A passage to India through trade

IN 1894, when the colonial government imposed a countervailing excise duty on Indian cotton goods to offset the advantages that may have accrued to the Indian textile industry because of a 5 per cent import duty levied on all foreign goods, it became yet another symbol of British imperialism. Nationalist thinkers and politicians would always raise this issue to demonstrate the alien nature of British rule in India.

Many authors, especially Britons writing in the pre-Independence period, have tried to salvage the reputation of the Raj by contending that the interests of the Lancashire lobby was not the most important consideration, that the empire was more political than economic in nature, that after World War I, a process of political and economic "decolonisation" started and led, finally, to the transfer of power in 1947.

Trade, Tariffs and Empire successfully refutes these claims. The author states that the main economic motive of the British government in India was to maintain triangular trade so that British deficits in relation to non-empire countries could be paid off by drawing on India's trade surplus. Furthermore, the interests of the British ruling classes in general were to be protected.

Nevertheless, it was very difficult to ignore the claims of Lancashire, a county that sent 60 MPs to the House of Commons. Lancashire's interests in India were protected throughout the entire inter-war period through differential tariff policies and preferential treatment, in which British goods entered Indian markets because their manufacturers paid lower tariffs than those of other countries.

The author asserts that the interests of the empire were more economic than political and that "decolonisation" never took place. "The government of India," the author notes, " remained to a very large extent a projection of the government of Great Britain...." (p 475).

British withdrawal from India was forced by the repeated onslaughts of nationalist forces, represented mainly by the Indian National Congress. After World War II, a weakened Britain could not resist the Indian demand for independence, especially in a changed, international environment. Furthermore, granting independence became yet another way to maintain good economic relations with India.

Shashi Bhushan Upadhyay is a research associate in history at Jawaharlal Nehru University.