Did British colonization foster a rise in ethnic violence in India?
Like many postcolonial states, India—the largest country ever colonized—has dealt with an immense amount of ethnic violence in contemporary times. The 2002 Hindu-Muslim riots in Gujarat, which left thousands dead,are only one of the most recent examples. In seeking to explain these conflicts, many Indians have pointed to the negative legacy of British colonialism. “The Hindu–Muslim problem is a gift of the English,” Bal Thackeray, the Shiv Sena leader, once bluntly put it; “It was they who took steps to divide Hindu and Muslim, Hindu and Sikh…They got maximum success dividing the Hindus and Muslims. For them, communal riots were games to be relished.” When I arrived in India in 2010 to study ethnic violence, a local priest offered a similar view: “All the conflict these days is because of the Britishers.”
How can we be sure that widespread ethnic violence did not already exist prior to British rule?
But this is a rather difficult thing to prove. For instance, how can we be sure that widespread ethnic violence did not already exist prior to British rule? The earliest recorded Hindu-Muslim riot in India dates back to the south Indian town of Mangalore in the 14th century, some 300 years before any British official set foot on the subcontinent. A second vexing problem is determining whether or not colonialism simply coexisted with the true factors that created violence. For instance, the increase in Hindu-Muslim violence in the 19th century that was blamed on British rule coincided with the rise of revivalist Hindu and Islamic religious movements. Suddenly, the links between colonialism and ethnic violence are not so clear.
One way to isolate the effects of colonialism on Indian ethnic violence is to take advantage of a unique feature of British rule on the subcontinent: colonial administrators only governed three-fourths of the population of India. The other one-fourth (in 1901, more than 60 million people) lived in territories called “princely states” that remained under the control of largely autonomous native kings. With the princely states, history has furnished us with something like a “control group” to help us answer the present question: Was it British colonialism that fostered ethnic violence in India, or are other more intrinsic factors also to blame?
The southern state of Kerala, which was split almost down the middle between a British north (Malabar) and a princely south (Travancore), provides an intriguing case study. British administrators in the region referred to the division of the state as an “accident of a divided political administration,” and they wielded very little control over their Hindu-ruled neighbors to the south. Pre-colonial Kerala was controlled by a number of competing kings, most of whom were, like the princes of Travancore, Hindu. Looking at the ethnic conflicts that emerged across the divided state of Kerala after the British arrived in India can help us better understand how colonial rule affected contemporary violence. And not long after the British emerged as the dominant power in south India, the histories of Malabar and Travancore began to diverge.
In British-controlled Malabar, a major series of uprisings by the Muslim community of the region (known as Mappillas) occurred. After these conflicts, British officials attempted to secularize the region and improve the condition of the Muslim community. Over time, the religious divide receded and a new politics based around caste began to emerge. Meanwhile, in Travancore, which remained under the control of a powerful Hindu dynasty, religious conflict between Hindus, Muslims, and Christians intensified, leading to several major conflagrations in the kingdom. Even today, over 200 years later, ethnic violence in Malabar revolves around caste while ethnic violence in Travancore revolves around religion.
This outcome is not unique to Kerala. My research—drawing on archives, interviews, and statistical analysis of 589 districts—shows this pattern to be relatively pervasive across the country. What gradually becomes apparent is that attributing a wholesale increase in ethnic violence to British colonialism may be a rather reductive view of its legacy, and perhaps a wishful rewriting of Indian history. That’s not to suggest that colonization played no role in fomenting cultural tumult in India, however—on the contrary, it appears that the British had decisive influence in shaping the nature of ethnic violence and the varying patterns of conflict that emerge in different regions.
Why do we see these particular patterns of conflict? On the one hand, India’s princes had always identified themselves according to religion—they were Hindu or Muslim or Sikh kings, and their power and legitimacy derived from religious appeals, shrines, symbols, and texts. On the other hand, the British were eager to depoliticize religion after several disastrous initial attempts to regulate religious traditions within India. They were also terrified of the Muslim community and their potential for extremism, especially after the 1857 Rebellion, which they perceived as an Islamic uprising. To replace religious identification, the British promoted caste, which they saw as comparable to the class structure of Victorian England, with which they were quite familiar. They tried to emphasize caste and tribal identities as the central organizing principles of the provinces.
Although British rule minimized religious violence, it had the opposite effect on caste and tribal violence. Take today’s Naxalite insurgency, a Maoist uprising of indigenous and low caste groups against the Indian government. This rebellion began in Bengal, the site of Britain’s earliest experiments with private property ownership in India, and geographically correlates strongly with regions formerly held under British rule. And in modern Kerala, it is telling that the Naxalites have targeted Malabar but have almost no presence in Travancore.
Although British rule minimized religious violence, it had the opposite effect on caste and tribal violence.
And so we may rightly blame the British for some forms of ethnic violence in India, especially conflict based on caste and tribal identities. But religious conflict is not a legacy of colonialism—it predates colonialism. This point is important because it contradicts a large literature that argues that precolonial India was marked by peaceful everyday interaction between religious communities, what has been called “syncretism.” This syncretism would be news to the Christians of Travancore, who were subjected to a series of discriminatory policies against them by Hindu rulers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. And today in Mangalore—the site of India’s earliest recorded religious riot—Christian groups have recently protested the celebration of the birthday of Tipu Sultan, a south Indian Muslim ruler who persecuted Christians in his territories. These were the bewildering conflicts with which the British had to contend, but conflicts that they did not themselves cause.
Contrary to Bal Thackeray’s quote, the link between colonial rule and ethnic conflict is anything but obvious. We should not overlook (or defend) the violence perpetrated by native elites. We should also not assume that the effect of colonialism has been uniform in India, or in a host of other postcolonial states. Many nations, from Nigeria to Burma to Malaysia, are still confronting the legacies of European colonialism, but we are only beginning to understand these legacies, and how they may or may not explain contemporary violence between ethnic groups.
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