A Myth Called “Divide and Rule”?

The British are said to have nurtured a communal divide in India to rule India easily. Though divide and rule is a consistent method of conquest, especially in Africa, where Europeans favored one side against another, in the end ruling both. But in India, where it was most prominent, given the partition of the India and Pakistan in 1947, I find the picture to be far murkier.

It was near the end of the first Elizabethan era of England. On 31 December 1600, the Queen of England and Ireland granted a royal charter to group of merchants to trade in the shores of the far off Indian subcontinent. The route to India had been opened a century ago by the adventures of Vasco da Gama. Spice trade from India had always been routed through the far reaching arms of the Ottomans, Venice or the Habsburgs. Vasco da Gama gave the other Europeans a quicker way to spice. The Portuguese, Vasco’s countrymen, were the first off the blocks. By the start of the sixteenth century, they had established bases in the states of Kerala, Goa and Mumbai. Being true Catholics, they propogated their religion (Probably explains why most Indian Christians are Roman Catholics). Wait, I am digressing here.

The Company of Merchants of London Trading into the East Indies, as they were initially called, set sail to India to bring spice to the British Isles. When the British East India Company came to India they faced opposition from their European counterparts, Portuguese and French. But things improved when the British Crown made a commercial treaty with the Indian Mughal Emperor, Jahangir. Also, the Portuguese, now part of the much larger, Spanish Kingdom (albeit ruled by mostly impotent rulers), which had huge gold reserves in their American provinces, did not find India much attractive. With dwindling Portuguese interest and support of the strongest of the Indian Kingdoms, British East India Company flourished.

India, like always, was a region divided into many kingdoms. The Mughals, in the north, were the strongest of them all. In Central India, they were the five Deccan Sultanates, remnants of the older Bahmani Sultanate – Bijapur, Golkonda, Ahmadnagar, Bidar and Berar. Down south were the remnants of the Vijayanagara Kingdom, which fell apart in the disastrous Battle of Talikota in 1565. Though the Vijayanagara King still exercised control over the south (It ends in 1646), it was largely nominal, with the provinces more of less independent. In the north-east was the dynasty of Ahom. There were probably other smaller kingdoms as well.

By the time British East India Company established themselves in India, Berar was assimilated by the Mughals and Bidar by Bijapur. So in all, India was divided between the Mughals in the North, Bijapur, Golkonda and Ahmadnagar in the Centre, Ahom in the North East and in the South – the remaining Vijayanagara Kingdom, their former subsidiaries – Mysore, Keladi Nayaks, Thanjavur Nayaks, Madurai Nayaks and Chitradurga Nayaks, and their former tributaries in Kerala – Samoothiri, Kochi and Thiruvithaamkoor. In all the Indian sub-continent was divided into thirteen nations. Later the Mughal Kingdon would first conquer the remaining Deccan Sultanates and fall apart by the beginning of the eighteenth century. The Maratha Empire replaced the Mughals as the powerful empire in the north, though they also fell apart and divided into numerous principalities.

After the Battles of Plassey (1757) and Buxar (1764), the British East India Company would usher in British rule over India till 1947, when India was partitioned into two – India and Pakistan.

Okay, done with the History lesson. To put it in short. When the British came to India, India was divided into at least thirteen different nations. By the time they came to power there were much more. When they left, there were just two. So, where is the divide and rule? In fact, British did something that no Indian had ever been able to before (outside mythology). Unite India under a single banner (Note that the princely states were subsidiaries to the British Empire, which acknowledged their overlordship, similar to the Holy Roman Empire and German princes)

The impression about a policy of “Divide and Rule” arises from the belief that the British intentionally divided India on religious grounds, (after uniting it regionally). So, I thought I’d look at the times the British made attempts to do so. In case I have missed out anything, please give me the details.

The first thing that came to my mind was the Partition of Bengal.

The first decade of the twentieth saw many controversial policies by the British regime. The first was the Partition of Bengal. Bengal, at the time, included the states of West Bengal, Bihar, Jharkhand and Orissa in today’s India and Bangladesh. The state had a population of around 85 million people, hosted the national capital and the center of the intelligentsia. It is difficult to govern such a huge chunk of people from one place. So, the Governor General chose to split the state in the middle. Unfortunately for him, the split divided the state at a religious level, with the west 16% Muslim and the east 58%. Seen as an excuse to divide the nation by religion, it led to mass protest throughout the nation, with people of all religion uniting together. The partition was reversed later in 1911 and instead Kolkata and the narrow strip of area that now forms West Bengal were added to the earlier East Bengal. The western parts were devolved into a different state. Oddly enough, the addition of Kolkata to East Bengal garnered no negative opinion. The Partition can also not be seen as a case of divide and rule, since it in fact united all religions and had to be repealed to in wake of strong national sentiment.

The second act of “Divide and Rule” was reservation.

After the fiasco of 1857, the British encouraged India self rule. In 1885, Indian National Congress was formed under the auspices of the British Governor General to bring out pro British elite British education Indians to bring some semblance of self rule in India. Instead, it provided to be fertile grounds of Indian nationalism against the British. By the start of the twentieth century, Congress was divided into two factions – the extremists (led by Bal Gangadhar Tilak) and the moderates (led by Gopala Krishna Gokhale). There was also a concern among the Muslims that the Hindu dominated Congress may ignore them. The wikipedia article on Bal Gangadhar Tilak has clubbed him as a part of “Hindu Politics” series, suggesting he was a staunch Hindu and could have been a source of the concern among the Muslim. However, since the article also mentioned he chose Muhammad Ali Jinnah to defend him in court, it suggests he had no ill-feeling towards Muslims. (Do correct me, if I am wrong). However, these concerns were met in the Government of India Act 1909 (Also known as the Minto-Morley Reforms) which gave reservation to the Muslim minority in order to safeguard them from the Hindu majority. On paper, it seems fine, since our nation follows a much maligned form the same reservation by extending to many more categories of people. But this reservation would lead to strife between the two religions till the end of British rule.

I have tried to find more influences of the British with regards to religiously divide India, but have come to no avail. If it is these two instances that caused a religious divide in our country during independence, then the fault lies directly on our grandparents who lived during that time. Reservations were asked for by Indian politicians because of the genuine concerns of the Indian people (Minority interests are something that every nation seek to protect). Post independence, the problem has been compounded by extending it to many more minorities. It seems more in the interest of the nation’s politicians to keep a policy of “Divide and Rule” in effect. If somebody asks me, about the British Divide and Rule policy, I would say it was purely “Made in India”.

Pic Coutesy : Wikipedia

© Since 2007-2009 Kenney Jacob. Follow me on Twitter