Gandhi and the British Empire

‘If this Empire seems an evil thing to me, it is not because I hate the British, I hate only the Empire.’ B.G. Gokhale offered an assessment of Gandhi upon the centenary of his birth.

For over three centuries Britain and India were involved in a sustained and fateful encounter. It was in 1609 that Captain William Hawkins reached Agra, the capital of the Mughal Emperor Jahangir (1605-27), to seek commercial privileges for the English East India Company. All through the seventeenth century the English were busy setting up their factories in various parts of India and especially in Madras (1640), Bombay (1667) and Calcutta (1690).

In 1757 Robert Clive, another employee of the East India Company, defeated Siraj-ud-daulah, the Governor of the Mughal province of Bengal, and after this began the phase of the British conquest of the Indian subcontinent. In 1858 Lord Canning announced the demise of the East India Company and the assumption of the Government of India by the Crown, initiating the third phase of Anglo-Indian history. Finally, in 1947, Lord Mountbatten presided over the dissolution of the Empire and the emergence of the two sovereign states of India and Pakistan with which the British mission in India came to an end.

From the time of Hawkins to that of Lord Mountbatten, Indians and Englishmen had met, mingled, fought each other and worked out an ultimate reconciliation of their respective histories, both in Britain and India. India largely made the British Empire what it was, while no other single nation so profoundly affected the course of Indian history as the British. The two peoples, with all their suspicions of each other, and mutual hopes and fears, became the warp and woof of the history of the other nations.

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