Supporters of imperialism like to claim that the British brought democracy, the rule of law, and railways to India. As a matter of fact, many modern apologists for British colonial rule in India no longer contest the basic pieces of evidence of imperial exploitation and plunder for 200 years. Not to mention the rapacity and loot, which are too deeply documented to be challengeable.
Instead, they offer a counter-argument: Although they agreed that the British took what they could for 200 years, they stuck to the fact that they also left behind a great deal of lasting benefit. In particular, political unity and democracy, the rule of law, railways and the trains, English education, even tea and cricket.
But…did the British really develop India?
How old is India?
India….is as old as the Vedas, the earliest Hindu scriptures, which describe “Bharat-varsha” as the land between the Himalayas and the seas.
Numerous Indian rulers had sought to unite the territory, with the Maur-yas, 300 years before the birth of Christ, and the Mughals coming the closest by ruling almost 90% of the subcontinent. Had the British not completed the job, there is little doubt that some Indian ruler, emulating his forerunners, would have done so.
Far from crediting Britain for India’s unity and enduring parliamentary democracy, the facts point clearly to policies that undermined it – the dismantling of existing political institutions, the fomenting of communal division and systematic political discrimination with a view to maintaining British domination.
In the years after 1757, the British astutely encouraged cleavages among the Indian princes, and steadily consolidated their dominion through a policy of divide and rule.
Later, in 1857, the sight of Hindu and Muslim soldiers rebelling together, willing to pledge joint allegiance to the enfeebled Mughal monarch, alarmed the British, who concluded that pitting the two groups against one another was the most effective way to ensure the unchallenged continuance of the British empire.
The British Partition of India
As early as 1859, the then British governor of Bombay, Lord Elphinstone, advised London that Divide et impera was the old Roman saying, and it should now be the British.
Since the British came from a hierarchical society with an entrenched class system, they instinctively looked for a similar one in India.
The effort to understand ethnic, religious, sectarian and caste differences among Britain’s subjects inevitably became an exercise in defining, dividing and perpetuating these differences.
Thus, colonial administrators regularly wrote reports and conducted censuses that classified Indians in ever-more bewilderingly narrow terms, based on their language, religion, sect, caste, sub-caste, ethnicity, and skin colour.
Also, entire new communities were created by people who had not consciously thought of themselves as particularly different from others around them.
Large-scale conflicts between Hindus and Muslims, only began under colonial rule; many other kinds of social strife were labelled as religious due to the colonists’ orientalist assumption that religion was the fundamental division in Indian society.
It is questionable whether a totalising Hindu or Muslim identity existed in any meaningful sense in India before the 19th century. Yet the creation and perpetuation of Hindu–Muslim antagonism was the most significant accomplishment of British imperial policy: the project of divide et impera would reach its culmination in the collapse of British authority in 1947.
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