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India from Queen Victoria’s time to independence


Queen Victoria became Empress of India in May 1876. Benjamin Disraeli, the Conservative Prime Minister, saw the new title as an effort to link the monarchy to the country and tie it closer to Britain while also showcasing Britain as a dominant world power. India had been under crown rule since 1858, and before this under the dominion of the East India Company, who took control in 1757.

The Queen delighted in her new title and wrote in her diary, ‘my thoughts much too taken up with the great event at Delhi today, & in India generally, where I am being proclaimed Empress of India.’ A field report from Delhi stated that ‘a salute of one hundred and one salvos of artillery was fired. This was too much for the elephants…they became more and more alarmed, and at last scampered off, dispersing the crowd in every direction.’

Queen Victoria took her duties as Empress very seriously and when her Golden Jubilee came around in 1887 she made every effort to showcase her ‘jewel in the crown of the British Empire’. She hosted lavish banquets and parties for Indian princes and European nobility and rode in elaborate processions accompanied by the Colonial Indian cavalry. Indian attendants were brought to the royal household to help with the festivities as well. Victoria took a liking to one of her new servants in particular: Abdul Karim. Soon the twenty-four-year-old’s role changed from patiently waiting at tables to teaching the Queen to read, write and speak in Urdu, or ‘Hindustani’. The Queen wanted to know everything about India, a place where she ruled but could never visit. Abul told her all about Agra, from the local fruits and spices to the sights and sounds of his homeland. It was not long before he became her ‘Munshi’, or teacher, and they began a friendship that would last over a decade.

To Queen Victoria India was both an exotic, faraway place and also a country to be ruled. She put her opinions on governance  - and sometimes those of her trusted Munshi - forward in her frequent letters to the Viceroy often with severe underlining to emphasise her points. For example, Abdul described the riots that sometimes broke out in Agra when the Muslims had the religious procession of Muharram to mark the martyrdom of Hussain, the grandson of the Prophet, and it clashed with the Hindu procession of Sankranti. The Queen responded by writing immediately to Viceroy Lord Dufferin, requesting he take ‘some extra measure to prevent this painful quarrelling’ so that the Muslims could carry out their ceremonies ‘quietly and without molestation’ and ‘give strict orders and prevent the Mahomedans and the Hindus from interfering with one another, so that perfect justice is shown to both.’

India in Victoria’s time was rife with such unrest, in addition to sweeping famine and widespread change. The census of 1871 aimed to record the age, caste, religion, occupation and education level of the entire population in order to better govern. It found the total population to be 238,830,958. British-born subjects in India (excluding the army and navy) numbered just 59,000. India is now the second most populated country in the world with 1,326,801,576 residents as of July 2016. The population density in England in 1871 was 422 people per square mile on average, whereas in India it ranged from 468 in Oude to just 31 in British Burma. The census of 1871 failed to fully report on Indian subject’s level of education, but came to the conclusion that only around one in 30 men (women were not included in these reports) had received the ‘barest rudiments’ of education. In 2016 81% of Indian men over 15 years and 61% of women were literate. The census also found the population to be expanding at the rate of 3% annually, which the report writers thought to be ‘an improvement doubtless due to the better administration of the country since it came under the British rule.’

On 15 August 1947 India regained its independence and 200 years of British rule came to an end. The Radcliffe Line was drawn to separate the officially Muslim Dominion of Pakistan and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) from the officially secular Union of India. This partition sparked the largest mass migration in history and at least one million people died from religious violence. Abdul Karim’s descendants had to flee their home too:

As Hindus and Muslims rioted in the streets of Agra, the women and children were sent in the dead of night to Bhopal in central India. From Bhopal they took the train to Bombay (the women hiding their jewellery in their saris) and finally an overcrowded ship to Karachi, joining the thousands of refugees leaving for Pakistan. Two trunks full of precious artefacts were sent on the goods train to Pakistan. The train was looted and the treasures never arrived. Abdul Karim’s diary, some pictures and artefacts including the tea set gifted by the Tsar of Russia and a statuette of Abdul Karim did make it, carried on the boat by the men of the family.

The areas of Punjab and Bengal were particularly violent, with villages divided between the two brand new countries. Although Viceroy Louis Mountbatten originally planned to leave in 1948 he brought the date forward to August 1947, and the British left the fledgling governments in a state of civil unrest with high religious tensions.

India has transformed radically since the Victorian era, by both statistical measures and cultural changes. It has endured world wars, upheavals, civil unrest and the fight for independence and yet Abdul Karim’s homeland is still a place that he could ‘gently describe’ as a ‘paradise that was as sad as it was beautiful.’

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