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History Of India



The sixty years or so that lie between the foundation of the Indian National Congress in 1885 and the achievement of independence in August 1947 witnessed perhaps the greatest transition in our country’s long history.

A transition, however, which in many ways remained grievously incomplete, and it is with this central ambiguity that it seems most convenient to begin our survey.

The illusion of permanence held powerful sway over the minds of the British in India in 1885,
eight years after the Empire had been proclaimed at a grandiose Durbar held in the midst of

An ideology of paternalistic benevolence, occasionally combined with talk of trusteeship
and training towards self-government, thinly veiled the realities of a Raj uncompromisingly
white and despotic.

Political decision-making and administration at higher levels were entirely the privileges of the Europeans, who in the early 1880s manned all but 16 of the 900-odd posts in the Indian Civil Service.

The inclusion in 1861 of a handful of nominated ‘natives’ in Provincial and Supreme Councils had been accompanied by a reduction in the powers of the latter.

Even the local self-government introduced with much fanfare by Ripon was essentially no more than a measure of necessary financial decentralization.

‘We shall not subvert the British Empire by allowing the Bengali Baboo to discuss his own schools and drains’, was the eminently appropriate comment of Finance Member Evelyn Baring.

Even the fig-leaf was absent in really vital things like the army, where no Indian would be permitted till 1947 to rise above the rank of a Brigadier.

Indian collaborators were obviously indispensable for the day-to-day running of a huge country.
What contributed greatly to British self-confidence was the ease with which such dependent
allies seemed obtainable.

The post-1857 years had seen the renewal and consolidation of links with princes, zamindars and a variety of urban and rural notables, and the 662 Indian native rulers in particular were to remain the most loyal of bulwarks till the very end.

Macaulay’s vision of an English-educated intelligentsia brown in colour but white in thought and tastes was, it is true, beginning to turn a bit sour by the 1880s.

Yet the ‘middle class’ ambitions which went into the making of provincial associations in Calcutta, Bombay, Poona and Madras and eventually found expression through the Congress were still little more than an irritant.

Hume’s alarmist pleas for official patronage for Congress as a ‘safety valve’ to prevent another Mutiny could be dismissed by Dufferin with lofty aristocratic disdain: ‘He [Hume] is clever and gentlemanlike, but seems to have got a bee in his bonnet.

(Dufferin to Reay, 17 May 1885)

In 1888 the Viceroy proclaimed Congress to represent no more than a ‘microscopic minority’ and
Sir John Strachey assured Cambridge undergraduates: ‘there is not, and never was an India, or
even any country of India no Indian nation, no “people of India” of which we hear so much
that men of the Punjab, Bengal, the North-West Provinces and Madras, should ever feel that they belong to one great Indian nation, is impossible.

(India, London, 1888) The evident element of propaganda and wishful thinking has to be discounted, but such estimates and predictions did not seem too unrealistic in the 1880s.

All-India connections were as yet largely confined to a thin upper crust of English-educated professional groups.

Congress demands, put forward in the form of gentlemanly resolutions at staid annual sessions which still eagerly asserted their basic loyalism, could find as yet no resonance amidst the peasant millions, and despite the fairly clearcut formulation of a perspective of independent capitalist development (which represented by far the greatest contribution of Moderate intellectuals to our nationalism), response from the emerging Indian bourgeoisie was also fairly minimal.

Lower-class discontent was inevitably endemic in what had become by the nineteenth century certainly one of the poorest countries in the world, and the ten years or so before 1885 had seen powerful agrarian leagues in east Bengal against zamindari excesses, anti-moneylender riots in the Maharashtra Deccan, and a formidable tribal rising in the ‘Rampa’ region of Andhra.

But the edge of such movements tended to be directed against the immediate oppressor rather than the distant British overlord, as when the Pabna peasants in 1873 wanted to become raiyats of ‘Maharani Victoria’ alone.

There were ample objective foundations here for divide-and-rule policies, with divisions between communities often interlocking with class tensions.

Muslim peasants and Hindu gentry in east Bengal, Moplah Muslim cultivators and Nambudri or Nair caste Hindu landlords in Malabar, Muslim talukdars and Hindu tenants in parts of the United Provinces, or Hindu moneylender-merchants and Muslim or Sikh peasants in the Punjab.

Yet the national movement did eventually go far beyond its original elite-intellectual confines.
By 1936 the Congress President could legitimately claim that Congress had now ‘become the
largest organization of the common people drawn very largely from the village population and
counting amongst its members lakhs of peasants and cultivators and a sprinkling of industrial and field workers’.

The movement expanded in both geographical and social terms in a succession of waves and troughs, the obvious high-points being 1905-1908, 1919-1922, 1928-1934, 1942 and 1945-1946.

The focus shifted from Bengal, Maharashtra and Punjab in the Extremist phase to new areas like Gujarat, Bihar, U.P., Central Provinces, and Andhra in the Gandhian, and from city intellectuals to small-town lower middle classes, large sections of the peasantry, and influential bourgeois groups.

There was a corresponding evolution of new forms: swadeshi, boycott, and passive resistance, Gandhian satyagraha and constructive village work, as well as methods often frowned upon by the leaders, yet surely of considerable importance at times revolutionary terrorism, strikes, outbursts of urban, peasant or tribal violence.

By the 1930s, Kisan Sabhas and trade unions were fast becoming a real force in many parts of the country, and popular movements were also emerging in many of the princely states.

Despite all the slidebacks, limitations and contradictions, what all this amounted to was the irreversible historical fact of the entry of the masses into active political life.

A changed international situation and mass pressure combined to bring about the withdrawal of 1947, barely five years after a British Prime Minister had declared that he had not come to occupy his high post to preside over the liquidation of the Empire.

This was followed by the quick elimination of the princely states. abolition of zamindari and the establishment over the major part of the sub-continent.

Language English
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