India remained part of the British Empire between 1857 till 1947. During this ninety-year period, the British used Bureaucracy to rule over much of India. Many infrastructural developments were undertaken during this era, including the establishment of a Railway line connecting different parts of the country, the canal system in Punjab, an efficient postal system and a network of roads. People on both sides of the border can still be found reminiscing about the ‘good old days of the Raj’ when ‘everything got done efficiently’. While the British Empire did not treat its Indian subjects the way Belgium treated Congolese, it was not a ‘benevolent’ government either. One must understand the exploitative nature of Colonial masters before yearning for a comeback.

After taking over from the East India Company in 1857, British government used India as a pawn in its ‘Forward Policy’ towards Russia. James A. Norris explained the policy in his book ‘The First Afghan War’ thusly: “The Russian victories of 1828 and 1829 [against the Ottoman Empire] first called Britain’s attention to Russia’s dominance of Western Asia. At the same time old fears of an invasion of India by a European power, this time Russia, were revived. Longstanding concern for peace on the North Western Frontier plus the new need to keep Russian predominance from spreading towards India, led Great Britain to develop what may be called the Forward Policy. In its earliest form this consisted of a plan to open up the Indus river basin and the adjacent mountains to trade. British commerce would bind the area together and tie it to Britain. This was essentially an expansion of the buffer policy as well as a solution to the conflicts in the area. Trade would be the local pacifying influence, with the extra advantage of offering new markets for British goods and thus stimulating the home economy.”

In the intricate game of political chess, Afghanistan was considered as a ‘buffer’ state between British India and Russia, while troops were deployed in areas bordering Afghanistan (present-day Balochistan and KP). The original purpose of the Railway line was to facilitate travel between mainland India and the ‘frontier’ provinces in case of a Russian Invasion. Following the 1857 war, the British unfairly coined the term ‘Martial Races’ that included Punjabis, Gurkhas and Pathans from the Frontier Province. These ethnicities were not chosen particularly because of their superior performance in the battlefield, rather the criteria was loyalty to the British masters. There was no conclusive evidence that soldiers from rest of India were any less equipped to deal with warfare than the ‘Martial Races’.

This artificial division cost the Punjabis during the World Wars. Multiple famines and inflation had rocked Punjab before the commencement of the First World War (1914). The British used the Punjab as a ‘catchment area’ to fulfil troop requirement during the war. During the period 1914-16, almost 250,000 people were recruited to the British Army from India, among whom more than a hundred thousand were from the Punjab. In May 1917, during the crucial stages of the war, the British Army demanded more than four lakh more recruits from India. To fulfil this requirement, 186,000 men were recruited in 1917 and a further three lakh were recruited in the year 1918. A lot of these people didn’t join the British army voluntarily.

In every district, the Deputy Commissioner was provided a certain number of people that were to be ‘supplied’. The number was passed down the bureaucratic hierarchy and the ultimate responsibility used to fall on Tehsil-Dars and Number-Dars. If the number of volunteers fell short of the required amount, people were forced by government employees to join the ranks. In a few instances, everyone in a village was ordered to gather in a square and men were forced to strip in front of the whole village. Dissenters were arrested and forcibly recruited. The coercive attitude backfired in a few places including Muzaffargarh and Sargodha. In districts with less than desirable recruitment numbers, the Deputy Commissioner and other staff was replaced.

In the final count, almost 80,000 Indian soldiers were killed fighting a war for their British overlords. This tragedy became the springboard for anti-colonial movements such as the ‘Ghaddar Party’ and ‘Naujawan Bharat Sabha’ of Bhagat Singh. To protest the Rowlett Act in 1919, people from all over Punjab gathered in numbers and defied government orders. During one such protest in Amritsar, a massacre took place which is known as the ‘Jallianwala Bagh massacre’. Martial Law was proclaimed in different cities of Punjab and people were forced to crawl instead of walking at a few places.

During the Second World War (1939-45), almost 90,000 Indian soldiers perished fighting for the British. It was in this period that Bengal faced its worst famine in history. The famine was caused by failure of British policies. Almost three million people died due to this policy and this tragedy has been termed as a ‘Man-made Holocaust’. The British were forced to leave India after the war because of their economic difficulties in ‘maintaining’ the empire. Nostalgia paints past events with a rosy-tint. The British were not a force for good in the Subcontinent and their departure benefitted us more than it hurt. In certain aspects, we are still paying the tolls of colonialism, decades after ‘Independence’.