Human history has witnessed the rise and fall of several empires over the course of last four millennia. These empires grew for the benefit of a small population, at the expense of another large, often foreign, population. While the way in which nations imperialize others has transformed over the centuries, the techniques by which they dominate and maintain control over others has only improved. One of the finest examples of this in recent history is under the British Raj in India. The partition of the Indian sub-continent stemmed not from the demographic makeup of the region, but from the divide and rule policy employed by the British Crown.
For centuries, the Indian subcontinent was home to people from several different ethnicities and religious groups, all the while tolerant of each other and minorities. This is evident in the fact that India is today home to a very diverse population. From Zoroastrians seeking refuge from Iran, to Buddhists, Sikhs, Muslims and Christians that assimilated into the Hindus majority, the sub-continent provided everyone with a sanctuary from religious persecution (Hasan 25). Although the differences between the religion and customs of these different communities were stark, they never came to the brink of partition of a state, until rule under the British crown (Hasan 26).
Ironically, the first war for independence of unified India, in 1857, started a chain of events that precipitated in the partition of the nation. For over 100 years East India Company had monopolized the economy of the sub-continent and to ensure its interests were met, it maintained an army comprising of Indians. This standing army was used to wage war against those who did not open their markets to Britain, and intimidate others (Guha 86). In 1857, dubious claims that the cartridges used in this army were made of animal fat, offensive to both Hindus and Muslims, triggered a mutiny among the lower ranks of the army. The different communities living in India were already agitated by the attempts made by East India Company to reform social norms, and given this mutiny, they took the opportunity to launch a massive revolt against the British rule (Habib 8). Such a revolt against a foreign rule was new in India and demonstrated the feeling of unity among the people. However, as so often in history, the consequences of this revolt were the opposite of those intended. Rather than reducing the British control overIndia, it was formally thrust into the hands of the British crown.
At this time, Britain was engaged in several trade wars to maintain its dominance over the global markets, and the control ofIndiaas a colony and a market for its goods became central to its geo-political strategy. As an established global power, Britain required a large well funded naval fleet and armed forces to be able to ensure its interests around the world were represented. Britain had already gone to war with China and brought to an end the Chinese controlled Canton system of trade in 1842 (Fairbank 355). However, with the rise of other economic powers, Britain felt a greater need to assert itself and increase its area of hegemony. In 1854, the Kanagawa treaty was forced between US and Japanby Commodore Matthew Perry that opened up two of Japan’s ports to the US (Lubar 25). The growing imperialist ambitions of other powers meant that it was imperative for Britain to maintain a colony, which can sustain its large scale wars to protect its trade monopoly. Its first response to the Kanagawa treaty was to re-engage with China in 1856 in the second Opium war (Haq 117). Then, in 1857, it took over the control of India from the East India Company, under the pretence of including India in its Empire, to develop it as a market for its own products.
As part of Britain’s grand scheme to make India a permanent colony, it had made huge investments to develop India’s infrastructure, and it was imperative that it be able to squelch any opposition that threatened its supremacy. To be able to exploit India’s resources and to maintain an easy flow of goods from India’s hinterland to its ports, Britain had funded large scale projects such as railways, roads, canals and bridges. It also established telegraph links to be able to administer its colony efficiently. This large scale infrastructure enabled Britainto use it to transport goods from India to Britain, and also bring goods from Britain for the retail markets in India (Stein). While this burgeoning economy was great for Britain, it had a severe impact on India and its poor who were dependant on the local industry for their livelihood. However, the value of the infrastructure and the trade with India to Britain was so immense, that Britain realized it needed to be able to maintain India as a permanent colony and it began taking steps to consolidate it.
In order to maintain control overIndia, Britain’s weapon of choice was the divide and rule policy, and its first significant use was to conduct the census of 1872. As a global power Britain understood the importance of maintaining civil order and knew one of the most historically successful techniques to weaken any opposition was divide and rule. The objective is to foster an environment of mistrust among the local population, to distract them from the real enemy and ensure they will not be united. As the first step towards this goal, Britain commissioned a census of the entire population in India, the first of its kind in modern history, to learn about the social composition of its different regions. The census took over six years to compile, but the results that detailed the demographics of India based on religion, caste and occupation, provided Britain with a recipe for creating communal disharmony (Census of Bengal).
By the end of the century, British rule was facing growing opposition among the elite classes in India, and it responded by employing the divide and rule policy in Bengal to exasperate the tensions between the local populations. The socio-economic policies of Britain had been attracting the ire of those Indians that had studied in Britain and returned toIndia. They were starting to realize the hypocrisy of the British imperialism in India and formed political organizations to defend their political rights. One such organization was the Indian National Congress, formed in 1885, that remained at the forefront of the Indian independence movement. In Bengal, major agitations were organized by groups to demand greater participation of Indians in their own governance (Bose). This resulted in Britain’s second significant step to employ divide and rule in India– the partition of Bengal in 1905. This was significant in their political objectives because they partitioned Bengal along religious lines – wealthy Hindu land owners in the West lost their lands to Muslims, to whom the land had been leased in the East. This generated feelings of animosity and mistrust between the two religious groups and resulted in large scale riots against the partition. However, Britain’s objectives for the time-being had been addressed as the unified movement demanding more political rights in Bengal lost its momentum.
With the seeds of communal disharmony in place, they began showing immediate results for Britain as other political organizations also split along religious lines. One of the direct results of Britain’s moves to partition Bengal and undercut their opposition, was to give rise to a new political party in Indian politics – one exclusively for Muslims. The All India Muslim League formed in 1906 by elite Muslims of India with an agenda to unite for the defense of Muslims rights across the nation. The League adopted the ideas written in The Green Book by Mohammed Ali Jinnah, one of the founding members, that contained ideas on how to defend the rights and liberties of Muslims (Jalal). This in turn provoked the Hindus to form their own political party called the Hindu Mahasabha in 1915. The Mahasabha was formed with the objective of protecting the rights and liberties of Hindus across India. Both the parties became major political parties by 1920 and were openly critical of the secular Congress party. This was a great victory for the divide and rule policy of Britain as it had already been ruling and consolidating its control overIndia for 60 years, and still it did not face any serious unified opposition to its rule.
The divide and rule policy was starting to bear fruit for Britain and poison India’s communal harmony, as the even through two major World wars, Britain was able to sustain its rule over India. The rise of the communal political parties had already engulfed Indian politics with rhetoric of hate and anger. This infighting between the parties for their own objectives allowed Britain to exploit India even further for another three decades. Even as negotiations for an independent India began in 1931 at the Round Table Conferences in London, the Indian population remained split on what should be the outlook of independent India. The Lahore resolution adopted at the Muslim League in 1940 cemented the idea of a two-nation theory. The resolution called for greater Muslim autonomy under British rule, which ultimately lead to the creation of West Pakistan and East Pakistan.
The face of the Indian sub-continent and the state of its divisive local politics today owes much debt to the divide and rule policy of the Great Britain. The policy was a huge success for Britain as it gave the crown the power to rule and exploit India as a market for 90 years, at the cost of the political rights of the local population. Even through the decade of 1850 when Britain faced stiff competition from other imperial powers like the United States, and again in 1890’s with the rise of Japan, after the Meiji restoration, Britain was able to sustain its economy. The divide and rule policy that was just an imperial tool for Britain, sealed the destiny of the Indian sub-continent for the next several centuries to come. Even as divide and rule policy was just beginning to take effect in 1870’s, it set in motion a chain of events that would ultimately precipitate into the partition of the sub-continent.
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