The British government ruled India directly after the Sepoy Rebellion in 1857. However, British control of the subcontinent remained essentially the same as it had been under the British East India Company. British India still made up about three fifths of the subcontinent. The rest consisted of more than 550 states, headed by local princes. The British government, through its viceroy, controlled the local princes rights to make treaties and declare war, either with foreign countries or with one another. Great Britain also regulated Indian internal affairs when it seemed necessary.
To control both British India and Indian states, the British government used the old Roman method of divide and rule. It granted favors to those princes who cooperated with British rule and dealt harshly with those who did not. It treated Hindus and Muslims equally but did little to ease religious hatred between them.
The British were interested chiefly in profitable trade in India. To achieve it, they maintained public order by ending the many local wars and massacres. They set up an efficient governmental administration that built roads, bridges, railroads, factories, hospitals, and schools. They tried to improve agricultural methods, public health, and sanitation.
Many of these improvements helped the Indians, but other effects of British rule were harmful. The Indian handicraft industry almost disappeared. British cotton mills made cloth so cheaply that it could be transported to India and sold for less than handwoven Indian products. Local artisans thus found themselves without a means of support.
During the late 1800s and early 1900s, British rule in India had created a situation in which the peoples of two very different cultures lived side by side with almost no contact. The British had imposed themselves above Indian society as a superior race, a sort of supercaste. The British formed exclusive social circles, open to any European but closed to any Indian, no matter how distinguished. For generations Indians were treated with contempt regardless of their social status, education, or abilities.
Although the British did not mingle socially with the Indians, Western civilization had a powerful impact on India. For one thing, it led to a serious conflict of values.
Both Hinduism and Islam stressed age-old customs and respect for tradition. Western culture, on the other hand, emphasized material progress and political change. Indians regarded Europeans as materialists who cared little for the higher values of mind, soul, and spirit. To many Indians, it was impossible to separate religious values and ideas from other parts of their lives. Their religion dictated how they behaved in public, how they conducted business, and so on. The Europeans’ ability to separate religion from other aspects of their lives was incomprehensible to traditional Hindus and Muslims.
British education had a profound effect on India. Under the guidance of Viceroy Curzon, who assumed his post in 1899, the British administration actively pursued widespread establishment of schools of all levels. British-provided education was usually in English to further westernize these subjects of the British Crown. In the schools, students also learned about Western ideas such as democracy. Many Indians also came to learn about and believe in the ideas of socialism.
A movement for Indian self-rule began in the late 1800s. Not all Indian nationalists supported the same approach. Some, especially those who had been educated in British schools and universities, wanted to advance toward independence gradually and by democratic methods. They also wanted to keep certain aspects of Western culture and industry that they thought could benefit India. The Indian National Congress, a political party founded in 1885, advocated this moderate approach.
Other people wanted to break all ties with Great Britain in an effort to sweep away all Western influence. The Hindus, particularly, wished to revolt not only against Western culture but also against Islam. The views of this second group alarmed Indian Muslims, who were a minority in the land. British rule protected them from violence, and they feared that if British rule were removed, their future might be in danger. The Muslims were therefore much less enthusiastic about driving out the British than were the Hindus. In 1906 Muslims formed the Muslim League to protect their interests. The independence movement in India gathered strength very slowly, and the British kept the country under a tight rein.