A few weeks ago I wrote a post on why I think we should refocus our energies on better initiatives for inclusion in society, in light of current events in America (actually, all around the world, but that’s a different post for a different day). Then, in my last post, I outlined a series that will focus Indian Americans’ struggle with inclusion. This week, as I wrote this piece on the effects of British colonialism on inclusion in Indian society, I couldn’t help but be taken aback by how many directly relevant lessons that Indian history has to teach us, especially to those of us in the U.S. now. The history of the Indian subcontinent is a prime example of what the perpetuation of colonialism and the idea of “White supremacy” can do to a land and its people. It holds valuable leadership lessons in what not to do if our goal truly is stability and inclusion in whatever society we are a part of.
The specifics of the historical events that occurred during different periods of Indian history are much too detailed and intricate for one blog post. Many volumes have been written about them, with room for many more to come. What I want to do in this post is focus on how colonialism and colonial attitudes and practices shaped the idea and practice of inclusion in Indian society into its current form.
The Start of Colonialism on the Indian Subcontinent
The British came to the Indian subcontinent in 1600; just over 100 years after the Portuguese “discovered” India by sea passage. By the time the British, or even the Portuguese came around, the Indian subcontinent already had a rich and complex history of multiple invasions, migrations, and attempts at unification that spanned several thousand years. All of these earlier attempts had shaped the Indian society into a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural hybrid that defied a singular cultural identity. Ancient Indian societies were divided enough along class and caste lines to catalyze the formation of a new religion of inclusion and compassion – Buddhism. These societies were also tolerant enough to allow for Buddhism’s proliferation and expansion into the North Eastern Himalayan kingdoms and beyond.
By the 17th Century, when the British first entered the subcontinent, men and women of multiple religions, castes and socio-economic classes were already co-existing in a network of feudal subgroups and subcultures, albeit not inclusively or equally. The average Indian, who was not a part of the noble class, was poor and disadvantaged in many ways. Religious and civil laws and norms changed from kingdom to kingdom. Some rulers and kingdoms were more liberal, and others were more authoritarian in enforcing their rule. Overall, it was a society where separate groups lived next to each other and tolerated each other with very little inclusion or integration, unless it was necessary.
This was the “India” that the British entered. And, over the course of the next 350 years or so, they went from being chartered traders with a single trading post, to extremely wealthy colonial overlords (via direct and indirect rule) of almost the entire Indian subcontinent. In this process, colonialism played a major role in turning one of the richest regions on Earth into several under-resourced and underdeveloped “Third World” nations. In doing so, British colonials also fundamentally and irrevocably altered the very notion of inclusion in those modern-day societies.
India was Britain’s second attempt at perpetuating colonialism. By the time they started colonizing India, they had already successfully exploited America, decimated Native American populations, and enslaved Africans in their quest for wealth, power and dominance. But, for the first 150 years or so, the British on the Indian subcontinent were merely traders with localized influence. While they were establishing their trading posts in India, British colonials were also setting up a new England in America. In the years leading up to 1776 however, those colonials in America were in conflict with some of their own that had other ideas for a nation free of the British monarchy. In many ways, this added pressure on British colonials to succeed in colonizing India for their purposes. And, succeed, they did.
Regional conflicts between the rulers of various kingdoms due to weak leadership in a deteriorating Mughal Empire created the perfect power vacuum that the British could leverage. Their goal was singular – Colonial British (“Western”, “White”, Male) domination and supremacy across all aspects of life. They achieved this through physical, mental, educational, spiritual, religious, legal, military, economic, and political means. “Divide and conquer” was the strategy of colonialism used across the board. Pre-existing disparities and dysfunctions in local communities helped them implement their strategy with great ease. They grew in wealth and political power using military conquests, diplomatic negotiations with local rulers, coercion and bribery. In several cases, they exacerbated conflicts between local groups and then negotiated the best deal for themselves by acting as mediators.
Divide and Conquer Tactics of Colonialism
The British East India Company (BEIC) used private armies, and illegal private trades to support and expand their massive fortifications, and to destroy any competition from other European traders, and local rulers. They created a monopoly, where only they had access to Indian people and resources. Once the BEIC was an official agent of the British monarchy, they introduced a secondary government to overlay and replace existing regional governing structures. By doing so, they made themselves the sole authority to legislate, execute, administer and legalize policies, and issue punishments. They isolated all power to themselves by appointing themselves as the civil, military, economic and legal administrators of provinces. They created complicated and inequitable taxation systems that collected exorbitant amounts of imperial taxes (Lagaan) on almost everything from already underpaid local natives.
British colonials never intended to help India grow into an independent nation. Their goal was to create a colony that would serve as a source of wealth and resources for the British monarchy, in perpetuity. So, nearly everything that the British got out of the Indian diaspora was invested in England, or the English people. The infrastructure of Indian society was largely ignored in their 347-year tenure, as its people starved. Not many Indian people were allowed to work in more than menial capacities. A few token leadership or administrative positions were only given to those Indians who parroted the ideals of White supremacy. But the Indians who did promote British ideals were alienated from their local and native groups for being pro-colonial lackeys.
This is not to say that India was completely devoid of growth during the colonial period. There were some markers of growth and expansion. But, whatever growth did happen was for the purpose of British imperialism, and not Indian development.
