What Did Colonialism Do To India?
A video of Shashi Tharoor speaking at Oxford on a debate related to the colonial period has been ‘viral’ on the social circuit for a while. In this video Tharoor makes a passionate plea to the British that they make reparations for the losses to Indian economy during the British rule. He puts the blame of India’s economic decline on the British and also recounts Jalianwala Bag, Bengal famine as the major highlight of British rule which reflected the attitude of British towards this colony of theirs’. Tharoor points out that resources from India were used by British to build there economic prosperity and to fund their Industrial revolution.
However, Dr. Manmohan Singh (2005), the previous prime minister, had made a very different kind of argument. In this Dr. Singh as a guest of British Government extols the virtue of British rule and gives them the credit for rule of law, constitutional government, and free press as the contributions which India benefitted from.
So where does the truth lie? Not only the context and tone of the speeches by these two Congressmen is totally different, the content is also totally on different tracks. Dr. Singh as the guest of the British Government is soft and behaving as an ideal guest and points out the contributions of the British rule and there is some truth in that. Tharoor as an Indian citizen with memory of the past; is narrating the plunder which this country suffered due to the British rule. He is also on the dot. These are two aspects of the same canvass. What Tharoor is saying is the primary goal of British and what Dr. Sigh is stating is an incidental offshoot.
British (East India Company) did come here looking for markets for their industrial products, gradually went on defeating one after another king, ruling in different areas and brought the whole subcontinent under a single rule, which became one of the ‘Jewel in the Crown’ for British as the whole wealth, raw material, resources from India were pumped out to Britain. In order to achieve this goal they did go on to introduce railways, communication network-postal, telegraph-telephone and modern administrative system and modern education to create the assistants for their officers ruling here.
The lacuna in our systems were primarily because the primary goal of British was to plunder the country and as an incidental thing; as by product; the new institutions, rule of law and later some reforms against ghastly social practices also began (like abolition of Sati). Perceptions do matter while Singh and Tharoor are talking of the same phenomenon from two different angles. The third angle is the one that was articulated by British themselves. British presented their rule as part of “Civilizing mission of the East”! There is very little truth in this, but it can be said that British also did help in the process of social reforms at times.
The major point which is unseen in these perceptions is one which had dangerous consequence on the social-political scenario and that was- British planted the seeds of divisive politics. As such broadly speaking the colonial-imperialist rule sows the seeds of ‘divide and rule’ and in this subcontinent they did it with gay abandon. In the wake of 1857 revolt, when the British East India Company’s rule was shaken, British identified existence of two major religious communities where the wedge could be driven. This is where they introduced communal historiography as a part of ‘divide and rule’ policy. James Mill with his ‘History of British India’ periodized the history on communal lines (Ancient Hindu Period, medieval Muslim period and modern British period). Supplementing this were Elliot and Dawson with ‘History of India as told by her historians’, which reduced the history to the eulogizing account of the courtiers of the kings. These played a major role in deepening the communal understanding of the past.
At social level we see emergence of modern classes, industrialists-workers and modern educated classes while the old classes of feudal lords and kings survive though with some reduced influence. The modern classes came forward to build up anti colonial movement; this movement led by Gandhi with people from all regions, religions, men and women both is what built modern India on the infrastructure of industrialization-modern education. This movement tied the people together in the bond of ‘Indian-ness’ and had imbibed the values of the central pillars of transformations of caste and gender relations. The latter aspects most highlighted by Jotirao Phule, Bhimrao Ambedkar and Periyar Ramasamy Niacker on one side and introduction of girls education with Savitribai Phule opening the girls school on the other. This group underlined that ‘India is a nation in the making’.
