The Jungle Book was written and takes place during the period of British colonization of India; thus, it behooves readers to know a bit about this situation as to better understand the themes of the stories.
During the early 18th century, Britain was trading with India primarily through the British East India Company, as well as conducting wars on land in the eastern and southeastern parts of the country. The Company hoped to expand its reach, especially once France became interested in the region. In the 1740s, the British and French vied for control but Company troops were supreme in their ascendancy in Bengal and other southwest areas. They moved from “influence” to outright rule in 1765, as granted by the Mughal emperor. The Company was ostensibly in charge but the British government supervised it and Parliament conducted inquiries from time to time. The Company’s governors of commercial settlements became governors of provinces; Company employees also now became administrators. Many of the administrators were Indians, however, and much of their job was to collect taxes. The Company built up their military presence with regular British regiments as well as large numbers of Indian sepoys.
The British believed that Western education, the English language, Enlightenment ideas of rationality, property ownership, expanded trade, and challenges to Hinduism and “superstition” ought to be enforced. Sir Charles Trevelyan voiced the popular sentiment that the British were bringing civilization to the backwards Indians: “The natives will not rise against us because we shall stoop to raise them; there will be no reaction because there will be no pressure; the national activity will be fully and harmlessly employed in acquiring and diffusing European knowledge, and naturalizing European institutions.” The mystic and philosopher Swami Vivekananda countered this perspective, saying, “The child is taken to school and the first thing he learns is that his father is a fool, the second thing that his grandfather was a lunatic, the third thing that all his teachers are hypocrites, the fourth that all his sacred books are a mass of lies. By the time he reaches sixteen, he is a mass of negation, lifeless and boneless.”
Although both the Company and the British government were wary of further expansion, they were drawn into a variety of post-Mughal conflicts. By the late 17th century, the new company governor, Richard Wellesley, preferred to simply use war as a tool to impose British power and rule over the states in the subcontinent, and began nearly fifty years of intermittent fighting.
The Sepoy Rebellion of 1857, otherwise known as the Mutiny of 1857, resulted in the death of hundreds of rebels and more stringent rules put in place by the colonial government. This was also the moment when the British government officially took over rule of the colony; India became known as “the jewel in the British crown” and the period from 1858-1947, when India was granted independence, was known as “the Raj.” The Raj included all of present-day India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. There were 565 “Princely States,” or vassal states with a nominal Indian ruler, at the time of independence. These States did not belong to British India during Company rule or to the Raj, but the British exerted influence over them and many leaders signed treaties with the British.
Due to the formation of the Indian National Congress, nonviolent mobilization of the masses by Gandhi, and European powers’ general disengagement with colonies after the Second World War, India achieved its independence in 1947.
In the aftermath of British colonialism, as explained by Harvard professor Lakshmi Iyer, “Controlling for selective annexation using a specific policy rule, I find that areas that experienced direct [British] rule have significantly lower levels of access to schools, health centers, and roads in the postcolonial period. I find evidence that the quality of governance in the colonial period has a significant and persistent [and often negative] effect on postcolonial outcomes." The BBC provides a more or less fair and succinct balance sheet: “There were two incontrovertible economic benefits provided by India. It was a captive market for British goods and services, and served defence needs by maintaining a large standing army at no cost to the British taxpayer. However, the economic balance sheet of the empire remains a controversial topic and the debate has revolved around whether the British developed or retarded the Indian economy. Controversy remains over whether Britain developed or retarded India's economy. Among the benefits bequeathed by the British connection were the large scale capital investments in infrastructure, in railways, canals and irrigation works, shipping and mining; the commercialisation of agriculture with the development of a cash nexus; the establishment of an education system in English and of law and order creating suitable conditions for the growth of industry and enterprise; and the integration of India into the world economy. Conversely, the British are criticised for leaving Indians poorer and more prone to devastating famines; exhorting high taxation in cash from an impecunious people; destabilising cropping patterns by forced commercial cropping; draining Indian revenues to pay for an expensive bureaucracy (including in London) and an army beyond India's own defence needs; servicing a huge sterling debt, not ensuring that the returns from capital investment were reinvested to develop the Indian economy rather than reimbursed to London; and retaining the levers of economic power in British hands. “