Colonialism and Railways
For instance, the BEIC built railroads in India, not to help local growth, but rather to speed up and facilitate the drain of vast quantities of India’s abundant natural resources to England. They also used these railway systems to infuse their colonial projects with massive amounts of cheap human labor (including children) from rural areas, where they were put to dangerous work for substandard wages without labor law protections. Because of the availability of an untold number of impoverished locals who needed employment, they were able to simultaneously deindustrialize India while providing the capital necessary to fund the Industrial Revolution in England. In fact, the resource drain out of India was so high during this period that it led to several famines that caused hundreds of thousands of deaths.
Colonialism via the English language
The British Crown mandated educational systems and policies that made the medium of instruction English – a language that was completely foreign and largely inconsequential to the majority of the Indian populace. By their own admission, their goal was to create a class of Indian people who were Indian by blood, but “civilized” Brits in morals and thought. They needed a “buffer class” so they wouldn’t have to directly deal with the savages themselves. In this way, they ensured that Indians who could afford to have access to education were indoctrinated with “White” ideals of morals, manners, values, etiquette and customs. These were the very people who the British then put in administrative positions when they needed to, to further their colonial agendas.
Colonialism and Christianity
Christian missionaries used the lure of the democratic ideals of equality and equal representation to deepen the rifts between Muslims and Hindus, and between Hindus of different castes. By manipulating the emotions of poverty-stricken, starved, barely employed, uneducated (but not uncultured or uncivilized) masses, they were able to convert throngs of “low caste” Hindus and Muslims to Christianity. But once these conversions happened, the promises of equality and equity were quickly forgotten. They manipulated sentiments of Hindus and Muslims against each other so that they could maintain control and power more easily.
Colonialism and Hindu-Muslim Conflicts
The British didn’t create Hindu-Muslim differences in the populations of the Indian subcontinent. It is human nature to classify people based on similarities and differences, especially differences based on skin color and gender expression – two of the most visible and inescapable markers we have as humans. So, these group differences existed before colonial invasions. But, colonialism didn’t just differentiate.
The reports that the British collected on the makeup of the local people showed that Indian groups had a remarkable amount of diversity in religious practices, caste hierarchies, language traditions and cultural customs. But, the British didn’t use these “diversity reports” to address the needs of all these different populations, or to create inclusion. Instead, they implemented new labels and hierarchies that further promoted divisions between the groups and created power imbalances and large scale conflicts.
For instance, until the colonial period, Hindus in the Indian subcontinent didn’t have a single religious identity (in fact, I could argue that a single Hindu identity is impossible considering that true “Hinduism” is a lifestyle and not a religion, but that’s a different post for a different time). Hindu practices changed from region to region. Similarly, Muslim customs and practices changed depending on the geographical location of these communities. Identity politics were thus largely regional. This allowed for tolerance and co-existence within kingdoms despite inter-group differences. The British administrators, with the help of local religious fundamentalist leaders and rulers, eroded this tolerance by emphasizing religious differences between groups. When Sikhism was developed as a religion that would bridge differences between Hindus and Muslims, they managed to use this new religion to drive even bigger wedges between the three groups.
They succeeded in reducing diversity to one-dimensional “Hindu” and “Muslim” identities. They distorted equality and inclusion from basic rights into privileges that were “bestowed” on people based on immutable, unchangeable and inescapable birth characteristics. They bred hatred in helpless and powerless people, to sow the seeds of constant conflict and violence.
In fact, the British colonials were so particularly adept at manipulating and exacerbating group differences, that by the end of their reign, they managed to successfully present and execute the Partition of the Indian subcontinent into an independent secular (but, majority Hindu) nation of India, and an independent Islamic nation of Pakistan.
Hindu-Muslim conflicts happened the most in the provinces of Punjab and Bengal (and to some extent, the Deccan), because of the sheer numbers of these two groups of people in the local communities. It was easy to manipulate group differences to create conflict in these areas. This is where the British decided to draw the boundary lines between two conflicting nations of their creation. The partition of the Indian subcontinent created the greatest refugee crisis the world had faced till that time in human history. About 15 million people were uprooted overnight because of the arbitrary and haphazard geographical boundaries set by the British. They paid very little attention to the demographics of the areas they carved up into two different nations. Families and clans were now divided by national boundaries that didn’t exist a day earlier. Hindus on the Pakistan side of the border felt compelled to migrate to India for their safety, and Muslims on the Indian side of the border felt compelled to flee to Pakistan. Hundreds of thousands of people died of fatigue and starvation in the migration process, and more than a million were killed in religious conflicts caused by this partition.
The cumulative effect of these tactics and many more was that when the British finally left their place of power in 1947, they left behind a greatly amputated region with “a 16% literacy rate, a life expectancy of 27, practically no domestic industry and over 90% living below the poverty line” of the time. It has been 70 years since the British left, and India has made a tremendous amount of progress since then, but the effects of the abuse that colonialism heaped on the Indian subcontinent can still be felt in the many forms of exclusion in present day Indian life.
What are the specific problems with inclusion that modern-day Indians (and by extension, Indian-Americans) have dealt with since 1947? Please stay tuned for the next installment where I will go into more detail about those.