On the other hand the declining sections of landlords-kings, both Hindu and Muslim, threatened by the modern changes and seeing the rise of their vassals who were escaping from their grip, shouted that their religion is in danger. They upheld the communal historiography introduced by British. Muslim elite gradually came to form Muslim League. For them the raison d’être of their coming together was Islam being in danger. They held that here the Muslim Nation had been there since the time Muhammad bin Kasim had won over Sindh from Hindu Daher in eighth century and so they have to work for creation of a Muslim nation. That’s how they remained aloof from the freedom movement, which was aiming at the Secular democratic India.
The Hindu landlords Kings in due course came to form Hindu Mahasabha and then RSS. For them this had been a Hindu nation from times immemorial and Muslims and Christians are the alien invaders. They also remained aloof from freedom movement and harped on building Hindu nation in contrast to the goal set by National movement, that of secular democratic India. They constructed their own history of a glorious past of the Hindu rulers and its corruption by the Muslim invaders. Gradually they came to construct the ideology that all the ills of Hindu society are due to the Muslim invaders.
While the national movement brought together the people of all the regions, religions, castes: women and men both, the communal streams nurtured the seeds of divisiveness sown by British, and this is what led to communal violence and later the tragic partition of the country. Here also what is generally analyzed mostly is the fault of leader A or B for partition while overlooking the fact that partition was the part of continuing British policy, to have their interests preserved in the sub continent and that’s how they played their cards well enough to create a situation where partition became an inevitable calamity.
If one has to point the major problem which the British rule introduced; apart from the impact on the socio economic life of the sub continent; it is undeniably letting the feudal classes-kingdoms to continue in the face of changing scenario of industrialization-modern education. So in the sub continent on one side we see the emergence of the values of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity as an ideology of the emerging classes, while the feudal ideology of ‘caste and gender hierarchy’ persists as the flag-mast of declining sections of society which came to be represented in the communal organizations, Muslim League, Hindu Mahasabha and RSS. These declining groups construct the ideology of ‘Religion based Nation state’ which is a unique synthesis of feudal values with the modern concept of nation state, their communal politics is a modern phenomena but derives its identity from as ancient as time as possible. As neither Hindu nor Muslim nor Christian Kings were ‘religious nationalist’ so to say; as actually they presided over on the empires based on taxation of the toiling peasants in their kingdoms. Their goals of power-wealth were written on their sleeves; sometimes they adorned the masks of Dharmyudh, Jihad or Crusade for their ambitions of expanding power.
So during freedom movement we see those working for anti colonial movement are saying, ‘India as a nation in the making’ the concept which runs parallel to modernization in transport, industrialization, education and administration in particular. Muslim League said we have been a Muslim nation from eight century and Hindu Mahasabha-RSS asserting that we are a Hindu nation from times immemorial Muslim league derives identity from the Kings’ rule while Hindu Mahasbha-RSS project the concept of nation to times when people were having pastoral pattern and later made a transition to settled agriculture. For the communalists the major transition of industrialization and modern education is of no consequence.
While the declining classes do eulogize the kings of their religions, it is interesting that none of the kings in the history set out to spread his religion, they set out to expand their empires. To make this rule grounded there of course is an exception, Emperor Ashok who did spread his religion.
Today we cannot say what might have been the course of History had India not been colonized, what patterns of Industrialization-modernization would have taken place, but one thing can be hypothesized that this communal politics, abuse of religions’ identity for political goals might not have been here to torment us, to kill and maim the innocents, may not have been ruling our streets and asserting for authoritarian structures right within the democratic institutions which the country has nourished from last six decades.
So while Tharoor and earlier Manmohan Singh are pointing to two supplementary aspects of British rule, we also need to delve deeper and see the result of their policies which gave rise to communal politics, the politics which is tormenting South Asia as a whole and India is witnessing the worst in the form of Hindu Nationalism, Hindutva which is dominating the political ideology.
Ram Puniyani was a professor in biomedical engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay, and took voluntary retirement in December 2004 to work full time for communal harmony in India. He is involved with human rights activities from last two decades.He is associated with various secular and democratic initiatives like All India Secular Forum, Center for Study of Society and Secularism and ANHAD.
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