IGNOU HISTORY Study Notes for IAS, UPSC Exams

 Modern India 1857-1964


1.0 Objectives
1.1 Introduction
1.2 Colonialism: Various View Points
1.2.1 Nature of Colonialism
1.2.2 Impact on Colony
1.3 Stages of Colonialism
1.3.1 First Stage
1.3.2 Secondstage
1.3.3 Third Stage
1.4 LetUsSumUp
1.5 Key Words
1.6 Answers to Check Your Progress Exercises



This Unit presents a broad discussion of the phenomenon of imperialism arid colonialism and tries to show how this can be helpful in understanding the basic features of historical development in India under the British colonial rule over a period of two centuries. After going through this Unit you will be able to learn: what is colonialism, its nature and its various stages, the links between colonialism and the world capitalist system, and how under colonialism the Indian economy and society were completely iubordinated to British economy and political control.


Imperialism refers to the process of capitalist development which leads the capitalist countries to conquer and dominate pre-capitalist countries of the world. Under this head, we deal with the development of capitalism in advanced capitalist countries, the mutual relations among advanced capitalist countries, and the subjugation of pre-capitalist countries by a capitalist country (also described here as metropolis or metropolitan country). More narrowly, the term imperialism is used to denote or describe the relations of political and economic domination between metropolis and the country it subjugates or dominates

The country which isso subjugated by a metropolitan capitalist country is described as a colony, and what happens in a colony is colonialism. The total system of imperialist domination of a pre-capitalist country is colonialism. The study of imperialism and colonialism is closely co-related and, in a way, we shall be discussing both. But here we shall concentrate more on the study of colonialism while leaving major aspects of imperialism to be taken up in the study of development of capitalism.


What does colonialism mean'! Is it merely the political control by one country ur. another, or does it indicate a process of economic subordination of one country to I another? The understanding of colonialism has varied from one scholar to another. In I thissection we will introduce you to va~ious view points on colonialism as well as other related aspects.

i) One view represented by a large number of sociologists, political scientists and economists is that colonial society was basically a traditional society or, in other words colonialism retained basicsocio-economic elements and structures of pre-colonial society. Post-colonial societies then begin the task of modemisation from a traditional 'socio-economic structure. Many others see colonialism as representing a transitional society, that is, a society which was being transformed economically, socially and politically from a traditional, pre-colonial society into a modern capitalist society. They believe that, given enough time, colonialism would have succeeded in the task if it had not been overthrown.

ii) Still other writers hold that colonialism produces a dualistic society in which ohe sector is modern and capitalist while another sector is traditional and pre-capitalist. The two sectors exist side-by-side without either being strong enough to overwhelm or overthrow the other. Some writers have followed a more radical version of the dualistic model. According to them colonialism begins the task of modernisation but fails to complete it giving up the effort half-way. This leads to 'arrested growth' of the colonial economy and society. Thus the semi-feudal features of agriculture are seen as remnants of the pre-colonial period. Colonialism is accused of preserving these semi-feudal features or, at least, of failing to uproot them.

iii) Many writers see colonialism as nothing more than political dumination or foreign political rule. The weaknesses of colonialism are seen as weaknesses of policies. followed by individual cdonial administrators.

1.2.1 Nature of Colonialism

Colonialism produced a society which was neither capitalist as in Britain nor was it pre-colonial or pre-capitalist. Thus, for example, India under British rule neither resembled capitalist Britain nor was it basically similar to Mughal India. The development of agrarian relations in the colonies- in India, or Egypt, or Indonesiamakes this aspect quite clear. For example, landlordism in both zamindari and ryotwari areas of British India was something new; it did not exist in Mughal India. It was the creation of British rule. It was the result of the colonial rulers' efforts to transform Indian agriculture. Indian agriculture was not capitalist but it had many capitalist elements; for example, property relations were capitalist; land was now a private property which was freely bought and sold on a large scale.

Infact, we can say that the colonial societies under-went a fundamental transformation under colonialism. They were made an integral part of the world capitalist system. For example, colonialism in1ndia was as modem a phenomenon as industrial capitalism in Britain -the t,wo had developed together since the middle of the 18th century. Capitalism was, by its very nature, a world-system -that is, it must cover the entire world; but it does not cover the entire world in the same way:

  • It has one face in the metropolis and another in the colonies. It devilops the metropolis as a modem industrially developed country, it underdevelops the colony.
  • The same capitalist process which produces economic development in the metropolis and makes it an advanced capitalist country produces and maintains underdevelopment in the colonies and transforms them into colonial societies.
  • Colonialism uproots old society and economy, but the new colonial society and economy are as much a barrier to modern economic development as are the old, precapitalist economy and society

A colony is integrated into-or made a part of -world capitalist system, but without taking part in industrial revolution or the development of capitalist production. Colonialism in fact blocks the development of modem capitalism in the colonies.

1.2.2 Impact on Colony

You would like to know the essential features of Colonialism. Basic to colonialism are two features: i). One is the complete subordination of the colony to the needs of the metropolis or the imperialist power and, ii) Second is economic exploitation of'the colony or the appropriation of the colony's economic surplus by the metropolis.  The economic surplus in the colony is produced in many different ways. from traditional agriculture to plantations to modern mining and factory production. But the essence of colonialism is appropriation of this surplus by various classesof the imperialist country. Subordination means that the basic issues of the colony's economy and social and political development are not determined by the colony's own needs but by the needs and interests of the metropolitan economy and of the metropolitan capitalist class. Colonialism is thus much more than political control or colonial policies. It is best seen as a structure. Colonial interests and policies, colonial state and administrative institutions, colonial culture and society. colonial ideas and ideologies, all fur~ction within the framework of colonial structure. 


Colonialism is not one continuous phenomenon or unified structure. Colonialism goes through several stages. The subordination of the colonial country and its exploitation remain constant but the forms of subordination and exploitation undergo changes over time from one stage to another. These changes are linked to several factors. For example:

  • the historical development of capitalism as a world system,
  • the changing patterns of the individual metropolitan (or imperialist) country's
  • economic, social and political development,
  • the changing position it occupies in the world system,
  • and the colony's own historical development.

Colonialism may be divided into three distinct stages which were related to distinct forms of exploitation or surplus appropriation. Consequently, each stage represented a different pattern of subordination of colonial economy, society and polity and therefore, different colonial policies, political and administrative institutions, ideologies and impact as also different responses by the colonial people. Stages of colonialism for different colonies are not bound by the same time horizons. Different stages occur in different colonies at different times, that is, different stages jccupy different periods in different countries. But the content of a stage remains broadly the same whenever and wherever it may occur. We should also noiz !ha: z, stage of colonialism does not occur in a pure form, nor is,there a sharp and complete break between one stage and another. Forms of surplus appropriation or exploitation and other features of colonialism from earlier stages continue into the later stages. Different stages are, however, marked by distinct dominant features - there is a qualitative change from one stage to another. 

Basic features of colonialism and its different stages can be illustrated from the history of colonialism in modern India. This is especially so because historians agree on treating India as a classic colony. The basic character of British rule did not remain the same through its long history of nearly 200 years. The changing pattern of Britain's position 'In the developing world capitalist ecohomy led to changes in the nature of British , colonialism in India, that is changes in forms of exploitation and consequently in colonial policies, impact and Indian response. The last two aspects, that is, impact of colonialism on India and the response of the Indian people will be discussed in other units. Colonial policies will also be discussed at length later in other units. But we will now discuss the basic features of colonialism in India during different stages as also the reasons for transition or change from one stage of colonialism to another. 

Click here to download full Chapter



    Courtesy: eGyanKosh