“Divide et impera was an old Roman maxim, and it shall be ours,” wrote Lord Elphinstone in 1857, in regards to the British Empire in India. This old colonial tactic of “divide and rule” is still very relevant today, and continues to inform the ethnic and religious divisions and the treatment of minorities in the Indian subcontinent. Violence against Shias in Pakistan, the alienation of Muslims in India, and the long-standing territorial dispute over Kashmir are a few examples of ongoing issues which were in part created by the colonial legacy. These could be considered as modern geopolitical and domestic issues but it is more accurate to understand them as stemming from the British colonial policy of divide and rule. An attempt to historicize recent issues within South Asian society could offer insight that may help facilitate stability in the region.

Background: The Fault Lines

The British Empire spread across the Indian subcontinent, and engulfed diverse groups of people, but left roughly two-fifths of the region under the authority of independent princely states. While India was never a monolith, the British periodized Indian history into Hindu, Muslim and British periods. As they took over from the Mughals, who were Muslims, it was easy for the British to paint the colonial mission as being concerned with the “salvation” of the local communities, thus promoting the idea of Hindu liberation from Muslim ‘invaders’ in the British period. The extent of diversity in India meant that the British also had to make sense of hundreds of languages, cultures and religions. At the time of the British entry into South Asia, the Mughal Empire was at its decline and there was already significant  conflict over succession, power, and politics. However, the 1857 Rebellion highlighted the significant challenge of the natives joining forces against the colonial army.  In order to assert themselves as saviours, colonial powers resorted to repainting communal violence as an irreconcilable divide to maintain the legitimacy of the Empire as a mediating force. 

One event that accentuated the communal strife was the 19th-century census of colonial India that first enumerated and classified Indian society. Age, race, religion, and gender were demographics that existed but were not solidified and identified by the state so far. However, to the British, taxonomy was an important endeavour in establishing administrative order in their colonies. This is not to say that clashes between religious communities did not exist previously, but this new system of classification caused religion to be seen as a primary identifying factor. During the colonial period, Indian society was thus rationalized through religious affiliations, whereas pre-colonial society was understood as a web of sociopolitical ties, like a mosaic. It is a widely known fact that there were racial hierarchical differences maintained between the colonizers and the subjects in order to maintain colonial dominance. 

Moreover, the colonial gaze on Indian society recorded the interactions between the two communities often in completely false ways. For example, a British scholar James Princep claimed that in 1809 there was a violent group walking towards a Hindu temple to vandalize it, while in reality he was witnessing a Muharram procession. Princep’s inaccurate description of events ultimately contributed to an outbreak of violence in Northern India. Historian Gyananendra Pandey cites this event as an attempt to metaphorize Muslims as the “other” in relation to Hindus as  the real purpose of Muharram processions was not contextualized by Princep. Moreover, Pandey exposes Princep’s account as being false, as there was no such procession happening on the date he mentioned. Princep’s misleading testimony was not just an isolated incident: numerous other colonial descriptions of Hindu-Muslim encounters set the stage for the great divide that continues to shape the mindset of modern politicians and policymakers. 

The divide itself is rooted in an accentuation of differences, through inaccurate and sensationalized colonial accounts that defined colonial subjects’ understanding of communities. This is contrasting to Mughal India’s efforts towards the promotion of diversity and inclusion across India, even in the name of imperial expansion. For example, Emperor Akbar’s policies for promoting Hindu-Muslim unity are widely known as a key move for Mughal success in enveloping a diverse land under one rule. Thus, a shift to a colonial mindset of divide and rule was something relatively new to the Indian consciousness.

Aftermath: The Creation of Nation States 

The partition of Indian and Pakistan in 1947 was one distinct outcome of the divide and rule policy. However, long after Partition, independent India and Pakistan continued to run their domestic politics on the basis of ethnic identities – a new version of divide and rule. The 1971 civil war in Pakistan that led to the independence of Bangladesh had an underlying ethno-linguistic angle as the domination of West Pakistan marginalized Bengalis, who identified strongly with their language and culture. Even today, major political parties in Pakistan are non-ethnic on the surface level but dynastic succession of leadership in parties like Pakistan People’s Party and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz unveils an ethnic hierarchy. This translates to a pattern of political support that can be traced along ethnic lines. Similarly, the colonial descriptions of Muharram, discussed by Pandey, are reproduced through the extremist anti-Shia movements in Pakistan that rely on sectarian strife to establish dominance of the majority Sunni sect. It is a different version of the same tactic to establish dominance of one identity by accentuating existing differences and politicizing them for gain like the British did. 

India, being larger and much more ethnically and linguistically diverse than Pakistan, also has a similar aftermath in light of the colonial divide and rule policy. The ethnic conflicts in Assam, for example, have many contributing factors, but the resulting cultural marginalization of Assamese among other Indians stems from the colonial legacy of “Other”-ing. Even in pop culture and media, the mainstream image of an Indian does not include the large population of Northeastern Indians who are believed to be ‘different’ and ‘less-Indian’ for their “mongoloid” features. 

Where there is diversity, biases and prejudices will inevitably form on the basis of these differences. The politicization of these differences in the Indian subcontinent acts as  a ghost of the colonial history that the two countries have not been able to escape from. While economic development and democratic movements are considered to be the most important factors for developing states, there is a need for education and understanding on the colonial history of  India and Pakistan in order to progress without  colonial baggage.

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Maham Kamal Khanum

Maham is a International Relations graduate from UBC, now working in the university in higher education fundraising and development. Maham is passionate about working in international education programs...

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