Almost exactly 150 years ago, the hot plains of North India erupted with fighting in what was then called the sepoy mutiny and is now called the first war of Indian independence. The revolt of 1857 began in Meerut on 10 May, and subsequently has always captured public attention because of the bravery and butchery that followed. Few bother to recognize that it was a violent spasm in the midst of other momentous, but less dramatic, developments that would lead to the birth of a new India.
We would like to point to three of these developments, because the issues involved are still relevant to contemporary India—infrastructure, education and globalization.
The first train chugged between Mumbai and Thane in 1853, four years before the first war of independence. That railway was partly promoted by domestic entrepreneurs. Later, as political power was transferred from the East India Company to the British Crown, the government raised capital for the railways by offering sovereign guarantees to investors in the London market.
While the railways were partly encouraged to move British troops around, there is little doubt that they connected various parts of the country together, both politically and economically. This infrastructure preceded the growth of industry, rather than the other way around (as is the case today).
As Karl Marx wrote in a prescient essay in 1853: “I know the English millocracy intend to endow India with railways, with the exclusive view of extracting at diminished expenses the cotton and other raw materials for their manufacture. But when you have once introduced machinery into locomotion of a country which possesses iron and coal, you are unable to withhold it from its fabrication. You cannot maintain a net of railways over an immense country without introducing all those industrial processes necessary to meet all the immediate and current wants of railway locomotion and out of which there must grow the application of machinery to those branches of industry not immediately connected with the railways...”
The second big development of those years was the setting up of three modern universities at Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata in 1857. This helped establish new learning in India. The first generation of nationalist leaders streamed out of these universities, and not just clerks and administrators for the colonial bureaucracy. The graduates of 1860, and their successors, brought a new politics to India, far removed from that of kings and feudal potentates.
The third big change was in the world of business. Cowasji Davar set up India’s first modern textile mill in 1854. While the first Indian joint-stock company was set up in the 1830s (Carr & Tagore), Davar’s Bombay Spinning and Weaving Company was a manufacturing unit rather than a trading one.
Four years after 1857, the American Civil War broke out. The North blockaded the ports of the rebellious South, and British textile mills had to look to India for cotton. Prices shot through the roof—leading to a huge rush to build new mills around Mumbai, as well as the country’s first speculative financial boom.
By the end of the 19th century, India had the infrastructure, industrial base, entrepreneurial class and the educational network to actively participate in the first burst of globalization. India’s industrial production grew at 8.4% a year between 1861 and 1900, an astonishing rate of growth. The overall economy grew at a far slower pace because agriculture languished, but this was the first time after centuries of stagnation that average incomes grew.
These themes—infrastructure, education and globalization—are still relevant to contemporary India as it tries to make the most of the second round of major globalization. The context may be different, but the early lessons of the 1850s and 1860s matter a lot, perhaps far more than the dazzling upsurge of 1857.
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