared:
It is in the territory of the independent native chiefs and princes that great and useful works are found and maintained.
In our territories the canals, bridges and reservoirs, wells, groves, etc., the works of our predecessors from revenues expressly appropriated to such undertakings, are going fast to decay.
It is noteworthy also that while the former rulers of India neither expected nor accepted any return for the money they voluntarily expended in their irrigation and other public works, the English government could only be induced to embark on such enterprises by the hopes of reaping enormous profits therefrom- hopes which have never been realized. Lord Lawrence in a letter to Lord Cranborne stated that the general opinion held that these works would yield an average profit of 25, 50 or even 100 per cent. To the no small chagrin of the ruling classes of India these high expectations were doomed to disappointment, the full measure of which is revealed in the words of Lord Salisbury, valuable as a no doubt unwilling tribute to British official incompetence and to the superior engineering genius of their predecessors.
“The irrigation works that have been carried out,” he said, “if they had for their basis the former works of native rulers, have in many instances been a financial success. But ... when we have begun the projects of irrigation for ourselves we have not, I believe, in any instance the desired result of a clean balance sheet.”
Will the reader please contrast this confession of bungling incompetence, allied to a greed io pay dividends, with the conduct of Runjeet Singh, the ‘Lion of the Punjab’, whom the English have always vilified as a barbarian and a tyrant, but of whom Marshman tells us that “he always advanced money free of interest to his peasantry for the purposes of irrigation.” That he was no exception to the rule is amply borne out by the following significant statement in Arnold’s Dalhousie: “The Musselman rulers were bold engineers in this respect; not only did they cover India with fine roads, shaded with trees in places which are now tiger walks, but they remembered the Arabic proverb that ‘water is the earth’s wealth.’ The irrigation works were so benevolently attended to that the fees for wells and artificial reservoirs were always deducted from the produce of every village before the government claim was paid.”  In almost every detail of Indian administration the same tale remains to be told.
1. Sir Edwin Arnold, The Marquis of Dalhousie’s Administration of British India (Saunders, Otley & Co., London, 1862).
Last updated on 29.7.2007